Skywalker Discusses The Importance of Neel’s Gap on the Appalachian Trail
I recently received a very negative one-star review on Amazon for my narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. The reviewer mentioned that I had written the wrong name for the outfitter at Neel’s Gap, and thus my facts could not be trusted. I replied to the reviewer that I had used the wrong name on purpose. I had a traditional publisher, Indigo Publishing, that insisted that I use a pseudonym because I had written some unflattering things about the outfitter (Note: I have self-published since then and thus am not restricted in this regard any further).
This seems like an important topic for future thru-hikers for the simple reason that the outfitter at Neel’s Gap, Walasi-Yi, is the single most important building on the entire Appalachian Trail. The outfitter happens to be at mile 32, which thru-hikers usually reach on their third day. By this point, they have probably already been through one or two crises, and realizations of incorrect equipment purchases. Thus there is a great need for a good outfitter at Neel’s Gap, and thru-hikers over the years have habitually made important adjustments here. Many have probably had positive experiences. It certainly is a fine store in many regards. However, in my narrative, I recount a very unfortunate episode.
I was a complete virgin at the outset of my thru-hike, never having even spent the night outside. Like many aspiring thru-hikers, I had spent the winter obsessing over equipment decisions. Given my lack of practical experience, I was what one person labeled “an easy lay.” In other words, I would believe or do almost anything anyone ‘in the know’ suggested. Thus, it was that when I entered the outfitters at Neel’s Gap on the 16th of April, 2005, I was in a fragile state of mind. I wasn’t actually looking to make major equipment decisions, but rather just to tidy things up.
The owner, however, appeared to have a different goal. He wanted to restructure my entire pack. I cannot to this day tell you that was definitely a bad idea. However, I was in a hurry to leave, which meant I would not have the requisite time to develop a full understanding or facile use of all the new things he recommended. However, he did zero in on my 7-foot long ridge rest. “Completely unacceptable,” he said. “You need a therma-rest.” That put me in a funk because I had driven all over Atlanta to find a 7-foot long ridge rest to fit my 6’11” frame. The therma rest he wanted to sell me was only 6-feet long. When I asked him about this he quickly said, “I can cut a foot off your ridge rest and you can put it at the end of the therma rest.” I assented. A week later at a shelter in North Carolina, a girl named Minnie (Sarah Becker) pulled out the remaining 6 feet of my erstwhile ridge rest.
That was the most notable aspect of my unfortunate visit to this outfitter. The owner convinced me to buy various items that would have added weight to my backpack. This was a surprise because the store has made its reputation on its ability to reduce the backpack weight of thru-hikers passing through here.
Undoubtedly, they have been able to reduce such backpack weight for many thru-hikers and I applaud them for it. But as a writer, my primary concern is with giving hikers the information they need, not the store owner. This is very important because in the early going is when hikers are a. the most vulnerable, and b. have the most money to spend. Others have apparently felt like the store was too prone to push their equipment on hikers. One reader, in response to the negative review I received on Amazon, wrote me to say: “AWOL on the AT also mentions how Porter is quick to sell expensive gear to hikers. Walker isn’t the only one to write about this. Also read some reviews for Mountain Crossings…”