The Solo Experience
A few weeks ago I set out on my first solo overnight backpacking trip. Years ago a professor of mine suggested checking out the Roan Mountain range on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. He mentioned it contained the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail before reaching Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Unfortunately I never made the journey during my time in Blacksburg, VA, but after seeing some photos of the range I was hooked. Fast forward a few years and I finally had the chance to check out the range. I decided I wanted to journey out by myself for a few reasons. I’ve longed feared the idea of being alone in a tent in the middle of the woods. Fear of animals, fear of humans, fear of the unknown, I wanted to face it all and prove to myself that my fear is mostly anticipatory mind fantasy. Additionally, I wanted to practice mindfulness and connect with the trail in as present a way as possible.
Ridge Walking to Simplicity
From Carver’s Gap parking lot, one can take the AT either north or south. I headed northbound in order to walk over the beautiful bald, grassy knobs that the range provides. My goal was to hit all of the peaks including Hump mountain which was about 9 miles away. Initially my plan was to summit Hump Mountain and then backtrack to Bradley Gap and camp in the woods off the trail. I was weary about afternoon thunderstorms so I decided I would reach the AT shelters and decided whether or not to continue on for the day or camp there and push for Hump Mountain the next day.
I ventured forward walking along the exposed ridge line, which at this point was almost entirely covered in clouds. The sun poked through every now and then providing me with some absolutely amazing views. I didn’t stop much as I knew I would be walking back through this region the next day with hopefully clearer skies.
I reached the AT shelter and assessed the sky. There was plenty of moisture up there and I could feel the daytime heating kicking in, but I used my weather instinct and concluded that the storms were going to hold off. I pushed on for Hump Mountain. Before reaching Hump Mountain, hikers are treated to Little Hump Mountain, a slightly smaller, yet just as spectacular grassy knob filled with 360 views and not a hint of humanity in sight. I was absolutely blown away by the shear beauty of this 5,000 foot grassy hill. The path up to it was like something out of the Lord of the Rings. So gentle, so lovely, just plain amazing.
At the top of Little Hump mountain I ran into a section hiker known as “The Gnome”, who really did look like a lawn gnome. The Gnome was a self-described naturalist with an incredibly kind spirit. We sat and talked for about a half hour discussing the weather, mushrooms, the cosmos, and many more natural wonders. The Gnome was just the beginning of a series of kind and genuine thru hikers and backpackers I met on this short journey. Even though I set out to experience this on my own, the trails intertwined my life with people who understood my yearning for adventure. I met more genuine and interested strangers in those 48 hours than I have in the past year.
I parted ways with The Gnome and pushed for my final summit of the day up to Hump Mountain. Hump Mountain was the gem of the range. The push up to the top was very difficult, but the 360 views cured any physical suffering I was enduring. Let me tell you, Hump Mountain is the spot. Absolutely breathtaking views. I had the entire mountain to myself.
I ate some food, drank some water, and took a nap on a rock face. I was completely at ease, perfectly present, simplistic. Everything made sense.
I set up camp down in Bradley Gap at a pretty well-used site. I then decided to bushwhack my way up to an unnamed peak for the sunset. I was treated with one of the most scenic sunsets of my life. Again, just me and the mountains.
Fear of The Unknown
I was so exhausted from 10 miles of hiking that I fell asleep immediately. I had this sense of accomplishment that I had faced my fears. I’d soon be waking up, eating breakfast and headed back to my car. Nature had other plans…
About 3:30 am in the morning I was awoken to howling and barking from a nearby pack of coyotes. Initially, I rolled over and fell back asleep assuring myself that they were far away and probably wouldn’t bother me. 30 minutes later I was wide awake as the barking grew louder and closer. I couldn’t calm down my mind. Fear started infiltrating my body. With every howl anxiety flared up in my chest. I tossed and turned trying to tell myself that they were not going to bother me. I had properly bear bagged my food so why would they bother me?
All of a sudden the barking ceased. I heard some footsteps and my heart just sank. I could sense the presence of multiple animals circling my tent. I could hear them sniffing right by my head. At one moment the bottom of my rainfly was moving. I was terrified. I didn’t know if it was better to sit still or to make some noise. I sat there quietly as the sniffing and circling continued. I could tell they knew I was there. I reached down into my pocket and realized I had left a bag of trail mix and an empty snickers wrapper. This intensified my anxiety and fear as the bag of trail mix was giving off some potent peanut butter aromas. Interestingly, I started presently watching my mind state and I had an amazing moment of clarity. I thought about our primitive ancestors and how they had to fend off wild animals daily. I realized that humans have developed anxiety emotions for a reason. As someone who struggles with anxiety day in and day out I tend to label any amount of anxiety as something that is going to destroy me. That can’t be further from the truth. Anxiety is my friend, it is simply telling me to pay attention. All of this was flowing through my head as the coyotes continued to circle. I thought to myself, “Ya know what Nick, you always run from your anxiety. Here’s a perfect opportunity my friend”. I got up, clapped like hell, and listened as the coyotes scurried off no longer bound to bother me. Now granted I really wasn’t in too much danger, but being out by myself was enough to warrant an intense reaction. I’m glad the experience happened. I’m glad those coyotes came by. This may sound strange to some, but there was a part of me that found the experience to be somewhat fun. Really, it was my first memorable experience that I realized my impermanence, channeled my anxiety, and made a decisive move. It was an incredible moment for me.
On Cloud 9 Again…
Valley fog is a very common phenomenon for the southern Appalachians. If one arises early enough they can be treated to a river of clouds beneath their feet. I have been chasing an undercast view for some time. This was my lucky day. Because of my encounter with the coyote pack I was wide awake. I got up earlier than I had planned so I figured why lay around when I could possibly catch an undercast at Little Hump Mountain?
My gear was packed and the sun was rising. I headed southbound on the AT at a rejuvenated pace. As I ascended through the thick brush to the peak of Little Hump Mountain I started to see some low level clouds through the cracks in the trees. I picked up my pace a bit knowing that any valley fog would soon be gone. I didn’t want to miss my best chance at an undercast.
I had finally caught my undercast and it was arguably one of the best sight my eyes have ever seen.
I looked to my left and saw the clouds basically engulfing the unnamed summit I had watched the sunset at the previous night. It was absolutely fascinating to observe.
I backtracked the last 7 miles or so to my car at Carver’s Gap. The sky was completely clear the entire return trip. As I re-walked the Roan ridge line I was greeted with 360 views stretching as far as I could see. I ran into some incredible strangers on the way back, many of whom were thru-hikers. They all wanted to ask about my journey, my background, and my thoughts on what laid ahead. Trail magic.
Exhausted, I returned to my car and reflected upon the experience. Going out alone was one of the more exhilarating and scary experiences of my life. The fear of the unknown may be the most intense fear anyone can experience. Whether that is camping out all alone in the middle of the woods or simply stepping out of your comfort zone in everyday life. One thing is for certain however, there is nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run to. Exposing yourself to what you think will destroy you is when your true courage emerges. If I hadn’t went on this trip by myself I never would of seen some of the best views I’ve ever seen, I never would of caught my first undercast, and I would not have met all of the incredibly kind hikers I encountered. Hopefully I can continue to not succumb to fear as I continue this path through life.
I’d almost always rather share the journey with others, but sometimes we all need some introspective solitude. The Roan Mountain range provided some clarity I’ve been missing for some time. Thank you.
On a less preachy note, the Roan Mountain Range is sick. Highly recommended to everyone! It sort of reminded me of the southern Presidential Range in the White Mountains, except with grass.