I Would Walk 500 Miles

Leaving town always proved difficult.

Coming out of Damascus was no exception. We spent our time there eating delicious food and getting multiple showers. After the cinnamon rolls, steaks, and snacks galore, I was plentiful on calories and ready to crank out some miles.

That first day out, the hiking was pretty but uneventful. The AT weaved alongside a well known bike trail—the Virginia Creeper Trail—for a handful of miles. At one point, the two trails merged and we crossed over a large wooden bridge. There was ample camping along the creek below us, and we spied a grove of tents as we passed by. Once we hit the shelter, Cookie and I set up our tents and sat around for a bit. I had packed a burger and some hot dogs out from town, so I wolfed those down while Cookie munched on some Doritos.

Eat some food now, pack some up a terrible climb for later.

Down in the Dumps

The next morning, I definitely woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping pad. I had spilled water in my tent that morning, which left me in kind of a sour mood. I knew we had several big climbs that day, the weather forecast was calling for rain, and my coffee had been wildly unsatisfying for my caffeine requirements. Everything felt overwhelming. I shoved my earbuds in my ears and started out with a fast pace, hoping this would signify to my friends that I wanted left alone. It was the kind of morning where I needed to brood over my negativity to get it out of my system.

My first climb that day up Buzzard Rock was difficult. Cookie, Coyote, and Radio all flew past me. Even though I wanted to be alone, I found it irritating that I was now hiking so slowly. About 3/4ths of the way up, it began to drizzle. I previously discovered that most of the time, my mood is incredibly weather-dependent. This day was no exception. I was struggling with the large step ups, and they became more difficult when the rocks were wet. As I neared the top of the mountain, I realized just how long that climb had taken me, and discouragement hit hard. I did the next 8 miles fighting back tears and trying to focus on the podcast I was listening to.

Wet, dreary day of hiking.

Around 1pm, I came upon Thomas Knob shelter, and saw all my friends were there. The rain was still coming, and everyone had stopped to sit inside this massive double-decker structure to seek refuge from the damp, cold afternoon. Cookie was sitting in the corner, and I melted next to him in a puddle of defeat. We still had 6 more miles planned for the day, and the idea of tenting in the rain was making my heart ache. I was just not having fun.

Coyote and Radio decided pretty quickly after I arrived that they were not going back out in the rain. Radio went to the upper level of the shelter to set up their sleeping pads, and Coyote tried her best to convince me to stay as well. The rest of the group had also decided to stop for the day, but I defaulted to my hiking partner for his opinion. I knew he wouldn’t want to crowd into that shelter with others so early in the afternoon. Admittedly, I had begun to rely on him as a reason to push myself. As predicted, he suggested we stick with our original plan and get 6 more miles in. I pouted, bade my friends farewell, and dawned my wet pack to keep going.

A Little Extra Goes a Long Way

As we took off from the shelter, the rain almost immediately stopped. It was as if the skies sensed my misery and showed mercy. Even so, the first couple of miles were cold and full of sorrow. I had been in such a negative headspace all day, and nothing seemed to be helping. That is, until I saw the sign for Grayson Highlands State Park.

The Grayson Highlands section of the AT is famous for having wild ponies that roam around in open fields. As we neared one of the gated areas, my heart skipped a beat. In the distance, I spied a short, chubby pony grazing happily on the plentiful grass. Then I spotted another, and another. In total, I got to see four ponies that day, and each of them lifted my spirits just a little more. I even had one trot right up to me for the perfect photo op. I later discovered those who stayed behind hadn’t seen any ponies, which added to my retrospective confidence about pushing forward that day.

A chunky, wild pony.

Cookie and I set up camp right outside of the state park boundary and discussed our next day game plan. We ambitiously settled on 23 miles. I polished off some pretzels, finished my camp chores, and went to sleep, hoping we didn’t wake up to the forecasted downpour. Unfortunately for us, the rain showed up that morning with a vengeance. We stuffed our wet tents into our packs and hurried down the trail.

Whether or Not the Weather is Good

Our first few miles were through some very open areas, and the wind was harsh. Cold rain pelted my face and threatened to rip my raincoat hood off of my head. It was difficult to navigate around rocks and puddles while bracing against the angry storm. We passed through an old horse corral with a random privy, then once we hit tree line the rain let up.

Within an hour the sun was out and ready to assist us in drying out our gear. We took several breaks that day, making sure to drape our tents over tree limbs and picnic benches to catch the sunlight or a breeze. By the time we hit camp, our things had completely dried out and we were feeling really good about the day. We had just put in 23 miles, and for both of us it was our biggest day thus far. We felt like we could have pushed on, but decided to save our energy and get a good night’s rest.

Privy in the middle of an old horse corral.

The next day we flew through our remaining 18 miles to a motel right off trail before the I-81 crossover near Atkins, VA. We actually arrived a day early, and almost didn’t get a room. The front desk clerk, however, was nice enough to make some phone calls and switch other guests’ rooms around so we could have a room. We showered, gorged on subpar Mexican food at a restaurant that was inside of an Exxon, and did a full gas station resupply. With our packs full of honey buns and mashed potatoes, we carried on up the trail.

A Day to Remember Mile Markers

Our 15 miles up to the Knot Maul Branch shelter was filled with what I refer to as “tiptoe climbs” in the beginning. These are where the trail is so steep, it requires the use of tiptoes. The tiptoe climbs were peppered in with long strolls through cow pastures. We saw a handful of slugs on the trail through here, and even a snake! There were a ton of ladder climbs between the cow pasture areas—sketchy wooden ladders were constructed over barbed wire fencing presumably for hikers to get through.

We got to camp that night excited to feast on the gas station pizza we had packed out. We sat around with some other hikers—River, Stickers, and Tank—and celebrated our newest victory. We had completed 1/4th of the trail that day. Most of us joked about the ambiguity of the sign, and how we nearly missed it.

Happy to have hit this milestone!

The next morning, I packed up my things in a state of unrest. I had previewed our plan for the day and realized we would be fording our first creek. As per usual, my anxiety generated endless scenarios in which the endeavor ended poorly. Someone had posted a comment in FarOut only two days prior that the water was at least 3 feet deep, so I was prepared for a soggy morning. I recounted horror stories about sketchy creek crossings to myself, then reminded myself of the lack of rainfall.

Try Not to Overthink This

We made it fairly early in the morning to the creek, and noted several signs as we approached warning hikers of the bridge being out of commission. We sat down on the shore and changed into our camp shoes. The water was barely deep enough to have to use our poles, but the current was a bit strong in a few spots. Mostly, the water was just incredibly cold. It felt wonderful on my aching ankles after the initial step or two, though.

Cookie crossing Lick Creek. The bridge had been washed out a few years prior.

After drying off our feet and re-tightening our hiking shoes, we began the arduous climb up Chestnut Knob. This climb offered little in the way of breaks—it seemed we were just continually gaining elevation. But once at the top, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of Burke’s Garden, a giant crater-like area in the valley of the mountains.

Cookie and I decided to bathe in the warmth of the sun for a bit. We set out our sleeping pads in a grassy area in front of the shelter and laid beneath the clear blue sky eating candy. If someone had asked me 2 months ago what I wanted from my thru hike, I would’ve described that moment. The bliss I felt after conquering a daunting climb was incredible, and to celebrate it by sunbathing with a view and a friend was exactly right.

View of Burke’s Garden from Chestnut Knob shelter.

The rest of the day was quite dry. Literally. We stayed on a ridge line for about 9 miles and had no water sources in that stretch. The sun was overbearing, and pushing to the next water was slightly harder than it should have been because of the heat. Once we hit the shelter, though, we had a beautiful stream flowing very close by. I ended my day on a high note with a sour cream and chive ramen bomb. As I got into my tent that night, I thought all of the beautiful and difficult things I had encountered in the last month and a half. I was incredulous at being 1/4th of the way through my thru.

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Comments 3

  • Erik : Apr 12th


  • Carol Pedder : Apr 13th

    Your amazing have fun ❤️

  • Phil : Apr 19th

    Your writing is very evocative and honest. When you describe the shifting mental states that we all go through whether on trail or in the evryday, it reminds me that bad times do not last forever. Well done, and keep it up.


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