Carried Away by the Wind (4/3, 4/4, 4/5)
Day 37, 4/3: Ash gap campsite -> Overmountain shelter (9.2 miles)
It was hard to sleep because the moon was so bright through my tent. The wind gusts were so strong I felt like my tent was going to get carried away. Cuben fiber tents have a lot of great qualities, but quietness in the wind is not one of them. The gusts were so powerful that the middle of my tent started sagging slightly, and my tent stakes were starting to pull out of the ground. I was afraid to unstake it to pack it up because it looked like it was going to blow away, so I left one side staked and rolled it up before unstaking it.
I packed up fairly quickly but took my time to eat a snack before hitting the trail. Rash and Pinata were right behind me and they soon passed me. It was a steep climb to summit Roan Mountain, then a long 5 mile walk on the bare ridge. I started the steep climb, enjoying the habit change, when I was confronted with walking into a densely packed, pitch dark forest.
Hiking in that forest was the most terrifying experience I’ve had on the trail. It reminded me of being in the hallway with the lights on, and walking into a dark bedroom at night. The dark, creepy, foggy forest coupled with Kentucky Straight’s recent bear sighting made me on edge. Around every corner I expected to see a bear charging me. The creepy forest didn’t last too long, and I came out of the forest, crossed the parking area, and started up the bare ridge.
By now, the winds that were tampered by the thick trees were getting strong. There was thick fog so visibility was limited to 20 feet, and the rain was pelting small rain drops that were coming so fast they felt like ice on my face. I pushed on to the ridge, and found that the winds became 10 times worse. The baseline wind was moderately strong, and the gusts that came every 10-30 seconds were strong enough to blow me off the trail. The trail was worn down about a foot from lots of hikers boots, and it rose to knee height on the left. The wind blew me twice over the knee high portion before I learned to dig into the ground with my hiking poles when gusts would come. I stopped for shelter behind a large rock, and again in a small patch of trees.
At first the gusts of wind were comically strong, blowing me all over the trail. It soon wore me down physically as I struggled to keep my balance on the trail, and emotionally as I got tired of being in the crappy rainy, foggy, windy cold weather. I felt similar to how I felt the icy day in the Smokies. Grievance described these days as “Easy Button Days”, where if you had an easy button you could push to have a helicopter swoop in and whisk you off the trail for good, you’d press it. Today was without a doubt an easy button day.
The ridge seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t check my phone very often because the rain made the touchscreen impossible to operate. When I finally made it off the ridge and into a sheltered forest, the wind and rain were still there but not as bad. I wasn’t wearing my rain pants because I wasn’t expecting to get my regular pants wet, but I was wrong on that account. The wind and sloshing through puddles made the bottoms and sides of my pants soaked.
After a few miles of sloshing through small streams, I finally came to the turnoff for the blue blaze trail that led to Overmountain Shelter, which is a converted barn. Water was listed as on the way to the shelter, so even though I was cold and soaked I grabbed 2 L of water from the stream. There was a 0% chance of me coming back out in this mess once I got situated at the barn. The blue blaze trail was a little confusing with a few different turns, but I finally came across some tents set up. The fog was so thick I didn’t see the barn until I was right to it, but the tents made me nervous that the barn was full.
I climbed up the steep stairs to the enclosed loft and found an almost empty barn with Rash, Piñata, and a father with 2 young boys around 8 years old and an older son around 18. The barn was completely dark except for a small amount of light seeping in through the gaps and cracks in the planking that made up the walls and floor, so everyone had their headlamps out. Rash was in his sleeping bag so I set my stuff next to his, got my sleeping pad set up with my sleeping bag and my fleece liner, and climbed in with my wet pants. They were muddy so I rolled them up one to cover the mud. It was early, a little after 1, so I had some time to dry. I made hot oatmeal on my stove to eat in my sleeping bag which helped to warm me up. Piñata had already hung her hammock in a corner of the barn, and Rash soon joined her.
Not long after I arrived, Engine, Caboose, Earlybird, JAM, and Molasses showed up! They all immediately set up their bags and climbed in to stay warm. Caboose set her bag up next to mine and we had a great time chatting all evening. Lots of familiar faces started trickling in throughout the afternoon: Big O, Jay, Kentucky Straight, Sarge, Popcorn, his sister Mary-Kay, Sunshine and her two hiking partners, Credence, Clearwater, Jeff, and Maps with Nimbus (his dog).
After being terrible all morning, the weather actually cleared up in the afternoon with bright, sunny skies and clear views of the mountains. A few people decided to move from the shelter to tenting, which cleared out some room. JAM moved his bag next to my other side. It was great to have the old crew back together.
The barn had some large gaps where wind and rain was blowing in, so Big O was generous enough to give us an extra trash bag he had to put against the wall to block the wind. Caboose and I rigged up a way to get the trash bag to stay against the wall with hiking poles, tape, and a bandana on our side. Engine’s side had a thoughtfully engineered piece of string tied to a nail in the ceiling, both corners of the bag, and was weighted with a small stuff sack.
Since we arrived so early, I ate a lot of my food over the course of the afternoon. We’re going for resupply tomorrow so it’ll be nice to have my pack weight down for the hike tomorrow.
My pants and fleece liner finally started drying when it was time for bed, so hopefully they’ll be good by tomorrow. We all stayed up late talking but tucked in listening to the sounds of the roaring winds against the barn.
Day 38, 4/4: Overmountain shelter -> Camping past Roan Mt, TN (11.6 miles)
I woke up to Earlybird packing up. I slept great last night with new earplugs and didn’t hear any mice scurrying around. Ever since Rash felt a mouse crawl up his leg and Engine had one in his sleeping bag, I’m terrified of them. I cinch my bag tight around me, leaving a tiny opening, and try not to listen for them scurrying around the shelters. The earplugs help.
My wet and muddy pants were thankfully bone dry this morning. There were a few loud gusts of wind last night, but going outside to use the privy I found beautiful weather with a picture perfect sunrise. I hoped today’s hiking would be much improved on yesterday’s horrendous mess. After using the privy, I climbed the steep stairs and got back in my sleeping bag. I let a few early risers pack up around me, but I waited for Rash and Piñata to start stirring before I started to pack up. We said goodbye to Engine, Caboose, Molasses, and JAM who headed out before us.
Our plan was to hike together today and walk to the hostel nearby for a shower and resupply. We accidentally passed the turnoff from the road to the barn and had to backtrack 0.1 miles uphill. Since it was rainy and foggy when we came in last night it didn’t look the same. Rash and Piñata are usually faster than me and I take more breaks, so I struggled a little to keep up during the first climbs from the barn. I managed to stick with them but I was huffing and puffing up the hills. I heard them breathing hard too so I didn’t feel as bad about my own breathlessness. We got up the steep hill and started up Little Hump Mountain and Big Hump Mountain.
Partway up Little Hump, we saw Engine, Caboose, Molasses, and JAM in the distance. JAM was leading and we caught up to them. We all hiked together as a group until Piñata and I found ramps on the side of the trail! We picked a few and made sure to leave the bulb so they’d grow back. Caboose, Piñata , Rash, and I summited Big Hump Mountain together. At the start of the climb it was a little windy, and then in the open mountain face the wind really picked up. Gusts like yesterday started blowing us around the trail. Caboose is smaller than all of us so she was blown over the most. The difference between yesterday was today we had sunshine and great views, but the wind was still bone chilling and awful. It was much more enjoyable to hike in the crazy wind with a group, though.
We finally got to the top of Big Hump and Caboose immediately put her jacket on to warm up. We found shelter behind a big sunny rock and took a break as a group, snapping some pictures. That was all our climbing for the day, so we started our long, slow descent into the town of Roan Mountain. We took another break at the “leaving NC” sign to take some more pictures.
The rest of the hike was pleasant, sunny, and beautiful. Everything is starting to get green and small flowers are blooming. Parts of the trail smells sweet with wild flowers, and we crossed several small waterfalls. JAM was playing some great music out loud on his phone so we had a great hike down to the town.
When we got to the road, we found Big O and Earlybird talking with a man who had a cooler full of Coke and Mr. Pibb. He offered us a free ride to Bob’s Dairyland for burgers which we gladly accepted. I had a cheeseburger, fries, and an ice-cream cone which tasted amazing.
Afterwards, he offered to take us for resupply and then shower at his farm/hostel, so Rash, Piñata and I changed our plans and went with him. His farm (Doe River) is quaint and beautiful. Horses grazed in the pasture, goats and chickens hung out under the watchful eye of a Great Pyrenees, and the atmosphere was perfect.
We showered, did laundry, charged our phones, and organized our food. After relaxing for most of the afternoon, the owner took us back to the trail and we started hiking at 6. Our goal was to do a couple miles to make tomorrow’s long day easier. We hiked the short but steep climb out of town, and I was regretting drinking a half gallon chocolate milk I bought at the resupply store. We stopped for water, then set up camp at a meadow with a gorgeous view of the mountains. It’s supposed to be warm tonight so it’s the perfect night to try cowboy camping. I pitched my tent and Rash and Piñata set up their pads and sleeping bags. We watched an episode of The Office on Piñata’s phone which is becoming a nighttime ritual, and tucked in under a very bright moon.
Day 39, 4/5: Camping past Roan Mt, TN -> Moreland Gap shelter (16.0 miles)
I woke up around 3 AM and had to pee thanks to the massive half gallon of chocolate milk I drank right before coming on the trail. The moon had apparently set and the sky was completely filled with stars. After taking care of my business, I sat outside my tent for a few minutes in awe. I tucked the memory away for the next few days when it’s freezing cold and snowing.
Rash, Piñata, and I got up and packed up a little late, and started down the trail around 8:45. Before leaving we got a text from Engine that due to the severe weather storm warnings, they were taking a zero in town. Since we were already a few miles down the trail, we decided to push onto the shelter 6 miles away and hunker down there if the weather got bad, but if it was OK we’d try and make it to the shelter 16 miles away like we originally planned. The weather starting out was gorgeous, warm, and sunny without a cloud in the sky, so it was hard to believe that a storm front was coming through. Nonetheless, we hustled down the trail in case the skies decided to open up.
The terrain was relatively flat with small but steep ups and downs all day. We passed a cemetery and a small church early on. By the church we met a section hiker who was getting off trail because part of his home was destroyed by a tornado back in Georgia. He said he saw a bear by the river we had coming up and told us to keep our eyes peeled. He also recommended the short Jones fall blue blazed trail to see the huge waterfall. Seeing a cool waterfall and the possibility of seeing a bear? Today couldn’t get any better.
We came to the Jones falls which were massive. There was a big warning sign not to climb on the rocks, and we wondered how many people had to get hurt before they put up a sign. After getting a snack by the falls and soaking in the view, we pushed on. We descended to a wide river and walked along its banks for a mile or so. At the 400.0 mile mark we found a white blaze and took a selfie with Piñata’s stickpic holding up a four and two zeros. Unfortunately, we did not have the luck to see a bear today. Tomorrow’s always another day.
We finished the gradual descent and started the gradual ascent to the first shelter. Even though the overall topography was gradual, it was actually a series of short steep climbs. I tired out early on but still tried keeping pace with Rash. He was booking it, averaging 3 miles/hour, and it was hard to keep up. We came to Mountaineer shelter and stopped for lunch. Besides the barn, this shelter was the coolest one I’ve seen yet. It had 3 levels: a regular double decker and a 3rd loft! It was well made and looked like a really cool place to stay the night, but it was only 11:30 and the weather was still beautiful and sunny. We ate lunch and pushed onward.
In the afternoon it started lightly raining and we heard thunder, but thankfully it didn’t downpour. After the light rain, the skies cleared and the sun came back out. That was the best case scenario we could’ve asked for considering what it was calling for.
I started tiring a couple miles before the shelter and I was starting to not enjoy my hike, so I told Rash and Piñata to go ahead and I’d meet them there. I slowed my pace and put on some music to try and relax. As soon as I slowed down, Beetle and Friendly Ghost came up behind me! It was great to see them since I last saw them when Beetle was injured. They took a few zeros and Beetle healed up and was feeling great. We hiked together until we met Rash and Piñata getting water. The shelter had unreliable water so we decided to fill up before hand. Unfortunately it was 1.8 miles mostly uphill to the shelter, but we were all mostly empty so we bit the bullet and filled up.
I was last to leave the water, trying to hang back to get my zen back. Even though today was beautiful I was still stressed about the weather (current forecast and upcoming snow) and I was exhausted. Hiking when I’m stressed doesn’t work. I feel like my feet are moving through molasses. I put my music back on and took the hills slowly. I knew the shelter might be full so I mentally prepared myself to pitch my tent even though it was calling for high winds and rain tonight.
The trail does a big C around the town Roan Mt, TN, so even though we hiked 16 miles, we actually ended up a mile away from where Engine, Caboose, JAM, and Molasses are staying! I waved at the town as I descended to the shelter. When I got to the shelter there was miraculously only one spot left. Everyone was kind enough to squeeze over to let me in so I didn’t have to pitch my tent, and I was very grateful.
Popcorn, his sister Mary-Kay, and Sarge were there along with Rash, Piñata, Beetle, and Friendly Ghost. We ate dinner, and I made a belated blueberry pancake for Piñata’s birthday. We sang her happy birthday and she blew out the lighter we had as a candle. Everyone turned in early while it was still light out because the winds started to pick up. Tomorrow we’re going into town, so even if the weather is crappy all we have to do is survive 15 miles before we get real food and a shower!
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