In summer, we would always travel the winding country roads past Pearisburg, Va., watching for the dog that chases us those last few feet of pavement, nudging past the cows on the washed out Forest Service road, navigating the ruts, and finally, turning left into Wood’s Hole.
Tillie’s warm welcome would always greet us from a rocker on the porch.
Next summer will be different.
Matilda K. “Tillie” Wood, known for hosting leagues of Appalachian Trail hikers and for speaking tirelessly for conservation, died Oct. 14 at age 89.
I met Tillie through my husband, Brian. He learned about her hiker hostel when he set out on the Appalachian Trail in 1991. I had been sending him food at drops he mapped out before his trip, but it wasn’t enough to replace the energy he was burning on the trail.
Tillie’s trail magic was the perfect recipe. He made his way down to her cabin in Giles County, Va., to stay the night, rest up with fellow hikers and fill his belly with a hot meal.
He learned that for more than two decades, she traveled north from her home in Roswell, Ga., to open the doors of her Giles County cabin to weary hikers. A small sign tacked to a tree on the Appalachian Trail heralded her arrival, usually in May.
It let hikers know that half a mile away a hot breakfast awaited the first eight to sign up. They could spend the night in the bunkhouse, shower with water warmed by the sun in black hoses that snaked in rings across the roof, or recharge in the hammock overlooking the valley. For $3.50 they could get hot coffee and Tillie’s scrambled eggs, grits, sausage and homemade biscuits. Her smile and warm welcome were free.
In 1993 we moved to Blacksburg, Va., about an hour away, and my husband visited again. By then, we had been enlisted to help maintain a section of the Georgia to Maine trail just up from Tillie’s place. I joined him on his next visit, and it soon became a ritual of summer to travel to the cabin to take a walk, share a meal, catch up on news of family and friends and swap stories about the latest batch of thru-hikers. Everyone would gather on the porch, or by the fire, and pour through scrapbooks and hiker registers. My two boys found it hard to believe that was their trail-worn, much younger father pictured with those other hikers. Every breakfast she served ended with a photo session, where she snapped pictures and logged the hikers who passed through.
We usually ate lunch where the hikers did, on a table in the cabin’s main room -- a find at an auction years earlier. Each meal started with a blessing.
Deer made it hard to keep a garden, but her salads included watercress harvested from the creek that ran by the house, and an old orchard provided just enough sheep’s nose apples for cobbler. She was usually midway through a knitting project, tiny sweaters and caps for infants at hospitals back in Roswell, Ga. She knitted one for my first child when he was born.
Tillie and her husband, Roy K. Wood, didn’t happen upon this haven in the woods. They created it. Early photographs show a much different landscape. The trees were saplings. Tillie said the mountain had been clearcut early in the century, which is why the trees were so small in the 1940s. There was no porch. There was no running water. The kitchen and indoor bath came later, as did the bunkhouse. The long, low stone wall that winds from the outhouse to the woodshed behind the cabin was built over time. Tillie asked each hiker who came to add one rock to the wall. After 20 years of welcoming more than 250 hikers each season, it’s a visible reminder of their gratitude.
One of the rocks is mine.
She was so at home in the rockers on the cabin porch, with cats and visiting dogs wandering in and out, that it’s hard to picture her years earlier, when her husband first proposed building the hiker hostel and spending part of their retirement catering to hikers. “You want to do what?” she recalled.
But it’s where they started their life together. They met when she was studying at the University of Arkansas. She earned a master’s degree in biology there; her area of interest was mycology. She would often tell of how her husband didn’t want to commute to where he was studying a herd of elk in Sugar Run, Va., for his master’s thesis. It made sense to live close to the animal population he was studying, so they set up house in the cabin, which had no running water and no bathroom. First, they were renters. A year later, they bought the property and 100 acres surrounding it for $300.
Over the many summers we visited she talked about the land, about how it had changed, and about her vision of its future. The land is now protected by a conservation easement through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. When we last visited, granddaughter Neville Harris, whose artwork graced the outhouse, bunkhouse and cabin at Wood’s Hole, talked about a career in academia that would allow her to travel to Giles County in the summer.
On our last visit Tillie said she thought it would be her last. It was getting harder to manage the trip, even with the help from family and friends. Her stays were never quite as long. She was at Wood’s Hole again this past spring, though. She came with Neville, who shared her love for the place and hopes to continue its legacy.
I can’t speak to her biscuits, but Neville has her grandmother’s smile.