“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” – Sydney J. Harris
After a long, miserable night, I crawled out of my pungent tent, removed my nose plugs, and took a deep cleansing breath. I had survived and had learned a valuable lesson.
Powered by Darn Good Chili after shocks, I began the climb up the enchanting, extremely cool Unaka Mountain, which would turn in to my favorite forested summit hike of the first 400 miles. Half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina, it featured dense spruce and hemlock forests, grassy patches, and fog and mist. I kept expecting Frodo Baggins to emerge from behind a tree, on his way to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Near a campsite at the summit, around mile 355, I stopped to take care of AT Business #4…at the recently named Darn Good Patch.
I descended Unaka Mountain and then began a series of ups and downs, including the picturesque Little Bald Knob. After a 13.9 mile day, I rolled into the Clyde Smith Shelter with Tetris, Mumbles, and Old School. After the noises coming from my tent last night, I was surprised Tetris and Mumbles let me stay in the shelter.
Old School is a dentist from North Carolina who recently moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He began a thru-hike attempt last year, going from Harpers Ferry to Maine, and then heading southward from Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, severe winter weather ended his bid, so he’s back this year to finish his hike to Springer. He got the trail name Old School because most of his hiking gear is from the late 70s/early 80s. In fact, he said he went into some museum along the AT that showed a sampling of hiking gear by decade, and several of his items were in the 70s and 80s cases. Around the campfire, he not only answered questions about brushing and flossing, but a series of questions about what we should expect in New Hampshire and Maine. He said the AT in those final two states is every bit as tough as hikers make it out to be.
I awoke and added a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie to my usual pop tart breakfast lineup, because today we would climb the massive, 6285 feet, highly popular Roan Mountain.
Roan Mountain can be divided into two sections, divided by Carvers Gap. Hiking from the south, the first section features Roan High Knob Shelter (the highest backcountry shelter on the entire AT) and the peaks Roan High Bluff and Roan High Knob, which are blanketed by a dense spruce-fir forest. Tollhouse Gap lies between these two peaks and features the Rhododendron Gardens, the largest of its kind in the world. The climb up to the summit was long, hot, and taxing…and the climb down was covered in foot-jarring rocks. Aside from the amazing Tollhouse Gap, I preferred Unaka Mountain over this first section of Roan.
As I descended the mountain towards Carvers Gap, I was tired, hungry, thirsty and my feet and left knee ached. It had been a beautiful, but rugged, several hours of hiking. I thought maybe…just maybe…there would be some magic at the Gap. And there was! Like angels sent from heaven, Haynes and Janice Miller from Bluff City and the Tri-County Church of God had set up a magnificent Trail Magic stop. Janice had been a life-long blood donor and that was an important part of her Christian faith and community service. Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke last Fall and her doctor told her she could no longer donate blood. He said she could find new ways to give her time and her money, so long as she didn’t donate blood. After doing some research and thinking about needs in their community, it dawned on them that perhaps they could serve the AT community as Trail Angels. They did research on things hikers crave, and this was their first day as Trail Angels. They nailed it! Comfortable chairs for multiple hikers…check. A variety of ice cold sodas…check. Grilled hot dogs with buns, homemade chili and mustard…check. Asking if the hikers are ready for another hot dog…check. Homemade brownies…check. A variety of bags of chips and sweets (like Ding Dongs)…check. Hand sanitizer and napkins…check. Trash bag for hikers to unload their trash…check. Good conversation and knowledge/advice about the upcoming towns and section of trail…check. Sufficient cold water for hikers to drink and fill their bottles…check. It was pure bliss and entirely changed my attitude and disposition for the day. The only thing missing was Haynes offering to give me a foot bath and pedicure, but if you’ve seen my feet, you know that’s a bridge too far.
With a full belly and a smile on my face, I continued on toward the second section of Roan Mountain known as Grassy Ridge. It is the longest stretch (7 miles) of grassy bald in the Appalachian Mountains, featuring Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. And guess what else it is? Our new champ! Yes, I would place this section as my favorite section of the AT so far, surpassing even the section north of Spence Field Shelter in the Smokies. If you want to take the family on a day hike of the AT, park at Carvers Gap, head AT north toward the Balds, and thank me later.
On Grassy Ridge Bald I stopped and visited with day hikers Erik and Belle from Milwaukee along with their dogs, Bo and Gabe. We (the people, not the dogs) discussed my thru-hike attempt, and they suggested I pose for an “REI photo” on a rock ledge…so I did. I then took photos of them doing the same.
As I descended the Balds, I hiked along with another hiker previously mentioned in a blog, but I’ll protect his identity here. He asked if I had heard the rumor at Carvers Gap that a section hiker was bringing PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) to the Overmountain Shelter that night, and whether I drank alcohol. I told him I had heard the rumor but didn’t drink alcohol. He asked why not. I told him it was for a variety of reasons related to my faith, family history, and really just wanting to set a good example and have credibility with the many youth groups I’ve led over the past 2+ decades. I have many friends and family members who drink socially, I just think my life will be better off in the long run without alcohol and the baggage that often comes with it. In short, I don’t need it. I get enough of a buzz hiking the AT, living in an RV, and being married to Lil Jan.
He then asked how long I’d been a Christian (was baptized in frigid waters at Dover (DE) Church of Christ on Christmas morning, 1977…age 11) and whether I had been raised going to church (yes). He told me he had an interesting story to share with me about his faith, but would save that for tonight’s campfire (he is a much faster hiker and was ready to accelerate). Sadly, that didn’t happen, but perhaps I’ll run into him again down the road so he can share his story with me.
After a 15.6 mile day, I stopped at Overmountain Shelter, a true AT classic. The shelter is a converted barn with a stunning view, the best shelter view on the AT. The barn appeared in the 1989 movie, Winter People, starring Kurt Russell (a widower) and Kelly McGillis (the unwed mother he loves). The area also has historical significance, as it was traveled by the Overmountain Men, frontiersmen who took part in the Revolutionary War. They are best known for their role in the American victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.
I chose to sleep in the loft out of the wind, rather than down below to view the sunrise. Just when I thought there would only be a few of us up there, ten college students arrived, members of a recreation/hiking club from the University of Florida. I explained that I was a Tennessee Volunteer fan, an aspiring thru-hiker, and an Overmountain Man, and there would be no Gator chomps or Florida fight songs in the loft or by the campfire that night. They agreed.
Between conquering Roan High Knob, hiking the stunning Balds, devouring the fantastic trail magic, conversing with hikers and angels, and sleeping at the famous Overmountain Shelter, I would say Day 35 was my all-around favorite day on the trail so far.
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