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Catawba College Alum Embracing Mountains-to-Sea Trail

April 14, 2021

Category: Alumni

MST-hiking.jpgA combination of a love of hiking and COVID job freezes led Luke Halton, Class of ’01, back to North Carolina and out on the state’s scenic Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the spring of 2021. 

Luke likes to say that Mechanicsville, PA, is his address, but North Carolina is his home. These days, you will find him on his feet, or bicycle, or in a canoe, enjoying the trail that stretches 1,175 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, stopping at many of the state’s beautiful destinations along the way. It’s part of the North Carolina State Trails System, which is a section of the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. 

Luke, who grew up on military bases in North Carolina and at other locations throughout the world, was already fascinated with the state when Catawba offered him a place in its Honors Program. He came to the College for his undergraduate degree and to play on the basketball team. He chose Catawba because he wanted to be at a smaller school. “I wanted to be close with professors and be involved in student groups,” he says. He has developed lifelong relationships with friends from college and looks forward to group chat jokes and in-person reunions. One of his Catawba teammates, Paul Kuhl, who has hiked the Appalachian Trail, is in touch this spring with hiking advice and trail magic. 

After graduation, Luke worked for Sharpie and IRWIN Tools in Las Vegas. Later, he relocated to Michigan to work as an applications engineer, demonstrating tooling and installing software at manufacturing facilities throughout North America. Two years ago, he moved to Pennsylvania to be near family and complete his Master’s degree in Analytics at Harrisburg University. He ran into the COVID hiring freeze in the final stages of interviews with Deloitte Consulting and Accenture Services. mst-car.jpg

The long trail trip that he is on came about after a winter escape from the Pennsylvania snow to Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. “I just didn’t want to be in the house anymore, and our basketball gyms were closed,” he says. On a visit to his brother’s family in Cherry Point, NC, on the way back to Pennsylvania, he searched for local day hikes and found the Mountains-to-Sea Trail online. 

The “thru hike” has taken him from Cherry Point through the Outer Banks to Jockey’s Ridge, which is the end point for the eastern section of the trail. He has traveled some of the heavy traffic areas of the Piedmont on a rented bicycle, even though it had been over 10 years since he had ridden a road bike. The last section, 300 miles through the North Carolina mountains, will be the most challenging. He plans to complete the trip with a 170-mile canoe ride on the Neuse River back to Cherry Point. 

“I have learned to appreciate North Carolina up close and at a slow pace,” he says. “North Carolina is absolutely beautiful, from Down East, to the central Piedmont farmland, to the old country stores. North Carolina has the best beaches, mountains, and food on the East Coast. “I’m thrilled to meet so many good-natured strangers, and the hospitality across the state is almost overwhelming. I enjoy learning about people I meet — who they are, what they do, and what they enjoy.” mst-lake.jpg

He has also learned that it is OK to accept help. “That’s another important lesson for me. On the trail, if someone offers a bottle of water or food, it’s OK to accept it.” 

He has encountered surprises that are much bigger than looking for a place to take a bath, like a river … or the next campground or trail shelter in the woods for an overnight … or exposure to the elements … or blistered feet … or walking up on snakes, sunning on railroad ties. 

“There are three aspects of being prepared for ‘thru hiking,’” he says.

  • The physical — he was prepared by taking regular day hikes in Pennsylvania during 2020.
  • The mental — “having to plan and think and improvise and problem-solve. I was somewhat prepared by following the trail guides provided by Friends of the MST.”
  • The emotional. “I was not prepared for it. You have all this time to think about your whole life. You are alone with your thoughts for days and weeks at a time. You get to reflect on the people and relationships in your life, and you’re forced to be confronted with regrets, and you think about the future. The emotional part is so powerful and it’s unavoidable. I didn’t imagine this was going to be part of it.” 

Luke says that he has felt the hurt of seasonal depression since moving to Michigan. “I had been trying to either hide it or manage it for the last 10 years,” he says. “I now know that it’s OK to be able to share this part of my life … to take the first step and say, ‘This is the issue,” and it’s OK to admit I might need a little help, and it’s OK to accept help. I do regret that it also hurt the people around me. It is demoralizing to watch someone struggle to achieve their potential and not be able to help.” mst-store.jpg

He takes a break from the trail every 7 to 10 days, called “a zero day,” to nurse the blisters, plan the next route, and reflect. He is deeply appreciative of this experience and what it is bringing to his life. “I found something to keep me active, to keep me energized, and to help me enjoy life the way it should be — simple,” he says. 

Catawba, in addition to giving him the satisfaction of sharing lifelong relations, “has always emphasized the importance of lifelong learning, and that has stayed with me,” he adds. 

“I realized while walking in solitude that I would not trade lives with anyone else,” he says. “However, I do wish that I could re-live some of the great days of my own life. Memory and imagination are powerful, but nothing replaces experiencing special moments — especially with people who are no longer in my life. But I know there will be more of those great days to come, especially during the next few sections of the trail.” 

Luke is chronicling basic fundamentals of ‘thru hiking’ the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail on YouTube.

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