The One with the Ponies! [AT Mile 470.4-636.1]
Day 44: 9.8 miles from Damascus, VA to Saunders Shelter
Day 45: 6.5 miles to Lost Mountain Shelter
Day 46: 12.3 miles to Thomas Knob Shelter
Day 47: 16.1 miles to Hurricane Mountain Shelter
Day 48: 19.2 miles to Mount Rogers Visitor Center
Day 49: 6.8 miles to Chatfield Shelter
Day 50: 17.1 miles to VA 42/Bear Garden Hiker Hostel
Day 51: 26.7 miles SOBO from Laurel Creek/VA 615 to Bear Garden
Day 52: 18.8 miles to Jenny Knob Shelter
Day 53: 14.5 miles to stealth site near Wapiti Shelter spur trail
Day 54: 17.9 miles to Cross Ave/Pearisburg, VA
Returning to the trail post-noro
On Day 44, I returned to the trail for real– carrying all my stuff, finally out of that hotel room forever (don’t get me wrong, it was a nice hotel room, but I was there for way too long). At first, it felt soooo good to be hiking again with a full pack, even the light rain felt wonderful. But the lingering weakness of norovirus soon caught up to me.
I made it almost ten miles to the first shelter out of town relatively easily, but the next day was one of my roughest days on trail (second to the initial day of getting sick of course). I still did not have my appetite back and had to force-feed myself in order to get any calories inside me, which did not help my already really low energy levels. I enjoyed walking parallel to the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Holston River, but soon after diverging from the Creeper, the beautiful morning I had woken to quickly turned to a nasty thunderstorm, which sapped the little energy I had.
When I reached Lost Mountain Shelter, only 6.5 miles from my starting point for the day, I dropped my pack and myself onto the shelter floor, no energy left. Which was so incredibly frustrating. I had walked only half the distance I had planned for the day, and my legs themselves felt fine (not sore, tight, or anything) but I was completely drained. Despite my frustration, I spent a fun night with some new friends: Lando, Snicks, Koozie, Slingshot, Dogbowl, French Fry, and Chewy (who I’d actually met a few days ago briefly during a lunch break).
This short day, as disheartening as it was, turned into a blessing. It set me up so that I hit Grayson Highlands, the land of the ponies, on the only beautiful, non-rainy day of the week. If I had kept to my original plan of hiking 12 miles that day, I would’ve hiked through the Highlands on day 46, when it rained all day for the third day in a row. So while I sat at Lost Mountain, internally beating myself for being too weak to hike a measly 12 miles, God knew He was setting me up for the perfect pony day.
Grayson Highlands a.k.a. the Section of Trail I Was Most Excited For
I arrived at Thomas Knob Shelter soaking wet and very cold from the constant downpour. Thankfully, there was just enough room upstairs in the shelter for me to squeeze into among some familiar faces (Slingshot, French Fry, Chewy, Dogbowl, and Koozie, plus a new friend named Zaria who is section hiking Virginia after hiking across the country for a while). It was warm and cozy up there, despite a little draft from the huge wind gusts outside. After dinner, as the rain abated for a bit, three ponies, two adults, and a yearling (pony between 1-2 years old), came to visit the shelter! They were super sweet and curious and increased my excitement for hiking through the state park the next day.
As I mentioned before, the day I hiked through the Highlands was absolutely PERFECT! It was sunny, though a little chilly, and I saw SO. Many. Ponies! I spent about four hours hiking through the Highlands, which are only about 2 miles long because I kept stopping to admire the adorable ponies. I even saw a few foals and some verrrrry long-horned cows. Everyone always talks about how bad the ponies smell, but, call me crazy, I love the smell. They smell rustic and pastoral–like how a cowboy should smell.
Besides the ponies, the landscape of the Grayson Highlands is also absolutely beautiful. Rocky piles and outcroppings overlay the fluffiest, greenest grass which looks as soft as the ponies do. Spruce trees dot the hillside and coat small sections of trail, creating magical, mystical alcoves for ponies to hide beneath their branches. And behind it all sits a blue mountain backdrop of peaks and ridges waiting to be hiked.
The Kindnesses of Marion
On day 48, I hiked to the Mount Rogers Visitor Center to catch a ride into Marion, VA for resupply and to pick up a package from the post office (a new notebook because I’ve filled up my second one already). I got picked up from the Visitor Center by a shuttle driver who had just dropped off some hikers. She took me to the Travel Inn and didn’t charge me for the ride, saying she was driving back anyway. I really enjoyed talking to her and hearing about all the highlights of Marion, and was also very thankful for the free ride.
The next day, I resupplied at the Walmart right next to my hotel, and then stood outside asking other shoppers for a ride to the post office as they exited the store. The post office was just over 2 miles away and I really didn’t want to walk that far with my backpack when it doesn’t even count towards the trail. I also didn’t have time to walk there, as it closed in 20 minutes. Most of the people I asked said they didn’t know where the post office was. One lady said she would drive me in a few minutes, but she wanted to talk to her friend first. Which I wouldn’t have minded if I wasn’t on a time crunch, so I kept asking around.
A guy said he’d drive me, except that he was on his motorcycle and didn’t have room. He offered to go home and get his car and come back. I told him thanks, but it wasn’t worth all that trouble. Finally, I found a nice older man named Don who agreed to drive me. I threw my pack and my sack of groceries in the trunk of his Saturn, and we took off for the post office. It was a short drive, thank goodness, cause I was running out of time. We arrived with only four minutes till closing. I thanked Don and offered him some money, but he refused. He offered to drive me to the trail after I finished at the post office, but I had some other things I wanted to do in town.
After getting my package and mailing some postcards, I loaded my resupply into my backpack so I wouldn’t have to cart around the grocery bags anymore, before heading off in search of lunch and the Lincoln Theater (the place where a tv show my grandpa and I like called Song of the Mountains is recorded). I found a place my shuttle driver had recommended called the Wooden Pickle across from the theater and ordered a chicken pesto flatbread with a side of asparagus. While I was waiting for my food, a lady came over and asked if I was thru-hiking. We talked all about the trail, especially the Grayson Highlands. After a few minutes, she returned to her table and I resumed choosing pictures for my next Instagram post.
My food was absolutely amazing, but what was even more amazing was that when I went to pay, the waitress said my check was taken care of. She wouldn’t say by whom, but if whoever it is reads this, thank you so very much, you really made my day. To celebrate, I went next door to Hester’s Fudgery and bought a square of chocolate peanut butter fudge, which is the best thing I have ever packed out to the trail. Its deliciousness cannot be described. If you’re ever in Marion, you have to buy some and taste for yourself. They have so many flavors, even a Mountain Dew flavored fudge, which I wasn’t brave enough to try (Mountain Dew originated in Marion according to my shuttle driver).
I rode back to the trail with my driver from the day before, very thankful and refreshed from all the kindness I had received in the last 24 hours.
A quarter of the way to Maine!
The day after leaving Marion, I hit the 1/4 mark on my journey! I got to celebrate with new friends Roadsoda and Einstein, which is way more fun than celebrating by myself. To think that I’m one-fourth of the way done with my dream of hiking the AT is absolutely insane. It’s most definitely not easy, and there are days where I miss sitting in a comfy chair under a cozy blanket (mainly when it’s been raining for days on end), but I am absolutely loving it and am so thankful that I get to do this 3 more times.
Bear Garden is a sweet little hostel with the kindest, most helpful hosts, and a delicious tradition: if you hike 26.7 miles southbound back to the hostel, the owner will bake you a cake! I decided to take on the challenge, along with two others, Wick and Feather Blue.
I absolutely love hiking SOBO because you get to see everyone who’s been hiking around you that you haven’t seen for a while. I saw 12 of my hiker friends that I hadn’t seen in at least a few days, and it’s always so fun reuniting and catching up. I spent about an hour and a half that day just talking to people and I loved every minute of it.
The hike itself had a lot of uphills and a few downs, but I felt really good on it. The mountains of Virginia are very different from those in the last three states. Instead of standing tall and independent from each other, separated by a gap, these are chained together in long walls of mountains. They stand like players at the beginning of a game, waiting for the announcer to call the starting lineup– shoulder to shoulder, all in roughly the same stance. Instead of walking all the way up and then all the way down a mountain, just to go all the way up another (like in the previous states, especially Georgia), here you walk a long uphill to the top of a ridgeline, and then do minor ups and downs for a while over little bumps and peaks before walking all the way down. It’s much less exhausting but does mean your water sources are more spaced out as there is rarely water atop the ridges.
At the end of the marathon, I felt like I could do a few more, but I didn’t because there was a delicious chocolate cake waiting for me. I definitely recommend staying at Bear Garden, whether you attempt the marathon or not. But you should go for the marathon, because cake.
Dear Virginia, Your Clouds Are Confused
Just wanted to take a moment to say that on day 53, near the middle of May, it snowed. I was always taught that snow is a winter thing, but I have seen more snow this spring than I did all of last winter. I’m not complaining, snow still very much excites me because I never see it. And it doesn’t get you wet like rain does, so that’s a plus. I just think it’s so weird to be getting snow stuck in my eyelashes in May, that’s not normally a problem I have this time of year (or really ever).
What’s that stank?
Dismal Falls is 0.3 miles off of the AT, and I highly recommend taking the time to walk to it for two reasons. 1) It’s a beautiful little fall with a great swimming hole (that I didn’t swim in because cold, but others did). 2) Fishermen may give you trout.
When I reached the falls, I ran into Truffles and Pimento who I met a while back. They had just finished cleaning five trout that a man had given them and invited me to join them in cooking and eating them. Which I could not refuse, so I helped them build a fire and we set to cooking them. This was a tricky (and slippery) business, but after some near (and actual) drops, we got to enjoy some delicious fire-roasted fish. And then Slingshot and Chewy showed up with marshmallows for dessert. I always thought I roasted the best marshmallows, but I’m fairly positive Truffles has got me beat. It takes a mighty good marshmallow for me to admit defeat.
After a wonderful afternoon, I hiked on because I needed to reach Pearisburg in time to watch my little sister star as Wilbur the pig in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. All night long, my tent was filled with a strong fishy fragrance that didn’t go away with the dawning of morning. Throughout my hike into town, I kept catching strong whiffs of fish and wondering what plant made that smell, before remembering it was me. Honestly don’t know if I prefer the smell of fish or regular hikertrash. Maybe they’re one and the same.
Resting in Pearisburg
I made it to Pearisburg with time to check into the hostel (Angels Rest, highly recommend) and go to the local Mexican place with Savage, Truffles, and Pimento before watching my sister’s play. She did such an amazing job, never has there been a better Wilbur. I’m zeroing today to let my body rest, though mentally I’d rather be back on trail. Trying to listen to my body, and tomorrow will come soon enough. Lots of exciting trail landmarks are coming up, and I can’t wait!
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