Imagine, for a moment, that you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, 2,119 miles from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mount Katahdin, Maine. A little while ago you crossed into New York State, and now you're stepping warily along a rocky north-south ridge paralleling nine-mile-long Greenwood Lake, 700 feet below. It's mid-July and you're sautèed. The last lean-to you slept in was 30 miles back, the next is 20 miles north, and shining Katahdin is still 800 miles away. What would you barter your soul and boots for? A cold drink and a hot shower.
Something ahead catches your eye, a battered signboard propped against a rock: FREE OVERNIGHT LODGING FOR LONG-TERM HIKERS. APPALACHIA COTTAGE¼ MILE DOWN TRAIL.
At the cottage a cheerful man of middle age appears, dark wavy hair displaying the faintest intimations of gray.
"Uh, I saw this sign up on the trail," you mumble.
"Sure, come on in," he says. "There's beer inside." And then, "You wouldn't be...?" and he says your name. As if he's been expecting you!
In all this imagined scenario, only one presumption insults credibility—that you wouldn't know Roger Brickner as the proprietor of Appalachia Cottage and the Samaritan of the Appalachian Trail. The trail grapevine is far too efficient for tales of Brickner's wondrous hospitality—the cold drinks, the food, real beds under a real roof—not to precede any hiker's approach to Greenwood Lake.
Brickner, 50, a social studies teacher at Benjamin Cardozo High School in New York City's borough of Queens, is a genial bachelor who sees the irony of his Hiltonesque habits. In 1973 he acquired a modest summer place—three rooms with kitchen and sun porch—backed up against a hill rising from the west shore of Greenwood Lake, 50 miles northwest of New York City. Just the setting for contemplative summers away from clamorous classrooms.
But two acts of kindness scrambled forever those idyllic prospects. A thunderstorm one night late that first summer deposited four drenched young hikers at his door. "I could hardly turn them out," Brickner recalls. "But they were accidentals, they don't really count."
Late the next summer, during another storm, Brickner recalled the incident and wondered if there might be other wet and miserable hikers on the trail. He climbed the ridge and left a note offering dry accommodations. Before nightfall a young man named Tim Williams, a through hiker from Georgia, came knocking to see if the offer was genuine.
During the balance of the 1974 season, seven other hikers followed the path to Brickner's door. The next year, given a full summer, 37 came, and in 1976, 88 hikers dropped by for a meal and a place to crash. Brickner keeps a list of each visitor in yearly logbooks and posts running totals of the number of stoppers-by on the sun porch.
In 1977 the count was up to 113 and in 1978, 158. Occupancy the next year slipped to 156, but last season Brickner welcomed an even 200 hikers. "It's amazing what has happened to my summer retreat," he says, affecting wistfulness.
The first through hikers, those elite end-to-enders, begin appearing around late May or early June. Traffic peaks in July and thins as August wanes.
For statistical purposes Brickner divides the season into 10-day periods, and the record for any one such stretch is 34 hikers. "That's 3.4 a night, just about right," he calculates. "Any more than that and you wind up with a crowd. The most ever was 10, and that was a horror. By late July I begin to hope for a lull, even for one night." That rarely happens.
Such is the popularity of Brickner's Appalachia Cottage that overnight guests are restricted to true long-distance hikers—about half of those who sleep over are attempting the trail's full length—and a loose reservation system has been adopted. Seventy-five miles south at the Delaware Water Gap is the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain, which also puts up hikers, and Brickner asks that those who want to stop at his place sign up there in advance. Brickner phones the church every Saturday morning for the latest head count. "The church acts as my early warning system," he says. "It's three to six days hiking from there."
But even before preregistration Brickner was likely to know who was approaching by gossip picked up from other hikers. "Once I heard about some French-Canadians coming north," he says. "They were reputed to be gourmets, always stopping to buy fresh meat and wine. I put a sign on the trail in French and added QUÉBEC LIBRE! They seemed to appreciate that."
Unless a hiker catches a night when Brickner is preparing his special shrimp dinner, meals run to simple fare such as hamburgers and spaghetti and lots of bread. "I try to give them plenty of carbohydrates, and they even think I'm a good cook," he says.
After a shower and dinner, hikers yearn most to talk. "Some of them haven't seen anyone for so long, especially if it's early or late in the season, that they'll chew your ear off," he says. Brickner's solution when the conversation exhausts even his endurance for socializing: "I get out my slides of Norway. That always puts them to sleep."
Except for one hiker who broke and entered when Brickner was away—all he took was food—the open-door policy has brought only pleasure and stimulation. "When you live in New York City," Brickner says, "you lock and double-lock everything. Here I can invite perfect strangers into my house. They're mostly kids, just out of high school or college, but a number of hikers are close to my age, too, maybe just retired, and there's a sense of real America to them. Their values are different; it gives you a new perspective. When you spend half the night talking, you really get to know them. I guess that's my payment."