A Friendly Reminder by Tyler McElveen
Yeah, I woke up here over a year ago, on the ground right outside the door of my tent on the eastern face of Grassy Ridge Bald. I sat up with my mummy bag still cinched tight around my head and my boots lying in front of the zipper opening at my feet (currently zipped, late October tends to get rather chilly at night). My two friends that I hiked in with were already up making coffee, but I didn’t really want to move. I shuffled around inside my sleeping bag for my phone to take this picture, a now year and a half old picture that here recently I have set to my phone’s wallpaper as a reminder. Not a reminder about this awesome backpacking trip that I took, but to remind myself that I should be actively pursuing the reward of what came from this experience and many others like it. Also I’m no photographer, but I guess it doesn’t hurt that it’s a pretty cool photo as well.
A little backstory here: The TN/NC border literally rides atop Appalachian mountain ridge lines for miles, much of which lies host to the Appalachian Trail. This spot specifically is branched away on a trail that piggybacks the Carvers Gap to US 19E portion of the AT for about 2 miles before diverging east towards Grassy Ridge Bald which sits at about 6100’ elevation.
I came into this trip with zero knowledge about the landscape here or what kind of trip I was in for. I was letting my two buddies from the area lead the way, and they were doing a fine job so far. We drove through the town of Roan Mountain and for lunch, we stopped at this hole in the wall pizza/bakery shop called Smoky Mountain Bakers who dished out a couple of pizzas for us in no time and let me tell you, they hit the spot. After that we went straight to the Carvers Gap trailhead. At this point I’m still clueless as to what this hike will entail. Fortunately for the guy who probably packed too heavy for a simple overnight trip, it turned out to be a very moderate hike in to where we ultimately decided to set up camp. About 2.5 miles in, we parked ourselves just off the left side of the trail between a couple of trees on what I didn’t know at the time was the eastern face of the mountain. This played a nice role in us seeing what I would claim as one of the most pure and serene sunrises I have ever witnessed. A very important mention here that I will most certainly be doing my research on for any future backpacking trips that involve unobstructed views of the landscape such as the one pictured. Another event worth mentioning is that we happened to be right in the peak viewing time for the Orionid Meteor Shower. I’m no astronomy geek but I do appreciate a good meteor shower. So after witnessing a sunset that I thought couldn’t be topped, setting up our tents and eating an entire Mountain House dinner myself that was probably supposed to serve two people, we made a small fire to keep warm by while chatting about anything that came to mind and listening to whichever phone had enough battery to play music.
Next on the checklist for this trip was to see the meteor shower. However, we did a little research and realized that the constellation Orion (the location of which this meteor shower would be the most visible) would not be in our night sky until early morning before sunrise. After staying up late enough and coming to this conclusion, we decided to crash and set an alarm to wake up around 5:00am to view the meteors. This seemed like a good plan, if we hadn’t been so tired. I remember crawling in my tent and falling asleep, and I remember waking up around 4:30am. I never sleep that great in a tent and usually go through the usual motions of waking up and turning to one side every couple of hours. So here I am awake, thinking about the meteor shower that is going on outside in the cold, but I did not want to leave my tent. At this point though, I had been awake long enough for my mind to drift away from the urge to close my eyes for more sleep. I poked my feet out of the bottom of my sleeping bag, slipped on my untied Merrell’s, unzipped my tent and did the inchworm-hop-stumble thing you do when your limbs are restricted by a sleeping bag. I landed in the exact spot that this photo was taken from. It seemed like a good place to lay back and watch some shooting stars. So there I laid for about 45 minutes watching the finale of an amazing performance in the sky. I never heard any alarms, I’m assuming the phones were dead at this point. Nevertheless, I was satisfied, and had been laying there long enough that my face felt like I had been staring into a freezer the whole time. I admit I dozed off a time or two while staring up in the sky, but now I decided to turn over and cover my face with the warm side of my sleeping bag. When I did this, I ended up sinking down into what I could have sworn at the time was a memory foam mattress. These balds that populate these southern Appalachian Mountains have lots of undulations and humps that are covered in thick grass in a way that almost forms a cushion on the surface, and I just happened to roll into a section of one so form fitting that you would have thought that I hand-carved it out myself. I don’t think I’ve ever been that comfortable sleeping in my own bed. I was out, at least until the sun started creeping up and I heard the shuffling of early morning campsite sounds. I rolled back over, sat up and saw this remarkable view. We soaked it in as long as we could, and ultimately packed up and made our way back to the car. Driving home with a chapped face wasn’t so bad with all of that behind it.
So that’s that, a long recap of the rush of memories that go through my head when I look at this photo. Photos never really do justice to the real thing, but the association of memories that you tie to the photo can provide some pretty vivid clarity. I call this picture on my lock screen a reminder because when I look at this picture it almost speaks to me, telling me that I’ve got to go back there. “There” sounds pretty specific, but I guess when I think about it, it doesn’t have to be on a grassy mountaintop under the stars. “There” could be driving to the beach, or going to visit friends that I haven’t seen in a while. It’s a reminder to make the extra effort to get “there”. Wake up early to see that sunrise, hike the extra mile to see that waterfall, set a date for that trip you’ve been “planning” for so long. You might just end up with an experience that reminds you to get out there again.