The Mountains-to-Sea Trail: in a day, or over 22 months

Finding Sharon's car in a parking lot is pretty easy.

This year, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail, its birth dating to Sept. 9, 1977, when Howard Lee, then Secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, told a National Trails Symposium in Waynesville that North Carolina should blaze a “state trail from the mountains to the coast, leading through communities as well as natural areas.”

To commemorate Lee's challenge of 40 years ago, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is organizing an effort on Sept. 9 — 45 days from now — to have hikers on every inch of the trail, which currently totals 1,175 miles. It's a monumental effort and one that could use your help, by signing up to hike a leg — there are 300 to choose from, ranging in length from about 2 miles to 25. One of the main goals of the Sept. 9 hike and other events celebrating the MST's 40th is to expedite the process of getting as much of the trail onto actual trail as possible: currently, of the 1,175 miles of MST, 680 miles is on what we would think of as trail, the remainder temporarily routed onto country roads.

When the trail is, in fact, trail, it will be much easier for the rest of us to do what Sharon McCarthy (a k a Smoky Scout) did in 2011: hike the entire MST. We spent Sharon's last day on the MST with her and recounted her journey in a post from August 2011. As an introduction to those of you who may not be familiar with the trail — as well as for those of you looking to explore it further — we rerun Sharon's story today. A few things have changed in the intervening years: the "trail" portion of the hike has grown by more than 80 miles, the number of hikers who have done the entire trail is 70, and the trail now has a paddle option, from Smithfield to New Bern.

Read Sharon's story. Be inspired. Sign up to join us on Sept. 9 to hike the MST. (Start that process, starting here.)

* * *

Yesterday, Sharon McCarthy stopped to look at the white dot on the tree trunk, the last of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of such white dots she had seen over the past 22 months.

Well? 

Robert Williams and I waited. Sharon, a k a Smoky Scout, was yards away from becoming the sixth person this year and only the 25th total to complete the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. She was staring down her last blaze, and the two of us, her escorts for her final day, were expecting a profound statement. Maybe not “One-small-step ...” profound, but something worthy of completing a nearly 1,000-mile journey.

“I’m verklempt,” the 53-year-old Charlotte resident finally offered. “Talk amongst yourselves.”

Traveling 600 miles across North Carolina on foot and another 350 by bike (tracing the temporary road route the MST follows until its completion as a statewide foot trail joining Clingman’s Dome to the west with Jockey’s Ridge to the east) wasn’t something Sharon  envisioned herself doing before she turned 50 three years ago. Not that she was unfamiliar with the outdoors. Her family camped and hiked, and she'd been active in the Girl Scouts in outdoor adventures, but she'd never done anything on the order of hiking across a state. But it was a tumultuous time in her life: her mother had died and the last of her three kids was leaving home for college. And there was the turning-50 thing.

“It was my midlife crisis,” she said of her decision to hike nonstop into middle age.

On her 50th birthday she started her quest to join the Great Smoky Mountains 900-Miler Club, membership for which requires hiking all 900 miles of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She officially joined the club exactly a year later, on her 51st birthday. Meanwhile, she signed on to lead a group training to hike the Grand Canyon as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. That involved whipping the group into shape on weekly hikes over a four-month period. In the process of expanding her hiking horizons she caught wind of the group hikes led by the Carolina Mountain Club.

“I am a social person and it’s more enjoyable to hike with others and share the experience, the sights, the sounds, the isn’t-this-awesome feeling — and sometimes the shared misery of isn’t-this-awful!” she adds. One CMC hike in particular caught her eye: a trek on the Appalachian Trail that included Charlie’s Bunion. The hike leader was Danny Bernstein who quickly sensed Sharon’s zeal and made a proposal: “I just started hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Why don’t you join me?”

It sounded like a good encore to the 900-Miler Club, so she signed on. That was in October of 2009.

Over the next 22 months she would cover the MST’s 1,000-mile route in pieces, with day hikes here and there, and in chunks. Some of those chunks involved backpack trips with Danny (which is where I first met Sharon, gingerly toeing her way across a log bridging Pretty Hollow Creek in the Smokies). Some, covering roughly 350 miles of the MST’s temporary road route, were by bike, often with husband Jim, an avid cyclist, as support. (She subsequently returned the favor for his midlife crisis: a 9-day bike tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway.)

The bike sections were her least favorite — and not because of inconsiderate motorists. “Although there were a few drivers who took risks, the vast majority of drivers are very cautious and courteous to cyclists.”

Rather, it was the chase canines who frequently escorted her down country roads. Some only wanted to make sure she didn’t intrude on their master’s territory. Others seemed interested in tasting her bike shoes.

Her quest left her with a smorgasbord of good stories.

During her 22 months on the MST, Sharon became obsessed with the trail's trademark white blazes.

The amusing. One night in the Smokies it was frigid cold. She and her hiking partner, a guy she’d only just met, were on the second floor of the Derrick Knob shelter; on the first floor, six Boy Scout leaders pooled their collective heat by snuggling together. “You do whatever you need to to stay warm tonight,” her partner said. She thought for a moment, then gathered  her sleeping bag, moved down a floor and asked the Scout leaders to make room.

The scary. On a winter trip in the Smokies she and a friend where supposed to meet a boat shuttle on a finger of Fontana Lake. When they arrived, the lake had been drawn down, making it impossible to meet the shuttle. The original creek remained, however, and it was running hip deep. Not sure what to do, they decided to cross. Her friend slipped and was swept downstream. Fortunately, Sharon was able to help fish her out, but both emerged soaked and cold. They spent the night in a nearby abandoned house and hiked out the way they’d come in the next day, a day later than they’d told friends and family.

“Watching my friend nearly drown was scary.”

The frustrating. Twice, Sharon and Danny were thwarted in their attempt to cross the Linville River at the mouth of Linville Gorge, where the river spreads to the width of a football field. “Both times the water was up, it was cloudy. We didn’t have a good feel about it.” While they weren’t necessarily on a schedule, it was annoying all the same. Even though Danny makes a living writing about hiking, and Sharon is an empty-nester who describes herself as self-employed in a field rapidly becoming obsolete (transcribing depositions), there’s still a limit to how many times you can attempt the same trip. The third time, though, did indeed prove a charm. Knee-deep water, sunny skies ... “[it] turned out to be just delightful, standing in the middle of the river and laughing at how fun it was.”

Early on in her hike, Sharon crosses Pretty Hollow Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking partners Danny Bernstein, in red, and Carolyn Swoopes offer encouragement.

The days that made it all worthwhile. “One moment that really stands out for me is a solo hike” — during a non-MST day — “when I sat down on the trail for a short break.  It was fall in the Smokies, dappled sunlight, and every leaf was a shade of yellow.  A strong breeze kicked up and I was suddenly showered with acorns, including a hard smack on top of my head. I remember laughing out loud there all by myself on that trail, a very special moment.”

It’s not the moments that yielded a good tale that keep Sharon McCarthy on the trail. Rather, it’s the simple mind-clearing escape of escaping into the woods. “My troubles are guaranteed to disappear for a few hours when I’m on a trail because I simply cannot worry and walk at the same time. I come back sweaty and exhausted and renewed.”

So when she comes up short on a way to verbally express her MST conquest, it’s because it’s not the end. “Next month I’m planning to hike in Death Valley National Park and then climb Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.” This weekend she’ll be back in the high country knocking off a couple of 6,000-foot peaks, toward the possible goal of joining another club: the Carolina Mountain Club’s South Beyond 6,000 Feet for folks who bag all 40 of the South’s peaks above 6,000 feet.

“I have the burning desire to be outside,” Sharon explains, “and the fire is fed every time I go on a hike.” It’s then that she comes up with some words, borrowed from an 82-year-old hiking/biking buddy, that sum up her philosophy for life on the trail and beyond.

“If you want to keep going, you gotta keep going.”

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