You could call Danny Bernstein a trail evangelist. Her zeal has led to over forty years of hiking. She believes that no place is too far to walk. Bernstein has even admitted that she “wants to die in her boots.”
So once her attention was drawn to the gorgeous Mountains-to-Sea trail (surprisingly, only twenty-eight hikers reported walking the entire trail by the end of 2011, a sharp contrast to the 611 who trekked the nearby Appalachian Trail in 2011 alone), Bernstein donned an orange vest, duck-taped her feet for strength and braved loose dogs to average twelve miles a day for an accomplishment of a lifetime.
Bernstein shares this incredible, humorous and historic journey across North Carolina in her new book, The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina: Walking a Thousand Miles through Wildness, Culture and History.
Scenic Stories to Captivate the CURIOUS, the ADVENTUROUS, the HIKER, the BIKER and the HISTORY BUFF Alike…
Bernstein’s travel narrative starts at Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains, stretches across one thousand miles and ends at Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks. Divided into four sections (mountains, piedmont, coastal plains, outer banks), diverse habitats and cultural history unfold as readers see the extraordinary trail through the author’s eyes.
Centuries-old peaks and freshly explored crevices come to life, and although the trail was only officially established in 2000, Bernstein unearths its historically rich beginnings, notable trailblazers and evolving landscapes:
“The Mountains-to-Sea trail is a microcosm of almost every environment in the eastern part of the country…I don’t know of another eastern trail that encompasses Fraser fir trees and pelicans, old textile and gristmills and working cotton and tobacco farms, Revolutionary War sites and two British cemeteries, complete with Union Jacks.”
Bernstein documents the stories of both famous and ordinary people who soaked in the beauty of the natural world, grew their crops and built close-knit communities along the trail. She uses first hand research to offer a road map of North Carolina’s incredible, historic and quirky Mountains-to-Sea trail.
So, we recently joined Bernstein to discuss the history of the trail, the best times to hike, what a “trail name” is and the highlights and lowlights of her travels, among other things…
Read on for today’s author interview, book trailer, FREE chapter excerpt and launch events.
Author Interview with Danny Bernstein
1. What piqued your interest in the Mountains-to-Sea trail?
Before I thought about the MST, I had been hiking in the Southern Appalachians for almost ten years. I finished the iconic hiking challenges of the area, all the trails in the Smokies and the South Beyond 6000, (the forty mountains over six thousand feet), but I really didn’t know much about the rest of North Carolina. Sure, I’d been to the shopping centers in Charlotte and Raleigh but not much else, so the trail seemed to be the perfect way to see North Carolina’s wildness, culture and history. I’m fascinated by the intense relationship between hiking and observing. I love to hike, and this was the obvious next project.
2. How long did it take you to do the whole thing?
It took me seventy-eight hiking days for 985 miles with almost 100,000 feet of ascent. That includes days where I drove for several hours before I got on the trail. If I had done it straight through, I probably could have knocked off a few days. Your mileage will vary, depending on the trail route at the time you’re walking it. You can also ride a bike on the road sections of the MST.
3. Have you always been a hiker?
I’ve been hiking since my early twenties, and that’s a long time ago. My husband and I started hiking after we saw an ad for a hiking club in our area. We learned that adults go hiking without children. On our first hike, we brought all the wrong gear and barely kept up with people older than my parents. But I loved it. I have been hiking and leading hikes for various hiking clubs ever since. Of course, once we had a son, we took him hiking. The kid had no choice; he grew up hiking.
4. What do you get asked the most?
Did you walk the whole trail?
Yep, except for two bridges that I thought were too dangerous to cross on foot, I walked the whole thing.
But I hear that it’s not finished?
The route is completed, but some of it is on the small back roads. It’s just not all on footpath between two sets of trees. And I hope it never will be.
The road sections of the MST are on back roads, usually North Carolina bicycle routes. I wasn’t walking on interstate highways. I waved to every car that went by. I wore an orange vest for visibility and watched for cars on blind curves. I felt that road angels were watching out for me: police officers, letter carriers, UPS and FedEx drivers and others in company vehicles.
5. When did Mountains-to-Sea come into the public eye?
In 1977, Howard Lee, then secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, announced the concept of a trail across North Carolina at the Fourth National Trails Symposium at Lake Junaluska outside Waynesville. But it was just a concept, and the trail was put on the back burner for a long time.
A big step forward occurred when Allen de Hart walked the MST with a friend in 1997. Allen then created the Friends of the MST group and wrote a hiking guide a few years later. Now hikers knew about the trail because of the hundreds of miles blazed in the mountains. Hikers, travelers and even Blue Ridge Parkway drivers recognize the white circle blazes on trees and posts. The trail became part of the North Carolina State Park System in 2000, raising its visibility.
6. How does the Mountains-to-Sea fit into the broader historical picture of North Carolina?
Every state wants a hiking trail that will show off its best features. The Vermont Long Trail, the first state trail, was completed in 1930 and predates the Appalachian Trail. But the MST is a multimodal trail. Sections can be biked and canoed. Not me, mind you. I am a hiker, and I like my feet firmly on the ground. You can learn a lot of North Carolina and U.S. history while walking the MST. For example, what is the Overmountain Victory Trail? Why doesGlencoe Village look so old-fashioned? And what are British cemeteries doing on U.S. soil?
7. Which is better, the mountains part of the trail or the sea?
I like pistachio ice cream and chocolate ice cream so please don’t make me choose. With the mountains, you get amazing views, shade trees, and wildflowers from March to November. When you walk the beach, you see sanderlings running back and forth into the water, and pelicans overhead, and you can dip your feet into the sea.
8. Colonial, Civil War or other eras—which has most colorful stories pertaining to the trail?
You can find Revolutionary War artifacts everywhere along the trail. The MST crosses the Overmountain Victory Trail several times in the mountains and in the Piedmont. New Bern was the colonial capital of North Carolina and its first state capital. Those are the big historic icons. But there’s the story of fourteen-year old Bugler Boy Billie who died at the hands of the British. The MST uses the Nathanael Greene Trail, named after a Revolutionary War Patriot.
9. What famous figures have explored the trail?
President and Mrs. Obama walked a mile of the trail when they visited Asheville a few years ago on a private vacation. Hikers were thrilled. I don’t know if you would call this famous, but in the outdoor world, Diane Van Deren is famous. Diane, a global endurance athlete, ran the MST in a little over twenty-two days, breaking the previous record by a couple of days. But most of us just hike the MST at our own pace.
10. Did anything surprise you in your research for this book?
Lots surprised me. I followed a set of directions—turn left, turn right. Therefore, I had to discover the significance of what I saw for myself. Besides the Revolutionary War history in full view across North Carolina, I was surprised by the amount of tobacco and cotton still grown in the state. The number of family roadside cemeteries also puzzled me. Why were these graves on private land rather than in a church cemetery?
11. What were the highlights for you?
The Smokies. Moses Cone and Doughton Parks on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Walking twenty-five miles of new trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway just after it opened. I went to the official opening and dedication of this section and then hiked through it the next week. Great places to visit—Sylva, Freeborne Motel in Laurel Springs, Glencoe Mill Village and Emily’s Cookies north of Burlington, New Bern and Ocracoke. Meeting people on the road. People were friendly, curious, puzzled and always trying to be helpful.
12. If there were highlights, there must have been lowlights?
Loose dogs. I don’t have to think twice about that. In many rural areas, dogs are not fenced or leashed. As I passed a house, a dog started barking and ran after me. It then excited the dog in the next house, and pretty soon I might have a pack of dogs encircling me. I carried pepper spray, though I never had to use it.
Click the image below to READ Chapter One of The Mountains-to-Sea Trail!
13. Will MST hikers have trail names?
Probably, but only when there are enough people on the trail. Usually another hiker gives you a trail name, based on something you said or did. On the A.T., my husband, Lenny, and I stuck with our first names. “Danny and Lenny” already sounded like a comedy team.
14. Future trails to hike/projects?
Too many trails, not enough time. I’m planning to do Le Chemin de St. Jacques in France, which is about 440 miles. It’s the French section of the famous El Camino. I really like the combination of forests, back roads and small towns, just like the MST. I’ll meet locals and try to understand the culture.
15. What books are on your nightstand right now?
The novel Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan; he’s one of my favorite novelists. But I always have a trail guide as well. Now it’s The Way of St James, France, a Cicerone Guide, for the next adventure I’m planning.
Danny Bernstein’s mission is to get people out of their cars and hiking. She’s been a committed hiker for over forty years, completing the Appalachian Trail, all the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the South Beyond 6000 (all the mountains higher than 6,000 feet in the East), many other hiking challenges and, of course, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Danny and her husband maintain a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and a section of the Appalachian Trail on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Trails don’t maintain themselves, and people have to get out there to clip, clean and remove blow downs. Danny keeps hiking and leads hikes for the Carolina Mountain Club and Friends of the Smokies. She’s on the board of directors of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. She’s written two hiking guides, Hiking the Carolina Mountains (2007) and Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains (2009). She blogs at www.hikertohiker.com. In her previous life, she worked in computer science for thirty-five years, way before computing was cool, first as a software developer and then as a professor of computer science. Her motto is: “No place is too far to walk if you have the time.”
JOIN US FOR THESE BOOK LAUNCHES
Tuesday, March 5, 6:00 p.m.
Diamond Brand Outdoors.
Across North Carolina. Food and festivities. (Arden, NC)
Friday, April 5th at 7:00 p.m.
Quail Ridge Bookstore. (Raleigh, NC)
Co-sponsored by Friends of the MST and the Great Outdoor Provision Company.
For Danny’s complete schedule, please visit www.hikertohiker.com/wheres-danny-now.