ERWIN — Limestone Cove resident Kent Garland is likely a familiar face not only to a number of lawbreakers in the region but also to many a weary hiker of the Appalachian Trail.
For the past four decades, Garland, a Unicoi County native and retired assistant district attorney general, has opened his home and offered other assistance to those hiking the trail in Unicoi County.
Garland said this preoccupation began one March afternoon around 40 years ago while mowing his in-laws’ yard. Garland said he saw a hiker accompanied by his dog walking down the road.
“I didn’t know it was a hiker,” Garland said. “He had this massive structure on his back, bearded and wild-eyed looking. And I’m thinking ‘well, Bigfoot has finally come down out of the mountains.’ ”
Garland said he struck up a conversation with the man and found the man had been hiking the trail for around a month through “all sorts of miserable weather.” While in the Smokies, the hiker became stranded away from the trail by a creek he had fallen into. As a result, the hiker had suffered severe frostbite.
After Garland contacted his family doctor, the hiker was able to receive treatment. Because the doctor did not want the man hiking for at least another day, Garland and his wife decided to take the man to the Elms restaurant in Erwin.
While he would not hear from this hiker again, the encounter sparked Garland’s interest in the Appalachian Trail. He began hiking areas of the trail in Tennessee and North Carolina. His goal was to finish the trail with his son who, like Garland, is an insulin-dependent diabetic. However, Garland said “life got in the way.” A knee injury suffered during one hike would further deter Garland’s hiking aspirations.
Still, with his interest piqued, Garland began noticing backpackers in Unicoi County, many of whom were hitchhiking or trudging along through adverse weather.
“We just began to try to help as many as we could,” Garland said. “It reached a point where we thought it might be better if we had some sort of published information about contacting us.”
Garland then contacted the Appalachian Trail Conference, now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, to have he and his wife listed in a trail guidebook as contact persons for hikers coming into the Erwin area.
“That allowed people that knew they would be coming through here at a certain time to call and kindly make advanced reservations with us, which was a little more convenient,” Garland said. “There were times, I think, my wife was ready to strangle me for bringing one, two or five or more hikers to the house.”
Over the years, Garland said he has encountered people from all over the world. He said helping hikers has also allowed him to be an ambassador of sorts for Northeast Tennessee. While he said many hikers come into the area with preconceived notions of what they may encounter, Garland said it is always interesting to see the impression they leave with.
“Most of them are just flabbergasted and enthralled by the beauty that we have here,” Garland said. “I wanted these strangers to know that we didn’t have outhouses and we did have shoes to wear and weren’t just quite as poverty-stricken and backward as we seemed to be portrayed forever so long of a time.”
At one point, Garland said he was contacted by an ABC news team doing a story on legally blind hiker Bill Irwin, who, along with his seeing-eye dog Orient, was setting out to complete the more than 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Garland said Irwin spent a week with his family while hiking sections of the trail in this area.
As interest in hiking and use of the Appalachian Trail has increased over the years, so have the number of hikers Garland has assisted. Aside from allowing hikers into his home, Garland said much of the assistance he offers is shuttling hikers from one point to another.
While some offer to pay for his assistance, Garland said what he does “is not a business.” Instead of accepting payment himself, Garland said he asks those offering payment to contribute the money to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy so the trail can continue to be enjoyed by others.
“It’s a feeling that’s very hard to describe. It’s one of those feelings that’s kind of like a smell that you can’t describe, you just have to smell it. Hiking on the trail is an experience in an experience. It awakens your senses. It opens your eyes. You start seeing things in a whole different perspective,” Garland said.
Garland said that on average he assists around 40 hikers each season, which runs from the end of March through the end of September. He said he has assisted as many as 26 hikers at one time, and at one point had as many as 12 hikers sleeping on his front porch. Some hikers had even put a treehouse Garland built for his son to good use while the family was residing in Erwin.
Garland also said the trail is “a community unto itself” and he appreciates the camaraderie hikers share, regardless of their backgrounds. Garland said he asks the hikers he meets who are setting out to complete the trail to contact him to let him know how their adventures went. Occasionally, he hears back from them.
“That’s always heartening to see that, hey, I gave them a little bit of help along the way and maybe sowed a little bit of interest and education in that person about this area and the people in this area,” Garland said.