Close to 1,000 miles of North Carolina stretched in front of her, from the harsh winds and sizzling heat of the state’s highest sand dune on the Outer Banks to the steep, muddy terrain of Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain peak in the state.
Despite the obstacles that lay ahead, Lorie Hansen knew it was time for her to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
“I’d always wanted to do a long-distance hike. I’d been backpacking for about two weeks at a time, but the timing in my life was good with children being gone and no longer in a job. It was do it now or it may not get done,” Hansen said.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail consists of about 670 miles of dedicated trails, sown together with paths running parallel to back roads and paddling routes along the Neuse River. From the Outer Banks to the Great Smoky Mountains, the trail showcases the state’s diverse landscape by meandering through 37 counties, three national forests and two national wildlife refuges. Explore an interactive map of the trail here.
“For people who grew up in North Carolina and think they know a lot about it, you can learn so much more when you are out there step-by-step,” said Kate Dixon, Executive Director of the Friends of the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Hansen recently became the 50th person to hike North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail in its entirety. Starting on March 22 and averaging 15 miles per day, with a few breaks in between, Hansen took the first step at Jockey’s Ridge and finished 64 days later at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies.
However, Hansen wasn’t told she was the 50th person to complete the trail until she finished. It’s a nice accolade, but for the 63-year-old hiker from Hendersonville, it is not what she is taking away from her time trekking across the state.
As she walked miles upon miles of trails and back roads, taking breaks in small towns and state parks, it was not the lighthouses of the coast or the Piedmont’s rolling hills that she remembers most. Hansen said her heart was filled by the people she met along the way: the people Hansen calls her “trail angels.”
“I so enjoyed hearing about their life stories and experiences. I was on the receiving end of so many acts of kindness from shuttles, showers, places to sleep, to a huge bag of chocolate,” Hansen said. “I just didn’t realize how many of these wonderful trail angels I would encounter.”
I spoke with Hansen over the phone while she rested on the side of a trail in Montana. She’s been hiking there for two weeks with limited cell service, but was able to recount some the people she met in her journey. Hansen revered every encounter she had throughout the 1,000 miles.
Like the time she was invited to bingo near Cedar Island and won a sparkling, concrete lawn ornament.
“I just looked at it and said, ‘How in the world am I supposed to carry this prize?’ I had to give it back because it was way too much weight.”
Or when too much weight in her pack prevented Hansen from taking a furry friend from a roadside fan. It was 10:30 a.m. and Hansen was just west of Chapel Hill when a car pulled up, and a woman began telling her story to Hansen.
“She tells me about how she ditched everything when she was 50 years old and did a motorcycle trip across the country. She actually went home and came back with a stuffed hedgehog,” Hansen said with amusement in her voice. “She wanted to give it to me for my trip because she took on her trip. Even though it was only 10 ounces, I still couldn’t carry it.”
Even though the hedgehog had to stay, it was these little tokens that gave Hansen tangible reminders of the people she met. Perhaps the most surprising, Hansen said, was when she was camping overnight outside a church near the Lebanon Township. An older couple approached her in their car, and the husband had one stern question:
“Are you packing?”
Hansen answered with a startled “No!” after she realized the man was asking if she had a gun, and was not referring to her backpack.
“He said, ‘Listen, you need to take this,’ and proceeded to give me a big buck knife,” Hansen said. “He gave me instructions and said, ‘Lorie, if you use this, you gotta go for the eyes with people.’ I was taken aback but they were both really nice. The wife gave me her business card.”
A pocket knife and a business card: an unlikely combination that encapsulates a part of Hansen’s journey across the state. Hansen said the older couple emailed her throughout her trip to make sure she was okay.
50 people have come before Hansen to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, but her story is special. It shows the pulse of North Carolina may not flow from the trails we explore, but through the people we meet along the way.
Which begs the question: “What is this state?” Sure, the Great Smoky Mountains are breath-taking at sunset and the coastal sunrise can bring solace. But while trails mark the veins of North Carolina from the mountains to the sea, it’s the people, the personalities, and the stuffed hedgehogs that give it life.
In February, Lorie Hansen will be recognized as the 50th person to hike the trail at the Friends of the NC Mountain-to-Sea Trail’s annual conference. Hansen said she is looking forward to the conference, and by then might even have a couple more tokens to bring along.