Joey Moffitt wore a T-shirt, boots, and faded blue jeans with frayed hems. His hair was brown, longish, and scraggly. I was still in high school; Joey was a couple
Joey Moffitt wore a T-shirt, boots, and faded blue jeans with frayed hems. His hair was brown, longish, and scraggly. I was still in high school; Joey was a couple years older. It was the late 1970s, and he had a little orange Jensen-Healey convertible that we would take for spins along the rolling country roads that cut through the northern part of Uwharrie National Forest just south of Asheboro. During those drives, we’d talk about everything under the sun over the din of a cassette tape blaring Southern rock music by Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers Band. On this day, we were talking about hiking and camping and canoeing.
“My father wrote a book about these woods,” Joey shouted over the music as we rounded a curve on Pisgah Covered Bridge Road, the wind whipping our hair into knotted string mops. Later, at his house, Joey pulled out a dog-eared, 152-page, stapled-together hodgepodge of frontier folklore entitled An Afternoon Hike Into the Past. Inside the booklet, in plain Courier typeface, Troop 570 Scoutmaster Joseph T. Moffitt described his childhood in the Uwharries of the 1920s and ’30s; told stories of spirits that haunted these hills, of moonshiners and abandoned gold mines; and shared old-time recipes, herbal remedies, and lessons on trapping, basketmaking, and surviving in the wilderness. At the back of the book were a few pages of maps — hand-drawn by Joey for an Eagle Scout project — of the Uwharrie Trail.
In 1968, the elder Moffitt spearheaded one of the earliest outdoor recreation projects that the 51,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest had seen since its federal designation seven years before. Moffitt, his Scout troop, and other Asheboro-area outdoor enthusiasts began cutting the first 30 miles of what he envisioned as a 50-mile path from the Birkhead Mountains in Randolph County into the wilds of Montgomery County to the south. Most hikers were familiar with the 300-plus miles of Appalachian Trail that thread through western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Moffitt’s idea: create a mini Appalachian Trail right smack in the heart of the state. The problem was, the Randolph County stretch of federally owned land looked like pieces of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle amid mostly privately owned property. Cutting a trail straight through to Montgomery would be tricky. Since Moffitt had grown up in the area and knew many of the landowners, he made handshake deals with some of them to connect the northern part with the southern part just below a spot called Jumping Off Rock.
By the early ’70s, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Robert Carey and members of the Youth Conservation Corps had completed a more official 20-mile Montgomery County stretch of the Uwharrie Trail, which today begins at Jumping Off Rock and runs south to NC Highway 24/27 near the community of Woodrun. But the northern trail system in Randolph County remained fragmented, as some of the landowners changed their minds about allowing hikers through their property, and other privately owned tracts changed hands over the years. By 1980, progress had stalled on Moffitt’s idea of a full, 50-mile Uwharrie Trail. To the U.S. Forest Service, those old handshake deals that he’d made were never binding anyway. And until all gaps in the Randolph County part of the trail were sewn up — owned and recognized by the Forest Service — Moffitt’s ultimate vision would not be realized.
This is where the Uwharrie Trailblazers come in. Officially formed in 2012, the ragtag group of longtime outdoor swashbucklers had been gathering in the forest since the late ’90s to continue the efforts that Moffitt began: blazing trails, constructing new ones, and helping maintain sanctioned parts of the current trail and its side paths. Headed up by Greensboro-based outdoorsman David Craft, the group works closely with Three Rivers Land Trust and the U.S. Forest Service on permanently acquiring properties that will bridge all of the gaps in the Uwharrie Trail.
In the past decade, the Land Trust and the Trailblazers have built up four of the last five gaps — at King Mountain, Little Long Mountain, Walkers Creek, and Tot Hill. Only one stretch remains unfinished: the Strieby area at the southern tip of the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, between the Walkers Creek Trailhead on High Pine Church Road and the Tot Hill Farm Trailhead just south of the Asheboro Regional Airport. Closing that gap is the Uwharrie Trailblazers’ No. 1 priority.
• • •
The sun has just come up over a sprawling cornfield at the intersection of Pisgah Covered Bridge Road and High Pine Church Road. I’ve tagged along with Craft, Randolph County Trails Coordinator Mary Joan Pugh, and about 10 other members of the Uwharrie Trailblazers for one of their Saturday morning workdays. We’ve rendezvoused on the side of the road about a mile away from Walkers Creek Trailhead, one of the newer trailheads in the northern part of the Uwharries. The group wants to get the area looking good in time for the upcoming four-day Uwharrie Trail Thru-Hike in about a month. Most of the folks gathered here wear rust-orange T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the previous year’s thru-hike, an annual event since 2013 that runs the entire length of the trail. Today, we’ll be doing basic cleanup work — picking up trash, knocking down weeds and underbrush, and repainting blazes on trees. Armed with sling blades, scrapers, string trimmers, and cases of bottled water, members of the group jump into pickup trucks to be carted around to the various trailheads. Pugh points down High Pine Church Road and sighs. “Because of the gap,” she tells me, “you have to walk on that road, and on Lassiter Mill Road, for about three miles during the last day of the hike.” She shakes her head. “And that’s a shame. It’s the only place on the entire hike where you’re not on the trail.”
As dawn turns to late morning, I’m transported back to my teen years, following behind Pugh and Craft as I’d done decades earlier with my more experienced hiker friends, like Joey Moffitt. The only sounds are the gentle crunching of leaves, the occasional squawk of a bird overhead, and wind softly blowing through the branches of tall oaks. We’ve stopped to paint white blazes onto tree trunks — indicators of the trail’s direction — when Craft, in a ball cap, tan cargo shorts, and green socks pulled tight against his calves, blurts out, “Monopoly money!”
I furrow my brow, and he explains: “That’s the size you paint the blazes.” He watches closely as Pugh, using a scraper, carves a small rectangle into the bark of a tree and then slathers on a Monopoly money-size rectangle of paint. “Some people will tell you, ‘Oh, you can do ’em dollar-bill-size,’ but that’s way too big,” Craft says. He inspects Pugh’s handiwork and smiles — “That’s good. That’s perfect!” — and we move on.
• • •
About 500 million years ago — before Native Americans roamed these hills, before Europeans cleared the land for timber and farms, back when North America, Africa, and other landmasses were part of the same continent — the Uwharries formed as huge mountains that are thought to have reached heights of 20,000 feet. Today, they top out at just over 1,100 feet. “Supposedly,” Craft says, “the Uwharries are the oldest mountains in the world, worn down by time. At this point, I suppose, someone could say, ‘Oh, they’re not real mountains.’” He looks out over the gentle beauty of a little valley that slopes down from the trail we’re on, then continues philosophically: “But, really, when do mountains cease being mountains?”
In the 1800s, gold was discovered in the Uwharries, and remnants of old mines can be found from the Birkheads in Randolph County to the riverbanks that branch through Montgomery. The Uwharries were designated national forestland by the Kennedy administration in 1961, and since then, the area’s woodlands have slowly returned, today providing a lush sanctuary for wildlife and a muddy playground for outdoor activities. Much of the southern part of the Uwharries has been well marked and maintained in recent decades, but the areas around the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness in Randolph County remain wild and less visited by weekend hikers. “Scouts love this area because it’s perfect for doing merit badge work and things of that nature,” says Craft, who’s served as an assistant Scoutmaster himself in past years.
By about 10 a.m., we’ve made our way to the top of Walkers Creek Trail, where a metal A-frame outbuilding sits at the edge of a small meadow that leads to a spectacular view: A horizon of rolling hills, including High Rock, Grist, and Wildcat mountains, stretches more than 20 miles to the west, toward Denton. This spot is known as the McArthur Property, for Andy McArthur, who owned the land and wanted it used to help fill in an earlier gap in the Uwharrie Trail. “I was in the office one day when he gave me a call and said, ‘I have this tract of land that should be part of the Uwharrie Trail,’” Crystal Cockman remembers. She’s the director of conservation at Three Rivers Land Trust, whose mission is to conserve natural areas, rural landscapes, family farms, and historic places in 15 central North Carolina counties. Cockman has done much of her work in the Uwharries — because it’s “so neglected,” she says — helping acquire properties and transfer ownership to the Forest Service. “I went out to look at it and saw this view, and I said, ‘You’re right, it should be part of the trail.’”
As for the last gap in the trail, in the Strieby area between the Walkers Creek Trailhead and the Birkhead Wilderness, Craft himself bought 135 acres, of which 10 or 20 will help close the gap. Amy and Ruth Ann Grissom, Charlotte-based sisters who also own land in the area, are interested in helping out as well. But that would still leave another 80 acres that belong to a longtime landowner who had once allowed his property to be used via a handshake deal. That family is willing to trade their property for a similarly sized tract of federally owned land in another area. Unfortunately, according to the Uwharries’ current U.S. district ranger, Michael Spisak, the Forest Service prefers not to do land swaps. But according to Craft, if anybody can make progress on acquiring that last tract, it will be Cockman. “We couldn’t have done any of this without Crystal,” he says. “She’s the one who got to know Andy McArthur. She’s the one who got the wheels turning, and here we are.”
• • •
A little over a month later, we’re here again, on that same McArthur Property meadow in the Walkers Creek area, surrounded by pitched tents and about 100 other hikers and their families. They’ve gathered around a huge campfire on the third day of the 2019 Uwharrie Trail Thru-Hike for an awards ceremony and cookout. The journey here from the Wood Run Trailhead, the starting point about 30 hiking miles to the south, has been exhausting. There’s still one more day of hiking before they finish at Tot Hill Farm, but right now, these folks are resting their weary feet.
“Someone could say, ‘Oh, they’re not real mountains.’ But when do mountains cease being mountains?”
During the ceremony, Craft presents Cockman with an award for her work on the trail as the Grissom sisters, Ranger Spisak, and several Trailblazers look on. After Cockman poses for pictures with her parents, everybody tucks into a meal of chicken, baked beans, and sweet tea. As the sun goes down, kids roast marshmallows over the fire and a bluegrass band twangs out “Rocky Top” under the stars, crickets chirping nearly in harmony with the high-lonesome vocals.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an old friend: Joey Moffitt is here, carrying a yellowed copy of An Afternoon Hike Into the Past, his dad’s book that started it all. He’s donating it to the Trailblazers’ auction. When Joey sees me, he smiles, his scraggly brown hair now salt-and-pepper gray. “Hey man, long time,” he says and motions around at all of the people gathered in the woods. “It’s great what these folks are doing.”
Joey’s father died five years ago, but not before he got the chance to see the Joseph T. Moffitt Trailhead sign unveiled at Little Long Mountain, a few miles south of here. That day, in 2013, the elder Moffitt told a local newspaper reporter that the Uwharrie Trail “won’t never be finished. It’s always got to be maintained.”
A few weeks later, I take yet another trip into the forest to meet with the Uwharrie Trailblazers for their annual planning meeting. I can’t seem to get enough of them — or of revisiting my own memories. It’s an unusually windy afternoon as I drive along the winding Flint Hill Road near the village of Ophir, passing steep slopes that don’t look all that different from some of the hills you’d see along the mountain roads of western North Carolina. I think of Joey and instinctively pull up a Lynyrd Skynyrd song on my iPhone. The singer gets to the line “Did you ever see the beauty of the hills of Carolina?” just as I reach a small cinder-block building next to a little white church.
The parking lot of the Ophir Community Center is crammed with pickup trucks and SUVs. Inside, about 40 people have gathered for an afternoon dinner of chili and cornbread. A local historian gives a brief talk on the cultural history of the Uwharrie Mountains, followed by updates from Craft and Pugh on the thru-hike and other recent accomplishments. And then the group gets down to the business of prioritizing its goals for 2020. Because the Uwharrie Trail won’t never be finished. It’s always got to be maintained.
Take a day hike on the Uwharrie Trail or join the Uwharrie Trailblazers for one of their Saturday morning workdays. To get started, contact the Trailblazers at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit uwharrietrailblazers.org. For more information on hiking in the Uwharries, contact the Uwharrie Ranger District Office, where you’ll find maps to trailheads and even a small, family-friendly trail behind the building.
789 NC Highway 24
Troy, NC 27371