The notion of completing the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a footpath that runs mostly west and east across North Carolina, but also has a good bit of north and south travel, has been an ineradicable thought of mine for several years. At times, the thought of committing to the adventure has come with great certainty, only to later retreat into the nebulous category of Someday. But it never really goes away. Current circumstances have finally led me to revitalize this idea once again and announce that I will attempt a fastest known time on the MST. Someday will happen this June.
Photo from mountainstoseatrail.org
The MST connects the west and east borders of the Tar Heel State through a jagged 1,175 mile path. At its westernmost point, along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, lies Clingman's Dome which rises to 6,643 ft and represents the rooftop of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Heading east from there, the route is divided into 3 regions (Mountain, Piedmont, and Coastal Plan/Outer Banks) and consists of 18 segments along a mix of terrain from rugged trails to road to sandy beach. At the far eastern end, the trail splinters into a paddling option along the Neuse River or a road option and I'll be opting to remain on solid ground. Once reaching Pamlico Sound, travelers take two ferry rides to float from the mainland to Ocracoke Island and then to Hatteras Island. From there, about 70 more miles of beach travel exists before reaching the terminus at Jockey's Ridge, the tallest living sand dune on the east coast. This will be an immensely personal journey of nostalgia that takes me backwards as well as forwards and inwards just as much as it will outwards.
I've lived in Colorado for 12 years, but before that, spent more than two decades living in North Carolina. As a result, I feel a deep-seated connection to the three regions of the state with familial ties there that still remain. If the snapshots for the first 22 years of my life were scattered on a map and tacked to where they came to life, they would be dispersed across North Carolina. Along the Mountains, the Piedmont and the Coast. There before me on this great map, I'd notice that a line could be traced through the arrangement. This line would be a thread that transects the state, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. It turns out that this thread, this Memory Lane Trail of sorts, shares much of the course with the MST.
The beginning of my life and earliest memories are linked to Charlotte, a city in south central North Carolina. Now Charlotte is a couple hours south or east or west of the MST as the trail skirts around it, but for me, the city epitomizes the Piedmont of North Carolina. It's the place where I have my first memories of family, of block parties in the street and pick up basketball games in the driveway. Of darting through the woods, exploring the tributaries of Mallard Creek behind our house on Trumble Lane, and taking naps in the creaky hammock in the shade. Memories of riding in a rust-red Honda Civic through rolling hills, farmland, and urban expansion to get to school or an orthodontist appointment. Of calling back to the bobwhite quails on a humid afternoon, and the mystical display of lightning bugs on a summer evening. Without a doubt, it was in the Piedmont region of North Carolina where my curiosity and wonder of the outdoors were first cultivated and nurtured.
Me, standing in front of the soon to be explored wilderness that surrounded our house in Charlotte
The summer before I entered high school, my family relocated a couple of hours west to Asheville in the mountains of North Carolina. The move was inspired by my family's desire to be closer to my grandfather who still lived in the house where my mother and her siblings were raised in Brevard. At this phase in my life, playing soccer monopolized much of my free time and it was a successful formula for making friends and managing teenage anxieties. At that time, I only had a cursory awareness of the gem that existed nearby, the MST that paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway less than a mile from my house in the Haw Creek Valley. I can't recall the first time I set foot on the trail, but it was sometime during those high school years. If you followed the road we lived on uphill as it bent to the left and then to the right, if you're looking for it, you'd spot an unnamed neighborhood trail on the right. The anonymous path, often partially obscured by leaves and sometimes muddy but always root-laden, winds through the mountain laurel and opens up at milepost 381 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Immediately across the road is an aged wooden post with a white, circular blaze that signifies the MST. From there, you're on the crossroads of the great North Carolina trail and can decide your destiny and destination.
A few years later in college, I continued to discover more of the MST at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. In fact, it was then in the early 2000's that I found trail running and the gifts it offered in terms of exploring the world around me. Solo runs by Cone Manor and the Linville Gorge became a favorite and they inspired me to sign up for my first trail races- the Shut In Ridge Trail Run and the Mount Mitchell Challenge, both of which have courses that share mileage with the MST.
A mountain laurel tunnel through which the MST flows near Asheville
My connection to the Coast and the Outer Banks arises from my relationship with my late grandparents, Frank and Sheila. They purchased a beach house in the 70's and dubbed it the SEAWITCH. It was intended to be a vacation home where they could escape Virginia from time to time. It would also help my father establish himself as a North Carolina resident as he spent a year living there while working in the kitchen of the Ebb Tide restaurant, riding his motorcycle, and growing a most enviable afro. The SEAWITCH was just a block from the ocean and only a few miles from Jockey's Ridge and the Wright Brother's National Memorial. Growing up, I'd spent many vacations and summer holidays there reuniting with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I loved the beach. The sound, the feel, and the smell. I remember the exhilaration that came with body surfing waves with my brother, riding head first all the way to shore until the water receded and the coarse sand zested our soft bellies like a fine microplane. We'd go to the SeaWitch for the 4th of July and would have cookouts, play games, and share stories while staying up late, laughing on the upper deck. My grandparents ultimately sold the SEAWITCH in the early 2000's after multiple rounds of Hurricane damage from the likes of Isabel and Alex. Now, under new ownership, it can be rented out as a vacation home. Much of its original character remains and it still has the same familiar color scheme, a sea green exterior with white trim. It's even still listed as "The SEAWITCH." In researching more of the MST, it turns out that the trail passes in front of the old beach house, a mere mile and a half from the end. The more I delve into these long ago memories, the more I find that that they are woven together by this incredible MST tapestry.
At the SEAWITCH with high school friends. That evening would host an unforgettable but regrettable trip to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet and milk challenge attempt
Having completed a self supported and short-lived FKT trip in 2016 along the Colorado Trail in 9 days, 14 hours and 28 minutes, I have some experience with multi day adventures. But the MST will be over twice as long and will undoubtedly challenge and allow me to grow in new ways. Going forwards on this new adventure, I will be completing this MST in the shortest amount of time that I can and will be supported by my wife and son, family, and friends. While returning to the simplicity and solitude of a self-supported trip is enticing, I've lived that experience before and am looking forward to a new style of adventure. Traveling in a supported manner will literally and figuratively, lighten my load and lessen my burden. This, in turn, should theoretically allow me to cover more miles each day than if I were to travel self-supported.
More important than reducing pack weight though, I'm at a place in life where the idea of spending weeks away from my wife and son is enough to turn me off to the idea altogether. Being apart would mean that I could miss his first step or his first word. And while that may still happen, at least we'll be able to share updates on one another's adventures throughout the day. When I first mentioned the idea to my wife, Melissa, she said of course they would join, before I even asked. Despite her generosity, it has, at times, felt supremely selfish and I've wrestled with trying to not see it as an entirely self-absorbed undertaking. Many times I've come perilously close to, once again, casting aside the idea until Someday or perhaps Never. But no matter how much justifying jiujitsu I perform, I've come to the conclusion that there are elements of this that will always remain a bit egotistical. And yet, I believe there can be more. This trip can also be an opportunity to further refine our relationships with one another, and as a family. To define and bolster and our identity as a close-knit unit that thrives on spending time together and supports each other's passions and desires to experience adventure in life. The backing of my wife has been instrumental in deciding to continue to pursue this dream. One of her greatest strengths is her ability to develop and see a plan to fruition. As she has sat down with me to outline the day to day logistics, she reminds me that there will not be a better time than now and that the only certain way to fulfill any important ambition in life is to act. If you can go after a dream with the genuine love and support of the people who matter most to you, well that sounds like a pretty good way to live. Having her and my son with me will qualitatively augment the endeavor. And though he will be too young to have any memories of the trip, I believe that in some way, it will still be impactful to his development as well as to our growth as a family. While that is the ultimate objective, I'm also aware that there will be moments of unavoidable difficulty and uncertainty out there. It's one thing to outline a prospective mileage, nutrition, and lodging schedule and to imagine everyone having a great time the entire trip, but those are just words and unrealistic expectations. It's quite another thing to execute a plan while staying true to your values, especially when that involves pivoting on the fly because a mileage goal went out the window days ago and your soon-to-be toddler is having a meltdown because his diaper exploded and he just wants to listen to track 2 from the new Adele album on repeat. Because of this and the challenges that will inevitably arise, I am eagerly awaiting the day to return the favor and offer support Melissa and Felix's dreams, even, and especially if, it involves lot of Adele.
My crew and my world
Another positive outcome of this trip will be the opportunity to spend time with my parents, as well as my brother and his family, who still reside in NC. Tim Urban wrote a poignant post in 2015 called The Tail End that does a masterful job in presenting our lives and the time we have left though different visual models. He opens with illustrations of some more trivial things like the number of Presidents that we're likely to live through or the number of books that we have left to read. His post then crescendos to an illustration that I continue to think about quite regularly. It's a grid that depicts the percentage of in-person time that one has left to spend with their parents, if we're fortunate, as none of this time is guaranteed. Urban surmises that a person in their mid-30's, in a situation like mine where my parents live across the country, has roughly 5% of their total "in-person parent time" remaining. That's incredibly sobering. But shy of a major relocation, there's not much that can change that fact. While the numbers are what they are, we can still make the most of them. I firmly believe, alongside doing whatever good we can do in our corners of the universe, that intentionally creating experiences with the people we love should be one of our most important priorities in life.
While my parents will not be joining for the entire trip, they've offered to help where they can. And at the end of the journey, perhaps sitting on the beach or deck overlooking the ocean, I hope to spend some time celebrating with them, my wife and son, and brother and his family. We'll talk about long ago memories of North Carolina and about the wild adventure that just transpired. But most of all, we'll simply enjoy the present moment and company.