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Contagious Love

When Sonu Chawla, co-owner of the Holiday Lodge in Pearisburg, Virginia with her husband Mickey, began seeing people with backpacks wanting to rent rooms, she asked her staff, “Who are these people? What are they doing?” Quickly, she learned about the hikers who attempt to walk the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (A.T.) — the longest hiking-only footpath in the world — that runs right outside of town.

“I became really curious,” Sonu said. “To try to hike the whole Trail, there has to be a passion, something special you have to have.”

Several years ago, realizing most of the hotel rooms in Pearisburg and the surrounding areas were occupied by contractors installing a natural gas pipeline, the Holiday Lodge converted a game room into a “Backpacker Dorm” with several twin beds so hikers would have a place to stay.

“Sometimes I don’t recognize the hikers after they shower because they look different and smell different than when they arrive,” said Sonu, laughing.

When Sonu learned about the Konnarock Crew, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) flagship crew program that, for years, had been moving boulders and cutting a new, more scenic route for the A.T. into the mountainside above Pearisburg (among other projects), she knew she could help them too.

“I wanted to comfort these people who are not from here but who are contributing to our community by building the Trail to attract more visitors,” she said. “I wanted to make them feel better, away from home but at home. It affects my heart and my soul.”

So since 2013, the Holiday Lodge has hosted a pool party for the Konnarock Crew, thru-hikers, town officials and community members.

“When I went there, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Bob Brogden of Carrboro, North Carolina, who has been a Konnarock Crew member for the past five years. “Our crew leader was making a big deal of it, and I soon found out why: Sonu and her staff exceeded all of my expectations. I had no idea I was going to be able to shower and I jumped at the opportunity. Sonu even provided a towel and soap!”

In all his years working with Trail crews, this was the only time Bob could remember being able to shower during a work trip.

“Sonu is not a hiker nor someone you might expect to value the wilderness adventure of the trail, but she recognizes the value of the Trail to her community,” said Kathryn Herndon-Powell, education and outreach coordinator for the ATC. “The Trail brings a lot of life and new people from all over the world who might otherwise not visit Pearisburg, so she sees economic value but also lends a special identity to Pearisburg. I think Sonu personally loves meeting hikers and being a part of that world because she recognizes she can help support the community.”

Everything she does, she does with a passion.

The crew parties and other initiatives Sonu has spearheaded — including the Backpacker Dorm and an A.T. postcard art contest — allow different community aspects of the Trail to come together.

“Sometimes it can be difficult finding common ground because Trail maintainers might not feel hikers understand their work and community members might not understand stinky hikers,” said Kathryn, who also serves as a Konnarock Crew member. “There’s a real need to bring these communities together because once we come together, we find common ground. And that common ground is the A.T.”

As an official A.T. Community™, Pearisburg already facilitates interactions among hikers, business owners, town officials, and community members, but as Kathryn notes, “you need a spark plug like Sonu who is going to make that happen.”

“I enjoyed the party — it was really nice to be there, to talk to people, to interact with community members,” said Bob. “I very much appreciate what Sonu does for Trail crews and what the hiking clubs do for Trail crews. Their generosity enhances crew morale and greatly increases the likelihood someone will return and bring new people with them.”

Bruce Agnew, a board member of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (RATC) who helped the Konnarock Crew with this Trail relocation, agrees that the generosity and engagement of people like Sonu improve the greater Trail community.

“It shows me there are more and more people out there who are embracing the hiking community,” he said. “The hostels that are popping up along the Trail are a rather strong signal of that interest. The more people, businesses and community groups engage with hikers, the more Trail communities will be threaded together by the mobility of the hiking community.”

Bob agrees: “When businesses like Sonu’s get a glowing report from hikers, word travels up the Trail. She’s not out to charge an outrageous fee, doesn’t pretend she runs a luxury hotel, but what she does do is something memorable — she could be considered a Trail Angel. If I were doing a long hike, a place like the Holiday Lodge would be more than a brief respite. It would be a place I very much appreciated.”

In March 2016, the ATC, the RATC and the U.S. Forest Service held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open approximately 1 mile of relocated Trail near Pearisburg. About 100 people — both enthusiasts from the Pearisburg community and from as far away as Blacksburg and Roanoke — attended the event, an unprecedented number according to Kathryn.

“Sonu helped publicize the event and drum up excitement,” she said. “Everything she does she does with passion.”

For Bob, Sonu’s “sense of humanitarianism” stood out to him in addition to what she was doing for the crew.

“She realizes the importance of work crews to maintain and keep the Trail in good repair so that people will continue to use the Trail and come to her business,” he said. “But she is serving the larger community too. You have to have faith in humans, and I think Sonu is helping in that way, helping without an expectation.”

Given all of her contributions to the A.T., Pearisburg and the hiking community, Bruce was shocked when he discovered Sonu had never actually set foot on the Trail.

“I assumed she had walked it, given her generosity,” he said, noting he planted the seed to get her out onto the Trail. “She is a community member for all she has done.”

Bruce was delighted to know Sonu finally hiked on the A.T.

Sonu said walking on the Trail was both “scary and amazing,” expressing her continued curiosity about why thru-hikers attempt the entire Trail and disbelief of how hikers do what they do. Though she will not be planning a thru-hike any time soon, Sonu said she remains committed to helping the hiking community.

“Whatever we can do, especially me as a person, it doesn’t come because I have a business, but this is just me,” she said. “I do not hike, but I want to do more for the Appalachian Trail community. I really, really want to do more. And if you ever find out why hikers do what they do, please tell me!”

– by Alyson Browett, At-Large A.T. Community Ambassador