When Eric Champlin and Rob Sollie opened Trailful Outdoor Company in Hiawassee in 2019, they had no anxiety about being an out and proud gay couple in a small mountain town.
“What we’ve found is a sort of live-and-let-live and respectful community up here,” Champlin told Project Q Atlanta. “People just kind of enjoy life however they want to enjoy life.”
Both spent a lot of time outdoors hiking, boating and kayaking growing up in Montana (Sollie) and Ohio (Champlin). They met in Atlanta in 2002 and started the online hiking guide Atlanta Trails in 2009. By 2014, both men left corporate jobs to run the guide full-time and launch a new one called Asheville Trails.
The following year, the couple married, left Midtown Atlanta for Asheville and continued building their online community. They later launched their own apparel line and took it to pop-up shops around Asheville and Atlanta.
“We really enjoyed the offline part of it,” Champlin said. “Meeting Instagram fans, engaging with the community.”
They moved to Hiawassee in 2018 with an eye on filling a void in the northeast Georgia town. There was no large hiking apparel store in a town that’s one of only five official Appalachian Trail communities in Georgia.
“We saw the opportunity coming together at the same time as we felt the benefit of taking some of this offline and establishing more personal relationships with the hiking community,” Champlin said.
They opened Trailful Outdoor Company the following year.
Champlin said Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales was “instrumental” in helping them open the store. She also happens to be the town’s first LGBTQ mayor.
“Liz is awesome,” Champlin said. “She reached out and took us to breakfast several times and drove us around in her truck showing us potential retail locations.”
“It was really eye opening to have that personal relationship with someone in local government who was not only engaged in our concept but was excited and saw the value of a business like ours being in town,” he added.
Ordiales said that Trailful has been a “game-changer addition” to Hiawassee’s downtown revitalization. The store is located next door to two buildings that the city is restoring.
“We have worked with Rob and Eric from the beginning of their search for a brick-and-mortar location which would anchor our downtown area,” Ordiales told Project Q. “They are a great asset to our community.”
“We are very fortunate that they chose us to settle down in and establish their vision,” she said.
Mountain safe space
Trailful expanded from a 900-square-feet space to 5,000 square feet on Main Street downtown since opening. They welcomed more than 1,300 Appalachian Trail through-hikers in the store last year shopping for backpacks, footwear, tents, sleep systems, dog gear, locally-sourced goods and even rainbow mountain stickers.
The town itself stays busy throughout the year. Appalachian Trail through-hikers converge on Hiawassee in the spring, and boaters flock to Lake Chatuge in the summer. Day hikers hit town in the fall and winter.
That includes a large number of LGBTQ residents and visitors.
“We were honestly kind of shocked when we opened the store to see the number of LGBTQ+ folks in the mountains,” Champlin said. “We have friends in Atlanta that kind of have a stereotype of the North Georgia mountains. They’d be surprised at how many LGBTQ folks that are up here.”
“It’s just a really safe and pleasant place to be,” he added.