From Clingman’s Dome to the Outer Banks: Thru-hiker forages the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

According to NCMST.org, fewer than than 30 hikers are registered as having completed the trail. With good reason too: The MST stretches about 1,000 miles, from Clingman’s Dome (Tenn.) to the Outer Banks (N.C.). Longtime hiking advocate, enthusiast and Asheville-based author Danny Bernstein completed the trip just a few weeks ago.

I had the chance to talk with another MST grad: 28-year-old Heather Housekeeper.

Less than two weeks ago, the long-distance hiker and Appalachian Trail veteran began walking. Twelve days later, on May 28, she shared some of her goals with me, just before reaching camp off Ox Creek Road near Asheville. Outside of the occasional friend tagging along for a few miles here and there, she’s doing it all alone, Housekeeper reported, and not counting the random “trail magic” (assistance like snacks, shoes, a bed, etc.) that strangers have given her along the way, she’s doing it totally unsupported.

With plans to trek from Clingman’s Dome, Tenn., to the North Carolina coast, she will still fall short of the 2,000-plus-mile thru-hike she made on the A.T. back in 2008. But for this adventure, she’s lightening her load (still too heavy, at about 35 pounds, to be considered an ultra-light) by attempting to subsist partly on foraged foods along the trail. When she’s done, she’s hoping to write a memoir detailing her journey and the many plants she meets along the way.

Much of the mountain portion of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is well-maintained and mapped, but as hikers find themselves in the flat lands, the packed dirt and trampled-down grass becomes a patchwork of neglected pathways. So it’s an understatement to say the trek gets a bit dodgy. Those tricky spots are what Housekeeper ponders, not so much because she’s afraid of getting lost (she’s feeling confident using Scott Ward’s Thru-Hiker’s Manual for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail of North Carolina, but because she’ll need to hitchhike into town (N.C. flatlanders aren’t used to seeing hikers coming through) for much needed showers and to identify wild edibles she’s not familiar with.

Because Housekeeper took years educating herself on the particulars of plant identification, foods and medicines — and mainly the Southeastern ones — it might take a little while longer to ID useful plants outside of her region of comfort, but that’s what the walk is all about: communing with the plants, she says.

As Housekeeper clicks her hiking poles along at about the mountain pace of 2 mph, she finds it difficult to take in the gorgeous overviews, not because she’s tired, but because there are no botanicals blooming out there. She’s adept at nibbling on the go, so it’s not hard to imagine her plucking fresh hemlock needles, spice bush, spiderwort and sassafras leaves as she makes her way toward the next stop, where she’ll lay everything out for a meal. Other times, she’s picking for medicine — like when she steeped lousewort for a muscle-relaxing tea, or rubbed yarrow oils on her aching foot.

In a time where money’s tight, Housekeeper wants to raise awareness to the average American household that fresh, free food and medicine, is right out in the front yard if folks would just look. She has walked by natural buffets that once fed large tribes, but now it’s all she can do to make it 50 feet or so without stooping to explore the menu.

While we won’t be hiking out to meet her again, Housekeeper brought her P.C. with remote Internet capabilities and will be blogging regularly to: http://www.thebotanicalhiker.blogspot.com.

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