On the Mountains-to-Sea Trail you never know what you are going to see around the next turn – or who you might meet. When I come across folks on the trail I like to ask them where they’re from, how far they plan on hiking, and if they know that they are on a footpath that stretches across North Carolina.

Most of the people I’ve met on the MST have been day hikers, but I have also shared the trail with a few weekend backpackers and section hikers. There is a shared camaraderie when you see someone multiple days in a row. When I hiked near Linville Gorge, I played leapfrog with two middle-aged men on a section hike. The first time I met them I told them about the bear cubs I had spotted just up the trail, the next day they told me where to look for a water source on a dry stretch of trail, the third time we saw each other we greeted one another with cheers and laughter. It was clear that we were sharing more than the trail; we were sharing the joys and struggles of being in the woods.

We tend to judge individuals based on their surroundings, but on the trail everyone shares the same environment. There is no rank or hierarchy on the trail. This allows folks to be more honest than usual and sooner than they otherwise would be. Out there, it’s not about what people do but who they are. And without everyday distractions such as work commitments, house chores, and cell service you get to know other hikers really well, really quickly.

Hiking across the state, I’ve met strangers who have become friends and we have also been greeted by friends who have treated us like family. Brew and I have leaned heavily on our network of hiking peers, college connections, work colleagues, and lifelong contacts to help us across the state. We have spent several nights in our tents, but it has been easier with our kids to spend the night in homes when possible.

We’ve stayed with Christmas tree farmers, school teachers, a retired coal miner, builder, librarian, mechanic, a textile manufacturer, and an IT manager. Even after knowing someone for a very long time, you get a much fuller view of that person when you stay in his or her home. After visiting someone’s house, eating a meal at her dinner table or playing with her kids, you get a much better idea of “where” she is coming from. Our hosts have represented a wide variety of backgrounds and beliefs, yet they have offered common kindness.

I’ve been grateful for the unique bonds I’ve made on the trail and the deep conservations we’ve shared in people’s living rooms. This experience has convinced me that computers, bumper stickers, and news stations are not great places to get to “know” people. Hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has convinced me that we can do better than coexist; we should aim for more than tolerance. We should start conversations, listen with compassion, and strive to connect with one another and care for each other. And a good place to get started is on a dirt path that does not divide us, but brings us together.