If there’s one place in East Tennessee that brings me back to center, the view from Roan Mountain would be at the top of my list.

This vista bordering North Carolina and Tennessee is as close as you can get to the sky here in the Tri-Cities. Less than an hour drive, this landscape changes throughout the season. There’s a moment in June though when the splendor of this perch attracts the attention of naturalists all over the world as the hills come alive with wild rhododendrons.

Each year around the third week of June, Roan Mountain celebrates the blooms of one of the largest natural catawba rhododendron gardens in the world. Their namesake in Greek means “Rose Tree” and these mountain laurels blanket the pastoral meadows which crest around 6,000 feet. Most of the bald mountains here are a thick carpet of rare moss and ankle-high grass and one of the most tranquil destinations in the Appalachian region. On a Summer day, the silence and cool breezes are a sanctuary for the restless mind.

Last weekend, I left the 90 degree plus heat of Kingsport to “head to the mountains.” I had forgotten about the rhododendrons and was enjoying the cool temperatures on the mountain. You can always expect a difference of 10 to 20 degrees in temperature from this altitude, but a Sunday drive with the top down on the new Jeep sounded like the perfect antidote to my otherwise mind-numbing week.

When I rounded the corner of Highway 143 near Carver’s Gap, the traffic was the first indication that something was happening on the mountain. Sure enough, a quick peak up the mountain surprised me as the famous fuchsia laurels were in full bloom.

I parked the Jeep and quickly I hiked the first bald mountainside to 5,500 feet. Perhaps my biking goals this year have given me some added stamina. Usually this first leg of the trip takes 3 or 4 breathers to keep up the pace. This time though, the view in the distance kept me moving across the three bald lookouts that make this spot such a magnet for local hikers.

Just over the top of Jane’s Bald at 5,800 feet, the trail turns into an avenue of wild rhododendrons. The path is covered with 7 foot bushes and the bumblebees are the only sound you can hear at this altitude this time of year. Fortunately they seemed to be busy with their exploration of the flowers and were never a concern as I made my way to the top of Grassy Ridge Bald.

I usually pack a big Nikon with me on adventures like this, but today the tech was light. I took my iPhone 4 and snapped a bunch of pictures with the Hipstamatic app and found a nice vista looking over the North Carolina border and sat down to record a few thoughts in a journal.

Looking into the valley, a Summer shower was building and it was the perfect timing to watch and listen to the rain drench the valley. From a distance, it looked like I was safe…or so I thought.

My lessons are Roan are many and one of the most important things to remember at this altitude is that the weather can change instantly.

As I watched the passing storm, the winds seemed to change directions. I was talking to a couple of hikers and it soon became obvious that Mother Nature had decided to change course.

Within minutes, the clouds in the valley started their way up the South side of the mountain and a large gray cloud consumed the rhododendrons. I was about five miles from any shelter and fortunately, there was no lightning, but it didn’t take long for me to find myself in a soaking Summer baptism on the mountain.

The winds kicked up to about 40mph gusts and wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts were hardly the gear for this kind of weather.

At first, I was anxious, not knowing how strong the storm would be, but after a few moments and realizing that I couldn’t get more soaked, my journey seemed light-hearted. I found myself realizing that few people would enjoy this experience. For some reason, it became even more enjoyable as I made my way through the tunnel of laurels headed back down the mountain. My hands were wrinkled like I had been in the lake all day and my body temperature had dropped considerably.

Nevertheless, about an hour later as I got to the last mountaintop, the clouds evaporated about as quickly as they arrived. What was a left, was a patch of clouds that distinguishes these hillsides throughout the year as the Smoky Mountains exhaled their own moisture from the ground up and the Sunset was marvelous – as usual.

My trusty iPhone was dry and I brought home plenty of photos and video. The wind helped dry my clothes so I could at least sit in my Jeep and thankfully, it wasn’t long before the temperatures started to normalize as I made it down into the town of Elizabethton.

This year’s trip to the rhododendron gardens was once again – memorable. Even though, I started to take on a cold and found myself guzzling Nyquil for the next several days, these moments are experiences that I’ll continue to add to the growing list of experiences with Nature on the mountain and I can’t wait to go back again.

Who knows? Next time, I might watch a full moon rise and a orange fireball sink into the landscape. Been there – done that.

I’ve soaked in the milky way and watched a comet and meteors streak across the sky at the region’s best planetarium. Check!

I’ve also walked across these trails in waste high snowfalls and experienced winds of 60mph and the most memorable experience is one that I call “Dave meets Bear” but I’ll save that for another time.

Roan Mountain is my trip to the top of the world in East Tennessee and each time I go, I’m always left with a personal and deep relationship to the mountains I’ll always call home.

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