The Smartest Businessman on the Appalachian Trail
It's raining in the mountains of north Georgia, and it's 40 degrees out, with a cold fog crawling along the piney slopes surrounding Neels Gap outside of Blairsville. Still, Steve Jennette is quite willing to stand out in the weather and testify. "Winton," says Jennette, a wiry 56-year-old lawyer and hiker, "Winton is the kind of guy who, if you were up on Blood Mountain, freezing and hypothermic, he'd come get you, even if it was midnight. And his book, it touched me, like few others have. I was determined to meet him."
Nearby, there's a lanky, scraggly-bearded fellow who has an almost ethereal take on Winton Porter and Mountain Crossings, the hiking store and hostel that Porter owns in Neels Gap. "It's a cosmic force that draws people here," says this individual, an itinerant odd-jobs specialist who goes by the single name Lumpy. "It just feels like all the cosmic tumblers come into place here."
Mountain Crossings, which is housed in a sprawling and historic stone building, sits on the nation's most storied and popular hiking path -- the 2,179-mile-long Appalachian Trail. The AT, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, is such a cultural institution that next year it will be the subject of a film, A Walk in the Woods, starring and produced by Robert Redford. Each year it draws some 1,500 "thru hikers" intent on walking the whole trail. Almost every single one passes by Mountain Crossings. In 2009, the business grossed $780,000 selling hiking gear, bunk space, and (for motorized tourists) souvenirs. But its status as an actual commercial business seems incidental right now. You simply expect the proprietor to emerge wearing flowing white robes as he clutches, sagelike, at a gnarled hiking stick older than Abraham.
But wait -- here's Porter now, lumbering up the stone steps to the store, a big old Georgia boy in long shorts and sandals. Porter, 44, is 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, with a kid's doughy face and a plug of Copenhagen bulging in his cheek. "What's up, bruthah?" he asks each of his workers. The faithful mill around him -- 20 or so mangy characters who smell, collectively, like wet socks, or like something rotting in the forest. It's mid-March, the optimal time to start the six-month journey north. Some of the visitors here are thru hikers. Others are nonhikers or former hikers who are hanging out here for a week or so to participate in a group love-in -- Porter's annual birthday bash, the Blaze of Glory party, two days away. In their idleness, and in their cohesion, they seem like so many Grateful Deadheads awaiting the resurrection of Jerry. Porter weaves through them, clutching a coffee mug and giving everyone a warm, conspiratorial grin. In time, he cranks the hi-fi up loud and wiggles one finger skyward, disco style, to the delight of the crowd, as he mouths the words, as sung by Jesus Jackson: "You got me running on sunshine/ Ain't no clouds getting in my way."
For a moment, you think, Jeez, this guy's kind of a bubba.
But then Porter plunges into his closet-size backroom office and bends over some papers. And for a moment, he's all serious, and his brow furrows under his reading glasses as he spits a brown stream of chaw into a cup.
There is definitely some ratiocination going on with Winton Porter. The man has deftly pulled off a trick a lot of entrepreneurs would die to emulate. He has turned himself into a guru. He has attained such loftiness and leverage that if he, say, recommends Leki trekking poles, it has a ripple effect up and down the AT.
Porter knows the power of branding. He knows that he is, for his customers, an almost mythological character -- an emblem of freedom who has wriggled free of the gray trappings of the flatland grind to live his dream in the mountains. And he likes to build up the myth of himself. He gives inspirational speeches to civic groups. In 2009, he published a memoir, Just Passin' Thru, about his first eight years at Mountain Crossings. In marketing the book, he has described it as "a story of one man's willingness to leave the corporate world, clear his bank account, and uproot his family from the picket fences and golden retriever life of suburbia."
The rhetoric has the feel of a cheesy movie trailer, and I went to Georgia fearing that Porter would be kind of an operator -- that his whole good ol' boy thing was a put-on. Porter, after all, has been inventing himself since the age of 14, when he began reading (and underlining) the works of self-help titans Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar, and in recent years he has polished his highly marketable "picket fences" story.
The story begins when Porter was a kid, and spending almost every weekend hiking in the mountains of north Georgia with his dad. At 21, Porter launched B. Bumblefoot and Co., which sold wooden hiking sticks to outdoor shops. Next, he went into outdoor retail, as a store manager for REI and then Galyan's Trading Company -- and burned out on it. The 90-hour workweeks were bad, and the corporate politics were worse. So in 2000, he began jockeying to buy Mountain Crossings, which was already a successful hiking store. On the day he closed the deal, he handed his boss a note. My dream begins now, it read, and my life is returned to me. My resignation is tendered, effective immediately.
Today, that note sits, framed, by Porter's cash register, and customers often stand by it, posing for photos. A lot of AT hikers are on a mission to reclaim their lives. People take to the trail, usually, amid a time of personal change: after college graduation, or after they have fought with their parents or gotten divorced or watched a loved one die.
Porter has these people right where he wants them. Mountain Crossings, which sits within the stone Walasi-Yi Center at Neels Gap, may be the most strategically placed hiking store on earth: It sits right on the AT. Indeed, the trail actually cuts through a stone breezeway adjoining the store, and when hikers reach it, they have just completed the "walk of humility," as Porter calls the trail's first 30 miles. They have damaged their knees and scraped up their backs carrying ungainly old tents. They have shivered in crappy sleeping bags, and they have arrived at Porter's doorstep eager to lay out hundreds of dollars for the latest ultralight gear.
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?"
Porter laughs at the question. "Dude," he says, "that place is like Disneyland. There's a bunch of characters up there dressed up in costumes, and people love it -- for the shock value. I mean, they're constantly asking Pirate for autographs."
Porter's account of his ex-wife's exit is more sober. "We never fought," he says. "She avoided conflict. But in the end, she wanted her own successes. She wanted to have a travel agency, and I said, 'You could do adventure travel and hook it into Mountain Crossings.' Then I found out that was not what she wanted to hear. She saw success as an individual act."
As Margie Porter tells it, she was living in the shadow of Winton's dream. "When he had a chance to buy Mountain Crossings," she says, "we didn't sit down as a couple and say, 'Let's talk about this.' No, it was, 'We're going for this!' And me being a people pleaser, I just went with it." Margie signed on as a helpmate, as a bookkeeper, and then, she says, "I just stuffed my unhappiness inside me." She began overeating. Over a period of years, she ballooned to 290 pounds.
Margie Porter is now a volunteer coordinator for a domestic violence shelter. She says Winton was supportive as she struggled with, and then overcame, food addiction. He helped pay for a $30,000 gastric bypass surgery. But Margie's sadness continued, and over the last two years of their marriage, she became erratic in her management of the store's finances. She took frequent draws from Mountain Crossings to cover family living expenses. She also spent money on herself; at one point, she went with girlfriends to Cancún.
Porter saw it all happening, but he never scrutinized the books. He was too busy tolerating strange up at the store -- and by the time Margie left him, she had run up credit card debts totaling more than $50,000. Porter was so strapped that soon he stopped making mortgage payments on his house. The place is a wreck now, because Porter has given up. The bank is poised to foreclose.
But as he sits there with me, kicking back in his La-Z-Boy, Porter still speaks of his ex with kind equanimity. "We're friends, dude," he says. "Look, I don't know anybody who's ever ended a marriage of 21 years by going to the mediator and laughing together, but that's what we did. I care about her, and maybe I should have held her hand a little more. She burned out and didn't let anyone know. You can't blame her for that, brother. Life just is what it is. And I take full responsibility for not keeping track of our accounts." He holds up his hand: "Guilty as charged."
On my third morning in Georgia, a few hikers wander in, eager to undergo a store ritual known as The Shakedown. This involves a Mountain Crossings staff member spending one to four hours with a given AT thru hiker, sifting through each item in his or her pack, in hopes of reducing the pack's weight to a tolerable 28 or 30 pounds. Everything -- underwear, pain meds, support stockings, corn pads, and girlie mags -- is laid out on the store's carpet.
The ritual could easily be invasive and awkward, like being frisked by airport security. But Porter has turned Mountain Crossings into a chummy and soothing clubhouse. The rafters are hung with some 700 pairs of hiking boots used by AT legends known by their trail names: Model T, Sawman, Crazy Number 1. The walls are crazily Scotch-taped with 200 nearly identical photos, each one depicting a victorious customer standing, arms raised, at the AT's northern terminus.
Many of these hikers send Porter notes, thanking him for saving their lives by proffering equipment advice. The man knows gear. Before he had kids, Porter owned 12 backpacks, five sleeping bags, six camp stoves, three bikes, and three snowboards. He produced camping gear on his own commercial sewing machine. Since buying Mountain Crossings, he has helped the shoemaker Dunham design hiking boots, and he has produced his own line of ultralight sleeping bags.
At one point, I watch Porter take over a shakedown initiated by Baltimore Jack. The two men confer a moment like surgeons standing above a faulty aorta. "He won't be parted with that sleeping pad," Jack says, "and it weighs 2 pounds." "All right," Porter says with a shrug. "That's his luxury item."
"But he has made some good adjustments and sacrifices," Jack intones.
Lucas Fykes, 25, has most notably shucked his 8-pound backpacking guitar and agreed to send it home via Mountain Crossings's UPS service. As his elders ponder his case, he seems nervous and vulnerable. Fykes is a horse trainer. Back home in Kentucky, he says, he lost both his parents, then his aunt. "There was pretty much no one left," he tells me, "so I decided to get away and hike the AT. I was scared to come in here, though. I thought they'd make me get rid of stuff I didn't want to get rid of."
Porter seems to sense Fykes's need for support. He plays the wry older brother.
"You know how to play this thing?" he says, picking an emergency whistle out of Fykes's pack. "And what's gonna happen when you're in trouble?" Porter grimaces in mock terror and then imitates a moron. "Where's my whistle?" he says. "Aw, shit, I can't find it. I thought it was in my first-aid kit."
Fykes laughs. Porter chucks the whistle into a discard pile.
"You got poles?" Porter asks. "Hike with poles, brother. You take 15 percent of your weight off your skeleton." Fykes selects some $180 poles.
"Dude," says Porter, "if you need Band-Aids any bigger than this one here, you're going to the hospital." Discarded. "And now," he says, "what's this here?" Porter picks up a small, light metal box, and for a second, Fykes desperately tries to claw it away. It seems possible that the box contains a flammable substance other than pipe tobacco.
Porter smirks. "All right," he says, "that's cool. I'm not here to see if you have illegal contraband. And what about rain gear?"
In the end, Fykes does get some rain pants and a rain jacket, a hiking shirt, a food sack, and some body powder, to prevent chafing. He has cut his pack weight from 60 pounds to 36.6, and he's ecstatic, as though he has had a brush with celebrity or magic. "This is so cool," he says. "This is awesome! I figured maybe I'd get down to 50."
The total charge is $503.31, but Fykes doesn't even bother getting a receipt. He simply shoulders his pack and makes for the door. "I'm gonna run all day long with this thing on!" he says.
"Call me if you need anything," Porter says. "Gear, bail bond, whatever. And learn the flute, dude. Flutes are light."
It's hard to tell when, exactly, the Blaze of Glory party is officially in session, for the gala is really just more low-key milling around, plus beer. Porter himself straggles into the bash late. He has spent the afternoon back at his house, distracted. His new girlfriend is visiting. Nancy Boddy, 45, is a tenant services coordinator for a real estate company in Atlanta. She and Porter began dating last year, and it's an unlikely match. Boddy never hikes. "I do some walking in my gated community," she tells me. "I live in a golf and country club community, and there's a huge mall less than five minutes from my home, with all these nice restaurants. Winton's daughters love it."
Boddy tells me that she is helping Porter through a difficult episode in his life. "I help him organize," she says. "I send him daily reminders. And I've been there since the birth of his book, every step of the way. At book signings, I open to the right page for him; it's me who hands him the Sharpie. I'm his right hand in everything. He's amazing. He's nothing like my ex-husband. Whatever life throws him, he just rolls with it. He's so upbeat. And so funny." Boddy lets slip that Porter has given her a trail name -- City Girl.
Porter, meanwhile, is standing by the store's woodstove, listening to one of the party's more colorful guests. Ron Haven is a North Carolina innkeeper who once wrestled professionally, as a villain with the ring name Wrestler Number 2. Haven is now rotund, with a slight toothbrush mustache. He is telling jokes of a gynecological nature, rapid fire and deadpan, in an exaggerated, twangy accent, and Porter is rolling his head back and howling with laughter. "That's awesome, brother," he says.
Watching, I remember that the water service at Mountain Crossings is still on the fritz, and that Porter still has money trouble. A few months earlier, he borrowed $5,500 from his father and stepmother and asked them to monitor his personal credit card statements. The bank will, it turns out, kick him out of his house in June, forcing him to move his kids into a vacation home owned by his dad.
"I'll be the first to admit that organization is not my strong suit," Porter says. "I'm not a hardnose. At REI, they had other people playing the hardnose. Those guys would come in and fire a whole staff, and then I'd come along and build the team back up and improve morale -- get teams talking to each other. There's a method to my madness, dude: I manage the customers' experience, and I keep smiling. The other day, I spent three hours advising some guy on gear, and at the end he said, 'OK; now I'll go buy it at REI, because it's cheaper there.' I just let him go, because the next person will probably come in and spend $5,000."
The approach is arguably naive, and Porter's handling of his finances has, let's face it, been egregious and dumb. But he doesn't get rattled when things go awry. He remains cool, even as the debts and the pizza boxes pile around him, and somehow, just before he hits bottom, he finds a way to swim to the surface. A suspicious, brooding person probably couldn't pull off the self-righting tricks he does. But Porter is happy. He trusts people. He makes them feel at ease and as though life is a grand, shining adventure. In the karmic ledger, he's deep in the black, and things work out for him.
Eventually, a few months after my visit, Porter and Nancy Boddy will get engaged. She will quit her real estate job and devote herself to Mountain Crossings full time, as a 50-50 owner. The store's books will quickly become airtight. The business will climb out of debt and flourish. In September, Porter will tell me Mountain Crossings is on pace to make a record $860,000 in 2010.
And I'm not surprised, because I remember the last view I had of him. I was leaving the party, and I came over to say goodbye. Porter and Boddy were sitting side by side, next to the woodstove. His arm was around her. Her legs were draped over his, and they were talking about their future together. "We're just painting the picture of our dreams here," Porter says, "and it's looking pretty bright. Actually, it's looking real bright, brother."
Bill Donahue is a regular contributor to Inc. He wrote about Youngstown, Ohio, for the May issue.