“How much farther is it to the top of Hump Mountain?” His words were snatched up by a gust of wind and carried off with the horizontal rain that was battering our group of twenty. “Not sure! I’ve never been on this section. I think we still have to cross a turnstile and then it’s not too far past that,” I shouted back. The wind howled, along with another student. “Really???” Welcome to the Appalachian Trail.
This was not the vision that I had when I proposed to take 20 first-year NC State students camping and hiking with Environmental Science professor Katie Winsett in September 2015. We wanted to take environmental majors up to the portion of the AT featured in the Common Reading Program book, Stand Up That Mountain. Author Jay Leutze planned to meet us, and we’d discuss the often-clashing priorities of natural resources, recreation, local economies, and wilderness aesthetics from the breath-taking summit of Hump Mountain.
Up there, at 5587 feet, students would evaluate the landmark case where a state-issued mining permit was revoked, a mine was sited just two miles from a national historic trail, and the voices of a few from rural Appalachia were heard. We’d be able to see the mining site from there and evaluate how close is too close to what many declare to be the most scenic part of the AT. We wanted a memorable, immersive experience. An experience that would inspire them to tackle complex environmental problems as they started their studies and professional lives.
The trip was certainly memorable. As we took down the tents that some students had set up for the first time the night before, I walked through the drizzle into the rustic hiker hostel in an old barn for a cup of gritty black coffee. A grizzled thru-hiker named Doc Holliday cackled. “You’ll have twenty journalism majors by the end of the day,” he declared. Many hikers, including Doc, had already decided to take a rest day at the hostel, given the dismal forecast. I smiled and shook my head. “Nope, these kids are tough. They’re going to be great. They just don’t know it yet.”
The hike began with a steep climb up the Overmountain Victory Trail to Yellow Gap, then turned onto the AT with another ascent up Little Hump. By the time we reached 5000 feet, visibility on the open bald was reduced to about 50 feet, temperatures had dropped into the mid-50s, and winds were gusting above 35 mph. The flimsy dollar ponchos that many students bought at the bookstore flapped uselessly as we were drenched by sheets of rain.
Jay appeared out of the gale on the ridgeline of Little Hump, greeting us with some of his family. We couldn’t see the proposed mine site on Bellview Mountain, and it was too cold to linger on the open ridge. He recalled the countless times he met state officials on this spot to show them, first-hand, how close the mine was, only to have days like this one that made them skeptical of the visual impact.
Jay warmed us with his words, telling the students that they were the key future players in the countless battles for natural resources and public land. In fact, the broadly supported Land and Water Conservation Fund was set to expire, and did expire, just days after our trip. [It has since received a five-year renewal.]
After eating lunch and piling on additional layers, we shouldered our packs and began the steep ascent to Hump Mountain. Beyond the summit, the trail was a long descent to Highway 19E, back to the hostel where we camped. Eleven strenuous miles was well beyond what many students in our group had ever tackled. Spirits lagged, yet their feet kept moving forward. When we reached our destination, the sense of excitement and accomplishment among our crew was palpable beneath their tousled hair and rain-soaked faces.
The story of Stand Up That Mountain was one of perseverance. Although the mining permit revocation was eventually upheld, it was a long fight, filled with wrong turns, delays, triumphs, and setbacks. These challenges resonated with our group. As participant Stacy Partin reflected, “As someone who is fighting for environmental and social justice, I felt a sense of clarity by taking heart in Jay’s story as a breadcrumb trail. While our battles may be increasingly nuanced and alarming, a high degree of persistence can aid us in defeating adversity.”
Our Stand Up That Mountain adventure was instructive, but not in the way we anticipated. It was achievement in the face of challenge, taking the long road, navigating the unexpected, and pushing personal boundaries. The endurance earned on our Appalachian Trail adventure will guide these first- year students along the winding trails that lie ahead in both their personal and professional lives.
by: Steph Jeffries