I am the May 2013 “guest columnist” in Blue Ridge Country. It’s going to be a while until they post the column on their website, so here it is.
I have a sign on my kitchen wall that says, “I wasn’t born in the mountains but I got here as soon as I could.”
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and spent 35 years in New Jersey punching a clock. But my husband and I always hiked on weekends. I called it Sunday hiking, a reward after a week of work and spending Saturday doing household chores. Our son grew up hiking; the kid didn’t have a choice.
When we hiked the Appalachian Trail in sections over many years, we discovered the pleasures of southern trails. Instead of rocks on steep, almost vertical terrain, Southern Appalachian trails are switchbacked and packed with dirt. As soon as we could, we moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Old hikers don’t die. They just move to the South.
We bought a house on a postage stamp lot in the city, the same size that we had in New Jersey. Why should we purchase a lot of land when we already owned the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway and a treasure trove of forests and state land? We can enjoy a mountain top view every time we climb a hill.
I hit the [Delete] button on my New Jersey life and set out to explore the Southern Appalachian Mountains. I hiked by myself some of the time but mostly I went with Carolina Mountain Club, the largest hiking and trail-maintaining club in western North Carolina. Like the academic I once was, I used a multimodal approach to learn the area. I hiked, read, researched, photographed, talked to expert botanists, historians and native Appalachians, and hiked some more.
A couple of years ago, I decided to walk the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina to understand my state. The MST stretches for one thousand miles connecting Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to the Outer Banks. Currently, the MST is about half on footpaths and half on backcountry roads. I wasn’t going to live long enough to see the trail all off the road, so I figured I might as well walk it now.
When the MST leaves the Smokies, it follows the Blue Ridge Parkway for over three hundred miles, connecting parks and forests like pearls on a gold chain. The trail ascends and descends with the contour of the Parkway. Casual hikers will talk of “hiking the parkway,” but they don’t really mean walking on the asphalt; they’re referring to the MST. This trek solidified my understanding of the wildness, culture, and history of the state.
I’ve lived in Western North Carolina for over eleven years. As soon as I open my mouth, I get a “You’re not from around here, are you?” Accents are set at about age 13 and I’ve done a lot of living since then. Americans are a mobile people. Now no matter what I sound like, I’m from Western North Carolina.