Building Community on the Trail
Community volunteers help care for NC trailsBy Kate Dixon
Birds. Wildflowers. Beautiful views. Meditative time alone. Testing your endurance. Fun with friends and family. Exploring new places and taking time to try a new restaurant or even stay overnight in a hotel or Airbnb.
These have always been reasons I’ve loved trails, and they drew me to a career helping to build and promote North Carolina’s 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). I knew that many other people were eager for these experiences, and the MST could provide them from the Great Smokies to the Outer Banks. Trails benefit people personally, and also help towns and counties economically as visitors come to explore trails and then spend money during their trip.
Trails are also an amenity that attracts people to choose a new place to live. What I didn’t fully grasp until I worked for the MST was how trails also build community — nurturing new friendships and understandings — in multiple ways.
Like many hiking and mountain biking trails, the MST is largely built and maintained by volunteer crews. The work is creative and often physically demanding. How will we solve this drainage issue? How do we build a bridge half a mile from the nearest road? Fun and lasting friendships grow from this work that enriches lives far beyond the trail. Many unpaved trails have organizations that welcome volunteers and members who can help in other ways. Find ways to get involved by doing an internet search for your favorite trail or call your local parks department.
There’s always a new surprise around the bend.
Community is also built in other ways. The town planner of Hillsborough told me their Riverwalk along the Eno River, near Piedmont Electric Cooperative’s service territory, has become a place where citizens regularly run into each other, sparking casual conversations that help the town come together and seek solutions to problems.
In Elkin, near Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, trails have inspired so much creativity. One place to see it is in the artwork and benches and even gongs along the Elkin and Alleghany Railroad Trail near downtown. A walk on the trail sparks an idea in someone’s mind, and the town and volunteers help them make it happen. There’s always a new surprise around the bend.
On the MST, people open their hearts to help long-distance hikers. “Trail angels” offer shuttles, places to stay, and other support. Four County EMC provided extraordinary help to Tara Dower, when she set out to break a speed record on the MST in 2020. She was averaging about 40 miles a day and had an exceptionally challenging time on her way through Burgaw. Four County EMC stepped in to help, providing a place to sleep, shower, and even a change of clothes for Tara and her crew.
Like many trails, the MST refers to this community of volunteers, citizens, hikers and trail angels as our “tramily”— the MST Trail Family. These tramilies are one of the best things that can happen for a trail and a community, and they are springing up across North Carolina as more trails get built and people discover them and fall in love.
2023 is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina. Visit greattrailsnc.com to find ways to get involved in your own tramily!
About the AuthorKate Dixon is the former executive director of the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail and currently serves on the Year of the Trail Honorary Committee.
Other points of view