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Trail time: spending your days out on a trail can help you better connect to nature and to yourself, local trail expels tell NLJ's Maggie Cramer.

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It would be hard to publish our Connecting With Nature issue without talking about the experience of being out on a trail. After all, the Southeast is home to some of the best hiking trails in the country, and locals and visitors alike spend much of their time strapping packs to their backs and heading outside. So, we asked representatives from the region's three biggies--the Appalachian, the Benton MacKaye and the Mountains-to-Sea--to share a bit about their trails and the experiences they offer. If you've already hiked these trails, perhaps you'll learn something new and see them in a different light On your next outing. Or, if you haven't yet made it out to them, we hope this inspires you to put on your hiking boots and start exploring!

Mountains-to-Sea-Trail (MST)

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is North Carolina's flagship trail; it was first proposed in 1977 and became part of the North Carolina State Park System in 2000. It runs almost 1,000 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. More than 500 miles are now complete, and with temporary connectors on back roads, people can literally hike from the mountains to the sea. Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (FMST) is the MST's citizen support group that helps build, maintain and acquire new trail and helps hikers and citizens learn about the MST.

The MST provides an extraordinary opportunity for people to connect with a diversity of natural habitats in the state. From high peaks such as Clingmans Dome and Mount Mitchell in the mountains, to rivers and rural farmland in the Piedmont, to swamps and beaches in eastern North Carolina, hikers on the MST experience a range of natural beauty and environment.

Hiking the entire MST is a spiritual journey thanks to the beauty and diversity seen on the trail and the challenges it places before hikers. Surprises always arise: Where to find water? How to deal with loneliness or fear? Solving each challenge motivates and inspires hikers. Because the trail is so new, it's a particularly challenging trail for thru-hikers. Campsites don't exist along much of the MST. Every day presents logistical challenges to overcome, although FMST is eager to help interested hikers find resources to make the trek. Section-hikers and day-hikers also have a tremendous opportunity to experience the beauty of the trail and the spiritual renewal that comes from communing with nature.

People approach hiking in very personal ways. Some people enjoy being in nature alone, and many of our thru- and section-hikers have completed the trail alone, On the other hand, some people want to enjoy the trail with a special friend or spouse. Others participate in group hikes. The Asheville-based Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), which helps maintain more than 100 miles of the MST, leads regular group hikes in WNC. For more information about CMC hikes and trail maintenance, visit www.carolinamtnclub.com.

Kate Dixon has been executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail since January 2008. Before starting as the first staff member of FMST, Kate served for 11 years as the first executive director of Triangle Land Conservancy and for four years as director of Land for Tomorrow. Her favorite day-hike in North Carolina is the Basin Cove Trail in Doughton Park. For more information about the MST, visit www.ncmstorg or call 919-698-9024.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT)

As the nation's premier National Scenic Trail, the AT changes the lives of many who walk its path. As one begins a journey in Georgia or Maine, the AT provides experiences in a variety of landscapes, people, cultural and natural resources through 14 different states. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) is a volunteer-based organization dedicated to the preservation and management of the resources associated with the AT. Over 6,000 volunteers contribute to the protection of this national treasure. They, along with the ATC and land managing partners, all work together to ensure the management system stays loyal to the vision set out by Benton MacKaye in the 1920s: to provide a continuous footpath along the Appalachian Mountains for fellowship with nature.

Andy Downs thru-hiked the AT in 2002. "There were 'few people once I got hiking, and I could remain silent for hours without seeing or hearing another person," he recalls. "It didn't take long for me to understand that the silence was actually a growing fellowship that overtakes every thru-hiker as their once fractured network of desire is replaced by one common thread: the trail under their feet winding over stone and mountain and past leaf and petal, always leading directly to where you want to be."

But hiking the AT can also be a very social experience. Because of the shelter system (every seven to nine miles along the trail) and the trail's proximity to urban areas, it's common to run into others while hiking. Many choose to hike with a partner, and even while they may not be together the entire day or length of the hike, they can eat and camp together for company. Many also choose to hike solo, and the ATC has a wonderful page of safety awareness information at www.appalachiantrail.org/safetyawareness.

Being out on the trail for months, a week, or a weekend at a time allows you to connect with yourself and your surroundings in a deeper way than a walk in the neighborhood. Leaving behind your screen time and other daily routines allows you to have a clearer mind. Even a day-hike can bring you out of the wacky world and into a deeper, kinder place where you can rest and simply listen to the tall of the Winter Wren.

Julie Judkins is the resource program manager for the ATC's Southern Regional Office. She volunteers in Asheville for the Bountiful Cities Project, an urban garden nonprofit, and with the Carolina Mountain Club as a section maintainer. Andy Downs is the trail resources manager for the ATCs Southern Regional Office and a 2002 thru-hiker. He's an avid canoeist and soccer player. Visit www.appalachiantrail.org or call 828-254-3708 for more information about the AT.

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Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT)

The Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) was organized in 1979 and incorporated in 1980 to build and maintain the BMT. Driving the effort was a desire to see Benton MacKaye's chosen route for his Appalachian Mountain trail opened for hiking. MacKaye (rhymes with "sky"), Massachusetts forester and co-founder of The Wilderness Society, inspired what is the Appalachian Trail today. In the South, he had selected a more westerly route, along the western crest of the Blue Ridge; that route is the route roughly followed today by the BMT. The BMTA's 25th anniversary year saw the original plan completed, as the route was officially opened on duly 16, 2005.

The BMT is a wilderness trail that offers the hiker solitude and opportunities to see the unique flora and fauna found in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trail is not as heavily traveled as the Appalachian Trail, and because of low visitation, opportunities to view wildlife abound--from black bears, coyote and wild turkey to white--tailed deer, river otter, wild hogs and more.

A thru-hiker on the BMT could easily go a week without seeing another human. The trail offers an opportunity to fully immerse in nature, waking to the daily rhythms of sunrise and sunset. There are only two shelters along the trail, and the trail passes through a number of federally designated wilderness areas. Since a hiker has to carry everything they need on their back, the trail provides a lesson in simplicity and the difference between wants and needs. Spending several weeks carrying your essentials on your back is a liberating experience and provides time to ponder our modern existence and how our consumer lifestyle impacts nature.

Day-hikes also offer opportunity to commune with nature, although a day-hiker misses out on experiencing the trail at night from their tent. On day-hikes in 2008, I saw abundant sign of bobcat, bear and coyote along the trail. A camera, binoculars and a field guide are great companions to a trail map and can help visitors understand the exciting signs they're seeing along the BMT.

Jeff Hunter is the publicity director for the BMTA. He's an avid hiker and backpacker, as well as a fisherman and birder, who has backpacked in wilderness areas all over the U.S. He works for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and resides in the Caretaker's Cabin at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Botanical Garden in Chattanooga, TN. For more information about the BMT, visit www.bmta.org.

Become a TRAIL Volunteer

Our region's trails depend on the help of volunteers. Here's how you can get involved.

* Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has many volunteer opportunities, including chances to help with trail building and maintenance. Visit www.ncmst.org/helpbuildthetrail.html for trail workday dates, and visit www.ncmst.org/lendahand.html for more information about ways to be involved.

* The Appalachian Trail Conservancy provides opportunities for volunteers to aid in the protection of the trail. Five different weeklong trail crews, with food, camping and instruction provided, are available up and down the trail. In the South, two crews in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are offered during the summer and fall. Other opportunities include helping with plant identification and monitoring workshops, as well as water quality monitoring. Visit www.appalachiantrail.org and click on "Get Involved" for more information.

* On the Benton MacKaye Trail, trail maintainers are always needed. Opportunities to volunteer exist in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, and a number of maintenance trips are held every year. The trips require no experience, but participants should be in good physical shape, as hiking into backcountry areas is usually required. Visit www.bmta.org/MaintainersPage.htm for more information.

Maggie Cramer is NLJ's managing editor. She recently took on a section of the MST and had a great, tiring time.
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Author:Cramer, Maggie
Publication:New Life Journal
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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