Allen de Hart, who wrote 11 trail guides, founded the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, hiked more than 65,000 miles by the time he was 86 (and would go on to hike several hundred more), and was generally regarded as the dean of North Carolina hiking, died Oct. 14, in Raleigh. Allen was known for hiking; those who knew him, knew him for much more. GetGoingNC’s Joe Miller remembers the lesser-known side of Allen de Hart.
On a summer’s day 20 years ago, I sat in Allen de Hart’s living room on the outskirts of Louisburg. I was there to interview the man who had written adventure guides in seven states along the eastern Seaboard for Southern Living magazine. Most of the books were about hiking, some ventured into paddling and other forms of exploring. Allen may have built his reputation on hiking, but he was a dabbler. I expected a wide-ranging interview, but not the one that unfolded.
As something of an icebreaker, I asked about the rich landscape paintings hung in his spacious living room. They had an ethereal feel, of the Hudson Valley school. But they were of the Piedmont.
“Who did these?” I asked.
“I did,” Allen replied. He smiled. Should we start the interview?
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I asked Allen about his career at Louisburg College, where he’d started in 1957 teaching history, psychology and reading development.
One of the things he loved about the small school was that you could do different things. Early on, for instance, he got involved in trying to bring cultural events to campus, no small feat at school that today barely has 600 students. The more established entertainers demanded a bigger draw, so Allen pulled together a consortium of small colleges in the area: when you agreed to play at one of the schools, the others were part of the package.
A cutting-edge idea in the early 60s, but you wouldn’t get that idea from Allen. Rather, he preferred to tell the story of the one that got away.
“I got this demo tape in 1965 or 66 from these school teachers in New York City,” Allen recalled. “I listened to it and thought, ‘Nah, nothing will come of these two.’ About six months later I was driving somewhere and heard the song on the radio.”
It was “The Sound of Silence,” by Simon and Garfunkel.
He mentioned the adventure programming that he started at Louisburg. Again, cutting edge for the time, but again, Allen wasn’t one to boast.
“We did caving trips in Virginia. On one trip, I took a group of students deep into a cave. When it was time to leave, I discovered the rope we’d laid to find our way out was gone. We spent a long night in that cave.”
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He was even shy to take credit for his beloved De Hart Botanical Gardens, the 91-acre natural wonderland behind his house that he and his wife, Flora, gave to the school in 2012. As he told it, he just thought he had a pretty backyard. But when they had a botany professor over for dinner and took a stroll afterward, the professor said that, in fact, they had several unique species, the result of the land being on the fall line separating the Piedmont from the coastal plain. Thus began a 50-year effort to develop the land and its treasurers — including 620 azalea bushes and 3,000 day lilies — therein.
Once, Allen asked if I’d like to scout a new trail with him near Jordan Lake. We headed down a dirt road, the ownership of which was unclear. A car came barreling up from the opposite direction. “Let’s see what we can find out,” he said, and proceeded to sweet talk the woman who lived on the property. She went from grab-the-shotgun suspicious to “If-you’re-still-here-when-I-get-back-we’ll-have-pie” welcoming in less than 5 minutes. As we continued down the lane, Allen talked about human psychology, some from the textbook, most from his vast personal experience of meeting people in curious places.
* * *
Over the years, when I would pick up the phone and Allen was on the other end, I knew the conversation would last a full hour. The first time we spoke, though, I wasn’t sure if the conversation would even last a minute. I was new at writing about the outdoors for The News & Observer, and the Travel editor wanted a 10 Best Hikes in North Carolina type of piece. Allen’s “Hiking North Carolina” was one of the first books I’d bought; it was the bible of North Carolina hiking. I was slightly intimidated by his reputation, an intimidation made worse by his author photo, which pictured a face that appeared to be in full scowl. Is this guy gonna cotton to some upstart cherry picking his years of work? Hesitantly, I picked up the phone and dialed: It turned out to be the first of our many hour-long conversations. (And that scowl was actually a squint: Allen was facing directly into the sun.)
The last of our hour-long chats occurred a little over a month ago. Allen was about to embark on the fifth edition of “Hiking North Carolina.” “It’s gotten so much bigger,” he told me. “It’s going to be a two-volume set. It’s a bit much for me; I was wondering if you’d like to write it with me?”
I told Allen one of my own book contracts likely prohibited me from working on a competing title. Still, the opportunity to work with Allen would give me the chance to write a far more interesting book: on Allen himself.
“Let me see what I can do,” I told him. “I’ll be back in touch.”
With the indefatigable Allen de Hart, I figured I had plenty of time.
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