On August 29, I summited Katahdin and completed my thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Trail.
All of my remaining journals will eventually be put up on this website beginning next month. Additionally, I will soon post all of my photos from my entire hike here as well – in addition to a final update of the stats, gear, and peak lists. Check back to read about the remainder of my journey.
Thanks for the memories.
Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb. – Sir Winston Churchill
Today was book ended with highlights but the middle of it, and majority of hiking, was monotonous and frustrating. I initially had a 24 mile day in mind to reach Kincora Hostel for the evening. While other factors contributed to me stopping short of my goal, the primary reason was my late 10 am departure on account of eating breakfast at the Mountain Harbour B & B. Rumor had it that it was the best breakfast on the trail so far, and it more than lived up to that reputation. It was glorious, and I got to meet and talk with Mary who operates the B & B.
I enjoyed the trail as far as Isaac Cemetery, which skirted its border. The trail off and on followed old roads and would pass through several meadows. Even shortly after, a side trail lead to Jones Falls, which was much more impressive of a water fall then I anticipated and certainly worthy of a short side excursion.
Visiting Elk Falls also gave me the opportunity to visit North Carolina one last time, as I crossed the border slightly to reach the falls, a Tar Heel possession. I found a side trail that descended from the AT to the banks of the Elk River, which I found appealing and picturesque. I was astonished by the beauty I saw on the other side of the river. A Max Patch-esque rolling hills of meadows, with a few venerable old trees sprinkled here and there framing the scene. The setting was so serene. This site was as pleasing as my visit to the falls themselves. The grass really was greener on the other side, and it’s no coincidence that the other side was North Carolina.
The remainder of the day was a hike in and out of every possible cove, rivulet, and hollow imaginable. It was comparable to the dreaded Lake Shore Trail in the Smokies. Like that trail, today’s route had no major climbs but the culmination of three excessive, repeated ups and downs made the total elevation gain difficult to manage. The profile map makes it look flat and easy, just like the infamous Lake Shore Trail. But so far ascents do not register on profile charts because of their lack of stature. But multiply ascents and descents of 50 feet, the equivalent of 5 stories, about 50 times, and suddenly today’s hike was no easy walk.
I ate lunch at the new Mountaineer Shelter during this stretch, one of the few landmarks. This shelter was impressive – having three levels of sleeping platforms. It was constructed in just two days by the crew Bob Peoples the operator of the Kincora Hostel, known as “Handcore”. I would see other evidence of past projects completed by this industrious annual workhorse throughout my hike, though I cursed several of their excessive reroutes. I did however, enjoy both Mountaineer Falls and Handcore Falls, which they named and moved with wooden signs. I also would like to stay a night at the Mountaineer Shelter one day.
I finally emerged from this green tunnel section I deemed the “Tennessee Doldrums” at Moreland Gap where I am spending the night at the shelter. I did get a last vista of the Roan Massif from a view point while descending to the gap. It was similar to the only other one in the stretch where trees had been cut to artificially create a vista where a bench was positioned. Also a product of Bob Peoples, perhaps he realized how dreadfully unappealing this section was. But the latter view, I could see the grassy meadow ascending the hollow up to Yellow Mountain Gap – a historic route followed by the Overmountain Men, and Allison and I on a hike over a year ago.
I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth. – Bill Bryson
Everyone awoke this morning bitching about how cold they were last night. I don’t know how they didn’t see that coming. But everyone is an expert, so far be it from me to question them sending home their warm gear already. I’ve actually gotten criticized previously for having a zero degree bag, yet I was the only one who slept comfortably last night at 5,000 feet in a drafty old barn.
If I sound negative, it’s because I had a run in with one of the world’s biggest experts this morning. A problem with thru-hikers that have reached this far is that they prematurely have become experts even though they have only hiked 300 miles. This was everyone last night, at least until they woke up this morning dumbfounded though not humbled. But even worse is a section hiker who “hikes” on the internet all week long, takes a few side trips a year, and has more expertise than you could think possible.
I inadvertently encountered a guy like this morning while packing up. Naturally, he volunteers his opinion, unsolicited. He was talking about how he and his fellow experts at work put in a $100 each year – this year for a total of $1,300 – and they bet on people and whether they will make it all the way. I was actually somewhat amused at this fantasy footballesque spin on hiking. But then this a_ _hole was actually sizing me up and my prospects of making it. He had the nerve to tell me that “I was carrying too much sh_t” and continued “that I already knew that”. Oh no he didn’t. Suddenly someone not thru-hiking is judging my prospects of thru-hiking? And with such a smugness that he was lucky to not get my trekking pole through his neck. I was carrying too much, after all, and I would have been willing to part with it.
He also told me that “I quit my job to join the circus”. I usually don’t volunteer the information unsolicited but I decided this was as good of situation as any, so I let him know that my side career is writing hiking guide books and that my GPS, which he ridiculed, was an added luxury seeing how it allows me to get paid to hike the trail. This guy was a monumental a_ _hole.
Yahtzee, a nice girl from New York that I met yesterday and stayed last night, was sweet enough to offer up that she thinks I would be a pretty good bet to make it all the way. I appreciated this. But I hoped the jacka_ _ from Tennessee doesn’t bet on me – I’d be tempted just to spit on him if he did.
Smoking weed and talking like an idiot isn’t my cup of tea – rather I detest the practice. Yet being out here is sometimes as ridiculous as being a teenager in high school, where suddenly I’m “not cool” because I don’t get stoned. I’m so heavely in the minority, frequently I remained ignored in large social situations or amazingly enough, negatively judged. No wonder why hikers have a bad reputation among regular society – they really are all stoners. Even many of my friends have this habit. I do my best not to judge them on it after I’ve gotten to know them and judged them in absence of the habit, but I make myself scarce when the drugs come out. I came to the trail for the mountains, the history, and the scenery. Most people apparently came out here to get high. I could do without all of them.
Perhaps now I’ll get back to speaking of my hike. I began a steep climb out of Yellow Mountain Gap, though not before idiot Tennessee section hiker exerted his correction to the information on the historical marking there. He managed to depart the barn just after me, though in spite of “carrying too much shit”. I had no problem leaving him in the dust while hiking up hill. Funny how that was ……..
The clouds were beginning to part, and I was very lucky to get a picturesque view back down the slopes to see the red barn nestled in the cove. When I emerged on to the bald before Little Hump, the clouds had not parted enough to make a side trip to Big Yellow Mountain worthwhile – a place that I love dearly when its amazing views are available. I’d get my chance for other balds today, as it turned out. I summited Little Hump and I was still socked in, but the clouds began clearing shortly thereafter. I was initially irritated by yet another TEHCC reroute descending Little Hump, though I came to terms with it since it used an elongated switchback that brought the trail back to the bald before turning toward Big Hump and reentering the forest.
By the time I reached Bradley Gap, the skies had cleared a good bit and the fog had dissipated. I could even see a few patches of blue sky though big, gray clouds loomed in the distance. Lee Barry, the oldest man to ever thru-hike the AT and father of modern southeastern peak bagging, once told me a story of hiking through this gap and seeing a fighter plane fly low and fast overhead, even waiving its wings at him. The view of Hump Mountain from the gap was so impressive. Hump is such an incredible mountain, one of my favorites and even a summit that North Carolina can claim entirely as its own. The entire 600 foot ascent climbs a bald ridgeline with nonstop views. While the climb is steep it mattered not since I stopped almost every 50 yards to take pictures and revel in the beauty that surrounded me. I never had a chance to lose my breath in the first place. I saw 2 cows during my ascent but did not view any longhorn steer that the others claim to see.
I reached the summit of Hump Mountain and was irritated to see a bumbling group of stoners getting blazed in a communal circle. It had, after all, been about 2 miles, so I’m sure they were well over due now since their last hit. I can’t wait to get away from this group of imbeciles. I almost wish for continuous sever weather, as I know our lack of it thus far has kept the dropout rate low. All these morons may have made it this far, but it won’t be difficult to break them.
I stopped just below the summit at a plaque honoring Stan Murray on the scenic Houston Ridge. Murray was the founder of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and was instrumental in both protecting the highlands of Roan for future generations and bringing the AT over its scenic ridgeline. We are all indebted for the preservation of this southern Appalachian treasure and for its incorporation to the trail. Stan Murray, whom also chaired the ATC, is a personal inspiration to me – a man who devoted his life to protecting this beautiful land for the enjoyment of everyone. I gazed across the mountains and thought how rewarding it must be for an unspoiled view such as this and its indefinite preservation to be the result of your career and lifetime of work. This vista and its magnificence as a monument to your dedication is such a fantastic prospect. How amazing would it be for my children or grandchildren, or even those who didn’t know me to be able to enjoy and marvel in a place that I contributed to preserving. I could easily devote my life to protecting places like this, and I’m thankful Stan Murray gave his to save a place like the Highlands of Roan.
I took several photographs at the plaque and looked at in astonishment at the trail traversing the bald Houston Ridge. I descended the ridge slowly as to take in all of the scenery, though this was the equivalent of trying to drink water from a fire hose. The experience was visually overwhelming. Grandfather Mountain’s Craggy ridge line seemed surprisingly close. I could also see some of northwestern North Carolina’s most impressive peaks – Hawks Bill and Table Rock, Beech Mountain, Sugar Mountain, and Hanging Rock. Behind me, Grassy Ridge Bald was entirely enveloped in clouds.
It began raining, of which its intensity would increase gradually throughout the rest of the day, just as I exited the bald and reentered the forest and left the ridge. Yesterday I debated staying on Roan High Knob and rolling the dice that the weather would perhaps be better to traverse the balds today. I pressed on, and as it turns out I was lucky once again. I managed to traverse The Humps in the single weather window of the two days. Hikers are arriving this afternoon at the hostel with horror stories and photos of snow and blizzard-like whiteout conditions on the balds just hours after I passed through. At the moment, it is hailing outside and the hostel porch is completely covered in white ice pellets. Had I laid up at Roan, my theory that “the weather couldn’t be any worse” than the day prior would have been completely shot to hell, and I wouldn’t have gotten my cherished views from The Humps. Well played, I guess.
The rain slowed briefly when I approached the meadow at Doll Flats, where the trail says its final farewell to the North Carolina boarder. There, it departs into Tennessee for its remaining course to the Virginia border. Like on The Humps, it was as if the Tar Heel State was giving me a warm, final send off by ceasing its rain and granting me vistas. For this I am grateful. North Carolina will always remain first in my heart on the AT, regardless of the experiences to come. We had quite a thing going for a while. Oh, the Nantahala’s, the Smokie’s, the Bald’s and the Roan’s, how I will miss you so. You all are my best of friends, and I will return to visit you soon. Alas, I still have a long way to go and many more mountains to climb. Goodbye, North Carolina.
The rain resumed its downpour after Doll Flats, and I continued my field testing of my umbrella. Like yesterday, I loved it – even hiking downhill with wet socks and mud with the use of only one trekking pole. All the way down to the hostel, my upper body and most of my lower body remained dry. A lot of people on the trail + on my online journal have criticized or ridiculed the umbrella, but I doubt any of them have hiked with one before. Remember, everyone is an expert….
I detested the descent from Hump Mountain, especially just beneath the bald where the trail goes through a boulder field. It’s slow going, and a total ankle break zone, especially when wet. I remembered it from when Allison and I hiked it in December 2008. I didn’t care for it then, and I didn’t care for it today.
The final part of today’s hike passed through Wilders Mine Hollow. Evidence of pest mining was present from now overgrown pits and rock jumbles. Wilder was the man who owned the majority of the Roan during its days as an early resort destination during the existence of the Cloudland Hotel. He attempted to make profit from the Roans mineral wealth, though I do not believe he was ever gratefully successful at it. His Cloudland Hotel venture on the other hand, was a surprising success and put Roan on the map.
I reached US 19E, long known as one of the redneck capitals of the entire trail. I could see why. The rednecks had out done themselves this time, having made beer can mobiles using string and sticks and hung them from the small bridge just before the road. There are endless stories of red neck mischief here – including burning cars left at the trailhead, painting white blazes black, and hanging fishing hooks with fishing line across the trail at eye level. Hikers and red necks pretty much have entirely different views on just about everything. But we both love the woods. We like to walk it, they love to destroy it.
The Mountain Harbour Hostel is top notch. Many have said it is the nicest so far on the trail. It certainly is the cleanest, and coziest. Its a few more dollars than an average hostel but you get a real bed with sheets. It’s in a loft over a functioning, livestock hosting barn. It has all the amenities you need, and fits several people – not too many. I like the crowd here tonight which includes Day Tripper and Thunder, a guy and a girl that I’ve stayed with 3 nights now and enjoyed their company. I first met them my night at Curley Maple Gap. The Canadian Geese are also here and an older couple from Charlotte, as well as Blue Skies, a friendly lady I first saw in Hot Springs.
Both Day Tripper and Thunder each gave me a piece of pizza they ordered before I got here. It was so good; I’m ordering my own for dinner tonight rather than getting the shuttle to the restaurant. Having a great time here, and I’m excited about what is suppose to be a legendary breakfast tomorrow morning at the B & B house up the hill. This won’t allow me an early start, but should fuel me for a planned 24 mile day to reach Dennis Cove tomorrow – which would be my longest day yet.
“Without doubt the most beautiful mountain east of the Rockies” – Asa Gray, 1840, on Roan Mountain.
I had intended an early start today since I had the luxury of indoor accommodations. I awoke at 6:30am and heard a hard rain on the roof, so I went back to sleep sans alarm. I didn’t awake until nearly 9:00am. The hike back up to the gap was long and strenuous as I anticipated it would be when I descended the same route yesterday afternoon. I reached the gap and finally resumed my hike on the trail at 10:00am.
The first part of the hike I ascended Little Rock Knob. By the time I reached its summit, clouds had rolled in and obscured the views from just before the top at a rocky bluff. Nevertheless, I was quite pleased with bagging this peak, which I needed just a short side trip of a few yards to touch some high rocks. Having completed all the southeastern 6,000 footers and 5,000 footers, my interest in the “high” 4,000 feet peaks has grown. I’ve made a lot of brief side trips to 4,000 foot peaks on this hike because I may have interest in them all later on and relatively speaking, they are so close to my route, I can’t pass them up. But it is only the upper 4k peaks like Little Rock Knob among southeast peaks that excites me the most. This one has been on my list for a while.
Don’t knock the umbrella until you’ve tried it!
Plenty of people doubt the umbrella, yet haven’t tried it. How it functions is by keeping your upper body dry. If you stay dry, you stay warm. Meanwhile, if you wear a rain coat, it keeps you dry from rain, but soaks you and your clothing from sweat. It keeps you warm, but makes you extra vulnerable to cold when you are stopped or the temperature drops. But if you keep mostly dry in the first place, problem solved with the umbrella. I wear shorts to the top half which also stays dry. My lower legs get a bit wet, but they dry quickly since they’re not clothes. So even in 40 degrees, I stay warm and dry in the rain in short sleeves and shorts.
I went ahead of Brooklyn and Stretcher when we reached Hughes Gap. Here was the start of a monster climb to ascend the Roan massif. In the rain, the climb was slick and muddy. The umbrella helped to keep my spirits from sinking, as did putting on my mp3 player. As it turns out, I’d be willing to say the climb up Roan was the most difficult of the entire trail so far in terms of steepness. It reminded me of a climb in the Blacks, like the final pitch up Mitchell from Commissary Ridge or up Big Tom or Potato Hill going southbound on the Crest Trail. I handled the climb well, though it seemed like the top would never come.
I emerged at the old Cloudland Hotel site. The fog was thick and the entire ridge line socked in with clouds. This made it easy to skip an intended side trip Roan High Bluff since there would be no views. I walked briefly off the trail to a field, once the location of a popular hotel and early 20th century resort destination. Built in 1885 and replacing a smaller hotel, the resort was the venture of General John T. Wilder. Named Cloudland, the moniker bespoke “excitement, surprise, a spirit of exploration, and a place where miracles happen”. Today, the name was literal – it was a land entirely engulfed in clouds. In fact the Roan is known for this as much as it is known for its beautiful landscape and views – it’s said that Roan is in the clouds over 75% of the time.
This fact is why a fire tower built on the summit of Roan High Knob in the 1930’s didn’t last more than about 10 years since it could never get a view. I’d soon pass the remaining concrete footings of this tower on my side trip to the top of Roan. The lookout and its actual date of construction and period of existence still remain a mystery to my tower research.
The Cloudland Hotel was a 3 story structure and at 6,200 feet, was known during its existence as the highest human habitation east of the Rockies. It was popular with the wealthy tourists but also with the ill – especially hay fever suffers – who would come here seeking the healing power of the mystical mountain air.
The hotel was said to have had over 100 rooms and only one bathroom. Built straddling the state line, alcohol was said to be legal to sell in only one of the states (which one eludes me), so a white line was drawn down the center of the dinning room table to differentiate where alcohol could be consumed and representing the state line. Even John Muir visited the Highlands of Roan and was a guest at Cloudland’s in the late 1800’s.
The hotel was abandoned in 1910 and demolished about 5 years later when the Roan was logged extensively. But people kept coming to the Roans, as they always have. John Fraser visited the mountain in the late 1700’s and it was here that the botanist discovered Catawba rhododendron – a plant that now makes the peak famous when it blooms every summer. A survey team in 1799 was surveying the state line and included Tom Strother who wrote of the presence of the Roans famous balds even 200 year ago. And Doctor Elisha Mitchell came here in the mid-1800’s and claimed the Roan as “the most beautiful of all the high mountains”. That’s an impressive testament from a man whom had also explored Grandfather Mountain and the Black Mountains.
I press on in the rain and fog and reached the side trail to Roan High Knob. I touched the summit rocks and took a self portrait, pleased I had reached the top of the whole Roan massif – a county high point of both Mitchell County NC and Cater County TN as well as a 2,000 foot prominence peak, a range high point, and the highest point in the Cherokee National Forest, to a densely covered area in a balsam forest. I dearly wished the fire tower still stood though I would not have received views even with its aid today. This would be my last 6,000 foot summit until I reach Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, well over 1,000 miles beyond.
The small cabin that served as the living quarters for the tower watchman does still remain, however, and it was where I stopped to eat lunch and escape the cold rain. Erroneously but without exception described in guidebooks as a “fire warden’s “cabin, it was the fire tower keeper’s cabin – which is not really synonymous. The former presence of a lookout tower seemed ignored by the book writers and not at all odd for a house to be erected on a summit in the wilderness for the purpose of giving out burning permits.
The completely enclosed, two story house is really neat, and as I shivered while eating lunch, I was heavily leaning towards staying here for the day and night. I was thinking of gambling that the weather would be clearer tomorrow to go over the near-by balds beyond Carvers Gap. I remember thinking that “it can’t be any worse”. The temperature read 31 degrees and it was 3pm. The prospect of pushing on in the rain was a depressing one, but my friends Brooklyn and Stretcher were hiking on as were Day Tripper and Thunder. Staying would also mean along tomorrow, and I had been looking forward to a short day and relaxing at the Mountain Harbour Hostel. Begrudgingly, I sucked it up and got hiking again – I was ultimately glad I did this and proud – as it wasn’t easy to do. If there was ever a time to be lazy, this would have been a great time.
I descended Roan rapidly, as if somehow going fast would get me less wet. I reached Carvers Gap and took a side trip to get photos of the state line and gap signs, even in the rain. I had been here many times before, most recently last June when I joined three ultra-runner women on their final miles as they completed a South Bound 6,000 speed run. The weather was warm and sunny then and the rhododendrons were blooming. Today was dramatically different – conditions were miserable. It was here I confirmed my fears that my umbrella would not stand up to the wind on the balds, not even with crafty pointing it to adjust for gusts.
The Roan Highlands are a special place. I am lucky to have experienced them several times prior since today I could not see their beauty. This would truly be the first section that I would be deprived of views for an extensive period of the whole hike. That is quite good luck considering this type of white out fog and ice water rain that is inevitable along these high ridges nearly every other day on average.
The trail was a miniature river, but already soaked I tramped through it. I side stepped briefly to touch the summit rocks of Round Bald and then raced over Jane Bald – named for a women who perished here from milk sickness while crossing the state divide – and Engine Gap. Soon I was at the side trail to Grassy Ridge Bald, and neglecting a visit to its summit today was an easy choice.
Shortly thereafter, I passed a significant spot to me along the trail. Though nondescript in appearance, it was the location in December 2008 where Allison and I reached on a day hike. Our conversation had stalled and we were both quiet for some duration. Allison eventually broke the silence. She said: “I think you should thru-hike the Appalachian Trail”.
It was a moment I would never forget. In that single instant, I had a strange visual flash forward where a hundred visual images were running through my mind like a slide show on fast forward. All at once I saw myself on Springer Mountain, myself on countless summits. I saw sunrises and sunsets, I saw new faces. I saw good times and I saw hard times. I could feel the exhilaration and I could feel fear and tears. The slide show came to an abrupt end, one that gave me goose bumps to my skin. I saw myself weathered and bearded, standing on Katahdin.
I didn’t say anything back to Allison for a long period. I was deeply involved in this emotional side-consciousness. When we finally spoke and as our conversation went wild with how such an adventure would come to fruition, I realized how deep our relationship was, and how deep Allison’s love for me was. My burning desire to thru-hike the AT was something I never spoke about with her. I never could bring myself to suggesting I leave her for 5 months. As it turns out I didn’t need to. She knew my greatest dream anyway. She already knew how important hiking the Appalachian Trail was to me, and she knew I thought about it and dreamed about it every day of my life. Most significantly, she wanted me to live my dream, even if it meant sacrifices and a period of time apart.
So this ones not from the thru-hike, but it goes well here
It was this spot where my thru-hike really began. Ever since that moment, I had been preparing for my hike, dreaming of it not whimsically but with a sense of reality. I will never forget my emotions at this spot. Today, even in the pouring rain and driving wind, I stopped and cried. I got out my phone and called Allison. I left her a message and I thanked her. I told her how much I loved her. I tried to let her know how much this spot and what she said to me here truly meant to me, and that I felt like she was right here with me again. Even this moment I saw in my mental slide show over a year ago, right down to the tears.
After this spot, the trail ducks off of the balds and back into the forests. The wind became less of an obstacle as it was just prior on the balds blowing me off the trail itself. I moved quickly and completed the final miles to Overmountain Shelter.
I took the side trail to the shelter after descending to Overmountain Gap, a very historically significant location to perhaps even the existence of the United States itself. There, in October 1780, a militia of about 1,000 men from Tennessee – who would become known as the Overmountain Men – marched and crossed over the high state divide. They camped in this very gap before marching onward, gaining more men, and brutally defeating the British Colonel Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain, what would be a turning point in the entire Revolutionary War and ultimately leading to the defeat of the British and American Independence. This gap was an important place indeed.
Tonight I am in a shelter – a red barn converted for trail use well over 25 years ago – with what seems like a million people. There at least 30 people here – too many for my tastes. I am not sure how so many people ended up here together. Some are my friends – including Brooklyn and Stretcher, Yahtzee, Day Tripper, and Thunder – but many I would rather not be around. This is a cold shelter and it will be a very cold night. I’m glad I have my warm sleeping bag. I am excited about the Humps tomorrow, but fear this rainy, foggy weather will continue.