May 15, 2013

Clear skies and warm sun greeted us this morning. The Old Mill Inn was the only place with rooms available last night. The cost of the suite was high by hiker standards but after splitting four ways we enjoyed the private shower, spacious room, and view of the river from our back door.

The trail leaves Damascus by going through the main business district and joining with the Virginia Creeper Bike Trail for a mile or so before veering off into the woods and ascending the mountainside.

The sun beat down through openings in the tree canopy and for nearly the first time since starting the trail in Georgia it felt like Spring. Perspiration dripped from my forehead as I began the steady rhythm of digging in with the trekking poles to help my legs reach the top of the climb. Normally I’ve hopped from spring to spring without carrying much water but today I filled up at least a quart whenever I had the chance.

I had the good fortune to meet some friends on the trail today. Lucky, Carrot, and Bear hiked and camped with me in the “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine last year. Hurricane Sandy forced them off the trail last fall and they are back to finish their thru-hike this Spring. We talked for awhile before continuing on our way.

We passed a mob of other southbound section hikers headed for Damascus to celebrate Trail Days. Dropbear, Dirty Rice, Shanks, and I all agreed to hike fifty miles north of Damascus and take a shuttle back for the festival. We are anticipating that hundreds of northbound hikers will leave Damascus on Sunday and Monday so the fifty miles should give us some elbow room next week. The weather is too nice to sit in town for a couple of days anyway.

Seventeen miles took us to a campsite near a babbling brook where we stopped for the evening. We ate supper without wearing stocking caps and insulated jackets.

May 16, 2013

We needed to cover some miles today to make sure we arrive at our pickup time at Dickey’s Gap on Friday. The trail made a steady climb toward Whitetop Mountain at 5100 feet before descending to 4500 and rising back to 5400 near the summit of Mt. Rogers. Wild ponies are a popular attraction here as they, along with prescribed burns, help maintain the open balds in the high elevations near Rogers and the adjoining Grayson Highlands State Park.

This entire day was a pleasant surprise as the trail started in hardwood forest, climbed into the high elevation beech forest, transitioned to red spruce above 5000 feet, and finally open grassland near the summit. The entire highland region has scattered rock outcrops with small patches of trees and shrubs dotting the mountain top.

It is breathtaking to look at and challenging to hike through. There are plenty of rocks to trip over and I stumbled plenty as I tried to walk and take in the scenery at the same time.

The wild ponies are not all wild it seems. Dropbear and I stopped for lunch at Thomas Knob shelter. A brown mare stood motionless over her white colt as we ate. Just as we finished and I began packing, the mare decided to lick the salt off my legs and arms. I had to climb on top of the picnic table to finish packing fearing she was about to turn carnivorous. Dropbear had a similar encounter early in the day as a pony kept nudging him from behind and trying to chew on his pack.

The rest of the afternoon was spent crossing the open pasture of the highlands. Late afternoon brought us to the end of the grassland and back to the beech and maple forest. I stopped at the Wise Shelter for an afternoon break. The trail mileage is exactly 500.0 from Springer Mountain. To celebrate the occasion, the U.S. Air Force scrambled two fighter jets to give us a low altitude flyover. That broke the silence.

The miles of rock covered trail were starting to wear my feet down so we knew that Shanks had to be moving slowly with the foot pain he has endured for the last 500 miles. We waited for him to catch up and sure enough his feet were taking a beating. He also sprained an ankle trying to navigate the rock maze.

Twenty two miles brought the four of us to Old Orchard Shelter. It was a short evening for us as we set up camp, ate supper, and were off to bed.

May 17, 2013

It was ten miles to Dickey Gap where we arranged to meet our shuttle driver at 2:00 pm. I heard Shanks leave camp at 6:00 am. He wanted to be sure his feet and ankle problems didn’t cause him to miss the ride back to Damascus. I fell asleep and didn’t wake again until after 7:00.

It was a leisurely stroll to the gap but I checked around every bend in the trail expecting to see Shanks limping along. Fortunately we didn’t see him until the trailhead at Dickey Gap. Smoother terrain was all he needed.

We all arrived at the road by noon and a thunder shower entertained us as we waited for our two o’clock shuttle. None of us had phone service so we waited and hoped the driver wasn’t late. Skip, our shuttle driver, arrived at 1:30 pm just as the rain stopped and the sun reappeared.

We will be in Damascus until Monday morning. Monday is the earliest that Skip can get us back to the trail. After 516 miles the rest will do us all some good as each of us has some aches and pains telling us to slow down a little.