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.

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