Filling in ‘Missing Link’ on a fall weekend
Buzz Trexler | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In this part of the world, when you mention the “Missing Link,” people instinctively think about that half-mile section of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley still awaiting construction.
For me, in fall 2010, the “Missing Link” was the 13.4-mile section of The Appalachian Trail that traverses what is known as Roan Highlands, taking you across mysterious balds and offering incredible views. The reason: It encompassed the part of a three-day hike that I failed to complete on Memorial Day weekend 2010.
“I’ve got to fill in that missing link,” I told Steve “Griz” Gilreath the following Labor Day weekend as we hiked a section of The AT from Dennis Cove to Little Wilbur Road.
“I’ll go with you any time, brother, just let me know when,” he said.
The perfect time for me: The third weekend in October, which is generally great for fall colors.
Griz showed up with fellow Kentuckians Chris Phillips and Greg Houchin, while the Tennesseans included my son, David “Grey Squirrel” Trexler, and Dustin Cole.
When we pulled into the parking lot at Carvers Gap, a low point on the Roan Mountain ridgeline about eight miles past Roan Mountain State Park on state Route 143, the only other vehicle there was a Volkswagen Beetle with its engine running.
I thought it odd, until I stepped out of my wife Donna’s Subaru Tribeca and was hit by a brisk wind.
Knowing that the wind would be even stronger, and the temperature even cooler, on the balds, I thought, “I am so glad I bought that set of Frogg Toggs.”
As we readied ourselves gathering our gear and hitting the privy for one last time, the doors on the VW Beetle opened.
I tried not to gawk, but wondered aloud, “Are those guys hiking?”
It was hard to tell then, and they are even more difficult to describe now.
Think of it this way: The one I remember the clearest had the appearance of a Caucasian Rastafarian wearing Afghan garb.
We half expected to see smoke billowing from the doors as the five of them exited the Beetle.
I knew the brisk wind would probably be more forceful and colder on the balds, so I debated whether to go ahead and don my Frogg Toggs jacket, which does an incredible job of breaking the wind. I looked at Grey Squirrel with his fleece jacket and wondered whether it would be warm enough for him. He hadn’t been able to find a set of Frogg Toggs in his size.
It was more weight, but I shoved my extra jacket in the backpack, just in case.
STORIES BEHIND NAMES
We left the parking area, crossed the roadway, and set foot on a well-maintained AT path as it passed through a wooden split-rail fence. The trail makes its way up about 1,000 feet to the summit of Round Bald (5,826 feet), first passing through a woodland canopy before the hiker emerges onto the bald into incredible views.
We stopped at Round Bald summit for photos at the sign before heading down into Engine Gap, so named for a steam engine that was stationed in the gap between Round Bald and Jane Bald. According to “Roan Mountain: A Passage of Time,” by Jennifer Bauer Laughlin, more than 3 million board feet of cherry were shipped to the mills via Engine Gap using an incline railway that ran from Burbank, Tenn., to Roan Valley in North Carolina.
“That arrangement was unusual, as timber is customarily funneled down a mountain, not up it,” she writes. “There was a wire running from the Tennessee side up the Roan to Engine Gap, where a bell was tied. When lumber collected in the Volunteer State was ready for shipment, the bell was rung, and the operator of the stationary steam engine located at Engine Gap set about pulling the load up the mountain and sending it over the top and down to the mills in North Carolina.”
As we passed through Engine Gap, there was no sign of that industrial ingenuity, nor thankfully the massive amount erosion that was said to accompany over-logging. It’s been said that all sellable timber was cut by 1939.
Jane Bald (5,807 feet) is said to have gotten its name from a woman named “Jane” who died while crossing the mountain. One legend said it was from “milk sickness,” an intestinal malady caused by ingesting milk or other dairy products from a cow that has fed on white snakeroot, while others say she froze to death.
Given the biting October wind, I was leaning toward the latter legend.
‘ABOUT 15 MINUTES’
The trail from Engine Gap to Jane Bald summit is rocky and can become quite slippery when wet. Grey Squirrel said it was “crazy slippery” on that rainy Memorial Day weekend. On this day, it wasn’t too bad.
We stopped near the top and looked back toward the gap and could see the Rastafarians, who looked like small dots, making their way toward us.
“Do you want to take the side trail to Grassy Ridge?” Griz asked at a point where the trail moved more northward.
“How far is it off the trail?” I asked.
“Oh, about 15 minutes,” he said.
With Griz, it’s always 15 minutes, and it’s never anything but “all downhill from here.”
The five of us dropped our packs on the main trail with Chris, who decided to hang back.
The spur trail to grassy ridge initially takes you through a very narrow rocky path, almost like a chute, before you emerge into grassy areas offering nearly panoramic views.
As the wind whipped around us, we huddled around a huge rock that bears a memorial marker.
By now, Grey Squirrel was ready for the spare jacket as his fleece apparel was no match for the wind.
A U.S. Forest Service marker honors the memory
of one Cornelious Rex Peake for "his association with this mountain, no one was better versed on the
Roan and its people." Peake was "born in the valley below" and is buried near his
We took a few photos and headed back down to the drop point where Chris was waiting and broke out some snacks.
It was during this break that the Rastafarians made their way past us.
We exchanged cordial greetings as they passed — far more cordial than would be exchanged the next day, particularly on the part of Griz.