After the death of his grandparents, Shane instituted a new tradition – the Garrett Guys Getaway. This would be a way for the younger men of the Garrett family to spend time with their fathers and uncles and to go on an adventure each year.
Last year, the men explored the Grand Canyon – complete with cliff diving and a helicopter ride.
This year, they hired Sure Foot Adventures to lead an Appalachian Trail backpacking experience. Roger, Shane’s uncle, first “met” me when he read an article written by my wife, Dana, in the Appalachian Trail Journeys magazine. “Zipping Up Our Lives Together” was Dana’s story about meeting and falling in love with an AT thru-hiker (me!) and eventually getting sleeping bags that zip together. At the time, it was Roger’s dream to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and he and I had many in depth discussions about gear, hiking distances, and trail food.
So meeting Roger when I arrived in Erwin, TN was like getting to meet an old friend for the first time. And his family quickly and graciously helped me feel like “one of the guys.”
Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel put us up for the night and did all of our trail shuttles. It’s the perfect place to begin an Appalachian Trail journey because the place oozes with AT flavor.
One of our cabins even smelled like fresh-cooked ramen noodles. We all piled into three rooms in Uncle Johnny’s cabins and organized our gear, packing clothes into stuff sacks and lining our packs and compression sacks with trash bags.
When the whirlwind of packing was over and a quick run to Walmart for bowls and sporks was finished, we bunked down for the night, hoping the space heaters provided in each cabin would keep us warm.
The next morning, we threw packs into Uncle Johnny’s van and had a gut-wrenching ride up the mountain to our trailhead at Hughes Gap. I’m thankful for the minor nausea caused by the van ride because it made us all very excited to exit the vehicle and begin hiking the three mile ascent of Roan Mountain.
As we climbed and climbed, I gained more and more respect for this family. Though backpacking was new to most of them, they pressed forward, kept their spirits up, and found the beauty in their surroundings. At about 5,000 feet, hoar frost covered the trees. At 5,500 feet, we found an overlook and then a grassy clearing at which to eat lunch. And then, after another 500 foot climb, we emerged onto the top of Roan High Knob and marveled at the blue skies and mountains as far as our eyes could see.
It was here that we reached the first road access of our hike. After four hours of hiking through the forest, we came upon the fresh-laid pavement of a mountaintop parking lot. Though the “sign of civilization” felt familiar, several of the guys noticed the disappointing irony that we completed such a steep climb only to be greeted with a road. The pavement had the ability to break the magic of the mountaintop. And why had we not just driven up here? This is the ultimate irony of the Appalachian Trail. With so many road crossings, there is no practical reason why people walk the trail.
Instead we do it out of a sense of adventure or in pursuit of a simpler life.
I hope that after our three days walking the Roan Mountain chain, the Garrett Guys found some joy in walking across the mountaintops as opposed to driving to them.
That evening, we camped at the Roan High Knob Shelter – the highest trail shelter on the whole Appalachian Trail. It is also the shelter with the lowest average year-round temperatures, as we found out that night. As the sun and temperature dropped, we found that all possible firewood was completely frozen (and therefore wet).
But with some work, we built a roaring fire and warmed our toes while eating a hot meal.
That night and the next day, the guys got to participate in many of the common Appalachian Trail thru-hiking experiences: a mouse ate Nelson’s sock, Cecil and Darren missed the turnoff to our shelter and had to backtrack, we met and talked with several southbound thru-hikers, the men were introduced to “mountain money” (toilet paper) when we can across an unlocked and fully-stocked bathroom at Carver Gap, and everyone’s body began aching as we developed the “hiker hobble.”
Day two of our journey was absolutely beautiful. Much of our hike was across bald ridges and mountaintops.
We crossed Round Bald and Jane Bald and even took a day hike (without packs) to the top of Grassy Ridge. Though our mileage was twice that of the previous day, we were all more confident and arrived at the Overmountain Shelter before dusk. This shelter is an old barn sitting in a mountain hollow overlooking the valley. Sunset was gorgeous, and with the dry grasses and wood collected by Cecil and Darren, Fred had a roaring fire going in no time. We settled in for a dinner of tortellini, french bread, and cheesecake for dessert and enjoyed conversation with the thru-hikers and weekenders who shared the hostel with us.
As the sun rose over Little Hump Mountain to the east, I pulled back the rainfly of my tent to reveal yet another stunning sunrise. Wind was whipping through the mountain hollow containing our shelter and tents and clouds soon rolled in to cover the skies. But we strapped on our packs and pushed on towards the Hump Mountains, beyond which was our campsite for the night.
By the time we reached the Little Hump ridge, the wind was blowing in 30-40 mph gusts. We had to lean into the wind and try not to allow our packs to act as sails. Though the views from Little Hump Mountain were spectacular, the wind kept us from enjoying them fully. Yesterday we had been able to lounge on Jane Bald and eat a leisurely lunch. Today, we passed up spot after spot where we could have stopped for a meal because the wind was too strong.
Finally, looming before us was Hump Mountain – almost as tall as Roan Mountain, but bald and completely unprotected from the wind. We leaned forward and began our ascent. Every time we found a large rock, we crouched behind it to take a breather. Cecil and Darren eventually pushed ahead and were out of sight. But the rest of our group took our time, slowly putting one foot in front of the other with the patience and deliberateness of Everest climbers. All of a sudden Cecil and Darren appeared having left their backpacks at the summit, whisked the packs from Nelson and Roger, and were off. Without the “medieval torture devices” (as I like to call our laden packs), the walk suddenly became more enjoyable and we reached the pinnacle of Hump Mountain to find 360 degree views and significantly less wind. From this vantage point, we could see every mountaintop of our 12-mile hike. Looking back on our journey, I felt a sense of pride and adventure which I hope was shared by the other men.
We sought out a low point on the mountain peak, finally ate lunch, and even took naps. From here it was all downhill.
After leaving the bald ridgeline, the guys huddled and made the decision to finish their journey that evening. Instead of walking six miles, we walked nine and were picked up at the highway at dusk, and enjoyed warm beds at Uncle Johnny’s hostel and juicy hamburgers for dinner.
I feel blessed to have been able to share the Garrett Guys’ journey.
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