The Congenial Pony (Or Going Uphill for Telling on Zeus)
The previous night, the sky seemed airbrushed with the Milky Way. A dozen hikers formed a tent village in the woods around Saunders Shelter under the stars. April in Virginia: mild spring temperatures were here to stay we all hoped. The best season on the southern part of the Appalachian Trail was breaking open like a field of flowers, but winter’s grasp is stubborn in the mountains. In the morning the wind was blowing. Soon after it started raining. That day I would walk almost nineteen miles and experienced nearly every kind of weather.
Later that morning, after crossing the Virginia Creeper Trail, the sun came out and I stripped out of rain gear into t-shirt and shorts and had a bite. There was intermittent sun and rain, but temperatures felt like they pushed eighty, Fahrenheit by mid day. I made the ascent up White Rock Mountain with a hiker from New Hampshire. I had camped with him a number of times for the last few weeks. He had been hiking with a big crew, but he had left them behind in Damascus. Forty three years old, salt and pepper in his beard, I had caught him on a philosophical day. I had turned thirty seven a few days earlier, so his complaints at mid life found a sympathetic ear. Some men, for some mysterious reason, can only emote their disappointment with a sidetracked career or divorce, or insecurities about remote fatherhood, when sweating like a pig with a salty neck and a heart like that of Sisyphus, going uphill forever for telling on Zeus.
We rested for a spell in bright sunshine on buzzard rock with a young man less than half the age of my friend from New Hampshire. The kid had only smelled the slightest whiff of the pleasures and sufferings life had to offer. We all took a big whiff of the ripping wind, young blood and old farts alike. The sun cast longer, creepier shadows behind the rocks. When afternoon comes on and a hiker starts to feel it in the feet and legs, it’s time to make miles. We were all beginning to enjoy the luxury and mileage possibilities of longer days with the coming of spring. I felt good, made vigorous my hooves and hiked out far ahead of the others. I was hot and sweaty starting up Mount Rogers.
Halfway up, the winds draped great quilts of clouds on the mountain. It happened so quickly, like magic. Temperatures dropped like a cold stone. First came the sleet. Then I put on layers when the snow started. The winds gusted and constellations of big wet snow flakes swirled about. Soon the mountain was white as I staggered in the blow, and then suddenly I saw the most startlingly pathetic creature. It was a long maned midget pony that stood beside a scrubby pine to break the wind. Vapors of steam rose from its nostrils. It stared at me. Then it shook its mane and tossed of snowflakes like magic sparkles. I might as well have seen a unicorn. What the hell was a pony doing at the top of a mountain during a spring snow storm?
Maybe it had something to do with the Spaniards in the 1600s or equine inbreeding or Chincoteague or some combination of invasive biology in the wake of European contact with North America. Maybe it’s worth a google or two if the subject interests you. The first pony I saw– I felt convicted of the fact– was placed there by extra terrestrial beings. The authorities today maintain more or less wild herds of these ponies at Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands. The ponies endure harsh winters on the mountain, and live on high, mostly open country all year round. With their thick, knotted manes and placid eyes, they greet the weary hiker to an unforgiving mountain.
At Old Orchard Shelter, not far beyond the side trail to the Summit of Virginia’s highest mountain, I argued with the chaperoning father of a group of rowdy boy scouts. He informed me that the shelter had reached capacity. It had not. Snow accumulated rapidly on the ground now. The blinds of pine were heavy and white. Temperatures had plummeted into the twenties. I counted the boys. I added the father. I pulled out my AHLDA Thru Hikers Companion to show him the listed occupancy and informed him that I had come nearly twenty miles and was now entering the shelter and commandeering the remaining occupancy, which did not include the tent he pitched in the middle of the first floor of the structure. Other thru hikers showed up and the shelter reached true full capacity. The boys asked many questions and we answered them and told stories. It got very cold– it was hard to fall asleep. The forty three year old hiker hung a hammock between the pines and swung in the wind all night like a burrito on a bungie cord. That New Hampshire cat had sand. He made it to Katahdin that summer.
In the morning I hiked out as soon as I could warm my fingers enough to pack things up. The best thing to do in the cold is to keep moving and making body heat. A half hour under the pack and over the trail and my body heat was restored. Soon the mountains warmed up under the spring sun and the snows started to melt. I came across a rather large herd of ponies warming themselves in the sun. Some were mothers with their young. Someone had advised me not to approach the ponies. I didn’t have to because one approached me and began to lick the salt from my fingers. Another hiker showed up and took a picture. That pony was mighty congenial.
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