By Jack Tracy,
Walking across one's own state is an experience few get to embark on. You can’t truly fathom the history of a place until you’ve seen all parts of it, the good and the bad. I wouldn’t dare claim I’ve seen every corner of North Carolina, but I believe I’ve had the privilege of experiencing some of the most special parts of it.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) has a lot of potential to be a major contender in the future of the long-distance trail-hiking community. From amazing trail angels to dedicated volunteers, quaint and quirky towns to views galore, the MST sports all of the staples of a thriving trail. All it needs now is a little more recognition and perhaps a little less road walking.
Yes, the dreaded "road walking.” The very mention of it is taboo amongst hikers of all breeds. Why would you go on a hike and then walk on a road? I find myself asking this question more and more as of late. What I truly believe is that any path is a trail and your own adventurous spirit is what makes it worth walking.
Now, I have completed hundreds of miles of road walking and it is, without a doubt, a unique experience. For one, you learn to put a lot of misplaced faith in drivers. You also become extremely familiar with the stench of death. As one might imagine, road kill is ever present on our state highways and backroads. There is a certain degree of callousness you end up developing as a result of this frequent exposure.
One such hardened moment came for me somewhere in the Piedmont region. My hiking partner Acadicus and I had contacted a local church to receive permission to sleep under their awning. Hiking across NC poses certain logistical issues in regards to potable water and camping once you’re out of the mountains, so places like this were a blessing.
Heads up: if you’re squeamish or weak-stomached you might want to stop reading.
Acadicus and I were making our way up a country road - we were off-trail at that point, but had been road walking all day. The road we were walking up was old and a little worn, but both of us were excited because we knew at the end of it was a stress-free place for us to sleep.
Suddenly there it was, that familiar stench of death, and this time more potent than I had ever smelled before. We were searching around for a minute to try and find the source, when Acadicus spotted it. In the drainage on the side of the road lay the body of a teenage black bear.
Acadicus crawled down into the ditch to inspect it, because it really was an odd thing to find. Just as he suspected, the head and the front paws were cut off, along with an incision that had been made in its abdomen. Acadicus, having grown up in rural South Carolina and knowing way more about hunting practices than I do, explained that it was out of season and the bear had been poached for trophies. The incision to the creature’s abdomen was likely to remove the gallbladder, which apparently can be sold at a high price on the black market.
Later that night, as we sat at the church, we were interrupted from our game of Dungeons and Dragons by an approaching police officer. He sauntered up and asked us what we were doing, and we explained that we were thru-hiking the MST and had been invited to sleep there by the church. Apparently, some locals had driven by and been suspicious about the two seemingly homeless long haired hippies hanging out at the church. I giggled when the officer called them “nosy citizens”.
We went on to inform him of the existence of the dead bear. I imagine it did little more than keep it from rotting in that ditch, but who knows. I guess what I am trying to say is road walking is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.