After a two day rest in my “flea bag” motel in Erwin, TN, I could not shut out the call of the Trail anymore. After one last breakfast at JD’s Market, I got a ride down to the trailhead of the Appalachian Trail. I crossed the bridge taking me over the Nolichucky River, and gingerly headed up the trail with my aching leg. I pledged to myself to take it easy on the Trail. No more high mileage for a while, and lots of soaks in cold mountain streams. I met up with a thru-hiker by the name of Tiger. Tiger is from Alabama and is 66 years old. He was the perfect hiking companion for me. He would make me slow down! We hiked the four miles up to the Curley Maple Gap Shelter and decided to go a few miles more and camp on the side of the Trail. The weather was glorious. That night, we could see the lights of Erwin twinkling in the valley below. The next morning we climbed a high bald mountain called Beauty Spot. I had been complaining a bit in the past about my lack of great views from high places due to being inside a cloud. Well, this morning the views were fabulous! Again, the town of Erwin lay below us with mountains surrounding a 360 degree panorama. A 1250 foot climb awaited Tiger and me as we climbed Unaka Mountain. Even though this mountain was high, its summit was forested, but what a beautiful forest it was. Red Spruce was the dominant tree with a needle covered floor which made walking silent and cushioned. Tiger and I camped that night at Low Gap, setting up our tents, finding a spring for water, and hanging our food bags and packs away from the prying paws of bears. That night, the wind howled and then stopped dead. I could hear every sound in the forest. It was then that I heard it: a sniffing noise, something big. I hollered to Tiger, “We have a visitor!” But then as my heart was beating like the Energizer bunny, I realized that what I supposed was an inquisitive bear was only Tiger snoring. Whew!
We hiked ten miles the next day in a driving rain to the Clyde Smith Shelter. It was crowded with hikers seeking relief from the wet. Speaking of small world encounters, I met a hiker there from Beaufort, NC. We exchanged stories about the St. James, The Crab Shack, Emerald Isle, and finding sand dollars on Shackleford Banks.
What was coming really intimidated me. Roan Mountain awaited us the next morning. At 6285 feet above sea level, it is a place that I have heard harrowing tales about. That kind of altitude brings extreme weather and rapid weather changes. I had heard about hikers being caught up there in electrical storms, sudden snow storms and the like. The five mile climb was the longest five miles of my life. But when I reached the top, I was surprised to find only a small bald. I had expected more. The bald on which I was standing was once the site of the Cloudland Hotel. This magnificent hotel was built in the early 1900′s and took advantage of the first automobile traffic to get the public up the mountain on a very rough, unpaved road. People flocked to the Cloudland in its heyday for the views, for the blooming rhododendrons, and for a reputed cure for hay fever. The hotel set on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee just like the trail I had been hiking for the last two weeks. But I wondered where all the balds were that I had heard about. Tiger and I descended Roan High Knob on the old road bed for a good ways until the Trail headed into woods mixed with Fraser firs and red spruce.
Let me cut in here and mention what I had heard from some of the local people about the origin of the balds I was looking for and the origin of the name Roan Mountain. Both subjects are points of contention. Some say the bald mountains of the Appalachians are caused by the harsh winds that seem to always blow at the highest altitudes. Others say that the balds were intentionally cleared by burning which encouraged grassland, first by the Indians and then by early European settlers. It is a documented fact that early settlers grazed sheep up on the balds. This latest theory involves studies of the last Ice Age where glacier movement brought species of plants from the far north down to the southern Appalachians. Once these trees and plants were cut or burned, they did not grow back because they were out of their natural range. Another theory involves the freezing of the plants on the windward side of the mountains that inhibits their growth. And there is one theory about the larvae of a certain kind of wasp that attacked the plants at this specific altitude, stunting their growth, and sometimes killing them.
Enough science, though. The early settlers said the balds were caused by the devil. When he walked the high mountains, he killed all the vegetation wherever he trod. The Cherokees have their own explanation of the balds. Their early stories tell of a giant yellow jacket that was always carrying off their children. The Indians prayed to the Creator to help them kill the yellow jacket. The Creator obliged by sending a lightning strike to open up the place were the yellow jacket lived. The Cherokees went into this place and killed the yellow jacket. Ever since that time, the Creator cleared the tops of these mountains so the Indians could post sentinels to look out for future enemies.
The origin of the name Roan Mountain has an equal number of variations. Some say that the rhododendrons that abound on the mountain bloom a roan or red color during June and July, giving the mountain its name. Some say the name comes from the Mountain Ash tree that has vibrant red berries. Others say that the name traces back to a French botanist, Andre Michaux who studied this area and said it reminded him of his native Rhone Valley, a variation of spelling but not of pronunciation.
But the most interesting story I heard of the origin of Roan Mountain goes back to Daniel Boone. The story goes that Daniel Boone was exploring these mountains on his red horse. He gave the name Roan to his horse. Daniel and Roan were caught on the high mountain during a blizzard with drifts of snow up to six feet deep. Fearing for both of their lives, Daniel released Roan and the two set out independently to find their way to safety. Daniel survived, but feared that Roan was lost forever. It was eighteen months later on another exploration that Daniel miraculously met up with Roan on the same mountain. Roan had lived all that time on his own and was just as glad to see Daniel as Daniel was to see him! Hence the name Roan Mountain, after Daniel Boone’s famous horse.
Tiger and I had good weather climbing the highest point of Roan Mountain, but as we descended, rain hit us hard. When we came to a road crossing at Carver Gap, I realized where all the balds were that I had been expecting. They were right in front of me! Tiger and I crossed Round Bald and Jane Bald in hard rain. By the time we got to the first shelter below the summit, Stan Murray Shelter, we were soaking wet despite our rain gear. We had the shelter to ourselves, so we rigged clothes lines everywhere to dry our clothes and set up our tents inside the shelter. We had a dry, warm night inside our down sleeping bags.
The next morning broke clear, and after I packed up, I did something I should have done a long time ago. I had often said prayers on the trail while I was hiking, but I did something before we headed out that made me feel better about my still hurting leg. I put down tobacco by a tree and asked the Creator to help me by healing my foot. My Indian friends use tobacco while praying, saying that the smoke of tobacco and even placing it out as an offering will carry their prayers to the Creator. So that this act wouldn’t be perceived by the Creator just as an appeal for my own selfish betterment, I worked in some prayers for others in my life as well!
Tiger and I started out with clear skies and hiked past the remains of the old road that the Over the Mountain Men took to Kings Mountain to defeat the British. This road intersected the Appalachian Trail at Yellow Mountain Gap. There is a shelter on the side of this roadbed called the Overmountain Shelter that is actually a barn. Hikers typically sleep in the loft!
At this place, the weather changed quickly. First rain, then sleet, then snow. We climbed Little Hump Mountain and then the forbidding height of Hump Mountain, both devoid of trees. When we got to the top of Hump Mountain, an amazing thing happened. High winds blew the snow clouds away and blue skies and sunshine greeted us. I took time at the top of this bald to shoot a panoramic 360 degree video of the surrounding mountains. I have stopped complaining that I never get any good views. I count my blessings more realistically and less self-centered these days.
When Tiger and I hiked the long descent from all these balds associated with Roan Mountain, we came to Highway 19E that runs between Elk Park, NC on one side and Roan Mountain, TN on the other. Tiger had a package waiting for him at a hostel, The Mountain Harbour, just .3 miles from the road crossing. It is here that I had a humbling and embarrassing encounter. Way back at the Standing Bear Hostel just out of the Smokies, I had received an email from a Richard Broadwell. Richard said in his email that he lived in Boone, NC, near Elk Park, and he would be happy to meet me at this road crossing and take me to a restaurant. Well, I just assumed Richard was one of my old NCSSM students. I feel very tied to the alumni of the place I taught for 28 years. I have only missed one alumni reunion in all that time. Many of the alumni had been sending me emails of encouragement and offering assistance. I had used my cell phone to call Richard while I was up on the mountain to tell him I was coming down to the highway. Richard agreed to meet me at the hostel.
After I had showered and changed into the one set of clean clothes I carried in my pack, I saw Richard pull his pickup truck into the grassy field next to the hostel. I went out to greet him. Sure enough, he looked familiar. After we shook hands, I asked him what class he was from at NCSSM. Richard looked at me quizzically and said, “I never went to NCSSM, I used to be your neighbor on Wilson Street!” It all came back to me through the blush of my embarrassment. Richard did not hold this gaff against me and took Tiger and me in to Elk Park for a great meal at a diner and then over to Roan Mountain, TN for a resupply mission at the local grocery store. Richard now works for Conservation Trust in buying up land and seeking easements to protect the sanctity of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He commented that there are a lot of towns just like Elk Park and Roan Mountain in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, towns that grow up along a single highway, the only flat land that hugs the valleys between the mountains. Richard, thank you for your kindness.
It was at this hostel that I began a serious campaign of soaking my right foot and leg in cold mountain streams. And I do mean cold! There are times I cannot keep my leg in the water for more than 15 seconds at a time. But it is working! My leg is getting better!
The next morning, Tiger and I climbed out of the valley into a set of “kinder and gentler” mountains than what we were used to. The weather was beautiful I stopped by the beautiful Jones Falls to take some breath taking pictures of the second major waterfall I have encountered on the trail. On that beautiful afternoon, I soaked my leg in Laurel Fork River for a good thirty minutes while I ate two Snickers bars. We stayed at a beautiful, new, triple decker Mountaineer Shelter that night after a nine mile hike. A thing happened here that amazed me. I arrived at the shelter at 4:30 in the afternoon. There were only four of us there. I soaked my leg under a dramatic waterfall nearby, Mountaineer Falls. Then, around 6:00, a steady stream of young guy hikers started streaming in to the shelter. They were all in their twenties, and they had all done 24 miles that day. 24 miles! These guys are hiking machines. They talked about their longest days of 33 miles. At first I could not identify with these maniacs. Then, over supper and a campfire, we got to know each other. There was Ninja, Hitch, Guitar Dan, and others. Another small world encounter was meeting Leon and his dog Rufus. Leon was from Florida. He told me that Leon was his trail name, his real name was Thomas Lynch. He also told me that Rufus had the trail name of Halifax. I remarked that Halifax is an old town in North Carolina up where my Haliwa-Saponi Indian friends live. Leon looked at me with wide eyes. “I just finished teaching high school up there!” he said. “That’s where my dog Halifax got his trail name!” We marveled at this connection we shared. Leon said his Haliwa-Saponi students were the best students he had ever had.
Today, Tiger and I hiked from the Mountaineer Shelter, almost 16 miles, to where the Trail crosses Dennis Cove Road in Tennessee. My leg feels great! I will never take feeling normal for granted again. It feels so good not to hurt. I will continue to take it easy, and I will continue the mountain stream soaks.
But a final word about where I am staying and why I am able to send you another long email. By reading the Appalachian Trail literature, I identified a hostel near Dennis Cove Road that would accept mail drop supply packages for thru-hikers. I chose the Laurel Fork Lodge. Well, the night before when I was talking to all the young hikers, they told me they were going to another hostel, the Kincorra. Well, I came to find out that Kincorra Hikers Hostel is a famous Appalachian Trail institution. I was disappointed that I had not sent my resupply package there.
It turned out that Kincorra was full and Laurel Fork was deserted. In fact, Tiger and I are the only hikers at Laurel Fork. There is no one else here except the caretaker. We had hot showers, were able to bake a pizza in the oven in the kitchen, we have a nice cabin that only cost us 15 bucks apiece, there is a beautiful river outside the cabin for soaking my leg, and there is no one wanting to use the computer and Internet hookup except me!
So, I hope your interest in this long letter has not waned. I have enjoyed connecting with you. Tomorrow, I make my way onward to Damascus, VA. I should be there in four days. By the way, today, I passed the 400 mile mark in my journey to the north. Something is guiding my footsteps.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles