10 Undeniable Truths of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail spans over 1,000 miles from the top of Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains to the highest sand dune on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. If you don’t know the basics about the trail here is a great Overview of the MST. The MST is unlike any trail I have ever hiked. In my opinion it is one of the hardest trails that exists in this country and for reasons you would not initially suspect. This list is a reflection on the entirety of the trail – you would experience these facts if you were to thru hike or complete a full section hike of the MST from sea to mountains or mountains to sea. The MST is unique and will challenge you in ways the Triple Crown trails cannot. Here is why:
1) North Carolina is both gorgeous and unyielding.
Without a doubt the mountains of North Carolina are unbelievably beautiful with many a waterfall, craggy outcropping and glorious sunset spot. What you may not have known is that the mountains aren’t the only gorgeous parts of North Carolina – the coast, the wetlands and the piedmont area have their share of tranquil and delightful landscapes. But witnessing these areas first hand does come with the price of unpredictable weather and rough terrain.
It is inevitable that weather on the MST will sideline you on your hike in one way or another. It’s no wonder that Diane Van Deren, the accomplished ultra marathoner who holds the supported FKT (fastest known time) for the trail, called the MST the hardest trail she’s run – even harder than racing 430 miles in the Yukon Arctic in -50 degrees. On her trek she had to brave the remnants of a tropical storm that included a tornado touch down less than a mile from the trail.
Just this past year I followed the trek of an MST hiker named Kaleidoscope who had to quit his trip less than 100 miles from the end because all the ferries had stopped running due to the aftermath of hurricane Matthew. When I set out on my thru-hike in May 2016 I began at the coast. There were moments when I could see storms heading my way with full force and just prayed they didn’t hit me straight on. During one downpour I remember walking on the side of the road counting down the seconds between lightning and thunder and debating whether I needed to crouch low to be safe. North Carolina has a huge range of temperatures as well to add to the mix – even in early May I was seeing temperatures reach to the mid 90’s and could feel the sun’s rays heating the pavement underneath my feet. I developed a heat rash on both of my legs so painful that whenever anything brushed against my raw, blotchy, swollen calves, even a small blade of grass, I would double over in pain.
Weather aside, the terrain of the MST will kick your ass. In the mountains Diane Van Deren endured six days of rain on her record setting hike which, combined with the difficult terrain, created some of the most technical trail running she had ever experienced. The MST may not be the Long Trail but the western section sure has it’s share of rocks, roots and unending climbs. Personally, I think the mountains are the easy part – the really hard shit is the 600 + miles of asphalt road and beach walking. Road walking is incredibly hard: there is no variation for your muscles, no elevation change, and no rocks or objects to switch things up. Add to that the fact that it is mentally draining and there is very little for your brain to comprehend on miles of endless roads. The beach walking is mentally better but still tough as sand gets in every place imaginable, rubs your feet raw and demands you use more stabilizing muscles than normal. On my trek I had bought a brand new pair of Darn Tough socks but within the first 75 miles they were worn completely through from both sand and black tar. Without a doubt, North Carolina is uncompromising and will most assuredly challenge you with it’s ever changing elements and tough landscape.
2) There are animals to be feared more than bears.
They are called mosquitoes, ticks and Cottonmouths. And guess where you are guaranteed to find all three? That’s right – good ol’ North Carolina. So maybe they aren’t all animals, but, close enough. Bears and mountain lions are definitely out there and you might catch sight of an alligator in the eastern swamps but you are far more likely to get sucked alive by mosquitoes than killed by a bear while on the Mountains-To-Sea.
My worst night on the trail (and quite possibly in my life) involved being massacred by those bloodsuckers. A few days into my hike I reached the mainland where most of the earth around you turns into swamps and brackish marshland. It’s a gorgeous landscape but offers very little safe and acceptable camping spots. Unfortunately, on this particular evening I found myself walking on roads after dark desperately trying to get out of the marshlands and find a dry spot to camp. I finally found a flat, non marshy spot behind a derelict building and set up my tarp tent.
Due to unfortunate circumstances (including not having a tent that is fully enclosable) my tent slowly filled with hundreds of mosquitoes. That is not an overestimation. It quickly became an unbearable evening suffocating underneath my ultralight quilt as exposing even the slightest hole for airflow invited them in to terrorize me. I spent the whole night not breathing and therefore not sleeping, occasionally slapping the sides of my head when one managed to get in near my skin. The idea of moving and getting out from under my quilt was so awful that I peed into a ziploc bag and set it aside. Learn from my mistake – bring a fully enclosed tent for the coast!
Ticks were also a nuisance and required my full attention in areas where I was brushing up against grass. Miniscule tick babies would cling to my hairs as I was walking and I would have to bend down every five minutes or so, examine my skin and flick their tiny bodies back to the ground. Most of us have learned to deal with ticks because, as hikers, we are likely to be fully aware of the danger and reality of Lyme’s disease. Cottonmouths on the other hand will scare the living crap out of you. Just before I started my hike I had heard a story about a kid in the south who went for a swim with his friends in a body of water, got into a nest of baby Cottonmouths and died almost instantly. It was maybe not the best story to hear as I set out on my own. I knew it was likely I would see one and I did. In fact, I nearly stepped on it. Just before crossing a forest service road in the Croatan National Forest I startled a thick, fat Cottonmouth about three feet away from me. It reared back, showed me its fangs and let out a long hissssss before it jolted back into a tiny stream.
There is a section of boardwalk trail that is part of the twenty-six mile Neusiok Trail on the MST that you will encounter in the east. This quarter mile long stretch is wonderfully named the “Cottonmouth Spa”. For the entire length of the path six feet of dark water rises to the edges of the wooden planks in the jungly forest. When I walked over the boardwalk I could hear plop and thwop as things slid off their hiding spots and snuck back into the blood colored tannin water. Hearing venomous snakes dropping into a body of water you happen to be walking over is nerve wracking to say the least. But what would hiking be without a little danger thrown in?
3) You will feel exposed and vulnerable in a new way.
Most people won’t know what the hell you are doing walking along the side of the road with a backpack and trekking poles. This is the case for the 600 miles of roadwalk that exist on the current Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Being exposed in this way is not only emotionally and mentally exhausting but can also be risky. I know that being a young woman altered the way that people viewed me during my hike. I was honked at, yelled at, cat called and even gestured to in an obscene way. It’s a hard, unfortunate truth of our society and although road walking would be risky for anyone, being a woman adds a considerable weight to the situation you are putting yourself in. The subtle harassment wore on my psyche and I found myself maintaining a resting bitch face out of what felt like necessity. Being vulnerable can be a beautiful thing but it can also be scary and intense. Hiking on back roads is completely different from hiking real trail and it will put you in situations that test your intuition of other humans.
Road walking also means dealing with cars and the fact that they are, simply, people killers. Within the first hundred miles on the coast there were many bridges over waterways that felt very unsafe as a hiker. For instance, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks is two and a half miles long and has about a two foot wide shoulder. To add to the danger, the railing ledge between you and a thirty foot drop into the water doesn’t go much farther past your knees. When I crossed it there were many giant semi trucks that raced by sending water spray in my face while I gripped the edge to not lose my balance. That two and a half miles felt like ten. I ended up hitching a couple of the other bridges for fear of losing my limbs, my life or causing a major accident. This type of exposure you will feel is no joke especially if you are a solo hiker and being prepared for the emotional toll it will take is important to get through the full 1,200 miles.
4) Approximately one billion churches exist in North Carolina.
And guess what? You are probably going to poop, eat and sleep behind a bunch of them. Churches become your safety zone for just about anything you can think of – eating, getting water from an outdoor faucet, stretching, peeing, napping, crying. They will become your go-to, a place you can get to quickly off of a road and feel somewhat protected. Several of them have graveyards in the back that come up all the way to the church building itself which means at times you might be sleeping on top of dead people. I was okay with that and luckily have no ghost stories to share. I am thankful for the one million churches in North Carolina because without them it would be really hard to hike the road portion of the trail without asking strangers to camp in their yards most nights. The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail also has a great list of “hiker approved” churches to stay at and some phone numbers of church members if you need help. There are also numbers for trail angels should that be the way you want to hike. I have to admit though, I claimed every church as hiker friendly and set up camp whenever and wherever I wanted to.
5) Ice cream is easily accessible.
If you love ice cream then you can eat a lot of it while hiking the eastern section of the MST. This is a fact because you pass a gas station approximately every 10 miles during the road walks. Sounds great doesn’t it? Ice cream is a huge perk and you will miss it once you hit the mountains. Not to mention it’s a good fuel source as Karl Metzer helped prove last year. I think many of us can easily down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s once we start to crush some miles.
The only downside to ice cream accessibility is it means most of your resupply is going to come from crappy gas stations on a majority of the road walk miles. I definitely enjoyed indulging in this food at first but wow, did I get tired of eating cinnamon buns, chips, slim jims, pre-made “cheese product” sandwiches and cookies. Not just as snacks but as breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and any other random meal. On the plus side, it made me appreciate the times when I was around real food or eating at a local restaurant in a small town I would never have visited in normal life. My favorite meal was a pound of spicy steamed shrimp down near Hatteras Island on a muggy afternoon that I delightfully inhaled. Regardless of whichever way you decide to hike the MST definitely let yourself indulge in the food adventure (or at least ice cream) and it just might make the road walking worth it.
6) Death will become routine.
It sounds morbid but it’s the truth. Death is all around us but on the MST you tend to see a bit more of it and most of it will come in the form of road kill. To entertain myself during the road walks I would play the game of trying to identify an original animal with the various piles of squashed carnage that lined the roadside. Not surprisingly, it was really hard to answer that question sometimes. I even had the thought of starting a photo collection to make the most morbid artsy coffee table book ever but I’m glad I didn’t follow through. Snakes, birds, fish, frogs, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, cats, dogs, deer, foxes – if it’s an animal that lives in North Carolina I’ve probably seen it in flattened form. One of the eeriest things I found was definitely fresh dog legs in a stream in the woods with no other body parts nearby. I don’t even want to think about why that happened and I have spared you the picture I took of them.
Not only will you see things already dead but you are also guaranteed to see animals that are going to die. About three hundred miles into the hike (coming from the coast) you will hit farmland and lots of it. Most of the land is dedicated to corn or vegetables or grain but there are also plenty of Butterball turkey farms and pig farms in this area. One morning I passed by about twenty giant long open barns stuffed full of those white turkeys. They all turned their heads and watched me intently as I walked west. A man in a pickup truck full of dead birds drove by near me and got out of his truck and stared me down. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a PETA activist that was going to record the goings on so I waved and kept up my stride. There were other areas where huge semi trucks stuffed with big fat pigs drove by every hour on their way to slaughter. One morning I was eating breakfast at a small diner in White Oak, NC and the waitress confirmed that the greasy sausage link on my plate was made right down the road. Maybe it’s not the most beautiful side of life to witness but it’s also real and an important part of our society that people need to see and understand.
7) Bushwhacking is never worth it.
Somehow even though I know it’s never worth it, I still always try it. The good thing about hiking in most of the eastern part of the United States is you will probably hit a road or civilization within a day or two of getting lost, on the MST, probably within less than 24 hours. Bushwhacking in the forest is one thing, but bushwhacking through beach shrub is a whole other story. When you are hiking the sixty plus miles of sand on the MST you will inevitably encounter areas of beach that are roped off for either nesting sea turtles or endangered birds. These signs will tell you it’s illegal to walk that part of the beach and you must go outside the fence. This can sometimes mean finding your way back to the road regardless of the terrain in between.
One morning when I decided to be a law abiding citizen and save the seabirds I encountered dense shrub on my way back to the road. The bushes were just tall enough and tangled enough that I nearly got stuck and was completely disoriented once I was deep within the mess. I could hear the road but the sound was also misleading. To make matters worse I had forgotten to clip my beloved trekking umbrella to my pack and I realized once I was too far in that it had snagged on a branch and was gone forever. The nightmare of beach bushwhacking continued as every inch of exposed skin on my body was scraped raw by the thickets of vegetation. After that rendezvous I felt like kicking every nesting seabird I saw out of pure spite and vowed to never bushwhack again. Somewhere on Ocracoke Island hidden in the bowels of shrubbery there is a really nice brand new silver ultralight umbrella and if you can find it on your thru hike it’s absolutely yours.
8) Segregation and Racism exist in the United States of America.
Period. If you think this is a lie then you need to break free from whatever bubble you live in and go out and visit a place drastically different from the one you inhabit. You will experience both segregation and racism when you hike through North Carolina especially in the southeastern part of the state. There are distinct color lines drawn in many areas of the state and there are neighborhoods that are clearly black and those that are clearly white. Confederate flags are plentiful and during my hike I talked to more than one white man who indicated to me that I should watch out for certain neighborhoods – all of which, I came to realize, were black neighborhoods. It’s a deeply ingrained truth and a tough pill for some of us to swallow but we won’t get anywhere until we are really able to acknowledge that there is still a problem in the first place.
There are also clear socio-economic boundaries represented in North Carolina (indicative of most of the United States) that are impossible to not see. After hitting the mainland there were many moments when I felt I was living in a scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild with dilapidated houses sitting near languid marshes, spanish moss hanging lazily from the trees and poor people peeking out of houses that on first glance looked abandoned. Seeing real poverty will make you think about the forces in this world that keep these types of social structures in place. Hiking through these areas made me continue to think about my existence in a whole new way. There was both shame and guilt for being privileged enough to live my life in such a simple way. For the first time I really recognized the idiocracy of this fact: some of us are lucky enough to afford nice gear that gives us the choice to be comfortably homeless. I know that analyzing one’s own privilege can feel exhausting and over done in certain ways but you cannot deny it or ignore it when on a thru hike of this trail.
9) Absurd things will be unveiled around every corner.
Yes, absurd things exist everywhere, but I think it’s safe to say that you will find them a bit more frequently in North Carolina. Between the obscene amount of junk people throw in the woods, incredibly bizarre lawn ornaments and house decorations, and weird memorials for people who die in car accidents (think a giant 5-foot tall teddy bear strapped to a tree holding a cross) you never know what you may find in the middle of nowhere in this state. I remember coming across a deer head bust from someone’s living room in the middle of the forest one time and the irony of that dead object was just too much for me. This past spring I watched a shirtless marine run by me on the beach whose upper body and face was covered in a dark blue sheen. He had clearly decided to wear that purple type of sunscreen but did not rub it in well. There were countless other times that I found things so absurd I had to laugh out loud to myself.
The most absurd moment however, happened on my very first day of my thru-hike last year. I was on the coast walking the beach and feeling content shortly after leaving the beginning of the trail at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. About two hundred feet ahead of me I saw what appeared to be a log roll in from the ocean and up onto the sandy beach – except, as I got closer, I could tell it was moving. I hesitantly got closer and realized that what I was seeing was a giant beaver that had just tumbled out of the ocean. It was sitting, crouched over and cleaning itself. What the f*@!? There is no such thing as a sea beaver (I’ve googled it). I stood back, fearing that it was hurt or sick but it still saw me and started to run away back into the ocean. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof.
10) The people of North Carolina are generous.
The people that live in North Carolina tend to get a bad rap. I guess it’s hard to ignore the fact that North Carolina has produced some notorious terrorists in recent years. It’s kind of a hard one to stomach but then again there are a lot of hidden places and people in various parts of this state.
Of all the times I’ve hitchhiked solo on the MST I can think of only one time I felt really uncomfortable. Even the young man who drove me across a short bridge and proceeded to tell me he had just gotten out of prison was generous to me. There were countless other stories of generosity and kindness: the two teenage boys that drove me to a church to get potable water when I could barely walk and thought I was having an allergic reaction; the woman who came up to me while I was repairing my shoes with dental floss and a needle in a post office parking lot and asked “Sweetheart, do you need some money? Are you okay?”; the man who drove me 30 miles to the Fayetteville bus station when I decided to end my thru-hike and explained “I’m a good person but there are bad people around here and I would hate to see something bad happen to you.”
All of these people were generous but the most unexpected act of kindness occurred in the tiny town of Currie, NC during my hike last year. I had just gotten to a church at dusk and was setting up my tent in the back when an older man showed up to lock the doors of the church. I chatted with him for awhile and found out that it was his sixtieth birthday that day and he had grown up in this tiny town with one post office and only two churches. He had lived in Currie his whole life working as a small engine mechanic and his wife was disabled and on welfare and had been for many, many years. He pointed to his trailer just across the street where his wife was on the porch and from his appearance and the state of the home I could tell that they were very poor people. He wished me good luck and told me that if I needed anything to just come over and knock on the door at any time during the night. The next morning outside of my tent was a plastic bag with six cans of soda and a note. That simple act of complete selflessness from a couple that had nearly nothing and no reason to give was a moment of real compassion during my trek. Just like other thru-hikes these moments fuel your fire, reinstate your faith in humanity and keep you going to the end.
You may think after reading this list that I had a pretty terrible time on the MST. Even though the challenges were real and constant I still found it to be incredibly rewarding. Also, as you may be able to gather from my story, I did not complete my thru hike. In fact, I set out to hike the trail self-supported FKT style and made it a third of the way in good time before deciding to quit. Once I had skipped two short bridges early on out of fear for my safety an FKT claim with any integrity was out of the question. I made the decision to spend my summer in other ways but vowed to complete it in my lifetime. To date I have hiked well over half of this amazing and crazy trail though and only have about 200 miles of mountains and 300 miles of road left to complete. Although my attempted thru hike was intense I wouldn’t ever want this post to deter anyone (especially a woman) from hiking this trail. I know other solo hiking women, like Heather Housekeeper, who have hiked the trail multiple times and had a very positive experience the whole way.
This trail is real. Other long trails out there are glorious and are journeys that I wish everyone could have in their lifetime but the MST will put you in a position that will challenge you in a totally unique way while rewarding you with the incredible beauty that is characteristic of the mountains and the sea. If I were to meet two hikers randomly, one who had just completed their third triple-crown and another who had just completed a solo hike of the Mountains-to -Sea Trail, I would immediately strike up a conversation with the latter person. There is so much there to discuss that is new, hard and incredibly valuable.
The Mountains-to-Sea trail is still in its infancy and with hard work, determination and an ever growing community, it will get there. The more people who hike it the more publicity it will get and the more resources it will receive. Do your part – hike this crazy trail, tell others about your experience and witness these undeniable truths for yourself!
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