Thursday, July 24, 2014

MST Thru-hike 2014 Complete!

Atop Clingman's! The route that I traveled runs over those mountains, and more mountains, and more mountains, across foothills and farmland, through palms and sand, all the way to the sea.
Yesterday on July 23rd, I took my final steps up to Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountains at 6643 feet elevation, and second highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Beginning on May 3rd at Jockey's Ridge, atop an ever-shifting sand dune on the Outer Banks of NC, I traveled through salt spray and sand, past tobacco fields and cows and tractors, over beach, gravel, asphalt, rock, and trail, and finally following ridgeline and creek into the misty mountains of Appalachia. Now, after nearly 1200 miles, my trek is complete!

Hiking the Bodie Dike Trail on Hatteras Island
Walking through the ever-present melding of civilization and natural landscape in the Piedmont
Atop the rocky ridgeline heading further west and deeper into the Mountains
Although I had hiked this trail in 2011, headed eastbound, I had the opportunity to travel the new Cape Fear Arch Route through the Coastal Plain, hike miles and miles of new trail and designated greenway through the Piedmont, and enter into the Smokey Mountains via the new River Valley Route. It was a thrill to suddenly come upon the beloved places I remembered, but so often I found myself in awe at the views never before seen, challenged by the route not yet mapped, and meeting people I never would have known were it not for the trail meandering through their little town.

Giving some love to my two favorite trails: The MST and AT. Here at Clingman's Dome is where they meet. It's fitting that I finish on the trail on which I first discovered my love for long distance hiking.
I am truly grateful to have had the privilege to walk this trail, get to know its twists and turns, it lowlands and highlands, its plants and trees and critters, its generous people, cities and hollers all the better. I've had some folks ask me..."What was the best part?" or "What great insight did you have?" I've learned from previous hikes that these questions are too big to answer in the moment or even in a simple blog post. A thru-hike and the insights that it offers are a process. The insights bleed into every part of your life, the way you interact with your natural environment, with people, with society...and continue to affect the way in which you move through the world long after it is done. I encourage anyone who has ever considered a thru-hike, of course along the MST, but along any long distance trail, to DO IT. The time will never magically present itself. You have to carve it out. And it's time well spent. It is raw and real and what it means to truly live.

My morning summit atop Clingman's Dome
Okay, so to give you the scoop on the last couple of days and the last couple of steps leading up to the summit. Leaving Sylva I walked 20 miles by road before hitting trail again in the Smokies. I walked through the tiny town of Dillsboro and then along the winding 4-lane Rt. 74, and finally along country roads that led me past small swaths of mountain farmland and up steep hills along the edge of the Cherokee Reservation. The Tuckaseegee River was a constant at my side and the mountains grew larger on the horizon with every step I took. 

Deep Creek in the Smokey Mountains
I spent one quiet night by myself at a campsite along Deep Creek and then spent most of the whole next day walking along beside its moss lined and rock strewn mountain waters. I made sure to take one last dip while taking a break for lunch and although it was incredibly refreshing, it was so frigid, I promptly lost feeling in all my fingers and toes. Then it was 2000 feet up Fork Ridge Trail to the Mt. Collins Shelter. Here I had a dear friend and hiking partner meeting me for my last miles as well as a slew of awesome fellow hikers to join in my final night on the trail. FreeWil and I hiked together for a good portion of New England on the AT in 2008, we also summited Katahdin together. It would be a treat to have his company on yet another summit. And as for the crowd at the shelter, I couldn't have asked for a better group of folks- among them were AT alum Mr. Blunt, several hardcore section-hikers, Kirk with his avid-reader son and monkey-limbed nephew, and a painter of rhodo thickets, essentially a good festive crowd to share in whiskey and laughter and stories.

In the morning, I had just 3.5 miles to go to the summit. FreeWil and I took our time, climbing the last 1000 feet to the top. The fragrant Fir and Spruce were ever-present and the trail was fairly easy with large rocks to hop and dry brown dirt framed by moss and ferns on either side. Once at the top, however, as you can see, the summit was socked in by fog. It lent its own atmosphere to the finish, but I desperately wanted to see some views and simply hang about in the sun at the base of the tower. FreeWil and I took a couple of photos and then it promptly started to rain a cold, steady rain. We retreated to the visitor center a half mile down to await another friend's arrival.

The Great Robino and I at the top!
 By 2:00 in the afternoon, my dear friend, Robin arrived to join in the celebration and had apparently brought the sun bottled up with her which she promptly released atop the dome, parting the clouds and bringing warm sun for the rest of the afternoon. Robin also was responsible for delivering the proper summit attire. You see, you simply can't finish a long trail in the grubby clothes you have worn the entire hike, you must be certain to be dressed for the occasion. And so, what is more fitting for a two-time thru-hike on the MST than a pair of zebra-print galoshes, a gold rain jacket, red feather earrings, and a silver scarf?

The Botanical Hiker atop Clingman's Dome
FreeWil and I made a point to get a pic in while the sun was actually shining. I lent him bling (notice silver scarf) for the photo...

FreeWil and I at the top
Now please, don't let me paint the picture that we had Clingman's Dome all to ourselves. Hardly. There must have been hundreds of people that came and went from that Dome that day. It detracts a bit from the special moment for sure, but once The Botanical Hiker was on the scene in style, the onlookers actually became a integral part of the experience. It was a trip to have a complete stranger give me hug and congratulate me. As I walked the catwalk of the observation tower, Robin took a moment to explain to a passerby "Pardon my friend, she is a celebrity!" To which the passerby replied, "She looks like she's from New York!" To which I, in New Yorker frankness replied, "I am!"

Posing with the final (or first)  MST sign - behind me you can see the tower. This is a nearly 50 foot tower with a long winding ramp leading to the top. It is really rather space-age for the top of a mountain, but it affords those who visit to see the mountains for miles in all directions

View from atop Clingmans Dome

And so now, I head back to New York to family and friends and woods that I have missed. I have a couple of book events I'll be attending to there, but then it will be time for a relocation. That location is yet to be determined, but I am on the fence between moving further into upstate NY in preparation for another long trail or back to sweet Asheville to immerse myself in the MST and these mountains I also consider home awhile longer.

The blog will be continuing, as I will post more events having to do with not only, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, but future plant walks and classes, herbal and hiking endeavors. It will also continue to be an educational source for learning about your local plants and trails.
Thank you all for supporting me in this journey! You make the trail what it is! And it's been one helluva trek!!!

Hiking on....


  1. Well done! I wish I had the fortitude and knowledge for such a hike! Congrats!

    1. Thank you, Crazy Bird! My apologies- just saw this message! Keep trekkin'!

  2. Any more info on the edible plants guide of the MST?

  3. Yes, the book was published April 2014 and is available for purchase here on this blog (see upper right hand corner)