Iconoclast hiker conquers Mountains to Sea Trail
Scot Ward isn’t a missionary, but he does have a burning message. An experienced thru-hiker who carries a copy of Peter Jenkins Walk Across America in the retrofitted box-truck he calls home, Ward wants people to hike the Mountains to Sea Trail for exactly the reason they aren’t doing it now.
“It shows you everything the state has to offer. On the Appalachian Trail, you see the woods no matter where you are,” Ward said.
The nearly 1,000-mile Mountains to Sea Trail runs across North Carolina from the Tennessee border to the Outer Banks, but only about 500 miles of footpaths, mostly in the mountains of Western North Carolina, already exist. The rest of the walk involves road hiking, which has prevented the trail from attracting the number of pilgrims it needs to earn a reputation.
Ward believes the Mountains to Sea Trail lays the soul of North Carolina bare to the people that hike it, and he wants to open up that experience to a wider range of people. He recently produced a comprehensive trail guide for the Mountains to Sea Trail on a shoestring budget, and last week he visited Osondu/Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville and City Lights Books in Sylva to push his product.
While there are other trail guides out there, Ward’s 100-page version is accurate to the 1/100 of a mile and obsessively lists information like water resources, fire locations, campsites, and food options. None of the other trail guides have dealt with the actual details of thru-hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail in this kind of detail.
The 35-year-old self-described nomad was living in Hawaii when he heard about the Mountains to Sea Trail and decided he had to see it for himself. Having hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003, the Long Trail in 2004, and the Colorado Trail in 2005, he was looking for another challenge.
“I’m trying to answer the question that every thru-hiker on the AT asks when they peak Mt. Katahdin,” Ward said. “What now?”
Ward hiked the Mountains to Sea Trail for the first time in 2007. Last year he became the first person known to have “yo-yo’d” the trail. He walked it eastbound from Clingman’s Dome to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, then turned around and walked the 965 miles back.
The purpose of the trip was two-fold. For a hiker who goes by the trail name “T.A.B.A” (short for There and Back Again), the mission held a special kind of satisfaction. But more importantly, Ward’s first experience as an out-of-state hiker on the Mountains to Sea Trail showed him clearly why more people weren’t thru-king it.
“If you want to bring people to the trail to hike it, then you have to have places for them to sleep,” said Ward.
Ward set out to fix that problem by figuring out a way to hike the trail and sleep on it. Along the way he convinced 20 churches and eight businesses along the road portion of the trail through the Piedmont to agree to allow hikers to camp on their property.
Still, overnight camping is prohibited on much of the public land on the trail –– including the portions that follow the Blue Ridge Parkway and some of the state parks.
Ward drew the ire of some Mountains to Sea Trail advocates when he posted the best ways to camp illegally on his Web site last year.
“I’m not trying to start trouble,” Ward said. “I’m trying to fix a problem.”
Ward understands his methods can be misunderstood, but he doesn’t have time for hand-holding.
“I’m the kind of guy that goes the opposite way in a mosh pit,” Ward said.
Scot Ward’s singular spirit can in part be traced to his genes. His grandfather Eddie Ward, a member of the Flying Ward family, performed all of the vine-swinging stunts for the original Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller. In short, he comes from one of America’s most celebrated circus families.
But he owes his traveling bug just as much to his own life experience. His Miami area neighborhood was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A recent high school grad, Ward hopped on his bike and road to New York City. Since then he’s ridden over 40,000 miles of America’s roadways on a bicycle. He’s also been a professional in-line skater, a skydiver, and a limousine driver in Beverly Hills.
Scotty’s World, as he sometimes calls it, isn’t like your world. But he insists anyone can experience what it feels like if they have the courage to get out of their cars and take to the trail.
“Walking and riding a bicycle across America, you’re putting yourself in people’s environment,” Ward said. “You stop at a store and you hang out there, and people start to look at you and then they ask questions. They want to know why you’re there. When you’re in your car, you’re still in your own environment.”
This month, Ward will receive recognition from Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail for his there-and-back-again hike. He’ll also travel from bookstore to bookstore along the route with his new trail guide.
“Now we’ve just got to get the park service on board to let us camp in the woods,” Ward said.