William Browning: On a Saturday morning in May, 2015, a group of law enforcement agents, the FBI among them, knocked on the front door of the Montgomery Homestead Inn in Damascus, Virginia. The proprietor, a retired kindergarten teacher who lives across East Laurel Ave. from the inn, happened to be there at the time. She does not know for sure how many agents were on the inn’s porch. She guesses three or four, though her husband told her later another man was positioned at the back door.
“There were just a lot of men out there,” Susie Montgomery said.
Damascus (pop. 800) is in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the Appalachian Trail. Downtown consists of about five blocks “but in those blocks there are five churches,” Montgomery said. A visitor crosses one bridge coming in, another heading out. Idyllic is the word. The Montgomery Homestead Inn is only an old, two-story brick home with four bedrooms travelers can rent. On the morning those FBI agents came knocking, it was the weekend of the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival, when something like 20,000 hikers descend on the town for fellowship and revelry, and the inn’s four rooms had been booked for weeks. Montgomery did not know what business the men crowding the porch could have there.
When she opened the front door, one of the agents held up a photograph of a man and asked if she knew him. She looked at it and said, “Yes. That’s Bismarck.”
Bismarck was the trail name of an Appalachian Trail hiker who had checked in the previous day. He had been staying at Montgomery’s inn periodically since 2010. She considered him an “easy guest.” He usually stayed for three days, paid in cash (like everyone else), and each time he left, the bed would be made and the room was clean.
The agents asked if Bismarck was inside. Montgomery said she was not sure, and what was this about, anyway? The men identified themselves as law enforcement agents and said they needed to talk with Bismarck about a case of fraud. Montgomery asked for identification, which they provided, and she took them to the room where Bismarck was staying.