A Climb Up Rough Ridge

When you approach your life as a work of art, going on adventures is like stocking up on paint.

Winter brought cabin fever, daily work grinds, and the end of a two-year love affair. The spring has brought sunshine, self-reinvention, and blog fodder.

A massive Whole Foods grocery store sits next to the restaurant where I work; I often go there on my breaks to read and eat vegan cookies and write. On one of these recent visits, I perused the latest Blue Ridge Outdoors (BRO) magazine, a free monthly publication about outdoor life in the nearby mountains of North Carolina. I desperately needed some alone time in nature to re-center myself, far from the devitalizing noise of city life, and BRO columnist Melina Coogan’s suggestion of a hike up Rough Ridge mountain sounded as good as any. I marked my calendar that very minute.

The night before my hike, I stocked up on first-aid supplies and Gatorade. I also handwrote round-trip directions in case I lost GPS along the way (a lesson hard-learned years ago in the mountainous boonies of Georgia). I departed from Charlotte Friday morning and stopped for lunch at a Subway in some no-name NC town. It reminded me of the wildly remote places I managed to find Subway restaurants while driving across the country last summer. If you look closely, you can find Subways in spots with no other sign of human life for miles. I’ll bet there’s one dead-center of the Sahara desert.

One hour further northwest, the elevation sharply rose.

By Blowing Rock, my ears were popping.

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(Is anyone else concerned about the girl falling off the cliff in that logo?)

Suddenly the curvy road became narrow, jagged, and densely populated, demanding each driver’s unwavering attention. From Blowing Rock, I merged onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches 469 miles from NC to VA and offers hundreds of scenic overlooks and trails. Starting at Wilson Creek Overlook, I would hike to the summit of Rough Ridge, a small section of the Tanawha Trail.

On my way to Wilson Creek Overlook, I stopped at the foot of Grandfather Mountain to photograph Julian Price Memorial Lake, which sparkled glamorously in the afternoon sun.

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I continued driving up the mountain, taking in the 4,330-foot elevation views.

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Finally I found Wilson Creek Overlook. I parked the car, strapped on my backpack, and set out onto the trail.

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Rough Ridge is appropriately named – the trail is stony, rootsy, and all-around gnarly. With so many boulders in sight, it was often hard to tell exactly which stones constituted the trail.

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Step one was to find a tall, sturdy walking stick. My stick turned out to be more crucial than I even predicted; the trail’s steep, rocky steps would’ve been simply insurmountable without it.

Speaking of those steps, some of them were shallow and steady, like these (as seen looking up):

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While others were steep enough to require manual assistance, like these (as seen looking down):

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It was quite a cardiovascular challenge, like doing a StairMaster in the woods for an hour. My legs were fully awake.

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A most peaceful hush fell around me in those woods, starkly contrasting the internal effort of my lungs and muscles. I heard (or rather, didn’t hear) a level of quietude simply nonexistent in the city where I live. Last week I shared a poem under the Scribbles section of my blog called “The Silence,” in which I talk about playing drums as a way of drowning out the world’s sonic nuisances — in other words, using sounds to silence other sounds. But up here on the mountain, I found the genuine article: pure silence. I paused at times to drink it in. All was so quiet that I could hear water trickling downhill under the veil of the mossy rocks.

At last I made it to the summit!

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The views were well worth the effort.

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Boulder cliffs looked out over endless miles of blanketed rolling hills.

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Through the fog and clouds, I could faintly make out billows of smoke rising from the Great Smoky Mountains.

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They say it’s possible to see the Charlotte skyline from Rough Ridge summit on a clear enough day.

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Today wasn’t that day.

I sat down to rest on this flat boulder and pulled out my notebook. A pronounced voice emerged crisply from the silence. “You know, the real trick is to sit up here and NOT write about rocks or mountains or vast expanses.” I turned around to see a strange-looking older man passing by and remarking on (I assume) the triteness of a girl writing atop a mountain. “Actually, I haven’t written about any of those things yet,” I countered. “But the day is still young.”

After awhile, I brushed myself off and started back down the mountain. The journey down those steps didn’t feel the least bit “downhill.” My knees found it every bit as difficult as going up, and this time the trail was more obscured. Calculating each step required looking no more than three feet ahead and stopping periodically to regain perspective of the trail’s trajectory.

At one point, the trail appeared to stop dead in the middle of the woods. I looked backward and could clearly identify the trail behind me, but in front it remained a mystery. Since the “trail” is really just a series of inlaid stones, I scanned the ground for vague clusters of stones– but they were everywhere! Each time I thought I saw a pattern among them, I’d awkwardly make my way across the dense woods and find nothing. Here again, my walking stick saved me by testing each leaf-covered step before I plunged in. I went on like this for at least half an hour until I’d gotten myself more lost than ever.

I call this “the point of no idea.”

Fortunately, I caught glimpse of an actual paved road downhill from the wooded labyrinth I was in. I decided my best bet was to abandon the trail and descend to the road. I fell down more than once along the way, but arrived relatively unscathed.

Having no idea where I’d landed, I started walking down the road in the direction I thought aligned with the direction I was walking before I lost the trail.

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I tried to find my GPS location on Google Maps, but my phone failed to pick up any signal, and its battery was dying quickly.

Maybe three-quarters of a mile down the road, I found the main Rough Ridge trailhead. This meant I was in the general vicinity of Wilson Creek Overlook, where my car was parked, but I still didn’t know how to get there.

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I could re-enter the trail here and try to find the correct exit, but it was already 7:00 and the sun would set at 8. If I failed to find the right exit before dark, I figured I’d rather be on the road than in the woods. I continued walking along the road, hoping for a sign.

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It didn’t come.

About 2 1/2 miles later, the blue sky started to turn pink, and I still hadn’t found Wilson Creek. My shoulders were in knots under the weight of my backpack, my windchapped hands were freezing, and my hips felt like thin threads hanging from their sockets. I call this “the point of no choice.” I had to hitch a ride. There was no way I could walk three miles back, and if I waited until dark, there’d be no more cars on the road. It was now or never.

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Within minutes, I waved down a white, official-looking pickup truck with a long antenna coming around the bend. Inside was a young, tan, scruffy guy who clearly worked as a ranger or an outdoorsman of some sort. I asked him for a ride to Wilson Creek Overlook while my right hand reached for the hunting knife in my pocket. To my great fortune, he gave me a ride and turned out to be an extremely nice guy. He said he was en route to Blowing Rock for work, so I made a mental note to drive in the same direction as him when I got to my car. We chatted about hiking the summit and I thanked him profusely for the ride. We arrived at my car minutes later, at which time I locked the doors, blasted the heat, and thawed out my hands. Still without GPS, I followed him onto the Parkway and soon felt myself driving gradually down the mountain, my right foot instinctually holding the brake steady, which confirmed I was going the right direction.

As eager as I’d been to escape the noise and crowds of the city that morning, I was every bit as relieved to find the first twinkling lights of civility in Blowing Rock that evening. Riding through the darkness of the mountains reminded me of the starlit night-drives I took in rural Wyoming the previous summer. There was nothing to look at except the pool of light cast onto the road by my own headlights. No sounds but my own thoughts, no distractions but the occasional road sign. This time was different from Wyoming, however, because I’d already been down this road before. I knew what lay ahead, even though the landmarks were invisible. It was dark but I wasn’t lost. I found peace in trusting that I’d get where I needed to go, despite not being entirely sure where I was.

An hour into the drive, I was starving, having walked a total of four hours that day. I stopped at a honky-tonk restaurant and devoured a huge sandwich, fries, and a brownie sundae.

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And what movie was playing on TV at the bar? None other than Hansel and Gretel. 

Ha-ha, universe. Very funny.

Until the next adventure,

❤ LMK

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