It’s a Horse…a horse… It’s a Pony?!
“This is so….interesting.” My sister and her husband were gaping at Nate and me as we repackaged our food to minimize trash on the trail. She had no faith that I would be able to squeeze a fifth full-size bagel into a sandwich-sized ziploc bag, but she was wrong. I’m a pro.
We had our family drop us off at The Place in Damascus. We were going to take our sixth zero day, the first one not due to weather. The day was beautiful, but Nate could not hike. We figured we’d set up our tent on the lawn beside The Place and use the town-wide wifi to update my blog and Nate’s videos. The wifi wasn’t as we expected.
Our phones were able to connect during our lunch of leftover pizza and homemade muffins, but when we were ready to upload our updates, the connection was spotty. We made several attempts, but I finally walked over to the library to use their internet. It worked much better and I was done in minutes. We spent most of the day lounging in the warm, green grass beside our tent. A hiker from one of the hostels brought over a full box of fig newtons, saying someone had left them behind. We gladly accepted a free 3,000 calories. Crazy Larry, who owns a hostel in town, also came by. He was walking his dog. Knowing we wanted to be back on the trail the next morning, we asked him if he knew of any inexpensive shuttle options. He called around but was told that it would be at least twenty-five dollars. Hanging up his phone, he encouraged us to try to hitch hike back to the mountains. After all, Damascus is the friendliest town on the AT.
Our stomachs were still full of pizza, homemade muffins and fig newtons so for dinner we each had a bowl of cereal, snuck from the hotel’s continental breakfast that morning. We used the bathroom inside The Place to brush our teeth and we hit the sac. We were more than ready to leave town in the morning. For Nate’s shins, we needed the rest, but we didn’t need the rest in town.
We woke up early in order to be at the roadside with our thumbs out when the folks of Damascus would be leaving town for work. But our plan failed when we met a southbound thru hiker who had spent the night inside at The Place. He and Nate talked for nearly an hour, delaying our hitching efforts. When we got to the roadside, there were still cars flying past us, but nobody stopped to give us a ride to the trail. After forty-five minutes and the threat of walking out of town if we went any further, we turned around. We would be forced to hire a shuttle.
Damascus is where the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail intersect. There are more shuttle services than can be counted. But every one of them wanted a minimum of forty dollars to drive two hikers fifteen miles down the road. We didn’t want to pay that much. Recalling that Crazy Larry had a friend who would shuttle us for twenty-five dollars, we walked to his hostel. His friend was out on another shuttling mission, but he had one more idea of who to call. “He can do it, but it’ll cost you twenty dollars,” Crazy Larry reported to us. We accepted. We were headed back to the trail!
Nate hobbled along the trail for as far as we thought we should go–five miles. We didn’t want his legs to start hurting and we were able to find a place to camp before his cramps became unbearable. Though it was less than a third of the mileage we knew we were capable of, five miles was enough for us this day. Ending our day hours before we usually would allowed us to enjoy a campfire, something we had only done once before on the AT. Nate dug a hole five feet from our tent and scrounged up enough rocks to surround it. He gathered kindling, small twigs and bigger branches into a neat pile next to the fire ring. Before I knew it, he had flames roaring. We sat in front of the fire, ate dinner and discussed plans for the coming days.
“Hello tent,” we heard a hiker call from the trail. Nate recognized the voice in an instant. He whipped his head around to face the passerby, a smile growing across his face, as he exclaimed, “Stretch! It’s us, the Hiking Vikings!” We hadn’t seen Stretch since we lost him in the Smokies.
Stretch told us how he stopped early the day the rest of our crew left the Smokies via Newfound Gap. The next day, while we were all stuffed inside one hotel room, he relaxed with a room for himself.
Even though we were done for the day, Stretch had more miles to go. We told him all that we had learned about Damascus during our town experience, and encouraged him to stay at The Place. He would be getting into town the next morning and spending the day there. We would be happy if we could ever get past that town.
Not wanting to disappoint ourselves or make Nate walk any further than his shin splints could handle, we were giddy when we found ourselves walking out of Damascus. We had left our day’s destination to be determined by Nate’s legs. We were able to get into town, use the wifi at the library, grab another day of food from the Dollar General, devour a Subway sub and arrive at a campsite nearly one mile north of Damascus, all in time to enjoy the sunset. Trotting behind a limping Nate, singing a ’90s pop song, I was scared out of my skin when a hiker appeared behind me. It was a northbound thru-hiker named Yoyo. We stood on the side of the trail to let him pass by, but ended up chatting with him for twenty minutes. Seconds after he disappeared down the trail his hiking partner, Tweet, overtook us. We felt like we weren’t making any progress. Hours later, as we were headed to Subway, we saw Yoyo and Tweet wandering down the main street in Damascus. “How did you guys get to Abington?” they yelled at us from across the road. Rather than have a conversation through the bustling traffic, Yoyo and Tweet skipped over to our sidewalk. Looking defeated, they explained that all they wanted was a comfortable hotel room where they had cell phone service so that they could call family on their day off. Damascus does not offer that. We admitted that we had our family meet us in Damascus and cart us to Abington, but we recommended the man who shuttled us back to the trail. Wishing them luck, we proceeded to Subway, our dinner destination.
“Just wear my shorts,” I begged Nate. It was a hot, muggy day and I could tell he was uncomfortable, but he didn’t want to wear women’s clothing. “I’ll just hike in my compression shorts,” I assured him, “There won’t be many day hikers out today.” Nate and I had previously discussed how I was too modest to simply wear compression shorts while trekking through the forest, but on this day I was willing to do so for the sake of his comfort. After much convincing, Nate slid into my shorts. He hasn’t taken them off since.
It threatened to rain all day but we did not rush to the shelter. We were still paying close attention to Nate’s shins. When we came upon a roaring stream with less than five miles left to hike, Nate had an idea. He flung off his pack and scooted down to the water. Whipping off his shoes and socks, he plopped himself down on a rock in the middle of the stream and dunked his legs into the water. Then he pulled them right back out. It took him a few tries to be able to hold his lower legs in the cold mountain water, but he eventually kept his legs soaking for over two minutes. It was his way of icing his shins in the middle of the mountains. When we arrived at the shelter we decided to tent because of the impending rain. We were glad we did. Just as we finished dinner and climbed into our sleeping bags, rain began pelting the shelter’s roof. But we were warm and dry.
We awoke to weather that could not have been more of a contrast to the weather twelve hours prior. It was snowing. We bundled up to prevent our hands from becoming unusable while we packed, sure that the snow was a fluke. How could the weather have taken such a drastic change in such a short time?
The snow was not a fluke. As we hiked higher and higher in elevation, the earth became more and more snow-covered. Not believing that we were facing snow yet again, I was optimistic that the white stuff would disappear before the end of the day. I was wrong. When we got to the peak of Whitetop Mountain, the wind lashed through us, making it nearly impossible to walk in a straight line. We staggered across the bald toward the tree line where we hoped we could find enough refuge from the wind to stop for a snack. The bare trees provided minimal protection, but we took the time to scarf down a few handfuls of raisins. As we were doing so, some southbound day hikers passed by and gave us a weather report. Not only was the snow scheduled to continue throughout the day, it would drop below freezing overnight and be even colder and windier the next day. Unsatisfied with the news, we continued our trudge up Mount Rogers, preparing ourselves for yet another cold night.
Wearing every piece of clothing I had been carrying, with the hoods of both my down jacket and my rain coat pulled over my head, I sat up inside my sleeping bag and saw an unwelcome sight. The snow had piled up around our tent, filling in the space between the ground and our rain fly. We were encased. I prodded Nate until he sat up, too. We were going to need lots of motivation to get out of our warm cocoon and venture into the snowy, windy wonderland that awaited us. Fortunately, we had some motivation as only a couple of miles ahead was the Grayson Highlands, where wild ponies roamed. It was one thing I had been looking forward to seeing since we began planning our thru hike. And I’d get to see the ponies on my birthday!
We could not have imagined how terrible the trail was. For about a quarter of a mile we had no trouble finding our way north along the AT. Then the trail led us into a circle-shaped clearing with no direction on which way was north. We were puzzled. Nate explored one direction and I went in another. We both returned to the center of the circle with no news.
As we spun around looking for any kind of sign, we heard two hikers approaching the clearing, from a different direction than we had. “We thought this was the AT, but we aren’t sure where it goes,” they confessed to us. Grateful for a lead, we stomped through the snow to their path. Nate led the way and we quickly saw a white blaze poking out through a patch of snow that was stuck to a tree trunk. We were on the right path.
The conditions made hiking difficult, not only because the snow masked the white blazes, but also because of the wind. We were over 5,000 feet in elevation and the bitter wind nearly knocked us to our feet on several occasions. Tripping from blaze to blaze, we often had to stop and gaze out over the rocky mountainside plain to find the trail. It was more following our trail-instincts for Nate and me than actually seeing blazes. We led the two weekend hikers off of the mountain, and after a morning of zig-zagging beside the trail, we made it to the Grayson Highlands.
Entering the park, I was excited to see the ponies! But I quickly realized that the ponies would not be out on a day like this. The trail flattened and became less rocky but it was still susceptible to the whipping winds. At times we walked sideways to protect our bare faces from the cold. It was unrelenting.
We reached the other end of the park without seeing any ponies, but we had descended out of the elevation and the wind wasn’t as bad. We climbed over fence stiles and hopped across rocks peaking up through puddles of mud. Turning a corner, I almost ran right into three of the hairiest, shortest ponies I had ever seen! “Happy birthday, Honey!” Nate whispered to me as I held my open hand out to one of the creatures. My smile spread from ear to ear. Soon after sneaking up on the ponies the two weekend hikers thanked us for leading them off the mountain and encouraged us to push ahead. They had plans to stay on the trail for another day, but weren’t sure if they would do so or if they would call for a ride that night. We wished them well and said our goodbyes, still having a long way to hike to get as low as we could for the night.
Toward the end of the day, when we were thousands of feet lower in elevation than we had started, the snow slowly became more and more scarce until it eventually went away. We got to the bottom and set up our tent among the bushes between a stream and a parking lot. When Nate heard voices going by, he flew out of the tent to see if it was someone we knew. It was a couple of day hikers we had passed by on our way down. The woman had lost one of her mittens along the trail, so the couple changed their plans from camping atop the mountain to burrowing down in a nearby home of a friend. We had found the mitten on our way down, but after plucking it from the ground we placed it on a branch hanging over the trail, confident that it would stick out to anyone searching for it. It did not. Unsure whether they would hike up to retrieve the mitten, what the couple did know was that they had extra food, so they offered us their dinner. Just as any thru-hiker would, we accepted! Though it wasn’t birthday cake and ice cream, their homemade chili accompanied by salami, cheese and bread more than hit the spot.
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