In the Cattail Creek community outside Burnsville, North Carolina it was known as “the Mt. Mitchell Hike”. My wife Karen and I did it twice. It was a four-hour trek from the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet, down the Northwest side of the mountain to my Mom and Dad’s cabin on Deep Gap Road. The trail—and I use that term loosely—meandered down steep grades and switchbacks with a drop in elevation of about two thousand feet. There were no signs to point the way, so we needed a guide.
The first couple of hours walking from the Mt. Mitchell peak took us along the ridge of the Black Mountains, through small valleys and up to new peaks. We passed over Big Tom, Balsam Cone, Cattail Peak and Potato Hill. We began our two-thousand-foot descent at a place called Deep Gap and were soon out of the State Park and onto private property. I never saw any signs, but I am pretty sure we were trespassing for the rest of our hike. We never met any resistance from landowners, but if we had been in parts of Western Europe we would have been protected by something called the Right to Roam.
In countries like Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, the freedom to roam the countryside has been written into specific laws. The Right to Roam is considered so important to the health and mental well-being of these nation, that it supersedes that peculiarly American concept of private property—a concept that makes us want to exclude.
In Europe, the right to enter and walk through a person’s property does not include any economic activities like hunting or logging nor does it allow any disruptive activities like building fires and driving off-road vehicles. Instead, every person has a right to explore these vast open spaces; to sleep there; to kayak, swim, and climb; and to ride horses and bicycles. Roamers are even accommodated by landowners with self-closing rambler gates, kissing gates, and climbable stile gates which allow people to pass through but not livestock.
This right, however, is contingent on adhering to a strict set of responsibilities. These are simple, basic rules on how to behave in the countryside in such a way that you neither interrupt the function of a working, agricultural landscape, nor damage the ecology of where you roam. When children grow up in these countries, experiencing nature and learning the code in practical terms, these codes become second nature—part of a wider understanding of how humans should interact with nature and with each other.
The combination of rights and responsibilities creates a relationship with the natural world in which nature is no longer presented like some abstract museum piece, to be observed from afar behind a line of barbed wire. Instead it becomes a multi-sensory tangible experience with unique smells, sounds, and sights. The Right to Roam ensures that the government actively encourages people to go outside. It removes any sense that being in nature is a criminal activity and creates an inherent connection with nature. Right to Roamers feel that nature should be accessible for all and rights of access should be extended to give more people in towns and cities easy access to nature.
The closest thing to a right to roam in this country is our “rails to trails” projects. Americans, it appears, aren’t much for walking long distances. So most of our attention goes to bicycle trails. In Tallahassee, people can ride or walk the twenty-one miles down to the picturesque waterfront village of St. Marks. The Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, South Carolina is a 22-mile multi-use (walking and bicycling) greenway that follows the banks of the Reedy River. And in Atlanta, people have multiple options including the Beltline and the sixty-mile Silver Comet trail. In America, if we want to “ramble”, we need to go to a park, a nature preserve, or an arrow-straight, paved, mini-roadway where we must give way to a steady stream of bicycles.
The Mt. Mitchell hike was a true ramble. We walked along overgrown roadbeds, scrambled down steep grades, and stepped across clear mountain streams. Rambling like that is good for the soul. It was, as they say in Europe, a multi-sensory tangible experience with unique smells, sounds, and sights that created an inherent connection with nature. I need to do it more often.
As far as I know, we had no right to wander down the side of Mt. Mitchell. Once we left the Park boundary, we had no legal authority to cross private property without the owner’s permission. We just did it. In Europe, we would have been protected by law. Here in the United States, who knows what might have happened in the back woods of the Appalachian wilderness. If we had made t-shirts for our hike, the front would have featured something about Mt. Mitchell and it being the highest elevation East of the Mississippi. But the back of the shirt might have recalled the 1972 movie Deliverance and read, “Walk faster. I think I hear banjo music”.