When I think of remote places, I think of Elisha Mitchell. When he first set out to climb the mountain that would later bear his name, there wasn’t even so much as a trail to its summit. Just getting to the base of the mountain required a long horseback ride from Morganton, which itself was a weeklong wagon ride from Mitchell’s home in Chapel Hill.
Back then, Grandfather Mountain was considered to be North Carolina’s highest point, based on an observation by Frenchman André Michaux, who said he’d noticed plants around its summit that he’d never seen anywhere south of Canada. Mitchell, a professor of geology, chemistry, and mineralogy at the University of North Carolina, thought that the claim needed verifying. So in 1835, he rode a horse to the top of Grandfather. There, he looked southwest and noticed a peak in the nearby Black Mountains that seemed to be even taller.
Mount Mitchell, as it would later be called, was staggeringly hard to reach. “His way was often to where the boldest mountaineers had never trod,” one account stated, “through, under and over thickets of laurel, where only bears and snakes had crawled.” At some points, Mitchell moved along on his hands and knees. One guide who led Mitchell up the mountain had never been to the top, and didn’t get to the top again for at least two decades.
At the summit, Mitchell found himself surrounded in every direction by thick forest. He shinnied up the tallest balsam he could find, cut the limbs at the top to get a better view of the surrounding territory, and checked his barometer. He then proclaimed, on July 28, 1835, that he was at the highest point — not only in North Carolina, but in eastern North America. A trip to an incredibly remote place had yielded a wholly incredible result.
Mitchell would later be proved right, but still, he returned four more times to double-check his calculations. On his last trip, in 1857, he fell over a 60-foot waterfall on the mountain’s northern slope and died. It took a dragnet of 200 mountain men to find his body. The search was slow and plodding, hobbled by thick woods, pounding rain, and 44-degree July temperatures. Eventually, Mitchell was buried on top, in a place that was still isolated, harsh and unforgiving, rugged and remote.
Today, you can drive to it.
Sure, you can still hike up the slopes of Mount Mitchell, but most people get there by car. There is a snack bar near the summit, along with a kid-friendly nature trail. It’s a day trip from Asheville. A diversion on the Blue Ridge Parkway. When Mitchell first climbed it 183 years ago, only a handful of other people had ever been there, if that. Last year, more than 375,000 people visited Mount Mitchell State Park.
I remember my first time walking up the short, paved trail from the parking lot to the observation deck at the summit. It was crowded. I looked out over the rolling green mountains from the spot where Mitchell had once stood — 6,684 feet above sea level — and was overcome by the beauty, but also by the accessibility. Huh, I said to myself. I thought it would be harder to get here.
There was a time when remoteness was normal, back when most all of North Carolina was wilderness. In colonial times, the largest cities were on the coast, because for most people, a trip inland was not worth the time or effort. Today, this state has about 106,000 miles of roads. There are few places you can’t reach if you’ve got the time and the gas. In a state that’s home to more than 10 million people, there isn’t much that hasn’t been explored.
So when you say you want to get away from it all, you may not realize just how difficult a proposition that really is. Chances are, no matter where you are, you are still quite close to someone else.
For years, though, I’d been itching to get off the beaten path. I’d visited dozens of out-of-the-way places across the state, backpacking here and kayaking there. I loved faraway destinations, but after each trip, I had the same simple, unanswered question: How far away can I get?
The simplest questions are sometimes the hardest to answer. Mitchell wanted to know which mountain was tallest, and getting the answer eventually killed him. I wanted to visit the most remote spot in North Carolina. Finding it was easy. Getting there was hard. Figuring out what remote even means? Even harder.
Even more Remote on Away Message Podcast:
Season 2, Episode 8: “32 Miles Off the Coast.” How a regular guy ended up owning an old Coast Guard light tower that sits so far off the North Carolina coast that regular laws don’t apply.
To listen to all episodes now, search for Away Message wherever you get your podcasts, or visit away.ourstate.com.
At noon, I stood at the mouth of a tunnel, at the end of a road, next to a man I’d met only the night before. Dwayne Parton was his name, and he had packed light. Green shirt, Bedrock sandals, small pack. I hoisted 40 pounds of gear on my back, and the padded straps dug into my shoulders. My friend Andrew Kornylak had come along to photograph everything. A few minutes after we arrived, we locked our cars and set out into the darkness.
“This is a cool tunnel,” Dwayne said, listening to his voice echo.
Dwayne grew up a few miles away in Bryson City, the son of a man named Wayne, the brother of Blayne (and Landon, who originally was to be named Zane). Dwayne was the only “guide” we could get to come with us.
Outdoors shops were leery of providing official guides, since getting to the most remote spot in North Carolina requires some off-trail travel that is potentially dangerous and very much frowned upon by the people who issue guiding permits. Trail clubs couldn’t help either.
During one of my last calls, the man on the other end of the line heard the desperation in my voice, and he told me to call Dwayne. Dwayne would go. On short notice. He wouldn’t get us lost. Probably.
I got Dwayne on the phone and asked him if he was interested in a three-day, 21-mile round-trip hike into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our specific destination, by my calculations, was on the side of a rugged, wooded ridge. It was a big commitment, especially for a complete stranger — one that would probably require a shifting of schedules and a long contemplation of risk.
“Sure,” Dwayne said. I hadn’t given him any specifics.
The night before our trip, I met Dwayne for the first time: a bearded guy, 32, tall but not lanky, with just a touch of Jeff Spicoli in his voice. We hashed out the plan over beers at Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City. I tried to explain exactly where it was that we were going. It was complicated.
Planning the trip, I had to settle on one definition of remote, and to do that, I’d talked to husband-and-wife biologists Ryan and Rebecca Means. In an effort to find what’s left of the American wilderness, the two devised a scientific method to calculate and map the most remote spot in each state. The premise was simple: Where there are people, there are roads. Hence, the most remote place in each state is the spot that’s farthest from a road. The results vary. Wyoming’s most remote spot is 21.6 miles from a road. Ohio’s is 1.2.
In North Carolina, you can only get, at most, 5.5 miles from a road, and that precise spot, the most remote spot in the state, is in the Smokies west of Bryson City. In 2011, the Meanses traveled there themselves and wrote a detailed blog post about the experience. As a practice, they don’t release the exact coordinates of the remote spots, but based on the blog, I was able to calculate them myself.
Dwayne nodded along, sipping his beer, as I explained all of this.
This could be tough, I said.
Dwayne seemed unfazed.
At first, the hike was not tough. Dwayne, Andrew, and I started at the end of the Road to Nowhere, the fabled highway that ends in a tunnel six miles west of Bryson City. When we were on the other side, we followed a series of well-traveled trails. Below a wide footbridge over Forney Creek, we waded into the cold water to fly-fish for brook trout, catching nothing with our nymphs. A black snake wriggled across the trail. Yellow butterflies flitted about. We squeezed under a fallen tree as the trail ran up the side of a ridge next to rushing Bear Creek, the sunlight filtering down through the oaks and hickories. Nobody was out of breath, so we were in the mood to talk. Dwayne told us about how he had earned the trail name Jelly Bean. During his 2,185-mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he shared his jelly beans with a fellow hiker. That hiker unknowingly gave him norovirus in exchange.
“How did you find out?” Andrew asked.
“You find out pretty quickly,” Dwayne replied.
It was a six-mile hike to our primitive campsite, which we reached in the early afternoon, ahead of schedule. There, we saw something we hadn’t expected: other people. Two gruff men, Jeff Woodby and Tony Webb, were in the middle of an eight-day ramble through the backcountry. They’d come out for peace and solitude, not company. “We were surprised to see you walk into the campsite, to be honest,” Jeff said. “Because in the last three years, we’ve hiked close to 300 miles, and we’ve run into maybe a dozen people the entire time.”
Jeff and Tony are ex-military guys, both in their late 50s, and their stern look and camouflage gear belied their friendly nature. Most of their clothing hung on lines between trees. They’d gotten caught in a thunderstorm the day before and had forded Forney Creek at flood level. “If you go in, you’re done,” Tony said.
“If you’re gonna be dumb, you’ve gotta be tough,” Jeff said, chuckling.
Tony explained that if something did happen to one of them, the other guy would likely make it out. But if, God forbid, they both met their end out here in the Smokies, they were OK with that. “This is the greatest place in the world to be,” Tony said. Jeff nodded. They were both dead serious. Solemn.
At that moment, Dwayne unfurled a slackline, tied it to a pair of trees, and started across it like a tightrope walker.
• • •
I didn’t know what to make of Dwayne. He seemed loose and carefree in a way that I could only dream of being, packing for a three-day backpacking trip with seemingly the same rigor that I’d use for a jaunt to the ice cream shop. He relied on Pop-Tarts for energy. He seemed unconcerned about rain. He talked about hiking the AT, then driving up to Alaska to, you know, check that out, then heading back down to Montana, then Alaska again, then Oregon, then Montana. “And now, I’m here,” he said. Probably not for long. He was a nomad, with shaggy hair, a trucker hat, and a shifting address, living the Van Life, albeit without the carefully curated Instagram account.
You must have been into this for a long time, I said to him. You know, living in the mountains. You must have loved the outdoors. Hiking. Camping.
“Oh, no,” Dwayne said. “I felt like it was something that I needed to do because of circumstances in my life. I needed a reset.”
I asked him why. He paused.
“The truth? I went through a really nasty divorce,” Dwayne said. One day, his wife told him she didn’t love him anymore. “There’s something in you that gets broken in that, and you need to make penance with it.”
A friend invited him to go hiking. Dwayne had only hiked a handful of miles in his life. The friend later backed out, but Dwayne decided to go anyway. He gathered up some gear, drove to Springer Mountain, Georgia — the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail — and started walking north. He got to the other end, atop Katahdin in Maine, on his 30th birthday. That was two years ago, and he’s been exploring ever since. His job as a web developer allowed him to work wherever he could find Wi-Fi. But he insisted that his wanderlust was not unlimited. “Eventually, you get to Everest, and you’ve climbed the highest peak, and there’s no higher peak to climb,” he said. “I think it’s a trap to always be exploring.”
Dwayne, without knowing it, had been talking about me. I knew the remote spot was just a spot. It wasn’t like there was buried treasure there. But in truth, it was my Everest. I’d built it up in my mind that the place would mean something, simply because it was the hardest to reach. For years, I’d been crisscrossing North Carolina, exploring without any real sense of what I was looking for. I was convinced that here, I would figure it out.
I asked Dwayne what he’d figured out. “I don’t know if it’s anything specific,” he said. “You feel more confident in who you are. Maybe I’m not supposed to be a great athlete, and that’s OK. Maybe I’m not going to be the next millionaire, and that’s OK. Having peace with who you are, instead of trying to be someone that you’re not, is the big part of being alone.”
III. The Red Pin
I awoke the next morning in my tent to the sound of rain hitting the flap. Water pooled around my heels. The Smokies get up to eight feet of rainfall each year, making the range the wettest place in North Carolina. That deluge of water fills streams and sends plants into overdrive, making the forest lush and thick, with green shoots, saplings, underbrush, and a thick canopy in every direction. At ground level, the Smokies look like they were drawn by a Disney animator.
As a practical matter, though, rain sucks. We had a tough climb to get to the trail that ran along the top of Welch Ridge, gaining 2,500 feet of elevation over three miles. We said goodbye to Jeff and Tony and left our tents behind, to return to them later that afternoon. I packed light, but quickly gained that weight back as water filled my boots. My rain-resistant gear kept the rain out but the sweat in. Dwayne’s polyester wardrobe embraced the wetness, and thus, he seemed to float uphill. He was buoyant.
Atop Welch Ridge, it was time to regroup. I asked Andrew to pull out his GPS device.
“Huh? What?” he said, distracted.
“You have your GPS?”
“Uh, nope,” he said.
Weeks ago, I’d sent the coordinates to Andrew, assuming, like a dolt, that he’d bring his GPS locator. He hadn’t. We’d come all this way, and now I had no idea which way to go.
It was my fault, because technology had made me too comfortable and casual, unable to fully prepare for a journey into an analog swath of a digital world. This trip was, in part, a status report on my senses, which had been dulled by the instant answer machine in my pocket. I would have to guide us with a map. I’d have to pitch a tent to stay dry. I’d have to filter water and prepare freeze-dried food. It was impossible to rely on the Internet for directions. For a forecast. For help.
But the one thing I couldn’t do without technology was put us precisely on the most remote spot, and I’d forgotten to ask for the only piece of equipment that could ensure that we got there. We huddled together in the rain, trying to figure out what to do. Reflexively, I pulled out my useless phone.
Except that it wasn’t useless. Without cell service, the map was blank. But I noticed something: the blue dot that represented our location. There was no context, but it showed that the GPS worked. I typed in the coordinates of the most remote spot, and a red pin appeared. And thus, our trip into the wilderness — our journey deep into the natural world — instantly became a video game. To win, we needed to make the blue dot touch the red pin.
We followed the trail for about a mile, through the dripping mist and gray of the clouds, which had enveloped us after we’d climbed up to 4,900 feet. I knew that at some point, we’d have to descend a short distance down the side of a ridge, away from the path. We gazed into the underbrush.
“That’s kind of a ridge,” Dwayne said.
“This seems ridge-ish,” Andrew agreed.
Down the slope we went. Immediately, the ease of trail hiking vanished. The ground was soft, squishy, and slippery. Every step was tentative. Every few feet, my pack got snagged. I shouted directions, but Dwayne led the way, his green shirt making him extremely hard to follow through the mountain laurel and maple saplings. As soon as I’d built up the confidence to start moving faster, I slipped and fell on a patch of mud hidden by a clump of hostas.
It took 20 minutes to go roughly a quarter-mile. Elisha Mitchell popped back into my mind. During a rainstorm, he’d tried to get off the mountain by leaving the trail. He left tracks as he crossed through soggy ferns and thick moss. Not long after, Mitchell tried to cross a stream and fell to his death from a waterfall. I looked at my path ahead. There were plenty of ferns and moss.
I wiped the beads of water from my phone and looked at the screen. The blue dot was touching the red pin. I told Andrew and Dwayne to hold up.
“This is it,” I declared. This was the most remote spot in North Carolina.
There was a pause.
“This definitely looks like the middle of nowhere,” Andrew said.
I waited. I waited to feel something. Something other than rain hitting the brim of my hat.
“Who in their right mind would come out here?” Andrew said. “Nobody.”
Dwayne looked at his surroundings. “It’d be even cooler if we saw a bear,” he said.
My stomach sank in the same way it does when you convince your friends to go to a party, and the party stinks. We had hiked a day and a half to come to a spot in the woods. A spot that looked like any other spot in the woods.
And now, we had to hike back.
We stayed for 15 minutes, trying to soak up whatever the wilderness was going to give us. We listened, but only heard rain. We looked, but only saw green. We paused, but only felt an itching to return. Andrew took some pictures, and then we started back up the hill, trying to find the trail.
It was then that the forest provided clues that we weren’t as far away from humanity as we’d thought. A moment before we stepped back onto the path, we saw a pair of muddy, forgotten socks sitting atop matted leaves. As we started back the way we’d come, we found an old pipe sticking out of the hillside, trickling spring water from its mouth. We passed a few women from the Chattanooga hiking club. We continued down Welch Ridge until we reached High Rocks, the site of a dismantled fire tower. A rusted stool sat atop a rock outcrop that, on clear days, was a perfect spot to take in a panoramic view of the Smokies. Today, there was nothing but gray.
We’d planned a three-day hike, and had expected to spend the night at the same campsite as the night before. But we returned to camp at 3, and with no end to the rain in sight, we would each be hunkered down in our tents until morning — a 15-hour wait for, well, nothing. My sleeping bag was soggy. My fingers were wrinkled. We knew what we needed to do: Get out. Before nightfall.
The hike was nothing like the lovely stroll of the day before. The creeks were angry. Water squirted out of the toes of my boots with every step. My pack was heavier with the new weight of my camping gear and the rainwater that was seeping inside. With a few miles to go, the downpour stopped for about 15 minutes. The sun came out, the air instantly became hot and soupy, and we were all perversely relieved when the rain started again.
By the last mile, my brain was in survival mode. Through most of the trip, I’d been on a flighty search for metaphor. I’d seen a squeaking grouse cross our path. Fireflies had illuminated the outside of my tent like tiny headlights. I’d seen a white clump of quartz among the dark soil. I’d felt my toes tingle as I stepped into a stream. Each time, I tried to channel Thoreau or Muir, thinking vaingloriously: This means something.
But now, with an aching back and wobbly legs, my thoughts were primal: Left foot, right foot. You can make it. Go. I wasn’t really in danger, but the adrenaline said otherwise. A few times, Dwayne, still light on his feet, stopped to ask how I was doing. I’d grunt, “OK,” then continue onward. Just before 6, we reached the tunnel and headed for the light at the other end. We’d planned to hike nine miles. We put in 16.
How dumb I’d been, I thought, once ensconced in the safety of my dry, warm car. In three days (abbreviated to two), I’d expected to discover something about myself that I hadn’t already known. As if a quest in the woods — to the most remote place in North Carolina, no less — could shake something loose. It is, maybe, the most modern expectation: that a person can change in an instant, that we can choose the moments that will shape us, that we can find a larger meaning in a weekend, that going to an extreme is a way to prove to ourselves something that we’re really trying to prove to others.
I had tried to choose my own adventure, hoping to come out with a story of a treacherous journey into true isolation. Instead, I was just worn out. Wet. And I wanted to rest.
That evening, Dwayne, Andrew, and I met at Anthony’s in Bryson City to devour our weight in pizza and beer. By then, the rain had let up, and wispy white clouds hung in front of the green mountains. We talked about the day, and Dwayne explained why he’d come with us, two strangers. He hadn’t been out in the woods much lately, he said. He wanted to dip into the adventurous life, if only for a little while.
“I had kinda forgotten what it was like to be on the trail,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is kind of nice. This feels good. I forgot how good this feels.’ ”
I felt it, too: Tired, but refreshed. Good. Happy. There was no larger meaning out there in the woods. But the smallest joys — a drink of clean water, a full stomach, a dry place to sleep — seemed to matter more. Maybe remote isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.
We paid the bill, split up, and headed for the least remote place we could think of: home.