ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — Christof Abend set off across the Nolichucky River’s Chestoa bridge on a warm, windy February day, hiking poles swinging and his large backpack shouldered as light glinted off the rushing water below.

His back to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and his face toward the day’s northbound miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the German national would skirt the river, climb Jones Branch to Curley Maple Gap and eventually reach the iconic Beauty Spot.

He may be from thousands of miles away, but Abend represents the kind of person who is helping remake the economy and cultures of Erwin and Unicoi County into hiking and outdoor destinations.

Christof Abend, a through hiker from Germany, crosses the Chestoa Bridge northbound on the Appalachian Trail as the Nolichucky River rushes below. (WJHL photo)

Cathy Huskins of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce said the rugged terrain and one of the south’s few free-flowing major rivers are assets that have really begun coming into their own.

“When I started here 23 years ago at the Chamber of Commerce, I don’t feel that the Appalachian Trail or anything that we have outdoor recreation was as huge a part of our economy as it is now,” Huskins said.

The AT is a key jewel in that outdoor crown. It runs 51 of its 2,175 miles through Unicoi County (much of it around the North Carolina line), which is the third-most distance of any Tennessee County. And Unicoi County is one of 51 A.T. Communities designated by the Appalachian Trail Conference.

Huskins remembers meeting her first AT through hiker years ago. At the time, she said, “most of the region didn’t understand the Appalachian Trail.”

The man was a NASA scientist she described as “phenomenal.” She realized the several thousand through hikers who pass through the county are generally responsible, affluent and appreciative of places like her home. That fact has caught on and the community has recognized the benefits.

“It brings in retail businesses, places to stay, it creates jobs through these businesses and that’s where we’re looking to grow now is from our Appalachian Trail and our river,” she said.

Few people are contributing more to that growth right now than a Navy veteran who didn’t even know Unicoi County existed until about a year and a half ago — when, like Abend, he descended into the magic of the river crossing.

Too good of an opportunity to pass up

Terry Wise stands in front of Uncle Johnny’s as wind chimes ring in the background. Several dozen hiking boots and shoes hang from a wooden wall near a row of bicycles, most with hand-lettered “Erwin” license plates on the back. A mural that includes the bearded visage of John Shores, who founded the hostel in 1998, shares space with other eclectic decor outside a small store. Cabins, a roofed “hammock pavilion” and tent space are behind in a small compound. The steady rushing sound of the river, just 100 feet away, is ever present and surely has lulled countless worn-out hikers to sleep through the years. The AT climbs away in both directions — toward Curley Maple Gap and Beauty Spot northbound, to Temple Ridge and eventually Sam’s Gap southbound, crossing Big Bald and its 360 views at 5,516 feet.

An Appalachian Trail marker on Beauty Spot in Unicoi County, with Unaka Mountain in the distance. (WJHL photo)

Wise was southbound when he came down Jones Branch, crossed the CSX railroad tracks and popped out of the woods to the sight of the river. He was also ready for a life change and had already been thinking about the possibility of purchasing a hostel as he made his way southbound from Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

It turned out he had found the place.

“I came through here, you know, it’s so neat when you come down the across the railroad tracks over here, and then you go across the river and the river’s just remarkable,” Wise said.

As fortune would have it, Shores’s widow (he died in 2018) was open to selling the place.

“That little bridge that goes across the river was so cool, and the trail is, if you count the railing (bridge crossing) it’s probably 50 feet from the corner of my store,” Wise said. “I just almost thought it was a no-brainer. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

The man who earned the through-hiking nickname “Cheetah” took the leap and closed in early 2022, then bought Erwin Outdoor Supply in downtown Erwin later in the year.

“This is an iconic place,” Wise said. “(Shores) made it what it was and hikers have been visiting this place for over 20 years. So to be part of that was huge to me.”

He has spent the past year making improvements at a place he said is “absolutely packed” with hikers throughout the summer months. Several dozen can stay, with more than 20 spots under the roof including a bunkhouse.

Shores added bikes years ago, and hikers often head into town for some restaurant food and entertainment. That traffic is part of what continues changing Unicoi County’s economy, the chamber’s Huskins said.

“We’re blessed to be able to touch these people’s lives and have them come into our community, and get to meet them and enjoy their company,” she said. The visitors “go back to their homes and tell their friends how great our community is and that they need to visit.”

Plenty more ‘Cheetahs’ and ‘Heisenbergs’ out there

Some of those visitors even come to live, but either way, Wise thinks major growth — and dollars flowing into places like Unicoi County — is definitely on the horizon.

Terry Wise bought Uncle Johnny’s Hostel along the Appalachian Trail in Erwin, Tenn. last year. (WJHL photo)

“The outdoor industry is exploding and a lot of it is because the gear is so good,” he said. That makes the physical demands of hiking and even backpacking slightly less rigorous, the chance of injury lower.

I think there’s a huge demand within our society to do things that are more outdoors more fresh air … and it may seem expensive, but when you really think about it, it’s very, very reasonable for the enjoyment that you can get out of it.”

Huskins said the community has capitalized on that, including by starting a Great Outdoors Festival less than a decade ago. She’s convinced the town’s popularity as an outdoor destination will continue to grow, though she doesn’t see it rivaling Damascus, Va. and its “Trail Days” anytime soon.

I think we have the potential to maybe hang on to their skirt tail and mimic some of the things that they do,” she said.

“It’s always a slow process and to do that there would have to be more trail access, there would have to be parking lots built — but I do see that in the future. I just don’t know how long that’ll take.”

Christof Abend, a through hiker from Germany, prepares to head north on the Appalachian Trail from its crossing of the Nolichucky River Feb. 21, 2023. (WJHL photo)

Abend, who has garnered the trail name “Heisenberg,” was enjoying the trail for the second time. He said he stayed in a motel in Erwin the first time he came through in 2015 but spent two nights at the iconic hostel this go-round.

“I wanted to stay here (the first time) but it was completely packed,” Abend said. “This time was awesome. I stayed two nights because of the rain yesterday and I really love this place. It’s really cool, and I was like three times in town and it was awesome. Great stay.”

Abend said Unicoi County, and the southern Appalachian in general, are his favorite part of the journey.

“You get a lot of high mountains here,” he said. “I think now I’m going over Roan High Knob and it’s one of the last higher mountains, and I really like the south with getting up pretty high and have good views.”

Wise said in addition to through hikers, whose numbers have grown steadily of late, other hiking styles that get people into towns like Erwin are growing in popularity. They include “section hikers,” who do extended portions of the trail, and visitors who may just do a few days.

Those folks eat, sleep, drink and often buy a little gear. Wise said people from Johnson City and other more urban parts of the Tri-Cities are also beginning to learn about the store downtown.

“It’s all just getting more and more popular,” he said, adding that Erwin and Unicoi County are sure to benefit. Any recognition and accompanying revenue will be well-deserved, he said.

“The more and more I learn about the town I just fall more and more in love with it. There’s a lot to love about Erwin and the environment that it’s in is pretty fortunate. The mountains, the river, everything is right here.”