This piece was written for the Hot Springs N.C. Tourism Association in the summer of 2020 and can be found on their website here: “Where the Appalachian Trail Leads…”
On a warm October afternoon, I walk up to the side porch of Hot Spring’s oldest and most well-known home, The Sunnybank Inn. Having been closed all year following safety precautions in light of COVID, the owner, Elmer Hall, greets me at the door with a face mask alongside his happy-go-lucky dog Carter. Together, they proceed to give me a tour through the 180-year-old historic home and hiker hostel, weaving back to Hall’s earlier years as a teacher of Comparative Religions and vegetarian chef as well as a sabbatical that led him to a long-held desire to hike the Appalachian Trail. And this is how he discovered, or “fell in love with in a crazy kind of way,” Hot Springs, NC.
When asked how this year of closure due to COVID has felt, he says, “Well it’s cast me into an involuntary retirement.” If you’ve met Elmer you know that he enjoys the inn bustling with energy, a dinner table and music room full of hikers and travelers, as it should be. While he had the company and support of two thru-hikers at the Inn through the spring and summer as he would in the regular hiker season, he made the decision to close the Inn when COVID hit in March and later a decision to remain closed through the end of the year. “So I wasn’t alone, yet we normally have a few thousand hikers pass through every year for two-three days, and usually stay longer than they intend to because it’s such a nice place. And they’re usually enjoying having a warm bed and good vegetarian food, even the meat eaters,” he laughs.
Hall’s vegetarian meals are well-known, to hikers coming down the trail, and to many locals as well, and for good reason. Hall was a part owner, head chef, and manager of Somethyme, the first vegetarian restaurant in the state in his hometown of Durham for many years. He said he had long lived in houses with 8-10 roommates working together and became accustomed to making a large meal for everyone each week, which he found that he rather enjoyed. In fact, he decided to transition from his teaching career at Duke University to start his own restaurant alongside two talented female chefs and bakers. He was inspired as the restaurant grew, yet after several years cooking, managing and keeping the pace of the bustling little eatery, he found himself needing a change of pace and decided to take a six month break and follow a dream he’d had since he was 16– thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.