On April 21, 2017, six friends and I started out from Greasy Creek Gap, looking to hike along the Appalachian Trail through the Roan Highlands to U.S. 19E, nearly 30 miles away. Our trip coincided with a nasty front that soaked the southern section of the AT for nearly a week. We had a blast.
We drove down to North Carolina after work on Thursday – seven of us piled into a Honda Pilot, along with our gear and an 8-man tent for that evening. The folks at Mountain Harbor Hostel had a tent site reserved for us that we wouldn’t see until after 1:00 am.
On Friday morning, we ate a home-cooked breakfast at Mountain Harbor consisting of eggs, biscuits, gravy, fruits, jellies and a host of other dishes and drinks that filled our bellies for the day ahead. After breakfast, we shuttled to the trailhead so we could hike back to Mountain Harbor, where our ride and a hot shower waited.
We hiked from the drop-off at the Greasy Creek Hostel, a mile or so from the junction with the AT. When we reached the trail, we headed north through an explosion of wildflowers – trillium, spring beauty, blood root and many others. Just short of Hughes Gap, the skies opened up, catching us off-guard with a downpour of Biblical proportions. We all had water in our boots by the time the shower passed, a few minutes later. We ended up at Ash Gap, just shy of Roan Mountain, where we set-up camp, hung up our wet clothes and ate dinner.
After a later start, we crested Roan Mountain and ate lunch at the Roan High Knob Shelter, which is the highest shelter on the AT. Not long after we got back on the trail, another big storm caught us. This time, I had my rain suit on and didn’t mind it as much I had the day before. The trail took us downhill to Carver’s Gap, and we spread out as some refused to put on the brakes. Me and a couple other guys got to the parking lot ahead of the others and dropped our packs and huddled against the rain, which had slackened but was still come down pretty good.
After 10 or 15 minutes, we found out that Mark had turned his ankle in the big, loose rocks and was making slow time. While the rain hadn’t dampened our spirits, this bit of bad news certainly did. We stood around silently, waiting for Mark and Dony, who’d stayed to escort him down the mountain, to emerge from the woods. Mark dropped his pack and sat on the edge of the big Carver’s Gap sign. At least a dozen cars were parked a few feet away, with people getting in and out of them. If something like this had to happen, it couldn’t have happened at a better place.
Mark decided to catch a ride back to the hostel and wait for us to reach him the next day. We said our goodbyes, then crossed the road and headed to Jane Bald, where the clouds hovered just above our heads as we marveled at the beauty of these high places. Coming down the back side of the balds, the clouds parted, allowing the sun to heat things up and fool us into thinking the bad weather was behind us.
We made it to the Overmountain Shelter, a big, red barn overlooking a beautiful cone-shaped valley where we were greeted by a troop of boy scouts and their fathers, who’d long-since given up any attempts at enforcing civility around the camp. Small clumps boys in green shirts scurried from place to place, throwing rocks, climbing trees and setting fire to anything brown.
I dropped my pack next to an old fire-ring, thinking I might enjoy a fire later, but when a group of scouts swarmed it with fists full of twigs and lighters, I gave up on that notion and moved my things to a flat patch of ground near the trail.
Evenings in camp expose our idiosyncrasies for everyone else to see: the grump 50-year old who hates scouts, the fastidious neat freak, the human sloth. Some chatter aimlessly, while others go about their business in silence, pitching tents, sorting gear, cooking freeze-dried meals.
We ate our dinners, then sat under a tarp until dark, telling stories about the day and hoping Mark was all right. Finally, as the first peels of thunder rumbled over the hill behind us, we hobbled off to bed.
Nic woke us just after 6:00 am. It rained and thundered a lightninged a good portion of the night, and based on a weather report from one of the scout dads, we knew there would be a small window of dry weather for breaking camp and getting started.
Kevin and I set about packing and rolling and stuffing our gear in the near dark. The rain had stopped, as predicted, and we hurried along, wanting to be ready to hike before the rain returned.
One-by-one, we gathered in the barn, where a big picnic table stood in the shelter. I ate instant oatmeal and drank water. Before I finished, the scouts showed up, elbowing us out of the way until we finally put our things away and waited for Dony just outside the barn. Glen had forgot to pack pants and a rain jacket, and stood shivering in morning cold. We turned him and Brad loose so he could warm up on the first big climb. Twenty minutes later, we did the same.
The climbs up Little Hump and Big Hump were the stuff of legends. Howling wind, rain and a mist so thick you could grab big handfuls of it awaited us when we broke through the tree line. We could only see about 50 yards ahead of us, and every turn seemed like the last pitch to the top until we finally gave up on hoping. Me, Nic, Kevin and Dony stayed together on those climbs, laughing and shivering and cursing our way up those mountains. It sounds weird, but we all had fun doing it.
Finally, we did reach the top of Big Hump, and rather than stand around and take pictures, we cursed, spat and continued on to the downhill side, anxious to reach the tree line and the shelter it promised.
Halfway down the mountain, Nic and I wordlessly decided that Kevin and Dony were in good shape and took off, going along at a very fast clip, reaching the hostel right at 1:00 pm. Once we all had a shower, we piled into Mark’s Honda and headed for a Mexican restaurant in the next town – our reward for a long, wet weekend on the Appalachian Trail.