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'Who In Their Right Mind Would Go Out Here?': A Hike To The Most Remote Part Of NC

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Andrew Kornylak/Our State Magazine

Sometimes, we need to get away from it all. But in North Carolina, you might not realize how hard of a proposition that is. A while back, Our State magazine’s Jeremy Markovich set out to find the most remote place in North Carolina. It was a long journey, and the trip did not turn out like he’d expected. Here’s his report from the backcountry of western North Carolina.

This story begins where the road ends. And in this case, the road ends in a tunnel at the end of what’s called the “Road to Nowhere.” It’s a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that was never finished, and ends on the other side of a tunnel a few miles west of Bryson City.

The trails on the other side will get us very close to the most remote place in North Carolina. In all, it’s a 21-mile hike that’ll take us two days. But first, how do you figure out which one is the most remote?

“The definition of remote that we settled on [is] the farthest distance from a road,” said Rebecca Means. She and her husband are biologists from Florida.

“It took us a while to come up with that definition,” she said.

Years ago, they also wondered about how to define “remote.” And so, they came up with a definition based on a simple premise: Where there are roads, there are people. So, the most remote spot is the spot that’s the farthest distance from a road.

By Ryan and Rebecca’s definition, the most remote spot in North Carolina is deep in the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains State Park – 5.5 miles from a road. That’s where I find myself hiking with my friend, the photographer Andrew Kornylak, and a local guy we found in Bryson City named Dwayne Parton. Dwayne has thru-hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, and got the trail name “Jellybean” because one time he’d shared his jellybeans with another hiker. That hiker gave him the norovirus.

The first day of hiking was easy. The weather was great. We crossed beautiful mountain streams, saw butterflies and snakes. When we got to the campsite, we sat down and talked with Dwayne. He loved the outdoors, but came to hiking late in life. He needed to reset.

“Well the truth [is], I went through a really nasty divorce,” Dwayne said. “Everything that you knew about yourself is gone. It’s like. You wake up and someone that you love tells you, ‘Hey I don’t love you.’ Oh my gosh, what just happened? You’re floored.”

So, three years ago, Dwayne hiked the Appalachian Trail — and finished on his 30th birthday. Since then, he’s bounced around a bit. Alaska, Oregon, Montana and then back to North Carolina.

“I don’t know if it’s anything specific, you just feel more confident in who you are like,” Dwayne said. “For example, maybe my voice is just never meant to sound like someone who can sing really well, and just coming to grips with that. That’s just who I am, and that’s okay. Like, having peace with who you are instead of trying to be someone that you’re not is the big part of being alone.”

Here’s a fun fact: The Smokies are the wettest part of North Carolina. Some parts get up to eight feet of rainfall every year. And so, we set out to find the most remote spot in North Carolina in a downpour.

First, we hiked up to the top of a ridge. Then, at 4,900 feet in elevation, we followed a new trail along the ridgeline for a mile until we had to leave the trail behind. This is why we’d brought Dwayne with us, because he’s had experience going off-trail. It’s not something you take lightly. Right away, we were surrounded by green in every direction. Dwayne was wearing a green shirt — not the best choice. Plus, it was slippery and I fell.

But soon, thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the most remote spot in North Carolina.

“Who in their right mind would go out here? Nobody!” quipped Andrew.

It was anti-climactic. It was a spot in the woods that looked like every other spot in the woods.

We’d planned on staying here longer — to listen, to look around and to feel what we could feel. But we were wet and tired. After 15 minutes, we set back out to find the trail. After a long, long hike, we made it back to our cars just before nightfall.

That night, Dwayne, Andrew and I had pizza and beer in Bryson City. By then, the rain had let up and you could see wispy white clouds hanging among the green mountains. In that moment, I remembered what Dwayne had said the day before about his reason for coming with us.

“I had kind of forgotten what it was like to be on the trail,” he said. “So, you come out and set up camp and you’re walking around in the woods and there’s no internet to distract you. It’s kind of like ‘Oh wow, this is kind of nice. Yeah, this feels good. I forgot how good this feels.’”

Remote isn’t always a place. Sometimes, it’s a state of mind.

This story was adapted from a podcast called “Away Message,” which is about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places and things. If you’d like to read more about the most remote spot and see pictures from the trip, you can find both in the October issue of Our State magazine.