Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chapter 36: Hiking For a Change

The experience of hiking up Roan Mountain will change irrevocably in the years to come, as the ATC adds several miles of switchbacks to its southern face and possibly a mechanized ski lift. Which is a shame, because it used to be one of the most unique and challenging climbs on the trail. But don't take my word for it. Go do it yourself. Right now. I'll wait.

What's that? You don't have time? But you're going to plan to do it as soon as you finish your coffee? And that scone? Well, I can't blame you. That scone looks delicious. In the meantime, allow me to tell you how your journey will unfold.

You will start off from Greasy Creek Gap, as I did, because I am your hero, and you aspire in all ways to be just like me. Don't worry, I get that all the time. Still, it's as good a place as any to begin, what with its convenient road access and... everything. So, good choice.

About an hour later, after passing the Clyde Smith Shelter, you'll probably look up to see nothing but the thrilling blue expanse of the sky ahead of you. Thinking or hoping you're near the top, you will gambol forward excitedly and finally crest the ridge, only to suddenly realize your error in judgement. You will see the real Roan Mountain still looming on the horizon, and your heart will sink with despair and self-recrimination. Alas, you have fallen victim to the oldest and cleverest of hiking scourges, the false summit.

After wasting several minutes screaming profanity and gesticulating wildly, you will probably retrieve your guidebook from the bushes where you kicked it and determine that you're on top of Little Rock Knob, which, even at 4,920 feet, here barely constitutes a foothill. Roan Mountain lies some five miles ahead of you, across a heretofore hidden and distressingly deep valley. The only thing left for you to do is make your way down the nine hundred or so vertical feet to the valley floor, snake your way across it, tackle the abrupt 2,200 foot climb to the real summit, and then you'll be there.

Reaching the top of Roan Mountain, you will feel no thrill of exhilaration or sense of accomplishment at all. Your mind will now be set on only one thing, and you will furiously wade through foot-deep snow to visit the Roan High Knob Shelter, only to find it rat-infested and without a privy. You will then realize that you should have noted that earlier. It says "no privy" right there in your guidebook, after all. What were you thinking? Cursing your stupidity once again, you will continue on in increasing desperation to find a bathroom. The snow is too deep and there are too many day hikers about for you to contemplate digging a cathole. Fortunately, you know that there's a "parking area" with "toilets" a mile and a half further, at Carver's Gap.

At this point you will have long abandoned any pretense of enjoying yourself or appreciating nature. You blithely ignore the invigorating and brisk mountain air, the crystal clear and icy cool spring water, the intoxicating smell of the pine grove around you that's subtly reminiscent of a warm night spent sitting in front of the hearth, enjoying a crackling fire, a hot chocolate, a soft fuzzy blanket, a good book, the company of friends and family, and the close proximity of indoor plumbing. No, from now on your only concern is your impending bowel movement. You have become a staggering, emotionless robot, your one mission to find a suitable place of privacy to relieve your oppressively burdened intestines and overstressed sphincter of their grotesque cargo.

You reach Carver's Gap and look around frantically for an outhouse, alarming several families with your crazed expression and inexplicable cries of anguish. The only thing you can find is a sign saying "Parking Area, Toilets - 1.5 Miles," which naturally causes you to curse ferociously in front of a group of small children. You momentarily contemplate breaking into someone's car to defecate in their back seat, but you then remember that you're a good person, and, moreover, that you don't know how to break into a car. You severely lack the time or patience to make it that mile and a half, and so are driven ever on in increasing desperation.

Unfortunately, what's ahead of you are some of the most spectacular grassy balds in North Carolina, and they are heavily trafficked by seemingly innocent, cutesy day hikers and their ever-curious dogs. No matter, by now your biological needs have outweighed your years of civilized restraint, and you dart off the trail into a small thicket of rhododendron bushes. Mid-squat, you realize that you have attempted to hide yourself next to a boulder that, unfortunately, is also right below the trail. You can hear voices approaching, and the steady crunch of gravel. You will not be able to pull your pants back up and relocate. It's too late for that. So you sit there frozen as the people pass you, hoping they don't look to their right and down, horrified by what they might see.

You will black out from the stress. When you come to, the danger has passed. Somehow, you were not discovered. Then you realize you left your toilet paper in you backpack, which you left twenty yards away, next to the trail.

But don't worry, the rest of the day will be much easier. You will eventually emerge only slightly psychologically scarred but physically unscathed from your catholing adventure. You will meet and talk to a local man hanging out atop Round Bald, and bond over your shared enthusiasm for the trail. You will be surprised to find that you actually are enthusiastic about the trail once again, now that your burden has lifted.

Finally, at the end of the day, you will head to Overmountain Shelter to make camp for the night. You will arrive to find the shelter, an old converted barn, already overrun by hikers and a local family with a small, screaming baby. Feeling ostracized somehow by the other hikers, you will decide to tent on the nearby hillside, rationalizing your choice by claiming to want an unobstructed view of the sunrise. In reality, you just want to be alone to hide your still redolent humiliation. You may begin to feel lonely, until twenty more hikers show up, and they all too camp on the hill next to you. Someone will build a campfire, stories will be told, and you will slowly begin to feel better.

You go to bed anxious to leave the next day. You will stare at the roof of your tent and wonder just what brought you out there in the first place. You vaguely remember someone once telling you to hike Roan Mountain, before it all changed for the worse. Or maybe that you read it somewhere. This, of course, is absurd, and wrong, and is just a figment of your wild imagination. There will be no one to blame but yourself.

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