Highland Ponies & Broken Fiddles

We woke up at Boots Off Hostel full of life and intending to leave early. Of course, being the personality types that we are, those ambitions fell through and we didn’t end up leaving until nearly noon. This all worked out in our favor in the end. We spoke to an old friend from the Smokies, Salamander, and met a new acquaintance, Banana Man, who got his name from wearing a banana costume on the trail. He was now banana-less and wearing a Wayne’s World cap. I didn’t ask too deeply into what happened to the suit; a banana without a peel can be a sensitive topic. Late as can be and without a care in the world we started our walk back to the trail. Lo and behold, on our way out we found our good friend Quick on the Draw sauntering up the drive. At our last meeting, we weren’t sure if we’d see each other on the trail again, so this was a moment with an especially excited aura. We made plans to see each other again in Damascus within a few days.

Water Nostalgia 

We walked along the long Watauga Lake. After using mountain springs slowly dribbling over rhododendron leaves as our primary source of drinking water for the last month, it was nice to be around a substantial body of water. Like the inverse of a sailor yearning for land, I sometimes find myself missing the shores of Lake Superior back home. Imagining the sound of the waves, the chilling hug of the water, and the empty horizon fills me with fondness. I have a greater appreciation for how special my home is, but I don’t let this detract from the beauty of my experience in the present moment. I know I will imagine the wildflowers, wooded ridge lines, and even the mice-infested shelters of the AT with equal longing in due time.
We traveled over the Watauga Lake Dam and met a hiker named Baron Spray. Formerly known as Red Baron, his name had evolved in the past 24 hours after accidentally blasting himself with his bear spray canister. Later on, another hiker left us with some much-appreciated foraging wisdom, guiding us to our new obsession with Ramps (AKA Wild Leeks). No longer would we suffer through the blandness of the same packaged Alfredo pasta 10 days in a row. We now had a blast of garlic and onion flavor to bring our food to life.  

The Death of a Hermit 

We spent a good portion of the day on a steady climb back up to the mountaintops around 4,000 feet. Toward the end of the day we came across a memorial to an old local hermit, Nick Grindstaff, who passed away over a hundred years ago. His epitaph depressingly read, “He lived alone, he suffered alone, he died alone”. While true, I think this seems like a rather narrow perspective. I’m sure Uncle Nick had his reasons for living a monastic life, and likely enjoyed many times both good and bad. I have to wonder if he would have preferred a revised edition such as, “He lived alone, he suffered alone, he smiled alone, he died alone”. We set up camp shortly after passing his memorial.

Reaching the Fourth State 

We woke up early, 25 miles from Damascus, Virginia, and feeling ready to get to town. The day’s hiking was long but relatively easy and smooth. The highlight of the day came early when we climbed through a gate and into a beautiful open pasture. A narrow gravel trail snakes its way between vibrant fields of green grass and yellow dandelions. An old barn is adorned with a large AT symbol. It was a brief, but magical break from the typical tunnel of trees. Later in the day, just before Damascus, we came across the Tennessee-Virginia border. Realizing that we completed the first 3 states of the trail, we were filled with pride and excitement. Riding high, we practically ran the final descent into town.

A Change in Perspective 

Shortly after hitting Virginia, I realized one of the “Whys” I had written down for hiking before I came out on the trail was disintegrating before my eyes. Independence and greater self-reliance were high on my list, but my experience has shifted my tune. Rugged individualism is a very American ideal, but since being on the trail I’ve relied on the companionship of my hiking partner Hotdog, care packages filled with love from my romantic partner Chey, positive energy from fellow hikers, a well of kindness from trail angels, fun and affordable places of rest from hostels, and even support from strangers online; hell you could even break it down to the person who picked the apple I’m eating or the forests providing oxygen to breathe. Wherever you look everything is interconnected and harmonious; to lean too far into the side of independence and going it alone is an illusion. All is one, or maybe I’ve just been reading too many bottles of Dr.Bronner’s soap in the hostel showers.

Hiking into Damascus 

We had originally planned to camp a mile or two before Damascus, but it was still early and the thought of a real meal was too enticing not to succumb to. So, with no real overnight plan, we headed straight into town. We picked up our supply drops from the outfitter and walked in the direction of the Methodist church after hearing they might have cheap lodging for the night. The hostel was called, “The Place”, and the hostel runner, a past AT thru-hiker named, “Bayou”, was standing on the enclosed porch, seemingly waiting for hikers to stumble in from the trail. The only other hikers staying at The Place were similar to us in age but seemed to be together in a large Tramily. It was the first time we felt like outsiders on the trail, but we felt much more at home at the Broken Fiddle the next night.
With a full zero-day ahead of us in Damascus, we embraced a loose, whimsical attitude to the day. We rode bikes in Hawaiian shirts past waddling ducks with our umbrellas lifted in the pouring rain and tried on tacky ornate leather jackets at the antique shop. It was a child-like feeling of joy that placed me into the feeling of a Ghibli or Paddington Bear movie. It’s nice to break out of the self-seriousness that comes with adulthood.

Fun at The Broken Fiddle 

We spent most of our evening at The Broken Fiddle, a hostel with a chill fraternity-like atmosphere, but with enough elegance to wash, fold, and deliver your laundry to you, topped with a piece of chocolate containing your trail name on top. It was our kind of place. When we spotted Quick on the Draw the minute we walked in, we knew we were right where we were meant to be. We saw several other familiar faces that evening. Banana Man was back, and me and Hotdog played him and the hostel owner, Treehouse, in an intense game of Pole-ish Horseshoes. Spider Legs, an experienced thru-hiker and boom-mic operator from Atlanta, also arrived at The Broken Fiddle. We first met him nearly a month ago in our first rainstorm on the trail, a little bit outside of Neel Gap. We all sat around the fire sharing brews and talking about people we’ve met and stories we’ve heard on the trail. I find it interesting how stories and rumors work their way through the trail like an information highway.
We woke up the next morning groggy-headed and slow. We had a lot of fun the previous night, but I couldn’t shake the Eagles song, “Hotel California”, off my mind. Without exercising some discipline you could have your priorities shifted from hiking to floating around town before you know it. Conscious of this, and despite The Broken Fiddle being a great stay, we knew we had to get ourselves back to the land of white blazes.

On the Trail Again 

After leaving Damascus we walked along the Virginia Creeper Trail, a gravel rail trail popular with cyclists. The trees in Virginia felt fuller and more vibrant with lush greens than anywhere we had seen yet. It was as if the trees of Virginia had all voted to adopt spring a little earlier than their neighbors to the south. As I walked, the ambient music in my earbuds meshed with the singing birds and flow of Laurel Creek to create a natural remix of each song. Serenity emanates from each step.

Open Summits 

We reached a pasture at golden hour with cows grazing on a sunny hilltop. We had to do the only polite thing there is to do in a situation like this and moo a friendly hello to them.  Afterward, we came across some thru-hikers and their families visiting in an RV. They offered us s’mores, which we gladly accepted to fuel ourselves up a steep 3-mile climb in the dark to Buzzard Rock, an open secondary summit of Whitetop Mountain and our home for the night. Despite a tent malfunction and cold temperatures, we were able to catch a break from the wind on the open summit.
The sound of rain battering against our tents woke us up in the morning. It was cold enough to turn the moisture accumulating on our flys into slush. It isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable option to camp on a high open bald or summit, but the wonder that comes with unzipping your tent in the morning to a view of the world beneath you in every direction makes it all worth it. Good things don’t always come easy. We watched as patchy fog moved around the far reaches of the mountains around us, and we set out, excited to put our new umbrellas to the test as we headed toward the Grayson Highlands.

Ponies in the Highlands 

We moved through a hilltop cow pasture and ascended high into a pine forest. We completed a short side quest to the viewless summit of Mount Rogers, the Virginia high point, just to say we were the highest men in Virginia for a brief moment. Afterward, a trio of young male hikers who we first met in Damascus joined us for lunch. Ghost is a fellow midwestern boy, Peanut Butter is a German, and Last Mile is a Scot. The consensus of this small summit of nations was that we were all excited to see some wild ponies a few miles ahead.
It was quite the day for milestones and landmarks. In all the excitement of the Grayson Highlands, we nearly missed the 500-mile marker. Open grassy highlands of green and yellow were spattered with rock outcroppings and pine trees. It was how I imagined the Appalachian’s distant cousin, the Scottish Highlands, which were torn away from the Appalachian Mountains when the supercontinent Pangea split millions of years ago.
As we walked through spectacular view after spectacular view, my eyes were keenly scanning the area for ponies. Given the amount of excrement they laid down directly on the trail, they were surprisingly difficult to find. At one point Hotdog let out a loud neigh, and in that split second, I turned and spotted a pony 40 feet out from us. Hotdog was convinced his neigh had summoned the pony, and I decided to let him have his small win. The pony had a Swayze-level majestic blond mane; it was everything we had hoped for. We hiked on full of pony power, later passing through grassy meadows and even spotting a horse and fawn. We set up our tents as the only hikers at Old Orchard Shelter. We put 40 miles past us since Damascus, and seem to have left another bubble behind in the process, finding solitude once again amongst the emergence of Spring.

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