Before I begin this article, I need to let you know that when it comes to this expedition there are no words to adequately describe what I felt and saw. My attempt to provide an accurate description is just that, an attempt.
By the time I reached Laurel Fork, our destination on day one, my feet felt as though they had been pummeled by stones. Despite warm temperatures and clear skies, the steep three-and-a-half mile downhill trek that comprised the second half of the hike (after the steep three and half miles uphill) was rough on the toes. The shelter at Laurel Fork was warm and inviting despite the massive rat I saw making a run from beneath it. As the day progressed the temperature began to slowly fall, and a fine layer of mist settled in. It wasn’t unpleasant, and, in fact, made for excellent conditions for our day hike up Laurel Creek. The Laurel Fork Falls were magnificent. Water cascaded down thick rock like clothes on a mannequin. It was strange really, almost mysterious, this downfall of water. What lies beneath? That night was the first time I had ever slept in an AT shelter, and, despite the rat, I slept like a baby.
The next morning, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and lit a fire. It was my day to lead our group, and I was excited to get going. The weather did not appear to be as pretty as the day before, and, in fact, within the first five minutes of hiking, rain was falling so heavily I called, “Hold up,” so we could all put on our rain gear. The first mile of our 9.8-mile hike that day led us to Dennis Cove. Now you may not be familiar with Appalachian Trail legend Bob Peoples, but Dennis Cove is where his Kincora Hostel is located, and Liam, Jordan, and I desperately wanted to meet him and shake his hand. Sadly, we did not have the chance, because when we reached Kincora, the mystical man was said to be “running errands.” After this slight detour we continued south along the AT until we reached the trail to Coon Den Falls. While not as large as Laurel Fork, these falls, rushing in a thin powerful flow down the hillside, seemed to invite me to rip off my clothes and leap in. But it’s always better to think twice because the water was so cold. After hiking back up to the trail, we shouldered our backpacks for the long, steep switchback up to Moreland Gap. After another torrential downpour, and many miles we arrived at our camp extremely tired and fell into bed quickly and easily.
The third day took us to Elk River, and, despite the pleasures of lunch in the sun at Mountaineer Shelter and the beauty of Mountaineer Falls, I am going to skip ahead to our destination. This was my absolute favorite camp, Elk River. The river makes a bend in the middle of a large green meadow, which was bathed in sunlight and wild flowers. I had been looking forward to arriving here because of the “daffodil pictures” from last year, but this year, to my disappointment, none were in bloom. So I did the next best thing, and dug up a few bulbs to carry with me to plant later in order to remember it. As I lay in the sun in the meadow that afternoon, I came to the conclusion that this is where I want to get married. I felt so at peace that anything less would be wrong. After rally that evening, I lay in my tent, in my favorite camp, filled with serenity and appreciation of beauty, drifting off to sleep to the gentle patter of rain on my tent fly.
The next morning we left my beautiful Elk River for Doll Flats. If I recall correctly, this was a particularly brutal day of hiking, over ten miles of steep uphill climbs and steep downhill descents capped off by a relentless three-and-a-half-mile ascent to Doll Flats. I say, “If I recall…” because the discomfort is not what I remember. Almost to the top of the last hill, we arrived at a “window” through the trees overlooking a valley. Have you ever dangled your feet off a precipice and gazed into something beautiful? It’s wonderful. My camp that night was something you might see in a magazine, tucked against the edge of a large meadow with sweeping views into the valley below. That evening, however, something rather strange occurred. At around 8:00 p.m. I was awakened by the loud sound of a dirt bike right outside my tent. I poked my head out to see bike and rider heading for the far side of the meadow before stopping. Later, Mr. Dan and I came to the conclusion that he had ridden up from the valley below to watch the sunset, but it was still odd.
I was leading our group again the next day for our mere 7.9-mile hike to Stan Murray. We were just a few miles into the hike when we encountered the first of the balds, Hump Mountain. I am going to have difficulty explaining what it was like. You see, the morning had been cold, rainy, and thick with a gloomy fog. The sky was overcast, and as we climbed higher, the deeper into the clouds we went. As we came out of the woods onto the expanse of open grassland of the balds, we were completely encased in cold, wet fog. But as I arrived at the top of Hump Mountain, the clouds parted. I suppose I should say they lifted, but really they just whipped away on all sides like a curtain, and I could see everything. The beauty was overwhelming, with mountain range upon mountain range stretching in all directions as far as I could see, with beams of sunlight streaking through the clouds and illuminating the entire panorama. It literally made me gasp, and, you may think this sounds cheesy, but I actually began to cry. In that moment, I had a little glimpse of God that I will never forget.
Before I get to the last day, I have one last rodent story to tell. At Stan Murray Shelter, there are mice. How do I know this? Because one ran across my face while I was sleeping. I woke up with a shout, and Mr. Dan woke up and turned on his headlamp, saw nothing, and went back to sleep. I guess you could say I was a bit paranoid, because I kept my head out of my bag looking around, and then I saw it. It was less than a foot from my face and running right at me. This time I yelled even louder, and Mr. Dan, who was now laughing hysterically, again turned on his headlamp and saw nothing. The morning was spent wrapped in clouds, fog, and moisture all around, encasing us in a blanket of wetness and smoke that refused to rise upward from the fire. I suppose it would only have been moisture if we had not banded together to make a fire, which, in the middle of a cloud, is a lot harder than you might imagine, but being well trained we had beautiful flames in no time. The hike on this last day was once again glorious, up and onto the next set of balds at Roan Highlands. We reached our highest point of the hike (approx. 6300 feet) and were once again treated to a spectacular view, although somewhat muted by the heavy clouds, so tears were restrained. We hiked along the ridge toward our pick-up point, until only Mr. Dan and I remained on top of the very last bald. We talked about how the fields we were on would soon be covered with wildflowers and about the Rhododendron Festival, which would be taking place in the town of Roan Mountain. As we hiked the last tiny fraction down to the parking lot, I wondered, “Did I do enough?” “Had I cared enough?” I really don’t know, but if it is any indicator, I promise I’ll be back someday.