Trail Marshall on Thru-Hiking Culture and Hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail in Winter
On the 6th of May 2022, along the shores of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, a weary hiker trudged his last steps up the tallest sand dune on the East Coast in Jockeys Ridge State Park, North Carolina, to complete something he’d started some five months earlier this year at Clingmans Dome: the 1,175-mile Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).
Who is Trail Marshall?
Before I can tell the story of Trail Marshall’s MST hike, I think a little backstory is helpful to show the transformational changes that happened in his life and how his life-changing experience on the Appalachian Trail prepared him to take on the MST in the middle of winter.
So, in a recent telephone conversation, I took a little time to learn about this amazing hiker that I first learned about from his huge following on Facebook and Instagram.
47-year-old Trail Marshall—the only name he would give me—said he grew up in Pittsburg, PA.
He told me that amidst all the amazing cultural and architectural wonders there were in that huge city, the thing that stood out most among all his childhood memories was this mile-long wooded area near his, home where he spent many days playing and exploring its natural beauty. Wild places like this made an indelible mark upon him that would follow him the rest of his life.
Though he grew up in Pittsburg, New Orleans is where he eventually migrated to and made his home. For many years he said he managed bars and night clubs on Bourbon Street where he often saw the worst in people. Solemnly he said, “It’s a tough place; there are people there who make a living off hurting others.”
Eventually, he got a job going around the country turning around failing bars. With a tinge of regret in his voice, he said, “It wasn’t a cool job, because it often involved firing people.”
His love of hiking began on the Appalachian Trail.
Between all the bad news on the TV, the cruel people he’s met in his life, and all the ugly work situations he’s been in, Trail Marshall grew a bitter attitude about society, which left him with a strong yearning to return to his roots and, as he said, “get into the woods and get away from it all.”
Trail Marshall said the turning point came one day while he was living in Charlotte, NC. Though he didn’t know anything about hiking, he found himself intrigued while watching a YouTube video from Dixie, a world-famous long-distance thru-hiker who started a popular hiking video series called Homemade Wanderlust. He said, “it was a complete accident that I even thought about it” but from that point on, he suddenly became inspired to thru-hike the AT, and made up his mind that that was what he was going to do.
At this time, he was working in a bar, out of shape, and hadn’t worked out or did any exercise in many years. Though he was the least likely candidate to hike the Appalachian Trail, his yearning to get away from it all overcame any doubts he may have had.
People told him not to do it, but he still felt compelled to start his thru-hike. “I knew I was going to be slow, but I did it anyway.”
Sunsets, Zeros, and a Slow Pace
So, on the 28th of January, 2020, Trail Marshall decided to make Grayson Highlands his starting point for his northbound thru-hike, as it wasn’t too far from his home in Charlotte, NC.
On his first day on trail, he posted a video where he tiredly said, “Man, this thing is really kicking my ass.” He said it took him six hours to hike 1.7 miles. The first few days of hiking were tough for Trail Marshall, and he didn’t do more than a few miles each day. He said he wasn’t worried about making miles, “I was just worried about making it to the next rock where I could lean on my poles and rest.” He didn’t think he wasn’t going to need trekking poles when he first started but, looking back, he’s glad he brought them.
Age is not a big thing in Trail Marshall’s mind and he wasn’t thinking much about age when he first started, (In fact, he said he just recently realized he was 47!) but he did begin to think about his age when “I kept getting my ass kicked by all these old people,” referring to being passed all the time by people much older than himself. The realization that “If they can do it, so can I” encouraged him.
From the moment he set foot on the Appalachian Trail, Trail Marshall purposefully took a slow pace, often doing just 3 or 4 miles a day. He set no timeline to finish his hike and explained his slow approach to thru-hiking by saying, “I wasn’t doing it for setting any records. I did it for no other purpose but to just do it” He said he met a thru-hiker in New Hampshire who told him, “I have to do 20 miles a day or I feel like I’m cheating myself,” to which Trail Marshall replied, “I think you’re cheating yourself if you do.”
At one point on his hike, right after he hiked out of Pearisburg, VA, he stopped just seven miles in and took in an incredible sunset at the edge of a scenic grassy ridgeline called Rice Field, which overlooked a beautiful, little valley. While standing there, he was so moved by the beauty of the setting that he decided to take a few days off at the nearby shelter so he could fully appreciate its grandeur.
Much of the rest of his hike was like this: if he liked where he was, he would take a few days off right then and there to soak up all the ambiance.
Trail Marshall’s body transformed from out-of-shape city dweller to lean hiker trash.
As he progressed along the AT, his body got in better shape.
Starting his hike at 190 pounds, he wasn’t unusually heavy for his 5’11” frame, but after a few months of carrying a too-heavy pack on the trail, he said he slimmed to around 160 pounds and shrunk to 5’10” tall. He said that while his pack got smaller, his feet grew one size larger.
Starting in the dead of winter, Trail Marshall said that since there weren’t any hikers around to ask for advice, he got a crash course in learning how to work with his gear—especially how to stay dry. Learning the hard way—through trial and error—he eventually learned how to use his gear more efficiently.
Although he had a pretty good beard to start with, it really began to grow and flourish during his hike. By the time he was on the trail a few months, his fabulous beard and wild hair made him look almost prehistoric. But his bushy hair and massive beard also served a purpose: Trail Marshall said that his beard and long hair played an important part in keeping him warm through the bitterest of cold, saying, “Once I let it grow, it came in handy with the cold.”
He said that on many cold days after his mustache and beard became filled with icicles, he would pull on his fleece head covering and go to sleep. By morning, his beard was completely dry, and his face was warm. Not only did it help him in the winter, during the summer it also kept his head, neck, and shoulders from getting sunburned. And, as an added benefit, it even kept the bugs off!
But underneath all that wild exterior was a soft-spoken, caring, and compassionate soul.
“I went to the woods to get away from people, and that’s when I found them.”
At first, hiking was a way for him to get away from his personal issues, but as he became part of the hiking community, he began to learn a lesson that there is human kindness everywhere he turned, which gave him hope for humanity. Through the trail community, he learned how to appreciate and savor all the rich experiences of life.
Because he went out with no experience, he also learned a lesson in human vulnerability; the many ways in which he could die, through hypothermia, dehydration, illness, or injury. This gave him a deep appreciation for the simple things in civilized society that many people take for granted.
Sunsets seem to hold a special place in Trail Marshall’s life, and he always took the time to appreciate them. They featured prominently in the many photos he took along the way. One of the posts on his Trail Marshall Facebook page sums it up best: “Sunsets deserve to be chased, because of the value they hold to those that catch them.”
Trials and Tribulations
By the time he reached Palmerton, PA, he started having trouble with the quadricep on one of his legs, which forced him to take a month off to rest it up. What he worried might have been a trail-ending tear ended up only being a pulled muscle. Trail Marshall jokingly blamed the Pennsylvania rocks for hurting his leg
When he returned to the trail, he decided that instead of going back to Palmerton, where winter was setting in, he would take up where he began his hike and went back to his starting point at Greyson Highlands, this time going south toward the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA.
He said that by the time he got to Standing Bear Hostel, he saw that the weather forecast was calling for 8-12 inches of snow in the Smokies, something he thought he could deal with.
But the forecast was wrong, and, as he ascended the long uphill grade up from I-40, by noon, there was already 12 inches of snow on the ground and still coming down hard. Yet he trudged on, making his way in deep snow on the 6,000 ft high ridgeline, at times through hip-deep snowdrifts, barely making it from shelter to shelter. He said that in that deep snow, “You can’t move fast enough to keep your body heat up. Everything on my body hurt at one time or other, except my nose.”
Eventually, he got a light case of frostbite on his fingers. Regrettably, he admitted, “I still haven’t got feeling in my fingertips.”
When he finally reached Springer Mountain, he flipped back up to Palmerton, PA, and went the rest of the way to Mt. Katahdin.
By the time he reached Katahdin on August 6, 2021, he wasn’t satisfied with hiking it only once and instead hiked it several times over the course of a few days.
So, what started as a thru-hiking attempt became a 406-day odyssey of beauty and pain: a life lived to its fullest and an achievement that can be described as a Trail Marshall Thru-Hike.
The Mountains to Sea Trail: where one trail ends, another begins.
After taking some time off to rest, it didn’t take long for Trail Marshall to begin yearning for the trail.
At first, he thought about walking across the country on the American discovery trail, but when he actually considered it, he thought, “I really wanted to go out in the woods. Who wants to walk across Kansas anyway?”
After thinking it over, he decided to hike a long-distance trail that was closer to home: the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).
So, on New Year’s day in 2022, Trail Marshell set out to hike the MST.
Right from the start, he encountered difficulty: The 7-mile-long road from Newfound Gap to Clingman’s Dome—the starting point of the MST—was closed for the winter. So, he had no choice but to walk the extra seven miles to get to the start of his hike. He has since given a name to this unofficial section of the MST: “The Trail Marshall Seven.”
Hiking in the Middle of Winter: A Dangerous Endeavor
The beautiful thing about hiking in the dead of winter is that you have the entire wilderness mostly to yourself. But that is also the dangerous part, for nobody is around to help you out if you have an emergency.
Though considerably shorter than the AT, there are some dangers on the MST that do not exist on the AT.
Trail Marshall said that because much of the trail follows the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is closed in winter *, there isn’t any way to hitchhike out if you have medical problems. With no cell service in most places, there often isn’t any way to call for help either.
With this in mind, Trail Marshall was extra careful as made his way up the big peaks and down the low valleys. One of the peaks, Mt. Mitchell, is the highest point on the entire eastern seaboard.
He said that the 400 miles of mountain hiking on the MST in winter were extremely challenging, even for a very fit and experienced long-distance hiker like himself. Hypothermia and lack of water were the biggest issues. He said he wouldn’t recommend an inexperienced hiker attempt it in winter. “It’s easy to die in winter.”
Unlike the AT, there were many bridgeless stream crossings that posed a real danger of getting his hiking shoes wet—something you can’t afford to do in freezing weather. He said that many sections of the MST were like the 100-mile wilderness on the AT, with no places to camp or to resupply.
On top of this, Trail Marshall said the MST guide’s mileages were off, which made it difficult to plan for things ahead.
Once he got past the mountainous region, though, he entered sections that involved a lot of road walking, which presented a different set of difficulties: like dogs. He said that, during the road walks, he was harassed by vicious dogs almost every day—pit bulls being the worst. He advises anybody who hikes the MST to carry a big stick to hold back the dogs when they charge.
Another downside to road walking is that you tend to develop large blisters from your feet repeatedly contacting the ground at exactly the same point inside your shoe on every step.
Camping is also an issue near the road walks. He said, “I don’t stealth camp on people’s property, so you end up having to do big miles. Anything over 20 is big.”
Speaking of big miles, his biggest mileage occurred while he was walking through the North Carolina game lands. He said that after a long day of hiking, a full moon came up over the game lands. “It was so beautiful, I just kept walking,” he reminisced. He ended up doing over 40 miles that day!
Fortunately for Trail Marshall, on these long, road-walk sections, random people would often step in to help him out. With most of the land along these sections being private and would not allow camping, he mostly had to rely on churches to let him camp.
Trail Magic on the MST: “I wondered why people were so good.”
Trail Marshall told me that when some people along the way found out about thru-hikers hiking the MST, they would drive right out and pick them up and take them home and out to eat. He said, “Tim Supple took me and another MST thru-hiker, Champ, out to eat. He even let them stay inside the guest house and took Trail Marshall to Easter Sunday service at his Catholic Church.
He said that on one road-walk section, after he hiked 8 miles down the wrong road, a black man pulled up alongside him in a car and said, “Hey man, it looks like you in trouble,” and he drove him back up the road to the point where he took the wrong turn. When Trail Marshall began to thank him for his trouble, the man (“His name was Johnny, he was a cool cat”) smiled and said, “It’s no trouble, I just wanted an excuse to get away from my wife!”
One day, a pastor went out of his way to help him out by not only letting him camp at his church but also letting him come in and take a shower.
On another occasion, when he needed tent stakes, after a long climb down a mountain, he sat down to rest and found some tent stakes resting on the ground right beside him.
Trail Marshall tells of one tough hiking day when, “I’m getting my ass kicked, and after eight miles of walking I come to a road crossing and found a cooler of cold drinks. It was amazing the difference it made.”
There were also numerous other occasions where people would just randomly stop and help him out by giving him drinks and snacks.
Trail Marshall said that, unlike the AT, there are times on the MST where you have to rely on trail angels because there are stretches with no reliable water, camping, and resupply.
Fortunately, he says, in the MST guide, there are lists of people hikers can call upon to help.
Meeting fellow MST Thru-Hikers
Trail Marshall said he met very few other thru-hikers, but he did meet up with a hiker called “Champ,” a previous AT thru-hiker whose trail name derives from a WWE-style wrestling belt he carries with him. He also met Luke “Legs,” and a hiker called “No-name.” Although there weren’t many thru-hikers on the MST, he really liked meeting up with the few hikers he met.
“If you can do something that you know is impossible, you take the word Impossible out of your vocabulary.”
After years of posting numerous entries on his Facebook page and on the Facebook group Trail Life, Trail Marshall has gathered quite a following. For example, when he stopped in Mebane, NC, “Everyone knew who I was.” It was becoming increasingly clear to Trail Marshall that his hiking lifestyle was becoming more than just about him, but about others who follow him.
As he looks back upon all his time hiking, Trail Marshall has found that it has not only taught him valuable life lessons but has also enabled him to inspire others to do more with their lives.
Trail Marshall said he doesn’t necessarily want celebrity status, but if, through his popularity, he can inspire people to live a better life, that puts a smile on his face. Even if they aren’t physically able to hike, they can at least participate in some way or other on or around the trail
To illustrate his dedication to hiking, he said, “There was a point on the AT when I was getting my ass kicked, that I realized that this is no longer about me, but about the people who can’t hike (because of disabilities, age, etc.). He humbly stated, “I can walk a bunch of miles in a day, and each day there is a different reason why I do it, but if my life can come down to one thing, it is that I helped a stranger.”
Hiking: A Way of Life
Ever since he decided to do something different and start long-distance hiking, Trail Marshall’s life has changed. No longer content to go back to his former style of living, his new life is centered around trails and hiking.
Hiking is a great way for Trail Marshall to get away from the troubles of the world. He said that while hiking, he tries not to watch the news because he hates to see what it’s done to lifelong friends who are engaging in online arguments over politics and world news. He states, “If you only focus on the bad, how can you see the good? The only way to do it is to not watch the news and focus on hiking and what I can control and do things that are positive. I can’t live in the negative. There’s always going to be problems in the world that’s going to continue because that’s the way people are, but if you don’t get invested in their drama, it can’t get you down.”
Defending his choices against those who would say he is intentionally naïve for tuning out news, he answered, “The happiest people are not clueless, it’s just that they choose to pursue happiness.” And it’s the only way he lives now.
When I asked him whether he was living his dream, he said that though long-distance hiking is not something he originally saw himself doing, he’s become comfortable now with the concept of himself as a hiker, “I have finally found a place where I like my life.” He explained that learning to overcome all the troubles on the trail has helped him build confidence in himself while rewarding him with beautiful experiences, breathtaking scenery, and interaction with wildlife. “I know it’s the right place and the right time for me”
Even though he has chosen this lifestyle, Trail Marshall still maintains normal human relationships. He even has a girlfriend, and although he must leave her to live this lifestyle, he said, “She’s great.” Despite the challenges, they have figured out a way to make it work.
Completing the MST
With the waves of the Atlantic Ocean echoing in the distance and his feet throbbing from numerous blisters, Trail Marshall tiredly trudged the last few miles up the sandy ground of Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
Without forewarning, he saw a crowd of people begin to form ahead near the end of the MST. As he neared the group—park rangers, news media, and even the mayor of Nags Head, NC—all clapping and cheering as they gathered around him, he was so overwhelmed with emotion that he was moved to tears, for he never expected such a happy welcome.
So, on May 6, 2022, with 1,175 miles behind him, a tired and emotional Trail Marshall completed the rugged journey he started five months earlier, a trail that will forever leave its own special imprint on his soul.
Future Hiking Plans
After taking a while off, Trail Marshall said he will resume his life of hiking, focusing on promoting fundraisers for good causes.
Though he hasn’t decided on what trail to do next, he is leaning toward the CDT or PCT, depending on the weather, wildfires, and such.
Even though there are other long-distance trails out there to hike, Trail Marshall said that the AT will always call him to return.
So, as Trail Marshall sets off hiking into the sunsets he so loves, it is amazing to reflect upon the changes that led him away from his former stressful life—a world that had been dragging him down—to the place where he feels most at peace.
Reconnecting with nature and surrounding himself with all the wonderful people on and around the nation’s long-distance trails has allowed him the experience the true riches in life.
Hike on, Trail Marshall!
*Correction: the Blue Ridge Parkway in not closed in winter, just during dangerous wintery conditions
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