Danny Bernstein never met a mountain that she didn’t like. Or a valley, a meadow, or forest trail.
Over the course of forty-four years, Danny has logged countless miles on hiking trails, incidentally wearing out countless pairs of boots along the way. And as she sums it all up, “My favorite hike is the next one.”
The words come out with a characteristic grin and the telltale remnants of an accent that traces to her youth in Brooklyn. In the Borough Park neighborhood where Danny grew up, the suggestion “Take a hike,” was not meant as an invitation to enjoy a peaceful day in the forest. And, looking back, Danny can’t recall any early urges to explore the great outdoors.
So it comes as a reminder of life’s surprises when she sits down in her comfortable North Asheville home to discuss her third book about her decades-long passion: hiking.
The kismet moment came in 1969 when she and her husband, Lenny, newly arrived in New Jersey to begin their professional careers, noticed a newspaper ad inviting readers to join a local hiking club. On a hike the following Sunday, Danny recalls, “We could barely keep up with people my parents’ age.” But that hike began a path that now has stretched over four decades through the eastern United States, to Europe and even New Zealand.
It would seem unlikely that a convivial child of New York City could find joy in the solitary expanses of the great outdoors, but Danny reveals an aspect of hiking that spans the gap. She says it is actually a social experience.
“You hike in groups,” she says. “Or at least with another person. When I hear people say, ‘I go to the woods to find myself,’ I know they’re only walking a mile or two.” The grin widens.
Lenny’s career eventually took the family – they now had a son – to England, where their hiking horizons expanded to Scotland, Wales, Norway, France, Portugal, Spain, and maybe a couple of other countries Danny can’t recall as she sips her coffee. A plate of cookies and some hot coffee on a blustery morning turn our interview into a casual conversation and lend subtle support to her self-image as a social person.
Her story moves back to the United States, where she decided to shift career gears from corporate to academia. She began teaching computer science at Kean University in New Jersey, all the while logging miles on the hiking trails of New England and the Mid-Atlantic States.
With academia came the opportunity for sabbaticals, which Danny used to broaden her horizon even farther. She took a six-month leave to teach in New Zealand, an experience that still leaves her enthusiastic all these years later. “The people there are wonderful, and the scenery is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen anywhere. I went back for a second sabbatical, and this time Lenny went with me. That’s how much I loved the place. Later I kept returning, first by leading hiking tours, and now I’ve been there eight times.”
By now she had hiked on three continents and long ago had lost track of the thousands of miles she had covered. But she and Lenny had still not completed that iconic walk that ran virtually through their backyard: the Appalachian Trail.
Known as the A.T. in hiker lingo, the trail stretches from Maine to Georgia, a distance of 2,185 miles and a major attraction on the summer hiking circuit for everyone from the most accomplished hikers to the gadflies who stroll a couple of miles on a warm Sunday afternoon. Danny and Lenny decided it was time to complete the trail.
“Lenny loves lists,” she says. “He’s a record-keeper. We had done several segments of the A.T., but we started doing it very haphazardly, a few miles here and there, not a consecutive stretch. Lenny had it all in his records, though, and finally he realized we had covered a lot of the trail. We decided to finish it.”
That was in 1992, and it turned out to be a fateful decision.
“That’s how we discovered Asheville a few years later. I drove down here and looked around before our yearly A.T. backpacking trip. Lenny flew down a couple of days later. In the meantime I saw more of the area and thought this was a pretty nice place. But what sealed the deal was the Fine Arts Theatre.” She pauses and smiles at the memory of her discovery.
“I looked at the marquee and said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. We have to go into New York to see these movies and they have them right here. This place must be something special.’ When Lenny arrived, I told him, ‘We’re going to retire here.’ He looked at me like I was crazy. But four years later we did it. It seemed like the right place. And you had all these mountains around.”
A common question among newcomers to the area is, “What brought you here?” If anyone asks Danny that, she can accurately answer, “We walked.”
By now, hiking had become a signature activity, a part of their mutual personality. When pressed for what other recreation they might enjoy, Danny considers for a moment. “We go to plays, we go to movies, we read,” she says.
And what about gardening?
“Sure. I’ll keep our little lawn neat, plant a few flowers, but to me gardening is like housework.”
So it is hiking that fires the imagination, and here was Asheville with its miles of hiking trails over, around and through the local mountains. Since their arrival twelve years ago, Danny and Lenny have walked another couple of thousand miles, learning enough about the terrain that Danny has published two guidebooks.
And then she took on another challenge: the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that covers a thousand miles across North Carolina. The trail follows a semi-Great Circle route from Clingmans Dome at the western end of the state, up through the mountains, almost touching the Virginia border and then winding back down through the Piedmont and on out to the coastal plain, ending at Jockey's Ridge in the Outer Banks.
It is a virtual sampler of American topography, “from the mountains to the prairie to the ocean white with foam.” And it is a formidable challenge. It took Danny and her walking partner seventy-eight hiking days to complete. At the end she was well ready to sit at her computer for almost a year, pounding out her book.
One unique aspect of the trail is that it includes stretches of open, rural roads, taking the hiker through small towns along the way. It avoids the cities, hooking around the Raleigh-Durham triangle and embracing the small, out-of-the-way places that echo back to a simpler time. For a dedicated hiker who acknowledges her social streak, this brush with civilization was a different kind of delight – a trail of human connections.
It also includes multiple historical connections, such as the Overmountain Victory Trail, which runs from Tennessee to Kings Mountain, South Carolina. Today’s hiking trail follows a stretch of the fourteen-day march of Revolutionary War Patriots to a battle with British forces. The Patriots routed the Redcoats, establishing the Carolina colonies as firmly opposed to the British Crown. Beyond the sociable miles and the historic markers, Danny came upon another surprise.
“I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is past the mountains. The Piedmont is gorgeous, with farmland stretching for miles. And the trail runs through several state parks. Farms, wild flowers, grazing land meadows and bluffs. It’s just beautiful.”
Danny’s latest book, The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina, takes the reader along her thousand-mile trek, pointing out the history, the flora, the quaint little villages along the way. It presents a temptation for the hiker to get a close-up look at this beautiful and intriguing state, and for the idle reader it is a wonderful companion for a chilly afternoon sitting in front of a fireplace to let your imagination do the walking.
And if you should find yourself out on a hiking trail, you well might meet Danny around the next bend. After all those miles in all those countries she’s still not ready to slow down. She looks to her future with this manifesto: “Too many mountains, not enough time.”
Hiking publications by Danny Bernstein:
Hiking the Carolina Mountains. Milestone Press (2007)
Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Milestone Press (2009)
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina: Walking a Thousand Miles
through Wildness, Culture and History. The History Press (2013)