Fox Creek to Damascus

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 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.