Archive for November 2010

It was just a dream…

It was just a dream. No, not even a dream. Just a spark of a notion. I’m not sure where it came from. I guess, in part, it was a longing born of desperation. Josiah was now in high school. Graduation, with whatever that entailed, loomed ominously on the horizon. I’d become acutely and painfully aware of the passage of time and like a lot of dads, I imagine, wanted to carpe’ the remaining diems we would share together before he launched out in pursuit of his own dreams.

The idea was insane, really. Though, as a family, we’d spent many a night on the banks of the Chattooga and Chauga rivers, the idea of strapping 30 pounds of gear on my back and taking a walk had never even entered my mind as something remotely appealing. But that niggling spark wouldn’t leave me alone. So when Dana, Jo and I happened across the old stone building in Blairsville, Georgia I was unprepared for the way the tinder would ignite as wind blew across that spark of a notion.

Swinging aside the old wooden door, (not unlike Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) my senses were awakened by air rife with the smell of leather and gear, the frenetic motion of an outfitter in peak season and the almost tangible excitement that swirled like an enchantment in the electrified atmosphere populated by that rare breed of creature, the Thru-hiker. It was magic. I was under it’s spell. I wandered, dream-like, through the old store and ended up, somehow, at the back counter. A voice, “Hey man, can I help you?” The eyes of the forty-ish, unshaven, slightly rotund guy behind the counter sparkled behind John Lennon spectacles with the light and wonder of a little boy. If there were such things as “old souls” I’d encountered a young one. I struggled to push out the words but the spark wouldn’t be ignored, “I…it’s kinda crazy but…my boy is graduating in a couple of years and I…I wanna hike the Appalachian Trail with him.” This really was crazy as I had somehow, for all of my 42 years, remained oblivious to the trails 2,175 mile existence. After a whisper of a silence he looked directly at me, smiling, seemingly at the spark within me and said something like, “That’s not crazy at all. I’ve thru-hiked it seven times myself.” I imagine my jaw became unhinged as he introduced himself as “Sunshine” (at least that’s the way I remember it). He spent the next half-hour or so encouraging me to “Just get out there and start walking.” He scribbled down several websites he thought would be of help and as I walked out the door I knew that his impish grin and infectious passion had ignited that spark into a flame. The chill October air swept across my face and I turned to see a mischievous smile plastered on Dana’s. “Guess where I just was.” I shrugged. “On the Appalachian Trail.” “Uh-uh!” Jo and I took off up the stairs, ran up the hill behind the building and saw for ourselves the white blazes marking the old footpath. We ran ahead, kicking up in our wake the red and yellow, orange and brown leaves that blanketed the trail. After traveling maybe a half mile or so we stopped to catch our breath, imbibing the brisk, earthy, intoxicating mountain air. “Dad?” “Yeah, buddy?” “Let’s keep going.” God, I wish we had.

We didn’t leave the mortgage for the bank to contend with. We didn’t walk away from our jobs, commitments, obligations and responsibilities (though my heart screamed that was the only reasonable thing to do). We did, however, start to walk and to dream. The forest became, for me, a sanctuary; the AT an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on…especially narratives. I read of real-life characters like Earl Schaffer, AWOL, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Warren Doyle (who’s hiked it 16 times!), Granny Gatewood, Bill Bryson and Katz, Future-man and Apple-Jack. Nearly mythical creatures such as Bombadil and Baltimore Jack, a hard-nosed, hard-drinking veteran of the AT infamous in his distaste for Bill Bryson, evidenced by his t-shirt that reads “Bill Bryson is a pansy.” Honestly, how much of what is told of Jack is true and how much is legend may never be known. But we didn’t just read, we grabbed every available moment to actually walk the AT, overnighting when we could, day-hiking when we couldn’t. Every time we passed by that outfitter, which we learned was called Mountain Crossings we’d stop in and say hi to the proprietor, Winton Porter and his crew. Never again did I see “Sunshine”. I guess it never occurred to ask what had happened to him.

One day last winter, Chester (aka Scat, aka Forest Dump) and I spent a frigid night on Blood Mountain after trekking through snow drifts nearly three feet deep in places. We rose early and began our slippery, ice-covered descent into Neel’s Gap. Despite my lack of sleep I felt like a kid at Christmas. I’d watched the sun set from Blood and was about to introduce one of my best friends to Mountain Crossings, the catalyst for my obsession. Once again, as I had dozens of times since that fateful day, I swung open the old wooden door. Always we’re greeted by the smiling faces of the staff, often Winton himself. Today, however, was different.

There, standing before me was…Sunshine?! What was his name? My mouth fell open. I stammered, “It’s you!” “You did this!” Grinning, he struggled to make sense of my jabbering. “I mean, you’re the one that started all this…this hiking thing.” Funny thing is, he looked at me as if he knew me as well. With both my hands clasped around his in gratitude, I just asked, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jack.” I looked at him quizzically, “Jack?” He elaborated, “Baltimore Jack.” “Whuh?! You…you’re…THE Baltimore Jack?” “Pretty sure. Yeah.” At this point he removed a well-worn Zippo from his pocket as ID. He held it up for me to see. I was a little too dumbfounded to focus but I did read the words, “Baltimore Jack.” I hugged him. (I don’t think anyone had ever done that to him before. He handled it pretty well, considering.) I reminded him of how we’d met and thanked him for fanning that spark into flame. We talked like old friends for a half an hour or so when Dana walked up. I introduced him, to her surprise, as the guy who’d started all of this and the legendary Baltimore Jack. Her jaw dropped. “No way!” He went for his lighter again. We ended up exchanging mutual invitations, him to South Carolina (Other than Florida, the only state he’s never visited) and us to Vermont. Dana said to him, “Don’t tease me. We’ll come.” He assured her the invitation was genuine. Maybe we’ll just take him up on that one day. As we headed back down the mountain towards home, I started laughing hysterically as I recalled that on our first meeting I had reached for a copy of Bryson’s “Walk In the Woods” and Jack had taken it away from me and put it back on the shelf saying, “You don’t want that.” He really does hate that guy!

Just over 2 hours south of The Shire (The foothills of South Carolina) lies this gateway to a land of myth and magic, mystery and adventure where tales abound and many more are waiting to be written. How it is that I grew to be in my 40’s before discovering this land is a mystery in itself. Perhaps I was not so different from the Hobbit himself, grown fat and content with my pipe-weed, seed-cakes and tea. For adventures are “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.” But thankfully, not long ago, as it happens, a mysterious bearded man placed a queer mark on the door of my hobbit hole and Adventure was unleashed upon my mundane little life. I’ve yet to walk The Trail from end to end, but that niggling spark became a flame, the flame burns stronger still, and like Bilbo I’ve tasted of adventures…nasty things. Unlike Bilbo, I’ve been swept up in their enchantment and one day soon I’ll leave Springer Mountain for Neel’s Gap. I’ll swing open that old wooden door once again, step back into the woods and walk till I see Katahdin. Because, you know…it was just a dream, really. No, not even a dream. Just a spark…

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 6

Day 6 (June 30)

Only 6 miles left of our adventure. With an odd mixture of sadness and exhilaration we broke camp and joined the families of cyclists moving down the trail to Damascus. Dana had switched to flip-flops by this point, which were rubbing brand new blisters in brand new places but she trudged along like a champ. We took our time, stopping occasionally to play in creeks, set up cairns and take pictures. Around 10:00am the white blazes led us out of the woods, onto US 58 and into the city limits. At this lower elevation, we found the flora ablaze in color: Snow white blooms, rimmed in threads of red trim, vivid pink and deep orange flowers and yellow golden-rod looking plants that stood nearly 4 feet high. Best of all? Blackberries. Growing wild by the side of the road were patches of juicy, ripe blackberries. With just a little effort we were able to find handfuls of ripened, delicious blackberries which we ate right off of the vine, er…bush. Trail magic of the highest order!
Walking into Damascus felt fantastic. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine this thrill as part of a thru-hike. I got lost for a moment as I was swept up into my daydream. I was stirred from my reverie by shouts of “We made it!” We saw the first “Welcome to Damascus” sign. Fred collapsed in the grass and we took turns recording the moment, photographically, for posterity. We laughed and played our way into town, feeling, looking, and I’m sure, smelling like real hikers. We had an early lunch at a local restaurant, stuffing ourselves on giant cheeseburgers (No wonder I put on weight when I’m hiking, huh?), french-fries and ice cream for desert. We donned our packs, once again, and savored the remainder of our walk to Mt. Rogers Outfitters. I brought in my water filter and the owner happily repaired it free of charge while I watched. Good as new. More trail magic. We hesitantly loaded our packs into the van and navigated twisting, turning mountain roads to find our way to the cabin where we’d enjoy several days of lazy, restful, recuperation. Like our walk in the woods these blissful, laughter-filled days became blurred and soft around the edges…kind of like stepping unexpectedly into the mist-muted morning light of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Maybe this was one of those thin places as well.

“Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.” – Celtic saying

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 5

Day 5 (June 29)

Once comfortably burrowed in my sleeping bag, the night before, I realized I’d not hung my food bag. I could not imagine leaving my cozy nest to stumble through the darkened downpour and hang a bag of food. Hey, Warren Doyle has hiked the AT 17 times and has never once hung a bear bag; I’d take my chances on one rainy night. I survived and so did my food. Due to my laziness I enjoyed the direct benefit of having breakfast in bed. I woke up, while remaining firmly ensconced in my bag, lit my stove, fried up several slices of bacon, boiled water for grits and coffee and managed to pull off some reasonably un-charred toast. Woohoo! I broke camp and headed off, past a girl scout troop, down the trail to the spring. I filtered enough water for everyone, which was no easy task since the handle had broken off of my water filter the day before. I came back to the shelter to find everyone packing up and Dana bandaging her feet. They were a mess. Something would have to be done. Just not sure what yet. We sat down, consulted our maps and guide books and discovered that the AT wasn’t the only trail that led to Damascus. According to what we read there was a trail called the Virginia Creeper Trail that was very nearly flat and traveled adjacent to a river all the way into town. This had to be the answer. As much as we wanted to take the AT all the way in, this was the only logical option. Just so happened we were less than 2 miles from the juncture. It was settled then. Virginia Creeper, here we come.
On our way up and around Whiteside we had met an older fellow whose name (of course) eludes me. He told me that he drops his wife off at an AT trailhead, allows her to hike for several days then picks her up at a pre-arranged location. I asked him why he didn’t join her and he told me he just couldn’t sleep on the ground. Being the hammock-evangelist I am, I regaled him with stories of how hammocking completely changed my wilderness life. I couldn’t sleep either…but I do now. He promised to check into it and told me to keep an eye out for his wife. Her trail name is “The Old Grey Mare.” Well, guess who we ran into! We immediately hit it off and hiked together all the way to the junction of the AT and Creeper Trail. She had taken the Creeper in last year and came back this year to get it right. AT all the way. Gotta love the Old Grey Mare…she ain’t what she used to be. She’s a lot better.
We crossed a set of twin creeks (Whitetop and Green Cove?) and when we stepped on the bridge got a little confused about which way to go. We asked a construction worker if he could help us out. He did. And better yet told us that just a short way in on the Creeper was a little cafe with burgers, fries and milkshakes. This was obviously confirmation that we were headed in the right direction, Oh yeah! We took off with newfound purpose.
The Creeper was everything we’d hoped for except for the fact that it wasn’t exactly a trail. It was more of a nicely graveled road more appropriate for bicyclers than hikers. Apparently it was built along the path of an old railroad, crossing multiple trestle-bridged creeks and rivers along the way. But with thoughts of burgers and fries and lunchtime rapidly approaching we couldn’t find that cafe quick enough. Finally we began to see little signs, “10 minutes to the snack bar”, “5 minutes to concessions” etc. Maybe it wasn’t an actual cafe but, heck, at this point anything was better than mashed potatoes and trail bars. We saw it and Jo and I broke into a run while Dana hobbled slowly in our direction. As we approached we saw more little signs that read, “OPEN.” YES!!! We made it! Then we saw it. Closed. We walked all the way around the little building. Closed. Freaking closed. We were so disappointed. Jo got up, ran back down the trail and knocked over all the “OPEN” signs so Dana didn’t get her hopes up just to be let down again. Chester, Fred then Dana slowly filtered in. It was 11:30 and my belly confirmed it so I boiled up some noodles. We munched on bars while we bemoaned our bad luck and especially the evil concession stand owners. After a short break we got back on the trail and dragged our feet slowly, dejectedly toward Damascus. Every few minutes we’d have to step aside to make way for cyclists. That combined with Dana’s tortured feet and the big bag of “let down” we were dragging made for slow going. It seemed like we’d been walking for hours since leaving the concession stand. In reality it’d been maybe two miles when we came upon what looked like a little town. “Is that what it looks like?” I was staring at the backside of some sort of little building with picnic tables behind it beneath a shelter of some kind. Bikes were parked everywhere and people were…eating? Was it a church picnic? A cook-out? I walked slowly around the building. It was a restaurant! This was the cafe’ we’d been told about! But we’d just eaten…awwwww, who cares?! Wooooohoooo! We dumped our packs, found an entrance and ran inside to find Chester already in line to order. He’s like the Toucan Sam of greasy spoons. He’d followed his nose! Short version? We feasted. I mean FEASTED! Burgers, cheese-fries, milkshakes, the works. Then we loaded up on junk-food for the night. What an oasis. That made our day.

Bellies full and hearts content, we sauntered lazily down the trail through rolling hills and lush farmland. It was around 1:30pm so we walked another 3 or 4 hours till we found a perfect campsite next to the river. The girls bathed in the river, we filtered water (just upstream), set up camp and feasted once again. We spread out our sleeping pads, sat down in a circle, dumped out our food bags and helped ourselves to a backpacker’s smorgasbord: potatoes and gravy, bacon, Chester’s ever-present summer sausage, chips, cookies, candy-bars, coffee and anything else we could find. After two lunches, how we found room for it all is a mystery but we did…and it was wonderful. We laughed and talked around the campfire till well after dark, crawled into our respective hammocks and slept like well-fed babies. Ahhhhh.

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 4

Day 4 (June 28)

We awoke to overcast skies in a mist-shrouded forest. After a quick breakfast we broke camp and were back on the trail by 8:45 a.m.. 25 miles to Damascus. I’m not sure I can explain why but there’s little I enjoy more than walking through deep forests, cloaked in mist in the early morning hours. I was in my element. We walked in relative quiet, shaded by a canopy of birches, pines and fir trees. It was like walking through a fairy tale forest. Less than an hour in, with no warning, we stepped from our fairy tale forest into the mist-muted morning light and found ourselves breathing in the crisp, undiluted morning air of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Words cannot come close to expressing the wonder of that moment. When we finally managed to stammer out a few syllables, they were only gasps and “Ohhhh,” and “I…I…ohhh.” I felt joy and freedom and gratitude like I haven’t since I was a little boy…and I wasn’t alone. Each of us simultaneously experienced the same exhilarating thrill of childlike freedom. It was a gift….from the Gifting Giver. We lingered and basked in the glow of the moment. Surely this is one of the thin places spoken of by the ancient Celts.

We reluctantly made our way down the trail to cross VA 600 (Whitetop Rd.) to a parking area where a huge group of hikers from a local church were resting after spending a week on the section of trail we were about to step onto. We dropped our packs, said our hellos and swapped stories. As the conversation reached a lull, I opened my guidebook to discover the magical place we had just encountered, as well as where we were now sitting was known as Elk Garden. From here the trail ascends 380 feet in 3.2 miles…in the rain, to Buzzard Rock. Well, maybe not always…but for us, it was raining. It actually started while I was precariously balanced on a rock in a creek trying to filter enough water to get us through lunch. I leapt from my perch, donned my rain gear and stretched my rain-cover over my pack with ninja like grace…right. Well, I got it done, anyhow. Buzzard Rock is an enormous boulder that juts out of the southwest side of Whitetop Mountain. I’m told it’s a great place to watch hawks spiraling up on thermals and a well-known stop on the AT. Most everyone who passes this way has their picture taken while standing on the outermost point of the projecting rock. We arrived to discover that another uber-large church group had taken up semi-permanent residence on the rock with no intention of moving. We dropped our packs and stretched out in the meadow at the base of the boulder while Dana doctored her mangled feet. We gazed down the trail ahead of us and noticed a hiker heading North, climbing the hill we were resting on. He looked to be in his sixties, military cut, stocky-build and calves like grapefruits. This guy was a hiker. He plopped down next to us and as we got to know one another he pointed to a spot on a mountain way off in the distance and said, “There’s my house right over there.” Apparently he lives locally and hikes this section several times a week…which explains the grapefruit. We realized we’d met his hiking buddy on our way up and around Whitetop. His friend started hiking South while he hiked North and they planned to swap vehicles and meet up down the mountain. Pretty good plan, actually.
We said goodbye, started our descent and realized the trail had become a narrow gash through a briar patch. It was literally 6″ wide and about a foot deep, covered in “ankle-breakers” (rocks about the size of a softball) some partially embedded, some loose. This was hands-down my least favorite part of the trail. Without the extra stability of my poles it was inevitable that I would fall…and I did. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the ground…the briars broke my fall. Well, I recovered virtually unscathed and carefully and slowly, painstakingly picked my way down the mountain.
We planned to camp at Lost Mountain Shelter which was 4.7 miles away but nearly all downhill. We had reached VA 601 (Beech Mountain Road) by 3:30 pm and were feeling pretty good about making it…until the sky suddenly turned dark. Not a good sign. Chester and Josiah were way out ahead and I had been laying back to make sure the girls didn’t get separated from the rest of us. At this point I figured it was time for a change of plans. I ran nearly a mile back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s hammock and then charged back up from whence I’d come. My plan, however flawed, was to make it to the shelter and put up both hammocks before the rain hit. Somehow, I pulled it off…just barely. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a spring shower. This was a thunder-boomer of epic proportions. I dropped my pack and barreled back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s pack (due to exhaustion and hamburger feet she was barely moving) and ran it back to the campsite. By the time she arrived at the site, emotions had worn thin and the weather wasn’t the only thing in turmoil. We ended up in an epic thunder-boomer of our own, yelling, screaming and crying. It was awful. Each time we tried to talk it out, it only got worse. We went to our separate corners: she to the shelter and I to the hammock. 20 minutes later, in the midst of the torrential rain, explosive thunder and crackling lightning, Dana left her warm, dry shelter to stand beneath my tarp while we worked past the raw emotions, found and offered forgiveness and resolve. Physically as well as emotionally spent, I drifted to sleep in the heart of the storm, at peace.

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 3

Day 3 (June 27)

If you’ve never awakened in the woods, burrowed in a down sleeping bag, nestled in a gently rocking hammock swung between two trees, next to a softly babbling brook….if you’ve never breathed in the cool, moist early morning air as your eyes open to the slightly diffused, days first light…well…I’m sorry. I can’t imagine ever growing accustomed to the peace imbued in that moment. “Ahhhhhhhhh” slipped unprompted from my lips and after a slow pan of my mist-shrouded surroundings I closed my eyes once again and rested, cradled in the affection of my Abba and Creator. Physiology, unfortunately, disrupted my reverie as my hungry belly sent images of grits, bacon, pita bread and strong black coffee to my brain. This and this alone stirred me from my nest…well, maybe this and the realization that today we may just see wild ponies!

We had decided months before that we wanted to spend our vacation this year hiking the first 40 or 50 miles of the AT. Dana was sharing this with Joel, a veteran AT thru-hiker and manager at Half-moon Outfitters. He told her that if he could spend 4 or 5 days on the AT within a half-days drive it would be through southwestern Virginia. When she asked why, he eagerly responded with descriptions of the terrain, gorgeous scenery and ponies…”There are ponies!?” “Yeah, wild ponies.” I’m pretty sure everything Joel said to her after that sounded kinda like, “Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla…and bla.” Soooo, I guess we’re going to Virginia! But I digress.

After packing up, we set out into the mist-laden rhododendron forest and crossed a foot-bridge over Little Wilson Creek. We then, via a ladder-stile marked with our old companion, the white blaze, crossed into Grayson Highlands State Park. A quick stop at Wise Shelter, some re-adjustments to Fred’s pack and Dana’s band-aids (She’d already developed blisters on most of her tender little toes) and we were back on our way. By 10:45 we’d crossed Quebec Branch (4,200 feet) and were on our way to ascending another 720 feet in elevation to Wilburn Ridge. Now, I’ve got to confess, I too was a little excited at the prospect of seeing ponies and my eyes ranged to and fro in a search for some evidence of their existence. Unfortunately, evidence is exactly what we found…pony droppings. I documented with pictures just in case the actual ponies didn’t pan out. A large rock outcropping greeted us as we neared the next summit and the trail itself grew rocky…and more poop-y. I tried for a laugh by telling Jo the story of the sociologic experiment involving the 5 year old pessimist and the 5 year old optimist. Well, I got a chuckle anyhow. Moments later the rock-strewn trail made a turn and entered a meadow. A meadow filled with ponies!

With trembling hands I fumbled with the new point-and-click, trying to put it in video mode, while also trying not to spook the ponies. I somehow succeeded. I also quickly decided that I preferred the actual hands-on experience to photographs and video so I put the camera away. Distracted by the herd, I wasn’t immediately aware that we had company. Along the way we had encountered the occasional thru-hiker (It’s pretty late in the season) but this couple was different. Ron Roman and Diane Doyle, we learned, were thru-hiking the AT as a part of a 10,000 mile tour (via foot and bike) in which they planned to “collect” on video 10,000 dreams. At their request we stopped and shared our own dreams, preserved for posterity by Ron and his camera. I felt a kinship, and to be honest, a bit of jealousy. Ron and Diane were living my dream…to thru-hike the AT and to help others discover who it is they were created to be. I walked away….jealous, yes, but also encouraged and inspired to chase my own dreams. To learn more and follow their quest, visit

It was almost 12 o’clock and we were nearly 10 miles in when we reached Massie Gap, named for Lee Massey who settled there with his wife and 5 children in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. (Appalachian Trail Guide to Southwest Virginia). Our climb continued up a moderately steep, rocky path. Near the top of our climb up Mt. Rogers was a beautiful, boulder-strewn grassy plateau that comes into view unexpectedly as you crest the hill. Just to the right of the trail is a huge, prominent boulder that begs to be climbed. I scrambled to the top, breathed in the mountain air and felt like Rafiki from the Lion King. I quickly scurried back down, however, because I wanted to set up my camera to catch the expressions on the faces of Fred and Dana when they topped the hill. Of course, they couldn’t say no to the boulder climb either so “adapt and overcome”. Instead I took some poser shots of them on top of the rock.
Chester had gone ahead, so while the girls played on the boulder I panned the horizon, taking in the exhilarating view of the rocky cliffs. “Hey Dad, can I try out your hiking poles?” “Sure.” Jo took off, exploring the advantages of becoming a quadruped and I wondered that there was a place so beautiful just a few hours from “The Shire”. The scenery I was taking in I’d only glimpsed in books, magazines, television shows and movies. It was clear how this area had gotten it’s name. I felt as if I had walked right through some ancient portal and been transported to the Scottish Highlands. Who knew? Well, the girls caught up and we started what would be the steepest part of our climb up, over, around and through huge boulders and Fraser firs as the trail continued up the side of the mountain. We reached, not the summit of Mt. Rogers, but the highpoint of the trail on said mountain and as I stopped to catch my breath I looked down the trail at Jo…without my poles. “Hey buddy, tell me you have my hiking poles in your pack.” “Dad, you’re kidding, right?” “What do you mean?” “I stuck ’em in the ground beside you at the base of the mountain…I’ll go back down.” “No way you’re going back down. Guess we just left some trail magic for another hiker.” Good news for them; not so much for me. We still had 30 miles before we reached Damascus. Oh well.

11.3 miles in we reached the infamous “Fatman Squeeze.” The trail descends into a cool, damp, narrow tunnel formed by a gap in the gargantuan rock. It’s pretty tight in places but not nearly as skinny as it appears. We all made it through without having to remove our packs. From here we turned left into a rhododendron thicket just beneath a rock outcropping, crossed a fence and followed the trail as it skirted the very edge of the woods. Shortly thereafter we, surprisingly, encountered another herd of ponies, these more aggressively social than the last. They did not want us to pass. Despite the ponies hospitality w e arrived at Thomas Knob Shelter by 2:30 pm for a very late lunch. A young family : Mom, Dad, their son and daughter (all hammockers) walked up as we were polishing off our flat-bread sandwiches. Since they were familiar with the area they were able to clarify exactly how to reach the spring so I could fill up everyone’s water. It was quite a walk during the hottest part of the day down a hill I wasn’t looking forward to climbing while laden with my water jug. The trail maintainers had thoughtfully fenced in the spring, I assume to keep the ponies from contaminating it. I made my way back up the hill, we said goodbye to our new friends and by 3:50pm were back on the trail. Happy to be heading downhill again, we descended into and through Deep Gap, around 500 feet in almost 2 miles. The girls were toast. Though we wanted to get some more miles in they’d had enough and made it abundantly clear that they weren’t walking any farther than absolutely necessary. Since camping isn’t allowed in Deep Gap we began a search for a site just on the other side. Trail maintainers were working on what seemed to be the only available campsite. When I asked for suggestions they told me we were welcome to join them. We gladly accepted and climbed the narrow path to find an elaborate tent city complete with a cooking area, coolers, grills and tables. It looked like we’d stumbled upon a military outpost. Can’t imagine the effort it took to pack all of that in. We found a grove of birches a hundred or so yards away, hung our hammocks, choked down a quick dinner and crashed just as a light rain began to fall.

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 2

Day 2 (June 26)
We awakened early to break fast with the complimentary “continental” version, checked-out and met our shuttle-driver for a long and winding trip to the trailhead. When we arrived back at Mt. Rogers we discovered that we would be sharing the ride with two other hikers who were able to enlighten us even more as to what lay ahead. Upon reaching the trailhead we snapped a couple of pics of our new friend the shuttle-driver, dragged our packs from the van, said our goodbyes and began to strap on and fine tune our equipment. Immediately Dana discovered that the locking mechanism on one of her trekking poles had failed. I spent around 10 minutes trying to do a temporary fix. (Thank God for duct-tape, huh?) Not a great way to start a 5 day hike…but at least we were starting a 5 day hike! We snapped a few more pics and then June 26, 2010 at 8:30 am Dana, Fred, Chester and I followed Josiah into the woods. Wooooohoooo! It begins.

Oddly enough, I felt a little disoriented. Up until this moment every AT section hike we’d done had been north-bound. At the advice of several, more experienced hikers we decided to do this section south-bound due to the preponderance of north-bound PUDS (Pointless Ups and Downs) and also due to the fact that we all love ending our hike in a trail town. Damascus, Virginia is widely hailed as THE trail town. Even so…it just felt weird.

My nostrils welcomed the dizzying, earthy scent of the woods and The Trail welcomed us with a glorious display of blooming rhododendron, groves of birch trees standing straight as soldiers, myriad fungi of tan and brown and orange and the ever-present white blazes leading us south.

We all enjoy stopping at the shelters along the way. They serve as bite-size goals, a place to rest, re-fuel, refill our water supply, hang out with other hikers and peruse the trail-journals found safely stored in zip-lock bags, usually in the eaves of the structure. We reached our first one, Old Orchard (a mere 8.3 miles in on what would be a 40.7 mile hike) around 10 am. Perfect time for a snack…and (as my dad would say) “Lo, and behold!” trail magic! Sitting in the shelter was a nearly full bag of the most delicious, scrumptious trail magic I’ve tasted as of date…True North Blueberry Nut Clusters. If you’ve never had the pleasure of indulging in this decadent treat, go right out and buy a bag (but only eat while hiking!) Most shelters are “decorated” with graffiti of some sort. This one had served as a canvas for a hiker/ artist who, apparently, had decided packing in their acrylics was worth the weight gain. Nice work, so I’d have to agree.

Lunch time found us resting near the top of a small mountain, playing on boulders, enjoying a snack and, for Josiah and I, exploring a gorgeous meadow just beyond the beaten path. We ran and played among Fraser firs on grassy hills and stood atop Volkswagen sized rocks. We watched, as in the distance, horses and their riders trotted towards us and waved while passing. We climbed back through the stile to join the others back on the trail. Not long after, we entered the “Crest Zone” of the Mount Rogers National Recreation area on Balsam Mountain. We weaved our way through thickets of what I assume were mountain blueberries. Unfortunately and fortunately they were far from ripe. Unfortunate because we couldn’t enjoy freshly picked mountain blueberries. Fortunate because local bears couldn’t enjoy them either! The thickets opened into a spacious, grassy clearing at the foot of Stone Mountain. The trail actually went, via a stile, through a corral where a large group of teenage scouts were taking a rest from the blistering sun in the scant shade offered by a kiosk. We joined them. A sign in the shelter informed us that we were at “The Scales”. According to the sign this was once the site of a large set of scales where cattle were weighed before being shipped to market. Today, the corral is still used by locals for round-up. The ladies were grateful to discover that there were also bathrooms in the corral. Guess they potty-train their beef in the Crest Zone.

Around 2:30 pm we began an ascent that would lead us to the top of Stone Mountain. As we started our walk we were flanked on either side by meadows filled with wildflowers: tens of thousands of nearly identical leafy, green-stalked plants, nearly three feet high, with small, bright red blossoms. The overall effect was dizzying…like looking at one of those 3-D graphics that reveals a holographic image. We found a shade tree part way up the trail and waited for Dana and Fred to catch up. The view of the valley and corral, where we’d just been? Striking.

By now the sun was directly overhead, shade was rare and we were feeling, well…broiled. At the top of Stone Mountain (4,800 feet) we found a small grove of trees and sat down to cool off for a few minutes. Moments later we were joined by Dana and Fred and we continued to the summit. Nearly flat and well-populated by other hikers (and their dogs) shade was still hard to find. We pressed our tired bodies against a rock outcropping, guzzled sun-warmed water and tore into our food bags like half-starved grizzlies.

We had heard rumors of a creek-side campsite just a couple of miles down the hill. Our guidebooks seemed to confirm this and we decided that, considering how much company we had on the trail, we’d be wise to find something and set up camp early. We quickly made our way through the forest and down the mountain, nervously smiling as we passed other hikers.

We passed through another stile which marked the beginning of the Little Wilson Creek Wilderness Area. This is where we hoped to spend the night, just outside of Grayson Highlands State Park. We weren’t disappointed. Within minutes we were welcomed by the delicious melody of water dancing over rocks and spotted, nestled in a glen, a nearly hidden campsite just to the left of a small meadow. It was perfect. We dropped our packs, picked out our trees and strung our hammocks.

Before the trip I had decided to try my hand at cooking on a wood stove. I found some plans on the internet, bought a can of pineapple juice, and in short-order had crafted a decent looking wood stove. I couldn’t wait to fire it up. With a pile of moss, pine-needles, sticks and twigs piled to my left, dehydrated ground beef, dehydrated spaghetti sauce and penne pasta on my right, and a generous cloud of smoke surrounding my head, I set to cranking up my kitchen. It didn’t take long for me to develop a new appreciation for my iso-propane hiker stove. I’m pretty adept at starting a fire but keeping a high enough, hot enough fire going for long enough to boil pasta…well, let’s just say that I humbly begged my hiker stoves forgiveness for my infidelity. She graciously took me back…and helped me finish dinner! After burying the leftovers a long way from camp, Chester and I collected and bundled together the food bags and went in search of a tree. This proved to be the days most tiresome task. Out of exhaustion and frustration we settled on hanging our bear bags from branches we optimistically thought would be just out of reach and hoped for the best. Ahhhhhhh, bed-time.

AT Hike Fox Creek to Damascus Day1

Sometimes, with the passage of time, our memories of cherished events become…blurred, soft around the edges. Details that seized our attention at the moment of occurrence dissipate into a dreamy haze over the years. In June of this year we experienced this very phenomenon but instead of occurring naturally it seemed to be cast upon us, like some awful enchantment. Here I sit, months later, wishing with everything in me that I had bought that little waterproof journal I’d seen in the outfitters…to have some written record of those few short days spent walking the Appalachian Trail through southwest Virginia. So, instead, I wander the trails of my mind, sort through snapshots of those recent days and try to recall the emotion, the pain, the wonder…and I end up with well, snapshots.

Day 1 (June 25)
We arrived in Damascus and headed straight for Mt. Rogers Outfitters where we’d leave our car for the duration of our hike. Meandering through the store, we talked to locals about mountain weather conditions which can, we discovered, change on a dime (Sweltering heat can instantly become a deluge which can give way to night-time lows we’d only experienced in winter months.) I’d hoped to leave behind some of my base-layer and maybe my sleeping pad…drop a little weight. No such luck. Better to be prepared (as the boy scouts say) , so it looks like 35 lbs is as low as I’ll go. Josiah dragged me out of the outfitter and into a creepy little thrift shop next door. We sifted through what was mostly junk and quickly decided to make our exit from the “Tarantino-ish” atmosphere. Upon reaching the door we discovered it had been locked behind us. Whuh?! As panic crept up my spine, one of the employees came to the door with a key to let us out. Creeeeepy. Did I mention…creepy?

Since the Mt. Rogers hostel was closed for renovations we had to make other arrangements for the night. We located a Days Inn on the outskirts of town, rented a room, unloaded our gear and realized quickly that not only was the AC not working but our mexicano neighbors bought their beer in bulk, iced it down in sidewalk coolers and liked their music blaring from their pick-up radio. Nice enough guys but we were hoping for a little creature-comfort before starting our trek. A visit back to the hotel office gained us a new room with cooler air and a little distance from the “fiesta.” Now for dinner. Cracker Barrel seemed our best option and I enjoyed, appropriately enough, the “Campfire Chicken and Vegetables.” Delicious. Back to the hotel to catch a few winks in “civilization” before our adventure begins.