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.

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