An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 11 - Roan Mountain and a Ramp Festival in Elk Park, North Carolina
"...all of a sudden looming out of the fog was a small cabin."
A few days out from Erwin, TN, we arrived at Roan Mountain. We made it to Roan High Knob shelter after hiking 14.5 miles from a shelter at Cherry Gap. As expected, Roan Mountain was a rugged climb. When we got there the summit was shrouded by clouds . We had been hearing about Roan Mountain for a while. There is a road that leads to the ridge near the top of the mountain and it attracts many tourists as well as hikers. People flock to the summit to enjoy the views as well as the highly regarded wild rhododendron shrubs that dot the landscape along the grassy ridge. We started our hike too early to see any wild rhododendron blooms while we were hiking in the South. We did see many rhododendron plants, though. In Georgia there were many times where we would descend off of a ridge to cross a small stream and we found ourselves passing through tunnels of rhododendron that grew over our heads in arches above the trail. The dark leathery leaves stayed on the plant through the winter and early spring, making it easy to identify. We recognized them when we saw them in Georgia, but we had never seen them the size of small trees. We wished we could've hiked through some of those rhododendron tunnels when the flowers were blooming.
On the day we climbed Roan Mountain, we wouldn't have been able to see much anyway due to the clouds. The top of Roan mountain is a grassy bald and on a clear day we would've gotten a view like what we had on Big Bald. Unfortunately with the mountaintop shrouded by thick fog, we had a hard time seeing 50 feet in front of us. We kept walking along the trail, not really sure if the summit was ahead of us or if we had already climbed it, when all of a sudden looming out of the fog was a small cabin. The cabin turned out to be Roan High Knob shelter. Roan High Knob shelter was a cabin with two floors. My first reaction was to remember the stone house on top of Blood Mountain. That shelter had been dark, dank, and dirty. This shelter was different. It was a wooden cabin and seemed newly constructed. It was clean and it had open air windows to let in light. The Windows had shutters that could be closed during bad weather. Inside was a steep staircase, almost a ladder, that led to a second-story loft. We hauled our stuff up to the loft and settled in for the night.
If you want to read this series from the beginning, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-hike: Part 1 - Deciding to...
Two teenagers hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end in 1982. This episode describes how they decided to hike the trail and their preparation for the trip.
"The card incident seemed to galvanize us into action. We quickly packed our gear and set out through the mist and drizzle."
The next morning Paul got up first and announced that he was hiking to the highway on the other side of Hump and Yellow Mountains. Roan Mountain was still covered with a blanket of mist. We opened the shutters to let in light and wisps of clouds started floating into the cabin. Dave, Mark, and I decided we were just going to sleep in and stay at the shelter for another day. We might have been hoping that the clouds would break up so we could get some views from the top of the mountain. We laid there for a while, but gusts of wind started blowing the open shutters so that they would occasionally slam against a window frame with a loud bang. Within an hour I was bored and restless in my sleeping bag. I started thinking about things I could do to pass the time. I suddenly remembered that I had brought along a miniature deck of cards, probably 1 inch wide by about 2 inches long. On the front of the cards was a picture of Charlie Brown, trying to fly a kite. The deck was nestled at the bottom of one of the outer pockets of my pack, the same pocket where my journal was kept, wrapped in its plastic bag.
I decided I would play some solitaire to pass the time. I rummaged into the pack and pulled out the cards. Dave and Mark poked their heads out of their sleeping bags to see what I was up to. I told them what I was going to do and I thought they went back to sleep. I laid the cards out on the floor and started to play. About halfway through my game, a big wind gust came through the open window and turned my game of solitaire into a game of 52 card pickup. The cards flew up in a cloud all around me. Many of them fluttered through the stairway entrance and down to the bottom floor. The expression on my face must have been priceless because peals of laughter suddenly burst forth from Mark and Dave who evidently had not gone back to sleep after all. I crawled back out of my sleeping bag and started collecting all my cards while the other two guys kept chuckling. By the time I was done, I was in no mood to get back into my sleeping bag. Dave and Mark were also stirring. The card incident seemed to galvanize us into action. We quickly packed our gear and set out through the mist and drizzle. Paul, by that time, had over an hour's head start on us. We set our sights on catching up to him, and charged off down the trail.
We descended off the ridge and out of the clouds. It was overcast and there was an intermittent drizzle. The tree trunks were stained dark by rain and water droplets hung from all the branches and blades of grass. We were hiking with a purpose and the miles flew past. We had two big mountains ahead of us to climb. A few times we came out into clearings where we could see one of the mountains (either Hump Mountain or Yellow Mountain) looming before us. It was a bald, and large portions of its mass were exposed. We could even see the darker line of the trail cutting a seam across the yellowish brown grass on the mountainside. Once we saw a red speck moving along the trail along the mountainside across a little valley and we knew we were looking at Paul on the trail far ahead of us. We redoubled our efforts and it didn't seem too long before we were ascending Hump Mountain. I was expecting to climb two distinct mountains, but it didn't turn out that way. Hump Mountain and Yellow Mountain turned out to be two peaks along a single ridge and there wasn't much of a descent between them. I was still expecting an ascent of Yellow Mountain as we came down the other side of what I thought had been Hump Mountain. We kept going down through the open grassy bald into the woods and still further down until we started to enter high pastures and farm fields. All along I kept thinking we were going down a long way which meant that the climb up Yellow Mountain would be a long one. I thought we had a long way to go still before we hit the highway. When we finally did come to the highway I was surprised. I asked Mark and Dave "What happened to Yellow Mountain? Weren't we supposed to climb a second mountain?"
They just shrugged, "We must've climbed it and thought it was part of Hump Mountain." was the only answer they had for me.
After the initial surprise sunk in, I was elated. It was the same feeling you get when you put on a shirt you haven't worn in a while and find a $20 bill in the pocket. Even though it was your money to begin with, you still feel like you're getting something for nothing.
We started hiking down the highway. I didn't even know what our goal was – what we were trying to reach down that highway - other than that was where Paul’s tracks led. Before long we came to a long straight section of the road and we could see Paul's red backpack swaying along about a quarter mile ahead. We had made up a lot of ground on him, but his dogged determination had gotten him to the highway ahead of us. He didn't even know that we had ended up following him. About a mile or two down the highway we discovered what Paul's destination was. We came to a small gathering of buildings – a motel, a restaurant, and a store. I don't remember any houses. It was simply a cluster of buildings along the state highway. The place, I later found out, was called Elk Park, North Carolina. That cluster of buildings was all I ever saw of Elk Park. The rest of the town may have been further down the road, but I never got past the motel, the restaurant, and the store.
A map showing Hump Mountain and Elk Park
"Ramps are like wild onions, he told us. They grow all through the southern Appalachian Mountains and early spring is the time of year that they taste best."
The motel and the restaurant were right next to each other, and on the outside of both were signs that proclaimed the current week as the Ramp Festival week. Dave and I were mystified, but cautiously optimistic. A festival sounded good, but we wondered what a ramp was. It wasn't until we finally met up with Paul that we got our answer. Ramps are like wild onions, he told us. They grow all through the southern Appalachian Mountains and early spring is the time of year that they taste best. People would go out into the woods and pull up dozens or hundreds and put them into salads, sauté them, cook them with meat or vegetables for flavoring, or chop them up and put them into casseroles. Many small Appalachian towns held their ramp festivals in the spring. People would fix all sorts of different dishes with ramps as ingredients and they would hold special dinners and buffets. We were just fortunate enough to stumble across Elk Park during their Ramp Festival and after we booked a motel room (split four ways) for the night, took showers, and put on a fresh change of clothes, we went into the restaurant for a meal.
To our great delight we found out the buffet was AYCE for $3.75. Even in the early 1980’s, $3.75 for an all-you-can-eat buffet was a great deal, especially when the buffet was full of good home cooking. There was meatloaf, fried chicken, a salad bar, biscuits, corn bread, and ramps fixed in various ways. Once again Dave and I feasted with a vengeance. This time I let my eyes get too big for my stomach. Not only did I eat three heaping platefuls, but after dinner we went to the store and Dave and I split a half gallon of ice cream. That night I paid the price. I spent a good portion of the evening lying on the bed in the motel room with my stomach in pain from eating too much. I laid there groaning while the other three stood around cracking jokes at my expense.
Luckily, by the next morning I was feeling better, the sun had come out, and the temperature had risen to a balmy 65 degrees. Greatly relieved to be done with the stretch of bad weather, we shouldered our packs and hit the trail once more. We were beginning to get state line fever, that excitement and sense of urgency that sets in when a thru hiker knows that a state border is getting close. Virginia was just a few day's hike away, and just over the border was the town of Damascus, a well known trail town with a hostel called "The Place". We had read and heard so much about it that Dave and I were getting impatient to see it and experience it for ourselves.