My first memory of Bluff Mountain Outfitters is from over 20 years ago, when I happened upon Hot Springs, exploring the mountains with some friends from college. The store was a fraction of the size it is today, with mainly some hiking and boating related things hanging from a few peg boards.
At that time Hot Springs was just beginning to reawaken from one of its historic slumbers, with just hints of the tourism that was to come… just a few inklings of what businesses could be useful in such a unique and remote place along with the already established businesses like Gentry Hardware and Smoky Mountain Diner.
Through the years, it has grown under the watchful eyes of its founders, Wayne Crosby and the late and dear Dan Gallagher, offering what was needed for the hikers, boaters and tourists as well as the community that lives here. They expanded as they could afford, taking other areas of the building for additional retail space. Remember when there was a bike shop in the back? I’m still sad it never saw its time as a burrito bar, but I digress…
The Odd Couple
I think that anyone that spent any amount of time with Dan and Wayne would agree, they were close to polar opposites in nature. A funny example, when I was a Bluff employee, during the slow depths of winter, Wayne had me dust the boxes of tabouli, whereas Dan would hand me a roll of quarters and tell me to go upstairs and play pinball. Wayne was the one with the clipboard, taking care of nuts and bolts of the retail side of the business with his eye on the eventual and well earned prize of one day being able to leave the store fully staffed – so HE could go and do all the fun things they were outfitting everyone else to do. Dan contributed with his jovial nature, shuttles to near and far, occasional political rants, ordering of the food and creating the best cheese selection in Madison County in those days. He would mystify tourists by throwing dry ice into Spring Creek and acting as if he had found a new hot spring. (Yes, they often believed it) But somehow, within those differences in personality they achieved a great balancing and merging of ideas that ultimately equated to running a beloved and successful business together.
Founded in 1997 by 2 friends that had raft guided on the Pigeon together, Bluff was born from a daydream of Wayne and then wife Chris while on a backpacking trip in Chile. A list of what an outfitter in Hot Springs would need to carry, scribbled on a piece of paper as they hiked through the craggy mountains of South America. Early that year Wayne and Dan found themselves faced with the prospect of buying the rafting company they had been working for on the Pigeon – minus the support of the parent company that provided the support office and publicity – and no real money.
The Early Days…
Frank Matula, Dan Gallagher and Pete Nagle in the shop
Burt’s Bees products were a new thing at the time
Wayne and Charles Price in 1998
Wayne and wife Chris Crosby and baby Kiana
Putting up a Tent in 1999 with Wayne’s Dad and daughter Kiana
Wayne at the Register in 1998
Wayne recalled that daydream he and Chris had shared and approached Dan about opening the store and he agreed. As the story goes, they were nearly laughed out of the bank as they made their request for $15,000. That year Dan had some family issues take place that used any additional funds he could have contributed and Wayne got a less than enthusiastic response from his parents when he asked about a loan. In the end, it was the kindness of Wayne’s aunt giving the dynamic duo $3000 and Wayne’s $1500 limit on his credit card that allowed Bluff to open its doors in April of that year. This was also the year that the Forest Service initially planned to cut Bluff Mountain- so, it made sense to them to name it after the mountain that the community was actively fighting to save. Undoubtedly, this choice of name also appealed to Dan’s rabble rousing tendencies as a jab to the Forest Service.
Growing Families and the Business
Not too long after opening the store, Wayne and Chris welcomed their first daughter, Kiana and a few years later Maia was born. Chris worked in the office at French Broad Rafting while Wayne baked bread across the street at Bridge Street Cafe before he would then go to work at the store.
Dan also had a daughter, Tara and eventually 2 granddaughters. And then one day, Ruth strolled into the store after hiking part of the AT with her cousin – and as they say, the rest is history. The connection between Dan and Ruth was immediate. They would be married a few years later, adding a big branch of 3 more kids and many more grandkids to his family tree. The love between Dan and Ruth was a deeply kind and beautiful thing to witness. Dan and Wayne stayed steady at it for many years and eventually had things fine-tuned to the point that they could each travel and know that the staff could handle whatever may arise.
Bluff is a gathering place, a true community hub that through the years has morphed perfectly with the changes of the town over time. One of my favorite chapters of Bluff are the renowned days of the coffee club. For many years, Bluff was the only place in town with great coffee by the cup. If you needed to locate someone, if they weren’t at Bluff, someone would at least know where they had headed. Those were the days before cell phones, when Bluff had dial-up internet that most of us (and the hikers, of course) did not have access to. You’d go sign up on the clipboard for your turn on the public computer, and sip coffee while folks sorted shuttles and traded stories of whatever town shenanigans were going on, until your turn.
Most summer months you will find the front of the shop lined with backpacks and people. Many laughs and stories have been shared out front- You can even take your own spot on the Group W bench.
26 Years Later
Through the last 26 years Bluff (and their smart and often sassy staff) has helped countless hikers, bikers, boaters and tourists with, in addition to what the shop offers, directions, suggestions and extensive knowledge of the area as well as offering a solid place of employment in a town where that has not always been a given. Bluff is a true community hub that has morphed perfectly over the years as Hot Springs has grown.
This story would not be complete without acknowledging the sad passings of Dan in 2018 and Chris in 2020. My choice to title the section about Wayne and Dan-The Odd Couple- in this piece is a nod to Wayne and the heartfelt description of his friendship with Dan at his celebration of life that April. He referenced The Odd Couple as he spoke of their friendship and went on to offer a perfectly funny and completely tear jerking tribute to his dear friend and business partner. I still cry when I think of it. A similarly loving and beautiful gathering for the celebration of Chris’s life was put together just a few years later by she and Wayne’s kind hearted girls, her partner Donnie and her closest friends. They hosted it outside in the time of covid… many folks came with their sweet memories, endless tales of Chris’ kindnesses, and plants to contribute to a memorial garden.
Loss is hard, always. But when you are part of a village, like Hot Springs, those absences feel so big and reverberate within the community for a long time. Their absences still feel big, just like their hearts. I love that they each played big parts in creating the Bluff we know and love today.
– Article by Wendy Stancil, August 2023