Lighten Your Load Porter, in full guru mode, administers his renowned Shakedown to thru hiker Lucas Fykes.
But what I find, visiting Porter, is that he doesn't quite have the ruthlessness to make a killing on them. He's too nice. And the good ol' boy thing isn't an act or a strategy. It's real, actually, and it turns out that Porter's financial ambitions are modest. Mostly, he's endeavoring to pull off an artisan stunt in the mountains of Georgia: He's trying to stay true to his dreams, to stay small and personal and caring.
As he wanders among the unwashed and the faithful congregating on his clean carpets, he hugs people. He makes corny jokes as hippies help themselves to hot dogs from the machine he keeps by the register. It's pretty easy to see why the guy has scarcely increased Mountain Crossings's revenue since buying the business a decade ago. He's totally chill. Indeed, he's so laissez-faire and so trusting that I find myself worrying about him and thinking: How is this guy going to survive, being the leader of a chaotic alpine circus? Does he even have a clue as to how a business should operate?
Porter's business credo is, "We have a high tolerance for strange." He is famous for helping the soul seekers through weird, trying moments. Once, when he discovered a pair of runaway teen brothers bumping along the AT with rolling suitcases, he housed them for three weeks and dubbed them the Samsonite Twins. On another occasion, when a guy showed up at the hostel naked and tripping on magic mushrooms, Porter's staff offered him clothing.
The stories form the spine of Just Passin' Thru, and the book, published last year by Menasha Ridge Press, is so bighearted and keenly observed that it won first place in the memoir division at the Georgia Author of the Year Awards. Porter describes one hiker as "one of those courtly, portly Southern gentlemen who consider their girth a sign of dignity and wisdom." Every word seems infused with a deep contentment.
But Just Passin' Thru only glimpses the Mountain Crossings scene, for the stories are still accruing, even as I'm hanging out with Porter in his tiny office, chatting. The hikers and the hangers-on keep arriving, each one with a deep personal story. Stumble Wolf is a 30-year-old computer programmer who had a brain aneurysm at age 10. He was in a wheelchair for four years, and doctors told him he would never again walk without crutches. Now, he is hiking to Maine.
Bulldog, 45, is blind and feeling his way north with a white cane, and with a filmmaker documenting his journey. Baltimore Jack, 51, has hiked the AT eight times. He knows British history so well that whenever Porter runs into Jack, he hits him with a random date, so as to elicit a brief discourse on an English king. "1723," I heard Porter say once. "Oh, that's easy," said Jack. "George I, hated by the Jacobites."
Everyone on the premises seems to have a different financial relationship with Porter. Baltimore Jack is just here for the two-week March crunch, mostly to cook at the hostel, in exchange for free gear and a sleeping berth in a tool closet. Pirate, a onetime Navy SEAL, works at the hostel; he's one of seven actual Mountain Crossings employees. Cool Breeze -- who is laconic and thin and possessed of a long brown ZZ Top beard -- lives here year round, for free, even though he doesn't work directly for Porter; he runs his own shuttle service for hikers.
And then there is Lumpy, whose deal I never can quite figure out. Lumpy is 33 and in flight from his life as a repo man back home in Richmond, Virginia. "It was stressful," he tells me one morning. "This one time, I had a good-looking woman stab me in the back over a Hyundai." He adds that he's not sure how long he's staying at Mountain Crossings. "You never know," he says, with a waggle of his eyebrow. "I just might meet me a woman."
Usually, Lumpy is lingering outside the store, smoking a cigarette. One day, however, I find him moving some dirt around in a wheelbarrow. "I got a little deal going with Winton," he explains.
Later, when I tell Porter that Lumpy is doing yard work in exchange for a bunk, he balks. "He is?" he says, and then laughs. "Whatever."
But beneath all the bonhomie at Mountain Crossings, there's a certain darkness. While I'm visiting, the place is not the idyll described in Just Passin' Thru. In the book, Porter reserves his deepest affection for his wife of 21 years, Margie. "She is astoundingly cute," he writes, "stylish, and sexy, and now has added a hint of aged elegance. Her kindness and humor shine in her face. … I can't imagine life without her."
When I get to Georgia, Margie isn't there. She left Winton last year, just two weeks after he sent in his manuscript, and they are now divorced. During my visit, she's out of town, for six weeks. Porter's two daughters, ages 9 and 13, are with him, working their way through an industrial-size bag of frozen vegetables lying in the fridge in a postdivorce house that's almost naked of furniture.
Meanwhile, up at Mountain Crossings, the sinks and the showers are out of commission. It's a mystery until a plumber shows up, finally, and determines that an outdoor pipe has burst, gushing 1,700 gallons of water into the dirt. Meanwhile, the store is so teeming with scroungy hikers that I wonder about the tourists -- the people who make the two-hour drive up from Atlanta to buy T-shirts and local pottery and thereby account for 40 percent of the shop's total sales. One night, as Porter and I sit in his dimly lit living room, I ask him: "Aren't you afraid the tourists will be, like, a little freaked out?"
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