The Mysteries of Virginia
Southern Virginia’s a mystery to me. I have a pretty good understanding of where the Appalachian Trail travels as it snakes its way up towards Maine. But from Damascus to Roanoke, it takes a sudden detour into the heart of the Southern ridges, an area I knew nothing about before I came. The trail was rerouted this way in 1955, and it makes for a very different kind of hike.
Just once before, ten years ago, I went to Mount Rogers with a friend. The drive was twice as long as it should have been, and when we finally arrived on a forest road we were startled to find ourself deep in the hills, with the far-off state of Tennessee right next door. It felt like a magical place at the ends of the earth, and honestly, it still does. So I thought it made sense to organize my travels through Southern Virginia into seven ‘mysteries,’ unfolding gradually from Damascus to Pearisburg.
1. The Road from Damascus
My zero day in Damascus was relaxing but dull. I’d gotten ahead of the bubble, and the place just didn’t have the same energy that I’d felt in Hot Springs. Some places weren’t even open on a sleepy April Thursday. So I was glad to get back on the trail early Friday morning, winding my way along the ridges by Laurel Creek.
One good thing about losing some elevation was that spring had actually started down here. Down by Laurel Creek, life was everywhere, and I sat watching water striders chase each other across the pools while minnows squiggled around below. I was able to take my time, since I had a reservation for Sunday night, and I was only going 16 miles a day.
Eventually the trail climbed up out of the valley, and I was back up in the highlands where the trees are bare. I set up camp under a pine grove as it started to gently rain.
2. Pastures in the Sky
The next day began with a steep climb under a slaty sky. I ran into a couple that said they’d seen a bear, and it had growled at them. When I got to the spot where they said it had been, I heard a deep growling noise myself. But it was coming from a cistern in the trees that was overflowing after all the rain. Every few seconds it made a deep gurgling roar, and a gush of water poured out through the piped spring. So much for the bear.
By now I was at 5000 feet, and the forest gave way to open meadows like the balds of Tennessee. But this highland is different — there are horses up here. They graze the Grayson Highlands into a rolling open steppe, that drops away suddenly to give magnificent views on all sides. This is the northernmost of the southern highlands, and one of the most beautiful.
The spruce-fir forest finds its northern frontier here too, draping the peak of Mount Rogers in a mossy crown. I loved the deep woods on the sunmit, even with no view. There’s something primordial and awe-inspiring about the thick stands of red spruce and Fraser fir, and I’ll miss them as the trail continues north into lower hills.
By the time I came down from the summit, the sky had begun to clear, and the full expanse of the highlands revealed itself. At the Thomas Knob shelter, two ponies came up to say hello as I ate lunch, and I could see Roan Mountain in the distance as I stood facing the wind. There are no high peaks between Roan and Rogers, so the Virginia highlands stand alone among lesser mountains. They’re the roots of a huge volcano that once was here, before the continents collided and split apart again. And, more importantly, they have ponies.
The next few miles are filled with breathtaking views, as the trail meanders through grassy ridges and rocky knolls. For the first time, I encountered day hikers who didn’t know about thru-hikers, and I had to explain where I’d come from and what I was doing. This, more than anything else, made me feel how far I’d come since Georgia.
3. The Sufi Lodge
My reservation for Sunday night was at the Sufi Lodge, quite possibly the only Muslim-run hostel along the trail. Their name had caught my attention when I was planning, and I was very curious to find out what they were like. So, even though I didn’t really need the break, I got off-trail at the far end of the Grayson Highlands and took a ride down to the Lodge.
The place is run by Omar and Fatima/Suzanne, converts to Islam who lived for many years in Syria but have roots in the South. They came back to rural Virginia to deal with Omar’s family affairs, but ended up staying and opening the guesthouse in 2017.
They were both very interesting to talk to, and some of the most attentive hosts I’ve met along the trail. Suzanne cooked up some spiced rice with fava beans that was just what I’ve been missing, and I was able to eat stuffed grape leaves for the first time since Georgia. Breakfast was farm-fresh eggs from the backyard. I think they were glad to have a hiker over who knew something about their religious order (when I was living in Morocco I attended some Sufi events with friends), and I was glad to have this unexpected slice of Middle Eastern culture along the trail. I’m not religious, but the Sufis make more sense to me than the Baptists, so it was a nice little break from the Bible Belt.
4. Morels and other Trail Magic
When Omar drove me back to the trailhead Monday morning, it was sleeting. I pulled my poncho over my head and trudged up the trail, trying not to think about the cold as ice pellets bounced around like glass beads. After a few miles, the sleet tapered off, and then I glanced to my left and saw it.
I’d been looking for it for weeks, every year, when ‘the oak leaves are as big as a mouse’s ear.’ I’d never, ever seen one in the wild, and there it was — a morel! This wrinkly tan mushroom felt like a small miracle, and made me completely forget the cold and wet. After an appropriate moment of thanksgiving, I harvested and carefully saved it for dinner.
The woods are full of little gifts if you know what to look for. The most abundant are the ramps or wild leeks that sprout in big clumps on steep, wet, rocky slopes. I won’t see any for a day, and suddenly they’ll be everywhere. There’s cutleaf toothwort, a delicate little flower that tastes like mustard and can be eaten raw. Japanese knotweed, an invasive weed whose early shoots are like tender asparagus. And mustard garlic, another invasive that adds a mild garlicky flavor to any meal. For me, living alongside these plants as they grow and thrive is part of the magic of the trail. It gives you an understanding of how they live that one day’s walk in the woods can never match. And of course, you’re the first to get the chance to have some for dinner!
For the rest of that day, I walked past the Partnership Shelter, where many hikers catch a ride to Marion, and several miles along a rocky ridge. I walked too fast on the rocks and hurt my ankle, but thankfully the pain went away by morning. I need to be more careful with my body, I told myself, if I want to get to Maine. I camped for the night at the bottom of the hill, and the rain changed to snow as I settled in for the night.
5. ‘God’s Thumbprint’
The next morning, everything was covered in snow. The trail cut north, leaving the Blue Ridge mountains for the very first time. The rocks are younger here, folded into crumpled ridges that stretch for miles. I spent the rest of the day hiking up and down, crossing three ridges and three valleys. I passed over the headwaters of the Tennessee on a bridge. At the Bear Garden hostel, where I picked up my next resupply, I met a friendly young woman whose trail name is Kaizen, ‘continuous improvement’.
The next day began with a strenuous climb of a huge ridge that looked like a wall. At its highest point, the ground fell away to a cliff, and I saw Burke’s Garden below me. Or as the locals call it, ‘God’s Thumbprint’. I would never have guessed it was there.
There’s a lot of lore surrounding Burke’s Garden. It’s said that a frontiersman named Burke was hunting an elk one day when he followed it up a narrow gorge. To his surprise, he emerged into a broad, fertile valley, ringed on all sides by high mountains. He didn’t linger long, since there were hostile Shawnees nearby, but he cooked some potatoes for dinner before he left. Where his peelings fell, potato plants grew up, so the people decided to call it ‘Burke’s Garden’.
Whatever you think of that story, Burke’s Garden is an unusual place. The tall, broad, rocky ridge is broken by this circular limestone valley filled with farms, with only one outlet where Wolf Creek flows through (it’s called ‘The Gap’). Geologists believe it’s a collapsed cave system, formed when so much rock dissolved that the sandstone hill above it just collapsed. It is, I suppose, the world’s largest sinkhole.
I got a shuttle down to an Amish store in the valley, from the owner of the Burke’s Garden Hostel. There was something bizarre about that perfect ring of hills, the contrast between the deep forest and the blooming, fertile farms, that can’t be captured in a photograph. It was like a little oasis in a desert of dry oaks. It was so surreal, I took the Amish community for granted, though I never could have suspected they would be there. The store owner, Mattie, was incredibly nice, and made me some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a while. She even cooked up ramps I’d found on the mountain with eggs for me! After two hours down there, chatting with a family on vacation and drinking root beer from Pennsylvania Dutch country, returning to the mountaintop trail felt like crossing back into another world.
6. The Falls of Dismal
From Garden Mountain the trail crosses onto a long shaley ridge that stretches many miles towards the east. I think I spent two days on this Brushy Mountain. Then the mountain folds in on itself, and the trail jogs north ip the valley of Dismal Creek, running up the inside of the fold.
What’s dismal about Dismal Creek? Shale, mostly, and a general lack of sunlight. Water doesn’t filter well through shale, so it meanders and pools above ground, through thickets of rhododendron and dense pines. Everywhere near the stream has a swampy smell.
But the highlight of the valley, the ‘Falls of Dismal,’ isn’t dismal at all. It’s a roaring cascade with a deep pool at the bottom, and when I arrived on a hot Friday afternoon I jumped right in. I waved to the fly fishermen on the far bank to get their attention, climbed onto the ledge, and plunged down into the pool. Just a minute was enough to cool me off.
At the end of that day I climbed back onto the ridge and left Dismal Creek behind. There was a pebbly red sandstone underfoot, and the views towards the southeast told me I was near Pearisburg. I’d reached the New River valley.
7. The Ancient River
The New River is an unusual waterway. While most major rivers in the East flow east to west, or west to east, it goes its own way and flows from south to north. It also disregards the ups and downs of the mountains, cutting through ridges and forming the deep, steep gorge through the high plateau that was just made a National Park. It’s left behind from some older arrangement of rivers from before the glaciers, and some geologists say it’s more ancient than the mountains themselves.
To me, this river that flows the wrong way is an important boundary. It’s the first river crossed that doesn’t flow into the Tennessee, and the last that flows towards the Mississippi. North of the New is a part of the South that doesn’t feel as far south, the Virginia hills that run up towards the Potomac.
I camped next to a cliff with a broad view of the valley, and made a campfire for the first time on the trail. I saw sunset and sunrise from the cliffs, and yesterday I walked down the last 16 miles to town.
The leaves are out in the valley, and the ground’s carpeted with flowers. Spring is really, truly here, and the woods on the ridgetops won’t feel dead for long. This journey through Southern Virginia has felt like a passage from winter into spring, with all these little discoveries along the way. I’m really not sure exactly how they all fit together, but then again I don’t have to — it’s a mystery.
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