A Place Steeped In The 'Trail Magic' Hot Showers. Cheap Beer. It's A Bit Of Heaven On The Appalachian Trail.

Posted: July 18, 1993

DUNCANNON, Pa. — In this tired river town - 15 miles north of Harrisburg, on the west bank of the Susquehanna - there are several churches, two laundromats, a couple of bars and an old brick boarding house called the Doyle Hotel. There are 23 rooms in the three-story hotel and about half of them are occupied, in the words of the proprietress, "by permanent guests, fellas in town who don't have families." The rest of the rooms, this time of year, are occupied by Appalachian Trail hikers, who seek hot showers and cheap beer.

A room for two is $15, a room for four, $25, and breakfast is $2.50, bacon and eggs. Showers are down the hall. You can lay out your sleeping bag in the ballroom for $2 per night, including clean towels. Pabst by the mug is 60 cents; other beers, higher.

"We find that Yuengling is very popular with the hikers," said Vonnie Doyle, who runs the hotel with her husband, Jim. "When they're passing through Pennsylvania they want to drink a Pennsylvania beer. Regulars more than likely go for Bud. The hotel was built by Anheuser-Busch. The Clydesdales used to come right down the street."

On one wall of the hotel bar is a sign that reads, "Profanity is not tolerated in this establishment." On another wall there's a map showing the 2,225 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. You'd have to travel far from here to find another juke box that plays both R.E.M. and Tammy Wynette.

The town is a maze of little streets - Ann, Cumberland, High, Plum and the main street, Market, which runs parallel to the river and which is part of the Appalachian Trail. Market, lined by American flags and covered by high-tension wires, is home to the Doyle, the post office and Duncannon Sports Goods, where there's a retired ice-cream vending machine that now sells frozen bait. (A dozen night crawlers, $1.50; two dozen night crawlers, $3.) Along Market, this time of year, you are likely to see bass fishermen with rods in hand, old men in tattered trousers remembering war, and trim hikers wearing nylon shorts and rubber-soled sandals.

The other day, John Davidson, a 58-year-old hiker from Northboro, Mass., was walking from the Doyle, where he was staying, to the post office. He carried a box of provisions - Frosted Mini-Wheats, canned beans, deviled ham, pita bread - which he was sending to himself, in care of the post office in Port Clinton, Pa., the next major stop along his hike. His stay at the Doyle marked his first nights under a ceiling since he left Georgia on March 30.

"The people here are very friendly to the hikers," said Davidson, a retired engineer. "I was doing my wash when a woman said, 'You need a lift to the grocery store?' The grocery store was three miles away. When you're walking, that's a long time. Everybody here goes out of their way to help the hikers."

Davidson was only vaguely aware of the tragedy that occurred three miles south of here in 1990. Two trail hikers, Molly Ann LaRue, 25, and Geoffrey Hood, 26, were murdered in the Thelma Marks Shelter, a trailside log hut with a tin roof used by the hikers. The last photograph of the young couple was taken in front of the Doyle.

Townspeople talk about Molly and Jeff as if they knew them, even though they were only passing through. Their tone of familiarity reveals the proprietary interest the local citizenry has in the wanderers. The hikers, who range widely in terms of age and wealth and political leanings, tend to be polite, non-polluting and earnest, and they are a boon to the town's economy. By and large, the hikers are a mystical crowd, who are drawn to the trail by its powerful and ultimately inexplicable allure, much the way Dead Heads find their way to the stadiums of wherever the Grateful Dead happens to be playing. The hikers, taken together, are a friendly and interesting group.

"The trail hikers are a subculture unto themselves," said Chris Boran, a hiker. "They have their own names, their own vocabulary, this incredible way of helping one another." The hikers have a name for their camaraderie: trail magic. Places such as the Doyle Hotel, Boran said, help define the society of hikers.

In a back room at the Doyle the other day, hikers were sipping beers and escaping the heat. A woman was trying to get through to L.L. Bean. A man was saying, "Another 150 miles, we'll be out of Pennsylvania - in a car that'd be two hours!" Another man was saying, "When you get near the end of the trail, you realize the main thing isn't putting in your miles, it's being on the trail, and once you're off it, you can't wait to get back on it."

On a table there was a log book, filled with entries from the hikers. ''Made it here for a deserved break," wrote John Davidson, who hikes under the name Runnin' on M.T. "Maybe my feet will recover now."

Davidson, the retired engineer, sat in a back room of the Doyle Hotel, under an air conditioner, sipping a soda, listening to Randy Travis, swapping stories from the trail. He was in Duncannon, more than halfway home.

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