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.

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