A Perfect Day on Roan Mountain

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail are constantly checking the weather. Whenever there’s cell service, everyone jumps onto their phone to check their favorite weather app. Lots of people use atweather.org, which pulls data from the National Weather Service and generates simple forecasts for every shelter along the trail. This creates some amusing conversations at campsites and shelters, as hikers compare the forecasts that they’re receiving from different apps and websites, which are often wildly different.

Back in early May, my mom and I were spending the night at Clyde Smith shelter, just south of Roan Mountain. I just sat back and observed as a group of hikers discussed what the weather might be like the following day as we climbed up onto the high ridgeline of Roan Mountain. The consensus at the shelter was clear – everyone’s forecast showed rain and thunderstorms the following day.

My mom and I awoke early and were on the trail by 7am. We climbed up and over Little Rock Knob, got some decent views, then descended into Hughes Gap. I was a bit ahead of my mom when the road at the bottom of the gap came into view, and I could see that there was a large pop-up tent set up along the roadside. A few hikers were congregated by the tent, and there were some chairs set up. I knew this had to be trail magic, but I was still surprised when someone stuck their head out from the side of the tent and shouted up to me, “How many eggs do you want?!”

I honestly thought he was joking. I just laughed, and didn’t respond. But sure enough, when I got down to the road, I saw that there was a full kitchen set up inside the pop-up tent. A former thru-hiker, who goes by the trail name Silver Linings, had a griddle going and he was indeed cooking eggs, bacon and pancakes for all the hikers that passed through.

“So how many eggs?” He asked again. “Two, I guess?” Was my response. “And do you want pancakes?” I answered this question with a resounding, “Yes!”

Three or four other hikers were hanging around eating breakfast, and soon our friends, Skittles and Mighty Mouse, arrived and were met with the same question, “How many eggs?!” We sat in the provided chairs and waited for our food. It was everything I could have hoped for. Silver Linings and his wife explained that each year they choose a weekend to come out and share trail magic at a different spot along the trail – they’ve been doing it every year since Silver Linings completed his thru-hike in 2017.

I washed this amazing breakfast down with a cup of fresh, hot coffee – this first cup of real coffee I’d had in several months (I quit caffeine before starting my thru-hike). By the time I was done, I was full of energy and ready for the long climb up to Roan High Knob – our first peak over 6,000 since the Smokies.

I told my mom (whose trail name is now Chili Pepper Woman), that I’d meet her at the top, and I jumped in behind our friend Duckie, with Mighty Mouse and Skittles following right behind me. Duckie set an ambitious pace as we started the climb, and I did my best to keep up with her. The climb was long but not too steep, and we were able to maintain that strong pace all the way to the top. 

As we climbed, Duckie, Mighty Mouse and I chatted about our motivations for hiking the trail, and what our lives looked like back in the real world. I find it fascinating to peel back these layers and learn about how different people from different backgrounds all ended up here on the trail. 

We also watched the scenery change as we reached higher elevations. Soon we were in a dense spruce-fir forest the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Smoky Mountain National Park. The clouds closed in on us as the forest closed in on us, and by the time we neared the top, our visibility was only about 20 feet in any direction. Occasionally we would enter a particularly dense section of the forest and the darkness would envelop us. All of us were loving it – the fog, the cool weather, the beautiful forest – we were in awe of everything that surrounded us.

By the time we reached the top of Cloudland Mountain the four of us had developed a bond. We had shared personal stories, and had experienced a magical climb into an ethereal forest – all fueled by our generous and unexpected breakfast.

None of us minded that the view at the top was completely obscured by the fog. We reveled in it, then continued on to the Roan High Knob Shelter – the highest shelter on the entire AT. It was dark up on the forested Knob, and even darker in the enclosed, windowless shelter. This was where I had agreed to wait for my mom, but Duckie, Skittles and Mighty Mouse were eager to continue, so I bid them farewell and prepared my lunch while I waited for my mom to catch up.

My mom was not too far behind, and we shared stories about the climb as soon as she arrived. The dense spruce-fir forest reminded her of hikes in New Hampshire and Maine, where she lives. We ate a quick lunch, and decided that we better keep hiking while the rain was holding up.

The rain didn’t hold up for much longer. Soon we were descending from Roan High Knob with a steady drizzle of precipitation falling on us. Not enough rain to make us miserable, but enough to make us hike just a bit faster than our usual pace.

We reached Carver’s Gap, crossed the empty road, and stopped for a moment to look at the maps and info near the parking area. There was an entire sign dedicated to warning hikers about the dangers of walking across the open ridgeline of Round Bald and Jane Bald during a thunderstorm. This was a bit disconcerting. We were still in a dense fog, with maybe 15-20 feet of visibility, and the rain continued to fall. We hadn’t heard any thunder, but knew that thunderstorms were predicted and that they could move in quickly.

We put our heads down and began the climb up Round Bald in a sour mood. I couldn’t believe that we were about to hike all these miles across an open ridgeline without any hope of a view. Instead of views, we had the anxiety associated with knowing that a thunderstorm could swoop in at any moment, leaving us prone to lighting strikes.

We crossed over the peak of Round Bald, still in dense fog, but as we began to drop down and get closer to Jane Bald, the rain stopped. Then, for just a moment, the fog cleared and we had views to the South. Just as quickly, the views disappeared and the fog returned. My mom and I exclaimed with delight at this – any view at all was worthy of celebration at that moment. 

As we started to climb up towards Jane Bald this pattern continued. For just a moment the wind would blow through the fog and we’d get a glimpse of a view to the South. Each time it happened I’d stop and shout to my mom – a view! I pulled out my phone a few times and snapped some photos. Our good spirits had returned in full force. The anxiety about thunderstorms had melted away.

By the time we reached the peak of Jane Bald much of the fog had cleared and we were getting fantastic views to the South. We watched as the strong wind pulled wisps of clouds through the gap between Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald. It felt magical, like we had climbed these peaks at just the right moment to observe this spectacular break in the clouds.

We descended to Stan Murray Shelter, where we had been planning to spend the night. The Shelter was full, and lots of tents were already set up, but it was still relatively early – before 4pm. Our friends, Duckie, Skittles and Mighty Mouse weren’t there – they had pushed on – but I asked a few of the hikers at the shelter if they had seen any views up on the ridgeline. Everyone shook their heads, no. They’d been socked in with fog for the entire day, never seeing more than 20 feet in front of them. I told them that we’d gotten some views from the top of Jane Bald, trying my best not to gloat. 

My mom and I decided to push on a few additional miles to the next campsite. We were feeling strong, so why not get a few more miles in? Those last few miles were leisurely – the terrain was mostly flat, and we didn’t mind when it rained on us again for 15-20 minutes.

We walked down the short side trail to Overmountain Shelter, an old barn that was formerly used as an AT shelter. We walked into a broad grassy clearing with a picnic table and lots of flat tent sites. The barn was on the far side of the clearing, and there was a beautiful view of the valley below us to the South. The sun was poking through the clouds, and there was a cacophony of birds singing along the edges of the clearing. Goldfinches, robins, vireos and warblers were taking advantage of the break in the weather to forage for food and protect their newly established breeding territories.

The barn itself was plastered with warning signs instructing hikers to stay a safe distance away. The building was deemed structurally unsound several years ago – and we didn’t need too much convincing to keep our distance. But the entire scene was spectacular – the sun poking through the clouds, the birds circling all around us, and the historic barn perched along the edge of the clearing. One of our best campsites yet, we both agreed.

It started to rain again as we set up our tents, but it only lasted a few minutes before the sun reemerged from behind the clouds. I pulled out my tiny alcohol stove and we started to prepare our dinner of instant mashed potatoes paired with a dehydrated breakfast skillet meal. It wasn’t the best dinner that we’ve cooked on the trail, but it satisfied our hunger.

By the time we had eaten, cleaned the dishes, put our food away and brushed our teeth, it was hiker bedtime. Although there was still a bit of daylight left, ominous storm clouds were once again gathering overhead, so we decided it was time to get into our tents.

I slipped into my tent, and within seconds the skies opened up. Rain began to fall in torrents, and soon there were large chunks of hail hitting my tent as well. The sound was nearly deafening, and I wondered if the hail would pound its way through the silnylon of my 10-year-old tent. I pulled out my audio recorder to capture some sounds from the storm (which you can hear in our mini-episode of Common Land that is embedded in this post).

The heavy rain didn’t last too long, and I was soon lulled into a deep sleep by the light pattering of precipitation. Not only did my tent survive, but it kept me completely dry all through the night. And thus concluded my perfect day on Roan Mountain.

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