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  • Ken Ilgunas

A walk across Stokes County

I have friends editing the book at the moment, so–to stretch my legs–I took two days to hike the 28-mile Sauratown Trail that spans across Stokes County, North Carolina. I started at Pilot Mountain in Surry County in the west and finished in Hanging Rock State Park in the east.

One of the most iconic features of all of North Carolina is Pilot Mountain, a tree-topped teat jutting from the round udder of the Piedmont. The mountain is a 2,421-foot tall “metamorphic quartzite monadnock,” also referred to as “Mount Pilot” in The Andy Griffith Show, which was set in the fictional town of Mayberry.

Stokes County, abutting the southern border of Virginia, is home to 47,401 residents who live in small villages and along country roads. The county formed in 1789, and was named after a Revolutionary War captain, John Stokes. For decades, the county residents were involved in the mining, iron-making, and tobacco-farming industries, but around 1850, Stokes began to develop into a “resort town.” Affluent visitors from Winston-Salem would travel to Stokes to stay at one of three grandiose, Shining-like hotels nestled in the Sauratown Mountains, where European orchestras would entertain.

The hotels burnt down long ago, and Stokes, today–without a flagship industry–seems to be suffering from a mild identity crisis. Much of the rolling farmland has gone fallow, and the old barns–careening green-bearded Pisas–have been left to rot. There are hideous chain restaurants in the towns, ruthless crystal meth murders, and obese kids who have calves as meaty and round as roast chickens. The place just feels old and forgotten, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There is a silver lining to neglect and disinterest. The woods still grow tall and green, the streams run wild and clear, and the farmland is some of the most glorious scenery I’ve ever set eyes on.

While most of the Sauratown Trail goes through forest, a great deal of it leads the hiker over private farmland. While there are, no doubt, benefits to immersing yourself in wild man-less, machine-less country for days or weeks on end, leaving the trees for a short sojourn on bucolic farmland is always a treat for the eyes. It is just one of those timeless complementary combinations of pleasure: wine and cheese, milk and cereal, beer and pretzels; if there is anything that makes you want to plod on, it’s a variegated landscape.

A good portion of the trail takes the hiker down backwoods country roads.

Pine and poplar forest.

Lots of holly, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons in some of the lower, shadier elevations.

Hanging Rock is in the distance.

The cave below is called “Torey’s Den.” During the Revolutionary War, there were several skirmishes in the area between the American patriots (called the Whigs) and the British loyalists (called the Tories). In one such skirmish, a gang of Tories, who had been removed from their land, stole provisions from (and allegedly the daughter of) Colonel Martin, a Whig leader. About 100 Tories were hiding in this cave. None escaped Colonel Martin’s wrath.

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