Shelton Wilder leaned into his pry bar and dislodged the granite boulder from the side of the mountain. He slid the boulder against the log cribbing and paused to take a breath. Below, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a motorcycle passed, its throaty rumble fading into the distance. A wood thrush called out from the top of a white pine. Wilder zipped his jacket against the cold.
Three hundred miles to the east, John Jaskolka slapped a twelve-foot piece of treated lumber across a blackwater slough, step one in the construction of a boardwalk. He glanced at the cypress knees clustered like gnomes at the water’s edge, wiped the sweat from his brow. A sea breeze whispered through the loblolly pines, holding the mosquitoes at bay.
Both of these men, volunteers at or near retirement, labored at a single task — the construction of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Neither may live to see the trail completed, but the dream that their children or grandchildren may one day walk the path was more than enough to get them out on a Saturday morning.
It’s a remarkable effort being repeated by countless individuals, young and old, men and women, across the Tar Heel state. When complete, the MST will run approximately 950 miles from its eastern terminus at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks to the western terminus atop Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains. The trail will briefly overlap with the Appalachian Trail, cross through three national parks, three national forests, more than half-dozen state parks, two wilderness areas, and numerous city and county parks. It will traverse virtually every ecosystem found in the eastern United States, including beach, dune, saltwater and freshwater marsh, pocosin, longleaf pine savannah, deciduous and spruce-fir forest. It will cross (by ferry) 33 miles of ocean inlet and sound, pass through dozens of towns, and share a right-of-way with as much as 450 miles of asphaltus horribilis, also known as the two-lane highway. This makes the MST an altogether different animal from the AT (2,178 miles from Georgia to Maine), the Long Trail (270 miles through the Green Mountains of Vermont), or any number of other “wilderness” trails for which the sport of hiking gained its popularity. Despite and some say because of its varied experience, the MST is already gaining converts.
The idea for a cross-state trail in North Carolina dates to 1977, when state officials urged the creation of a hiking trail running from the mountains to the sea. (This announcement coincided with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s plans for a cross-state bike trail with which the MST now overlaps.) Officials called on the North Carolina Trails Committee, a seven member group appointed by the state, to plan such a trail using rights of way that could be secured from the national, state, city, and county parks, as well as from private citizens.
Along with the trails committee, the North Carolina Trails Association comprising outdoor recreation enthusiasts launched into planning for the MST and sponsored a cross-state trek to promote awareness. Over the coming years, local volunteer task forces, mostly in the mountains, constructed sections of trail designated as part of the MST. The state signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service agreeing to cooperate and share resources to complete the MST. The future looked bright.
However, private landowners proved reluctant to give easements on their properties. The state legislature failed to allocate any money for the project. Following the death of its leader, Louise Chatfield, the North Carolina Trails Association disbanded, and enthusiasm of state officials and staff began to wane. In 1995, state officials met with the mountain task forces and suggested dropping the Mountains-to-Sea Trail moniker in favor of local trail designations. MST supporters objected.
“I said we have maps, we have dreams, we have trail already completed,” recalled Allen de Hart. “We aren’t going to let you give this up.” De Hart, author of North Carolina Hiking Trails (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, fourth edition, 2005), is a lifelong champion of hiking in the Appalachians. As a boy, he carried water to members of the Civilian Conservation Corps building the AT in the hills above his family’s Virginia dairy farm. Seeing the lack of conviction by the committee and the state, de Hart decided to form an umbrella organization that was entirely focused on the defense and promotion of the MST. Thus was born the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
John Manuel is a writer and editor from North Carolina who specializes in energy, the environment, and international health. He is the author of two books, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast (John Blair, 2003) and The Canoeist: A Memoir (Jefferson Press, 2006). The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Appalachia.