I bellied up to the house in the morning for another one of Mary’s breakfasts. Mel, a section hiker from New Jersey who had spent the night, helped me adjust my backpack. It had been riding a little low. Fog blanketed Mountain Harbour early, but blue skies and a cool breeze prevailed when I walked up the highway and back into the woods toward Hump Mountain. The day of rest and meditation improved my prospects, as did the kindness of the people who helped me when I was down in this small Appalachian town.
The trail up Hump Mountain gained five hundred feet in elevation every mile for five miles. I walked slowly, inhaling the mountain air inquisitively through my nostrils rather than huffing and puffing through my mouth. My focus shifted away from myself, back to splendid nature. I held pine needles under my nose, looked closely into the cups of yellow flowers, and paused at a towering oak. How many creatures had rubbed their antlers against it, ate its acorns, scurried up and down its trunk, whistled and hooted from its branches?
Trees gave way to grass on the bald top of Hump Mountain. I sat down and removed my boots and socks so my toes could sway in the breeze with the tall grass. Beyond the bald, mountains rose to eternity, layered one behind the other, in varying shades of green in the foreground to hazy blues in the distance. Voluminous clouds cast rolling shadows as they drifted across the blue sky. I lay back and closed my eyes, feeling the sun’s warmth on my eyelids. A bee sampled purple-flowered clover next to me. His buzzing was the only sound holding me to earth. Bluets graced the bald. Each flower had a yellow center outlined in white with yellow rays extending toward the blue petals—looking like little suns.
After Hump, I hiked a mile down to Bradley Gap and then a mile up to Little Hump Mountain, which was almost as high as Hump. Between the two balds, the trail passed through a section of small beech trees. Wavy green grass covered the ground underneath the trees. The scene would have been as inviting in winter as beech trees hang on to their dead, quivering leaves until spring. I lay down again on Little Hump Mountain. Two vultures circled overhead, hoping I might expire. But I was very much alive—and well.
From there it was a mile and a half down to Overmountain Shelter, aka The Red Barn. Boy Scouts had converged on the place, but most were tenting in the open field on the approach to the shelter. Others hung hammocks among a grove of spruce trees. The barn’s loft was expansive and dark. Wind blew in through a large opening at one end and through spaces between the boards. I cooked cheddar-herb chicken and a side of beets for supper with milk and cookies for dessert.
It was cold, so I wore my fleece jacket in my sleeping bag. A man in the corner snored so loudly that my eardrums vibrated as much as his nose. He went silent occasionally, but that was followed by awful gasps, like a man saved from drowning. Then the nasal roaring resumed with a vengeance. It thundered outside the barn as well—a storm rolled in, adding dampness to the whistling wind. The night was long and loud, but it sure had been a glorious day.
The rain let up shortly after breakfast—ramen noodles from Mountain Harbour Hostel. I saved my sweet potato bark, nuts, and raisins for walking. The three-mile ascent up to Grassy Ridge Bald was rocky, rooty, muddy, and puddly. I emerged from tree cover into open grass. The eroding forces of hiking boots and flowing water had turned the trail into a narrow trench that was difficult to walk in or along. Walking on the ridge, my right foot was in Tennessee, my left foot in North Carolina.
The Roan Highlands had started back at Hump Mountain, where I left my back pain behind. Now, I was hiking the other half of the highlands. Grassy Ridge was the first of three successive balds that I crossed over the next two miles. I could see the trail ahead for a long way—to Jane Bald and then Round Bald. Interspersed among the grass were lone boulders and flat slabs of rock, thickets of rhododendron, wild blueberries, and a smattering of spruce trees. The trail often followed along the crest of a knob with the meadow sloping away roundly to both sides. On the balds, the blue sky itself was an all-encompassing feature as it swept over the distant mountains.
Roan High Knob Shelter
After dropping a short ways to Carvers Gap, I climbed back up again, this time to Roan High Knob Shelter, the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail at over six thousand feet. Unlike most shelters, which are open on the front side, Roan High Knob Shelter was a fully enclosed log cabin with a front door and windows. It had a large loft, which overhung the front area like a covered porch. The shelter was nestled in among spruce trees, which favor the alpine environment of the highlands. I cooked lunch there—corn-bark stew with ham and green beans.
Back on the trail, I walked by an old rock chimney—the trail passed right through where the old house used to stand. Not a board remained. Whoever had lived there had a good supply of resinous spruce heartwood around the house to stoke hot fires on cold highland nights. The next five miles descended over rocks and roots, followed by a five-mile climb up and over Little Rock Knob. I broke into spontaneous yodeling when a level, smooth stretch opened up. Three hikers coming toward me moved off the trail to let me pass—like I might be dangerous. As I got closer to Greasy Creek Friendly hostel, a grove of Fraser fir trees along the trail smelled like Christmas.
It was almost dark when I got to the hostel—an old house with weathered-gray siding and a tin roof. I had heard from another hiker that the proprietor, Cee Cee, makes you wash your hands as soon as you enter the house and before you sit down at the table. Cee Cee welcomed me at the back door and invited me to take off my boots and wash my hands. The bathroom and washing machine were located off the mudroom, such that one’s hiker grime can be removed before venturing farther into the house. This was her home after all. I was happy to recivilize myself while in Cee Cee’s care. The gravity-fed shower delivered little more than a trickle, but it was hot, and Cee Cee said I could stay in there as long as I wanted. She washed my clothes with a splash of vinegar to get the stink out. I was getting some mothering—and I appreciated it. Though nearly bedtime, Cee Cee fixed me a cheeseburger and salad with feta cheese. The kitchen floor was decorated with painted footprints of hikers. She called the place Greasy Creek Friendly because she was friendly to hikers—simple as that. I slept in a bedroom in the house rather than in the bunkhouse out back.