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A Denney for Your Thoughts – You have to care (July 1, 2015 issue)

You have to do it because you care. It is impossible to make a living at it. Those were Rob Bird’s emphatic statements about running a hiker hostel. (Curtis Carden did a feature on him for the May 27 issue of The Record.) He greets hikers at Iron Mountain Gap to hand out snacks. Those who need an injury treated or some other help along the way get that, too. He is quick to point out that he is not the only “trail angel” around and how those he helps help him in return.
With years of running a hostel in Dalton, Massachusetts, in his rearview mirror, he retired to Unicoi three years ago. The hostel called The Birdcage simply became The Birdcage South. This is not a passion you dismiss with a move to another part of the country!
As a matter of fact, one of Bird’s criteria for a new home was being near the Appalachian Trail, known as the “A. T.,” which runs between Mount Katahdin in Maine and Springer Mountain in Georgia. The folks we see around town with backpacks and walking sticks are evidence of its pass through Unicoi County.
In May 2012 at the big Trail Days event in Damascus, Virginia, Rob made known criteria for his new home, as he would close the hostel in December. Climate was a consideration, as was cost-of-living, since he did not want to work after retirement. A self-described jack-of-all-trades, he has a couple of degrees and other certifications, including Emergency Medical Technician, which he says he used more running a hostel than being a cop.
That September he got the call. The grandfather of a hiker he had helped had an apartment that met the requirements. When Rob asked if he should send a check to hold it, he was told that he had saved the grandson’s life and his hike, “I can hold the apartment for you.”
Rob tells of hikers doing chores, making donations.
As for dollars and cents, it is local businesses that can profit. As the A.T. runs right though Dalton, they have hikers May through December. When he goes back to visit—which he was preparing to do when I talked with him—they tell him how they miss the income generated by his hostel.
Here, he says, we see northbound hikers from mid-March through June, then those who are southbound September through December. When I asked about how Erwin is perceived on the A. T., Rob said the thing he hears is that it’s a long walk into town for services.
These are folks who have walked in the woods for days. They need showers, food, rest. Rob says he’s noticed a restaurant location that has been opened, closed, open, closed. Yes, he is talking about the landmark we know as “The Elms” as a good location. Then, it would be easier to get to drug stores, eateries, shops. He foresees location of other businesses or addition of needed products at existing businesses, once there’s demand. He talked, too, about the potential for a shuttle.
No, he is not looking to open a hostel. But, he said he would be willing to be a consultant FREE!
The seed has been planted.