Surprise night hike in the Roan Highlands

Looking west from between Hump Mountain and Little Hump Mountain

Looking west from between Hump Mountain and Little Hump Mountain

I slept comfortably into the morning of Sunday, November 2nd in my hammock behind the historic Cranberry High School in Elk Park. I was awake and picked at some breakfast well before the weekend’s last dancing began. Some of the younger folks I was with decided to go out for coffee, so I accompanied Roboticus and a few others down into town for coffee. Poor cell reception in Elk Park meant my AWOL guide was our reference on where to find coffee, but unfortunately we found the coffee shop closed for Sunday. Instead we went to the diner a little further down the road and sat in solely to get coffee and for one in the party to get breakfast. We returned to the dance a little late for its beginning, and I wound up not dancing too much again today anyways. A month prior in early October I was at Contra Colours and had photographed some of the event when I wasn’t dancing. Now I found the time to transfer those photos over to Jessie, Ed Howe’s wife, as she had arrived in Elk Park for the latter part of this dance weekend.

The realization came to me that I was right at the foot of Roan Mountain here and that I could take advantage of the nice weather to go for a hike while I was here. I chose a nice-looking section from Roan Mountain northbound to Elk Park and packed up for an overnight hike, tentatively planning to stay at Overmountain Shelter or to cowboy camp on one of the expansive bald mountaintops in this section. After the last waltz of the dance weekend I asked around to see if anybody could help me up to Roan Mountain to begin hiking. Mountainsmith, who I had first met at the Lake Eden Arts Festival when we talked about kilts and hiking and childrens’ literature, agreed to bring me up to the trailhead before he continued on his way. I brought my truck down to the diminutive parking area on Route 19E, which was a tight fit with the one other truck parked there and Mountainsmith’s car edge in off the road. A short while later I was up at Carvers Gap and departing northbound into the late afternoon.

Roan Mountain had been somewhat underwhelming when I crossed it back in early April, when I expected to have a great view from the top of my second-to-last 6000-foot mountain on the Trail. The grassy bald mountaintops following Roan, however, were absolutely pleasant back then and were pleasant again now. The sun was setting behind Roan Mountain and I was moving fast to try catching a sunset from Round Bald or Jane Bald. It did not look like I would get a real sunset here but I did get another surprise. Shortly before reaching the side trail to Grassy Ridge Bald I came across a pair of southbound hikers. We recognized each other immediately – it was Boss and Echo, two of the southbounders who had hiked with Shutterbug on the southbound segment of her flip-flop. I had met them when they caught up to Shutterbug in Maryland and we had camped roadside in Warner Gap Hollow before some slackpacking in the last stretch to Harpers Ferry. We did not linger too long as the light was falling and they were headed for Roan High Knob Shelter and we all had a few miles of night hiking ahead of us.

I skipped the half-mile side trail to Grassy Ridge Bald back in early April and I skipped it again this time, knowing the sun would be long gone by the time I made it to the summit. I descended to a slightly lower elevation of 5000 feet at Stan Murray Shelter, arriving there after the last light of the evening. In April this shelter had been in rough shape, with plenty of trash around and branches scattered haphazardly in and around the fire pit. I was pleased to find it was in better shape, though I still think this shelter receives little traffic with the allure of Overmountain Shelter so close at hand. I stayed at Overmountain Shelter on April 8th, arriving before dark and staying with a large number of other hikers. However, I was not going to stay here this evening. Pancakes was hoping for a shuttle from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap early in the morning so she could trail-run the northern half of the Smokies in one day, and I decided to press on so I could arrive as early as possible. I wasn’t sure if this would mean cowboy camping further up the Trail or night hiking all the way back to my truck.

A thought gripped me as I was walking through this section, an idea that really shook me up. I knew I would be revisiting sites from my recently-completed thru-hike and reminiscing on what had happened over this early part of the journey. I had always compared it to living in a story that was being written. While I was still pushing forward and continuing to be a part of a story, I realized that I was also looking back in on a much earlier part of the story. There was a sense that as I walked here I was following my own self of seven months prior, when everything was still very new and uncertain. With the other early-season hikers, I had gone through snow and ice and temperatures well below freezing and the first wave of the norovirus. While we had succeeded against those challenges we had not yet walked 400 miles. Now I could feel myself looking over the shoulders of myself and my fellow hikers, and thinking, “Can you believe they made it?” That story had been written and the conclusions were now known. We could have guessed we would succeed but not known for sure until we walked the last miles, until we had walked to Maine and continued walking to Katahdin or wherever else we finished our hikes.

After passing the side trail to Overmountain Shelter, the Trail left the woods for a while to cross two more grassy balds. I had crossed Little Hump Mountain and Hump Mountain early in the morning on April 9th in order to reach Elk Park before noon and pick up a mail drop. This time I was trying to reach Elk Park before midnight! The lights of civilization were scattered below me on either side and the Milky Way was clear above me. There was a single light I noticed in the distance below and directly behind me coming from the direction of Overmountain Shelter. I was not sure what this was, whether I had caught a distant glimpse of a camper at Overmountain Shelter or there was another night hiker moving up behind me or if I had just imagined this lonely point of light in the woods. Nobody passed me over the rest of the night, even when I stopped at a couple points for photos, so I never found out if somebody had actually been there.

It was getting late and it was getting cold, and only a small patch of trees between Little Hump and Hump Mountains provided any respite from the wind. I did what I always did when it was very cold, and kept moving. This encouragement helped me past Hump Mountain and on to the long descent toward Elk Park. Many points on this descent were steep and featured more rocks and roots than I had remembered. Last time I had hiked here was in the daylight though, and with a much better grasp of the terrain at my feet. I left the North Carolina – Tennessee border at Doll Flats and was solely in Tennessee for the last couple miles. The Trail smoothed out toward the end, becoming more like a woods road for the final stretch. Here I passed a lone tent and wondered if it was Pineapple, who Boss and Echo had told me was a day behind them. It was very late and I did not inquire as to who was inside the silent tent.

I arrived at my truck and was pleased as always to find it was still there and waiting for me. I was very tired but still had enough lingering energy to start the drive toward Davenport Gap. I headed west down Route 19E through Hampton and Elizabethton, then took Route 321 through Johnson City. I made it as far as Jonesborough before pulling off in an Ingles parking lot to get some rest. I set my alarm very early, planning only to nap for a few hours before driving to Davenport Gap and waiting for Pancakes there.

~Shepherd~

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