Friday, October 30, 2015

Balding at 30 - Roan Highlands Birthday Fun




October 22:

Like any given Thursday… I flashed my annual pass to the sweet old man at the front gate of Oak Mountain State Park, smiled and turned up my music as I drove away. The only difference between this day and any other day was the music selection. I have had one standing birthday tradition that I’ve held true to since my 19th birthday. Every year since 2004… I have listened to the same song on my birthday.  I was introduced to the Senses Fail song “Irony of Dying on Your Birthday” on my actual birthday during my freshmen year of college and throughout that cool October day… I listened to it 6 times. Every birthday since… I have literally played “IODOYB” 6 times on each of my special days. I will not play it any other time or any other day outside of those 24hrs… mainly because it’s not all that great of a song. Regardless… it is my birthday tradition… and I shall continue it for the remainder of my lifespan.

 
I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the North Trail Head as I wrapped up the 5th playing of my birthday song. I slid on my Salomon’s and started stuffing my Mountain Hardwear vest with a few pale ales from Oskar Blues. I planned on a quick jaunt up to King’s Chair to sit alone on the cliff side and toast the sky. My old college buddy (Logan) pulled up about the time I started strapping on my vest. The last time I saw him was a few months back when he was hammocking up near King’s Chair. I tossed him a beer and told him I’d be up at King’s Chair having a few birthday brews if he wanted to join.



The day was perfect. Cool, breezy weather allowed for a hard effort up to King’s Chair. I was alone when I got to the top. I sat down on the ledge, popped the top to my Dale’s Pale Ale, sat in silence and reflected on my many blessings.  Trails and ales… not much better…



The silence was broken about halfway through my first beer when Logan joined the cliff side party. We toasted to another year and carried on an enjoyable conversation. Sunlight still illuminated the valley below as I cracked open my second beer. By this time another hiker had joined the party. Though I know not his name… I see him regularly on the trail and we always share a smile and a simple “hi.” Shadows had started creeping through the valley, so we decided to head back down to the trail head. I was in no rush to get back down, so Logan and I started back down the mountain together. The hiker stopped me before I left the ledge, extended his hand and in broken English wished me a happy birthday.



By the time we got to the Red/Blue connector the woods were almost black. Logan pulled out his headlamp with a mile or so to go. I hadn’t packed one but my eyes had adjusted to the dim light and made for a peaceful final mile.

 

I came home to a sweet birthday set up from my wifey. I blew out my candles with tears in my eyes. I was just so overwhelmed and thankful for everything I have in my life. After a quick shower… we packed up the car and headed to finish the birthday celebration with some good friends at Buffalo Wild Wings.

October 23

I knew it was going to be a long day the moment I was awakened with a loud meowy head boop from Wobbles. Ugh. Lack of sleep and tooooooooo many beers. I spent most of the work day debating making a trip to the mountains. Weeks prior I had planned to do a birthday getaway to the mountains with a few friends to camp, run and celebrate. Those plans deteriorated after having to let a calf strain heal after the  StumpJump 50k. I didn’t really think too much about it or mention to anyone else because I just didn’t foresee the trip happening… but when my sweet parents sent me a birthday card with some gas money… the trip was put into play again.

After work I headed home and started packing up Hotel de Andrews for the trip.



I hung around the house and had dinner with Kati until she had to leave for work at 630pm. I then began the looooooooooooooooooooong, boring, lonely drive up to my destination. 6.5hrs later I arrived at Carver’s Gap. The parking lot was packed! My legs were tight from the drive, so I decided to do a short moonlit hike before turning in. At 5500ft… the night was cool, the winds were high and the moon was bright enough where I didn’t need my headtorch to see the trail. After I wrapped up my 45min hike… I curled up in my sleeping bag. 230am. Gross. I set my alarm and drifted off to the howling winds outside.



October 24

First alarm: 4:30am = Hell no.
Second alarm: 5:15am = Ugh.  I peeked out window. It was still dark… the wind was still howling… and there was no sign of any movement. Maybe just a few more minutes…
Third alarm: 6:00am = “Do you really need to see the sun rise?”
By my third alarm I had made up my mind that I desperately needed sleep to enjoy my day full of adventure. I turned off all alarms and was just going to sleep however long my body let me. However… the people slamming car doors next to me became my fourth and final alarm at 6:37am. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and started packing my INOV8 vest with everything I would need for the traverse.  I sloppily made a peanut butter sandwich and sat in the dark munching on it with my eyes closed. I was just so damn tired. I eventually surfaced from the comfort of my car and stepped out into a chilly North Carolina morning. The wind made it cold enough for a light jacket and gloves and I figured I’d probably need them to warm back up after hanging out on the balds.



Though I really didn’t need it… I turned on my headtorch and headed onto the Appalachian Trail heading northbound to US 19E. The sun was set to rise around 7:45am and I had finally got started at 7:15am. The out and back would be close to 30 miles round trip. I had no certain finish time in mind… I simply wanted to enjoy a section of the Appalachian Mountains that I had wanted to run for years.



The initial trail up Round Bald consisted of mostly crushed gravel and wooden steps. I had already passed several hikers that were making their way up to the balds for sunrise. I figured the first few miles would bring many “good morning” exchanges… and I was right. There was a decent size group already on top of Round Bald enjoying the morning glow. I quickly descended off Round Bald and headed towards the next. A short climb later landed me on top of Jane Bald at 5800ft. By this time… the sun was revealing an absolutely breathtaking view of the cloud inversion below…
 
I tucked my headtorch in my vest and descended Jane Bald… trying my best to concentrate on my footing instead of the glowing, low hanging clouds in the distance. I ran alongside 4 deer for a few moments before they darted off into the distance. There’s just something magical and primal about moving alongside something wild…
I started the 500ft climb up to Grassy Ridge Bald. The Appalachian Trail actually veers off left but if you want to hit the Grassy Ridge Bald summit you have to take a spur trail for a short out and back. As soon I started creeping over 6000ft I was in the clouds. I hung out on the summit for a bit hoping the clouds would lift and pass along a view. While I waited… I read… and was disappointed…




Thankfully the clouds were moving quickly and eventually revealed the distant mountains…



I retraced my steps down Grassy Ridge Bald and continued northbound along the AT. Shortly after I hopped back on the AT I hit the tree line and dove into a beautiful leaf covered single track.



I passed Stan Murray shelter and waved “good morning” to a few backpackers. Shortly after the shelter I passed a big group of backpackers comprised of mostly teenagers. Again I shot a quick wave and continued along the trail…



The surrounding mountains played peek-a-boo with me all morning…



I hit the gap with the spur trail leading to the Overmountain Shelter and started the short but sweet climb to the top. I took off my gloves and light North Face jacket and tucked them away. The clouds had dissipated by the time I popped out of the tree line in route to Little Hump.



The cloud inversion was still consuming the valley down to my right…



I stopped on a rock cropping off Little Hump to take in the view and down a gel.



The wind had picked up and I was getting chilly… so I put on my gloves before heading out.



The south side of Little Hump was still clear with beautiful views so I was excited to get up and over to see the trail leading up Big Hump. My excitement quickly faded as I topped Little Hump and was engulfed in the greyness.  The clouds lifted as I descended into a short wooded section but I was right back in the fog the moment I exited the canopy. I felt the topography shift upwards which indicated the beginning of my climb up Big Hump. I passed a bearded fellow as I steadily humped my way to the top.



The trail eventually leveled out and the scene turned eerie. I no longer felt like I was on planet Earth. I was now traversing the grassy mountains on Planet Baldia which resides in the Z Galaxy.



Before I really knew what was happening… I had created an entire world. I had named villages, discussed the details of the land’s topography and weather with myself. I even had a best friend who would take running adventures with me…. a cat… named Wobbletron (who had 3 regular legs and one bionic leg).

I eventually teleported back to my home planet when I descended out of the clouds and back into the woods.



The trail became rocky and technical as I made my way towards the Doll Flats. I wore my Salomon S-Lab Sense 4’s for the traverse, but I think when I come back to run it again… I’ll where something a little more padded (Sense Pro/Speedcross maybe?).



I passed a few backpackers along this section and eventually came across a wooden “Doll Flats” sign.



Thankfully there was a break in the trees that provided an absolutely breathtaking view of the valley below…



I crossed an open field and saw a few hikers resting in the warm sun. I slowed to speak to them briefly before tossing the deuces up to North Carolina…



After leaving the field… it’s basically a long +2000ft descent for the final 4.5ish miles down to US 19E. I passed a group of hikers and flashed a smile as I steadily made my way to the bottom. When I got to the US 19E trailhead… I sat on a rock, unwrapped a Clif Bar and made conversation with a backpacker who was waiting on his friend. I sloshed my pack to see if I actually needed to head over to the creek or to the Mountain Harbour Hostel to refill my water supply. I started with 1.5 liters of water in my bladder and a small 12oz soft flask of Clif Bar electrolyte mix and hadn’t really drunk much of anything the entire morning because the temps had been so pleasant. I decided I didn’t need to refill and started my return trip. The climb up from US 19E was long but beautiful…



I eventually arrived at the field leading to the Doll Flats…



I stopped for a few minutes at the Doll Flats to soak in one last view…



The colors were insanely beautiful along the Appalachian Trail at this time of year...




I left the woods and hopped a fence that I vaguely remember from the previous trip… maybe because I was somewhere lost in my mind on Planet Baldia… 



My eyes and heart grew bigger as I started ascending Big Hump…

 
What was a blanketed foreign country earlier… was now a beautiful and inviting mountain top…



I quickly passed a group of hikers that I had met on the way down to US 19E. They gave me a few cheers and wished me a safe journey for my return trip. I snapped a quick picture of the same plaque that was covered in clouds before leaving them to a peaceful picnic spot.



I was awestruck as I started descending Big Hump…



I was so thankful and excited that the clouds gave way to these unbelievable views on my return trip! I cruised down Big Hump staring at Little Hump that I would soon be climbing. But what really blew my mind was in the far distance (it is hard to pick up on camera) I could actually see the balds I had traveled earlier that morning and could almost follow my route back to where I was currently standing. The Roan Highlands is simply an incredible experience.

 

I took one final look back up Big Hump before heading back into the woods to retrace my steps up to Little Hump…



Little Hump was CROWDED so I didn’t slow up. I tapped the top and headed back into the woods. At some point… I took a wrong step, landed weird, and jarred my back. I took a few more steps and was in some slight discomfort. I stopped on a wider part of the trail and laid down to do some yoga type stretches. The discomfort went away and I started the steep descent with a beautifully clear view of the Overland Shelter down in the valley below.



I was stopped by a backpacking couple on my descent. Strangely… I felt like I knew the guy…
Backpacker:  “You heading from 19?”
Me:  “Yep. On my return trip to Carver’s.”
Backpacker: “Nice! We do an out and back group run out here every year!”

Me: “Man  you look really familiar… did you run Pitchell back in 2013?”

Backpacker: “YEA! You know Adam Hill?”

Me: “Yea! I remember your face so clearly bro. We met on top of Pinnacle!”

Muhammad formally introduced himself and we briefly chatted. The WNC guys really know how to do it right… cool community up there.  We parted ways and I started back upwards towards the balds.



Sleep depravity came full circle in the next 2 miles. I felt like a walking zombie. I wasn’t tired in a physical sense… my legs still felt great and had a lot of pep… but I was just sleepy. I continued to zombie along until a runner came up behind me and scared me back to life.

“$h*&!!!!”

We both laughed and each apologized as he continued bounding up the incline. Needless to say… I was no longer sleepy. I caught a second wind by the time I got up to the turn for Grassy Bald Ridge. I counted 12 people in route up to Grassy Bald Ridge which immediately deterred me and sent me southbound towards Carver’s. By the time I passed over Jane Bald I had already passed more people in minutes than I had seen all day…

Looking south towards Roan Moantain…  Round Bald no longer appeared to be a bald but a giant ant hill covered in brightly dressed ants in North Face jackets. Other than a race scenario… I couldn’t recall another time I had ever seen this amount of people outside hiking and enjoying nature. It made my heart happy to see so many people taking advantage of their body’s abilities and the area they live in.



7hrs13mins, 29 miles and 7500ft vertical gain later… I made it back to the starting point. The traverse was everything I hoped it would be... a simple, beautiful, relaxing morning in the mountains. 
 




 

I went horizontal in Hotel de Andrews for a quick 15 min nap before my stomach started growling. Under the cover of colorful autumn leaves and a light rain… I headed down off the mountain into Elizabethtown for some grub.

 

I started back south in search of the next place to camp/run… but during the zombie walk of mile 25… I’m pretty sure my body made the decision it wanted to go home for a good night’s sleep. I texted the wifey and said I was making the long drive back. It was the right decision. It was extremely nice having a hot shower, a warm bed and some snuggle time with Kati and Wobbles.

 

October 25

Sleeping in, a good breakfast and lots of coffee confirmed that the coming home decision was the right one! Kati had plans with one of her friend’s to head down to a festival… so I headed out to Oak Mountain for a short run…



And a whiskey nap at one of my favorite spots in the park…



I even made it back to the house in time to tag along on Kati’s last mile of her evening run…

 
I’m sure turning 30yrs old can be devastating and really tough for some people… but to be honest… thanks to my amazing wife, sweet family and wonderful friends… this has been one of… if not THE best birthday I’ve had so far! And thanks to an unbelievably generous gift from my FARM family… my 30th year roaming this planet is going to be one hell of an adventure…

 

Run long, run wild, and howl loudly!

 

 

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