This family of six completed the 40 Hike Challenge last year, venturing across almost 1,200 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Hussein El-Genk, Nashua Oraby and their family, like most, were in desperate need of something to break the monotony of quarantine life in the early months of the pandemic. They ventured outside during warm afternoons in May 2020, taking walks together near their home in Watts-Hillandale. They stumbled across the Laurel Bluffs Trail, later learning it is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail – an almost 1,200-mile footpath that stretches from North Carolina’s coast to the Great Smoky Mountains – and Hike No. 21 of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail’s 40 Great Day Hikes Challenge.
Hussein wondered if the trail went all the way to Hillsborough and posed the question to the neighborhood Facebook group. Their next-door neighbor sent them the link to the 40 Hike Challenge, prompting the couple and their four children, Zakariyya, 12, Ayyub, 10, Kareema, 8, and Rasheed, 6, to begin their journey along the trail. In just seven months, they became the first six people to complete the challenge.
What started as a way to get out of the house became an exciting and educational tour of North Carolina. Each of the 40 hikes is selected because it features some historical or geological site, so every trip had a theme. Hussein said it wasn’t long before the kids started asking, “What are we going to learn about today?”
Along the way, the El-Genk family would talk about the history of the towns and cities they passed through, from the evolution of transportation to Civil War battles, and listened to podcasts like NPR’s “Wow in the World” on car rides. Before the challenge, family vacations were usually out-of-state, but Hussein said that the experience made them realize how many great trails, waterfalls and swimming holes are nearby.
“It just really opened up our eyes to all the diversity that North Carolina has to offer,” Nashua says. One of their favorite memories was when the family visited Hatteras Island to complete the Outer Banks hikes during migration season and found themselves surrounded by hundreds of bird species. Nashua says it was like being in National Geographic.
By the end of that trip, the El-Genk family had almost completed all 40 hikes and decided to wrap up the rest by the end of 2020. They finished the challenge on the Falls Lake Trail, where they celebrated with Clif bars and photo ops before the early December sunset sent them on their way.
“I saw the end of the trail, and I had this moment of flashbacks, this catalogue of all of these memories from along the way,” Nashua says. “We learned a lot about who we are as a family. It made us a better team.”
Each family member played a distinct role over the course of the challenge. Ayyub was the fastest and leader of the pack; Kareema served as their cheerleader, making up songs along the way; Zakariyya came up with games and competitions; and Rasheed, the nature lover, brought up the rear with a keen eye for interesting plants.
“He definitely made us stop and smell the roses,” Hussein says.
Nashua and Hussein were impressed by the strength and resiliency their kids showed over the course of the challenge. The family’s first 6-mile walk over flat terrain was met with many breaks, but after a 16.8-mile hike in torrential rain at Linville Gorge, they felt like they could do anything. The kids would say, “Eight miles? That’s nothing!”
“We were surprised when [Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail] said we were the first ones [to complete the challenge],” Nashua says. “It really gave [the kids] a sense of accomplishment.”
Hussein describes the challenge as the family’s “Wilson” – the volleyball personified by Tom Hanks’ character in the film “Castaway” – something that gave them a purpose and removed some of the anxieties caused by the pandemic.
“A lot of things were closed during this time, and the trail wasn’t,” Nashua says.
The El-Genk family hoped to return to some of their favorite spots on the trail this summer, specifically to go camping at Linville Gorge. They also planned to get involved on MST workdays, volunteering to help with trail maintenance and construction as a way to give back to the organization for its efforts to maintain this public resource and create a network for the community.
Hussein and Nashua acknowledge that this feat took a little bit of luck and a whole lot of patience, but they hope to encourage more families to explore the hiking trails of Durham and the rest of the state.
“We’ve done some hiking and camping before this, [but] we weren’t really experts,” Hussein says. “Anyone can do this; the resources are out there, and you can start as easy as you want. In Durham, we’re so lucky … you’re [never more than] 15 minutes away from a really cool hike.”