Mountains to Sea
North Carolina\'s Trail-building enthusiast Wendell Burton

For long-distance hikers whose magnetic direction veer towards the longitudinal, with sunrises at their front each morning, there's a new trail that awaits them: the 950-mile Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) which travels from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, bisecting most of North Carolina. Hikers start at 6,643-feet high Clingmans Dome, and follow numerous ridge lines, particularly parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The MST is a currently a combination of old foot trails (some centuries old), secondary back roads, and trails prepared by volunteer work crews. RailRiders talked with one MST volunteer, Wendell Burton, who has been a long-time Weatherpants fan.

Question: Describe the genesis of the trail.

Wendell Burton: The concept of a trail spanning the state was first proposed around 1980. Some actual trail work started in 1982..It has continued, sporadically, until around 1995. Since then existing trails have been linked together with new trails to complete about 450 miles of the total. We still have a long way to go. One question I always get is, "When is the completion date?" The Appalachian Trail is over 75 years old and still not done (close but not quite).

Q: How difficult is the terrain?

WB: As the MST heads east, it crosses some very rugged mountains and some of the highest elevations in the east. It crosses the peak of Mount Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi, at 6684 feet. On one particular stretch you will wade an 80' wide, hip-deep river, then climb over 30 switchbacks in only four miles. As the trail drops out of the mountains you enter into the Piedmont area, where the terrain gets a little easier.Along this portion, you will hike on a section of over 20 miles on private property which is all on signed on leases--an amazing feat! A little farther east you will, one day, pass through several small towns and communities.We hope to see these towns adopt the MST and that they become a "trail town." As the trail drops out of the Piedmont region it approaches the sandhills, then swampy areas and finally, you will literally hike the final portions along the beach.

Q: How and why did you get involved with the MST?

WB: One day, I was looking for a continuation of a dead-end trail. I had been bushwhacking in a very remote area when I found flagging pointing out a route. Although there was no trail, I followed it for nearly six miles, absolutely intrigued by the remoteness of this flagging. I had to find out who had gone to such lengths and why. A little research put me in touch with the Friends of MST director, (and noted trail guidebook author) Allen de Hart. He was very persuasive, and from there on I was part of the team. Allen is an amazing man and a story by himself. He's 76 and still outhikes and outworks all of us, half his age.

Q: How much of the MST have you hiked?

WB: My wife and Ihave hiked many different portions of the trail and hit most of the different types of terrain. To date, three or four people have officially through-hiked the trail. Many others claim to have done so, but we cannot verify it.

Q: Describe an average work crew day.

WB: An average work day actually begins days in advance with planning, recruiting and coordinating. Some work entails a four-mile hike into the work site. The only power tools we use are chainsaws. All other work is done with mattocks, shovels, rock-bars, axes, and any other "implement of destruction" (as we like to say). The bulk of the trail is a typical hiking trail, no more than two-feet wide. The amount we can build in a day varies greatly depending on the number of volunteers and the terrain. The mountains of North Carolina are covered in laurel and rhododendron. These thickets can be impenetrable. Digging these up can slow progress to only 20 feet a day. You feel like you're part of an old prison road gang.

Q: What is your day job?

WB: I am a project manager for a commercial construction company. This provides the stimulus to put back into nature what I take out. Gotta pay the bills.

Q: Finally, what is your opinion of RailRiders clothing?

WB: I received my first RailRiders about six years ago. I still have those Weatherpants; I still wear them. I wear them on every work crew trip. They are absolutely indestructible. My Eco-Mesh Shirt was the best thing to happen to me during a 113-degree day in the Grand Canyon. Every RailRiders piece I own is super light, super tough and dries lightning fast. I really like the inovative designs. I get a lot of comments about what I'm wearing, especially the Eco-Mesh Shirt.

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