Roan Highlands: Days 34-35
After a leisurely hike up Roan Mountain, I find Tenacious lunching at Roan High Knob shelter. The shelter is a cabin, enclosed with log walls on all four sides. I enter, turn, and find a trapdoor leading to an upper level that feels significantly warmer than the deck below.
“There are ruins over there,” Tenacious tells me, gesturing behind her.
Cool, I think, as I spot a broken stone staircase near four squat pillars. I wonder if these were the foundations for a house.
Tenacious and Nighthawk decide to push to Overmountain Shelter to avoid an incoming storm. I glance at the forecast. Rain, with wind gusts up to 48 mph. Possible snow two days from now. I decide to stay, wait for the trail crew, and get an early start the next morning.
Carter arrives as I’m making myself a pair of gaiters by awkwardly sewing Velcro onto umbrella cloth with uneven, jagged stitches. Silas, Jenny, and Kelly arrive shortly afterwards.
We arrange our sleeping bags on the upper floor that night. When I lie down, blood rushes to my head. Carter, Jenny, and Kelly struggle to keep from rolling sideways into each other on the slanted floor.
We awkwardly reshuffle ourselves.
“This is like Tetris,” Silas notes as he flips around and inches across the floor, fully wrapped in his sleeping bag.
“You just did the worm!” Carter exclaims, pointing at him.
I sleep well enough, rising before the crack of dawn to beat the rain. Even in the protection of the shelter, I feel the chill of the wind.
As I hike past Carver’s Gap onto Round Bald, I watch a crow attempt to take flight three times, only to be beaten back by the wind. On its fourth try, it finally rises unsteadily into the air, veering off towards one side. Clouds charge up the mountainside, so that the view is clear one instant and obscured the next.
I lean into the gusts and continue pressing onwards: The wind is strong, but not yet unnavigable. Still, I breathe a sigh of relief when I crest the third bald and return below tree line. Safe at last, I think. But I’m not safe. Not yet.
A tree rocks back and forth, its roots lifting a few centimeters off the ground with every gust of wind. I scramble past as quickly as possible. Branches and thorns lash out from the sides of the trail, clawing at my clothes. I catch a brief respite when I stop by Overmountain Shelter, a former barn located en route to the site of a Revolutionary War victory. I glance at my map. Two more humps to go over. I can do that, I think.
I steel myself for a moment when I see the first grassy bald between an opening in the trees. Then, I charge forward. Each time I lift a foot, the wind snaps it to one side. I’m correcting my footsteps with every step, unable to walk in a straight line. The trail here is a narrow ditch barely wide enough to fit a single foot. I wedge one foot in, attempting in vain to steady myself with the other.
And then I see the second hump.
For the past mile, the trail has been a series of switchbacks through clumps of trees. Difficult in this weather, but manageable when interspersed with periods under shelter. Now, it opens onto Bradley Gap, and I see the full expanse of exposed ridgeline before me. The trail winds up a vast, grassy bald, completely unprotected from the wind.
The view is breathtaking. After a few tries, I manage to steady my shaking hands enough to take a couple pictures.
The unrelenting wind picks up, becoming a continuous roar in my ears. It whips my pack straps and rain skirt against my legs, leaving a series of long red lashes on my skin. I am leaning into the wind at a 45 degree angle, no longer able to maintain any semblance of a straight path. It’s all I can do to stay upright; I have no time to even contemplate taking photos, despite the open views before me. At some points, I crouch down, attempting to stagger headfirst into the wind, yet unable to make any headway. Once, the wind blows me over completely, throwing me into a patch of thorns. Each time I reach the ridgeline, the wind knocks me five, ten feet off the trail. I reach the top of the ridge, thinking the worst is over, only to see another mile of exposed ridge below me.
This is dangerous, I remember thinking. I need cover. The tree line lies about 50 feet below. I could hunker down there if necessary. But with rain and snow in the forecast, I decide to try and push through while I can still see the path before me.
Unable to stay on the ridge without getting knocked over, I hike parallel to the trail, bushwhacking through fields of thorns, on the lee side of the wind. Even then, I struggle to remain standing. At some point, some kind of primal instinct rises in me, crystallizing into one single thought: Survival. Thorns cut into my legs, but I barely feel them. All I can concentrate on is willing my legs to take another step, praying my strength will not fail me.
After many long moments, I see a wooden gate in the distance. Something clicks in my mind: I remember seeing the gate symbol in my maps. I look closer. A white-blazed rock. Trees. Gathering my wits about me, I bear towards the gate.
When I get below tree line, I feel a stinging pain on my leg. After putting down my pack, I lift my rain skirt to find, to my surprise, that I am bleeding. The thorns have left a network of gashes across my left knee. None look too deep, so I merely slap a bandage on them, planning to clean the wound in town later in the day.
As I finish bandaging up, another hiker comes down. He sports a green wind jacket and introduces himself as One Gallon. I’d seen him at Overmountain Shelter.
“I was thinking about you up there,” he says. “This tiny Asian lady in those winds – I was looking in the ditches to find your body. Would you like some company as you hike?”
“Yes!” I say eagerly, still a bit shaken from the last couple miles. I don’t know whether the trail will pass by exposed balds again. “It would be good to have a witness if I get blown off the side of the mountain.”
He laughs, and agrees to accompany me for a bit. As I begin to swing my pack over my shoulder, though, I notice something. “I lost my rain fly!” I don’t even know when or where it blew off.
“It’s probably in another state by now,” One Gallon says.
Blowing back and forth between North Carolina and Tennessee, perhaps. The trail, thankfully, remains under cover for the rest of the day.
“Have you heard of the 1/2 gallon challenge? Well, I ate 1 gallon. And when you’re 22 and do something stupid like that –”
⁃ One Gallon, International AT thru-hiker
One Gallon escorts me to a campsite within a mile of the road. He’s thru-hiking for the fourth time and has paddled extensively around the country, covering routes like the one Lewis and Clark took to reach the Pacific Ocean. I am grateful for his steadying presence.
“I think the hardest part is taking the first step.”
⁃ One Gallon
When I meet up with the trail crew again and they suggest going to town, I have no objections. In fact, I end up taking two zero days in Banner Elk. There, I look up the weather and find that we survived gusts up to 80 mph in the higher elevations. A truly harrowing, yet simultaneously beautiful, day.