Trail Friends Along the MST
written by Luke Halton, 2022 MST Hiker
I was eating family dinner with my brother in Cherry Point, NC when he told me Pennsylvania just got eight inches of snow. I had been beach camping in South Carolina since New Year’s to stay active during the covid lockdowns. My plan was to drive to PA the next morning. Instead, I searched online for a nearby hike and discovered a section of the 1,175 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) was close by. I pulled a vintage external frame pack from the garage, bought a set of ski poles from a thrift shop, packed supplies for three days, and started walking south on the Neusiok Trail from the Pine Cliff riverfront.
It was early March 2021, and the surrounding Coastal Plain conditions were ideal: 60’s during the day, 40’s at night, no rain or mosquitos. Before I left a WiFi connection, I downloaded .pdf guides and an MST podcast, produced by Our State magazine. The eight episode “Away Message” series explained the history of the MST, interviewed hikers attempting it, and featured an episode on a town in the middle of NC, named Elkin. My intent was to get some exercise deep in the preserved Down East wetlands. If I liked it, I would keep going.
Thru-hiking had an idyllic appeal, but didn’t seem realistic. Maybe I daydreamed about it after hearing stories about the Appalachian Trail, but didn’t seriously consider it for many reasons, mostly work. However, I was immersed in surreal landscapes each day and found enough resources to continue. So I did. In the evening, I’d listen to the MST podcast and lay in the open air, watching for shooting stars while drifting to sleep. After two weeks, I arrived at Jockey’s Ridge, the east MST endpoint on the Outer Banks, and hitchhiked back to my brother.
The Elkin episode resonated with me. It described a Mayberry that embraced their growing reputation as a hiker’s delight, with services dedicated to guests on their trails. But Elkin was far, and the podcast was recorded before the virus, which crippled socialization. Communities had limitations on businesses and public events. Many of the restaurants, stores, and facilities I approached had transformed into ghost shacks. Checkpoints I was depending on for food, water, and comfort were empty, dry, and shuttered. Logistics became a burden.
Regardless, I was enjoying the Carolina climate and wanted to explore Elkin. But walking and camping solo near Central Piedmont cities isn’t safe. So I rented a skinny-tire bike in Four Oaks and peddled four days to Greensboro. Riding through debris on narrow shoulders alongside speeding cars was hazardous too. But I made it, took the train east with the rental, returned it, and drove west. Elkin was now a week’s walk away. Old friends gave me a new backpack, water filter, and wool socks. It was subtly official… I had wandered into a thru-hike.
On the MST, hours would pass without talking to another person. Meeting good-natured characters to chat or eat with was a treat. The surprise company was welcomed. I met people who kayaked remote rivers, rehabbed flooded homes, cycled long distances, and fished at night with family. We didn’t discuss work or politics or sports. We talked about ourselves and what we enjoyed, giving and taking advice based on our lives. There was an understanding that our time together was short but valuable. Some still message, sharing photos and best wishes. Others I may never reconnect with. Either way, they are appreciated.
The incline hiking started soon after Greensboro with Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock. My body was conditioned for long days of cardio with endurance to set up camp before dusk. But my spirit was wearing down from limited supplies, shelter, and directions. There is a fine line between being a hiker or a drifter. So I wiped myself down as I approached Elkin from Rockford through the cool rain. Cars splashed puddles on the historic downtown streets as I looked for a spot to eat. I entered a brick diner by the tracks and savored a hot cheeseburger while the heavy drops tapered off, and the sun warmed the spring evening.
Elkin has a Heritage & Trails Visitor Center with clean showers and a designated hiker
campsite by the river. But after the burger, I shuffled a block over to Main Street. A woman walking to her yoga class saw my pack and introduced herself as Suzanne, a trail angel. I was happy to meet her, but I didn’t know how to react. I had never met a dedicated angel before. There had been a moratorium on calling for assistance during the pandemic. She gave me her number, offered any help, and suggested I try Fruition if I wanted to relax with a drink. I did. The bar was a short sidewalk stroll under canvas awnings, past a restored vintage theater.
The cocktail lounge had a high ceiling and neutral paint palette. The fading daylight filtered through the glass storefront onto potted plants and a floral mural. A couple seated in the corner waved hello while I sat at the bar. The man at the table asked if I was hiking the MST, introduced himself as Mayor Sam Bishop, and ordered me a rye. We talked about the town facilities, and toasted to our health before he presented his card and politely excused himself. I was in Elkin for an hour, and the expectations from the podcast were exceeded. As I finished sipping the rye, the bartender recommended trivia night on the back porch.
Mask requirements and gathering restrictions had recently eased, but it had been over a year since strangers shook hands. Locals stepped in with quiet caution, ordered their drinks, and settled into the iron tables and chairs on the outdoor deck. I teamed up with a small friend group: Thomas, Laurenn, Brittany, and Asa as the questions started. It felt good to be social again. We talked about our backgrounds, bought each other drinks, and won trivia night, which included a Hulk trophy and bar tab credit. They arranged a place to stay and a ride back to Greensboro the next morning. I promised I’d be back to defend our title.
The night in Elkin reminded me of life before covid as I climbed west over Stone Mountain, and the weather turned wet and windy. The path connected with the marvels of the Blue Ridge Parkway and overlooked ancient vistas. I hitched from Blowing Rock back to Elkin and reunited with my team for another trivia night. We shared our latest news, and I was encouraged to return again for their upcoming NC Trail Days. MST completers would be attending, and Suzanne would be speaking on trail angels at the Reeves Theater. I’d find a way back after I reached the peaks of Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge, and Mt. Mitchell.
As I descended Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River, it had been days since my last food resupply or seeing another soul. I stopped at a grocery store on my way into Asheville, but while I shopped, my backpack was stolen. I watched the security footage and tracked the bag for 24 hours. My hike to this point had been sprinkled with trail magic. Meals at restaurants were paid for anonymously. Firewood had been left at remote campsites. Travelers would happily give a shuttle ride. Day hikers offered extra snacks and drinks. I was lucky. It took a week to file an insurance claim, find replacement gear, and get vaccinated.
I packed my scavenged setup and resumed to Mount Pisgah, leaving 100 miles to the west MST endpoint at Clingmans Dome on the Tennessee border. This was a perfect chance to get back to Elkin for Trail Days and refocus before the final push through the backcountry Balsams. The elevated walking would be the most physically demanding section with very limited resources. My brother had mailed a replacement car key to my hotel, and I drove east. When I reached the Elkin camping area by the river, there was an SUV parked in the gravel lot.
The car belonged to Bill, who had been section hiking the MST and also drove in for the event. He had a gentle demeanor, was relaxed, and laughed easily. He pitched camp under the trees. I pitched under the bridge. Through the weekend he introduced me to other section hikers, I introduced him to the locals, and we judged a Boy Scout cooking competition with Mayor Sam Bishop. A few others joined our pop-up hiker village, including the creator of the MST app. We had a weekend of street food, live music, and trail stories - a celebration before the finish.
I was eager for the trek to end. Hiking is fun. Camping is fun. But when you grind both, day after day, the fun floats away like hot ash from a fire pit. And there were too many dangerous situations: road walking, crossing the Core Creek, bears/boars/wolves/snakes, dehydration and fatigue, exposure to harsh conditions, and the possibility of falling into ravines. I could also be confronted by someone with bad intentions. I wasn’t afraid, but developed an instinct to be alert. My family worried, but I assured them I wouldn’t die. And I didn’t. So that was good.
When I reached Clingmans Dome, I was relieved. I tried to appreciate the moment at the tower, but the site was swarming with tourists and Appalachian Trail personalities. I got a lift to Cherokee with a day hiker who saw my cardboard sign. We split a pepperoni pizza before I gave her my bear spray. I had traveled four months from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Smokies. Navigating the beaches, rural plains, and mountains was only possible with random hospitality. Whether the support was physical, mental, or emotional, it was all crucial.
After the MST, I thru-hiked in Ireland, then Spain. Almost daily, there were new trail friends… people encountered unexpectedly and accepted unconditionally. We selflessly shared resources, information, and encouragement. The scenario was similar regardless of culture, country, and language. I couldn’t predict when I would meet someone, but if I just kept walking, I would. Being immersed in nature is inspiring on its own, but experiencing the adventure with others makes a journey special. There is so much in the world to see. Thanks to all the trail friends who helped me see more. Happy trails to you, until we meet again.