Thru Hiker Licked by a Wild Pony
Bama➡️Baxter Day 69&70
Day 69: 16 miles
This morning we all slept in until around 7 a.m., which felt amazing. Then we packed up to hike out of Damascus.
Last night Boosted’s friend Carson arrived in town to join us all for a while. He wound up tenting in the grass because he got in around 1 a.m. He has a nice chunk of time, so he’s thinking that he will walk with Boosted for most of Virginia.
Once all of us were packed up, we walked over to a cafe across the street. The cafe had some great breakfast options so I got a sandwich and a delicious iced coffee. After that, we grabbed our stuff from the room and got back on trail. The trail literally picked up from the inn and continued on through the town. Then the trail finally got off the road and we began a climb back up into the forest. We were back to walking around 9:20 a.m.
The initial climb was super steep and really kicked my ass. My pack was heavy from resupplying and I was feeling a bit lethargic after our two days of rest. The last half mile of the climb was particularly steep and by the time I got to the top, I was huffing and puffing. All of us took a brief rest up at the top and then continued on to do a couple more miles before taking an actual break. There was mostly downhill those next couple of miles so we all just cruised on along. Then got to a water source and decided to rest there for a bit. I was still incredibly full from breakfast, so I just drank some water and stretched.
From there we continued along and had a pretty big climb to do. It was around three miles with about 1000 feet of elevation gain, which didn’t seem too bad. Fortunately, there were a ton of switchbacks going the whole way up, so the climb was actually really gradual. Portions of the climb were steep here and there but tended not to last long. I set my pace and made sure not to go too quickly and burn out. About a mile or so from the top, we contemplated taking a rest but wound up just deciding to push on to the top.
At the top of the climb, there was a junction to Saunders Shelter. Boosted, Roxy (aka Trash Panda), Sweet Pea, and I had been pacing the whole way up and stopped at the top of the climb to wait for the others to arrive. It was quite a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky.
While we took our break, I whipped out a full 10oz container of guacamole and a bag of spicy Thai Doritos. The purple bag Doritos are the best and the combination of those and guacamole is fantastic. I also packed out a whole liter full of Gatorade so I dove in on that too. It was a decedent snack break for sure.
Spring Break and Tia arrived shortly after and joined us. Then a little while after that Boosted’s buddy Carson got to the top as well. It’s just his first day which is definitely always the hardest.
I got to thinking a bit about the first few long uphill stretches that I did on the Benton Mackaye Trail earlier this year. They kicked my ass like I couldn’t believe. After having already walked 350 miles, I really thought I had built up my endurance. But the climbs on the BMT were so much steeper than anything I’d done on the Pinhoti. The lovely thing is, though, that you get stronger with every single climb.
All of us took a nice long break by the junction for the shelter. It was pretty funny that we didn’t just walk over to the shelter and break there. But we did head over after our break to get some water before continuing along. There were a few other hikers hanging out by the shelter. It seemed like everyone had the same plan for the day today, to head over to Lost Mountain Shelter. It was only about 7 miles ahead on trail.
Leaving the shelter the trail was primarily all downhill with just a couple quick spurts of uphill in between. And after that, we were blessed with about 2 or 3 miles of super gradual downhill. Those were some easy miles and I felt really good. I think the zero day yesterday really did a lot of good for my body. Today I’m feeling strong and rejuvenated truly.
After a few miles, we crossed by the Virginia Creeper Trail once again. The route of the Creeper Trail passed by the AT many times today. There was a fantastic spot by the river, so we decided to all stop and enjoy a break there. We wound up staying for a long time, which was really nice. I ate some chips and guacamole and then laid back and closed my eyes.
From there, we only had a few more miles to do for the day. All of us were planning to stay at the nearby shelter but Boosted and his friend Carson were talking about stopping earlier. Carson was pretty sore and his feet were hurting him. He definitely got his ass kicked a bit today by the trail. So they said they might push on to the shelter but may wind up camping a bit before. I guess we will see.
The rest of us continued on to do the last we miles. We had one final climb for the day but fortunately, it was nice and easy. I kept anticipating a big climb around every corner but it never seemed to come. And before we knew it, we were at the shelter! There were a ton of people tented around the shelter but surprisingly, no one was set up inside. I thought for sure that arriving around 6pm would mean that the shelter was full. So we were pleasantly surprised that we were all able to set up inside.
Once I got set up, I sat by the fire ring to eat something. A bunch of other hikers were there who we have been seeing on and off. One guy Smokey got a fire going which was great. And to our surprise, Boosted, Carson, and Roxy arrived! They had decided to push the final couple of miles after all.
Spring Break had packed out jiffy pop, so he got that cooking on the fire. He was ecstatic that the popcorn popped perfectly over the fire. And he shared the popcorn with all of us, which was so awesome. I also packed out some lemon poppy seed muffin mix; we decided to try and make pancakes over the fire too. There was a learning curve, but in the end, they turned out pretty good!
The rest of the night, all of us sat out talking by the fire. It was a really awesome night. I rolled up a blunt, and Smokey and Carson had both rolled joints. So we got a wild rotation going around and all got hilariously stoned. Then just joked around and laughed until we finally decided to head to bed around 9pm. Today was a fantastic day.
Day 70: 17.5 miles
This morning we all woke up in the shelter around 6:30am and got packed up. And not long after that we set out to begin walking. There were loads of people at the shelter and surrounding camp site last night and just about everyone is planning to head to Wise Shelter in the Grayson Highlands tonight. So we decided to start early to boost our chances of getting a space in the shelter tonight.
All of us set out, and Boosted and Carson weren’t far behind. The first mile or so of the day was relatively easy and made for a nice warm-up. Then we began a climb that would go on for about 3 and a half miles. It was pretty rough for me to start. The ascent was steep and I was still just getting warmed up for the day.
The last couple of miles were a bit more gradual, but you could see the mass of climb that you had up ahead of you, which made it appear more daunting. The trail was lined with endless fields of these beautiful white flowers that looked like they were made of lace. It appeared that they were just sewn all along the side of the trail.
About 4.5 miles into the day we stopped for our first break at Buzzard Rock at the top of the climb. The views were practically 360 all around. You could see Damascus in the distance and also see the ridge we descended to get into Damascus as well. It’s rare that you get such great views of where you’ve come from or where you’re going.
Tia has been teasing that we always take breaks at the worst spots. For some reason, we frequently break at road crossings and places like that. Often just around the corner after leaving a break we’ll come upon an epic site. It’s always hilarious when we realize that we could have taken a much more scenic break. So we’ve been attempting to be a bit more strategic about breaking at a spot with a view. Well, the break this morning did not disappoint.
We spent nearly 30-40 minutes up there enjoying ourselves. I ate loads of lemon pound cake that I had packed out from the grocery store bakery. Boosted and Roxy caught up to us and joined in. We were glad that they had caught up to us quickly even though we left camp a little bit before them. Boosted’s friend Carson caught up just as Sweet Pea, Spring Break, Tia, and I were heading out. He was definitely having a bit of a tough time just starting out on the trail. The first day and weeks on trail can be rough for sure. And while we’ve cut our mileage down a bit recently, we’re still definitely not doing “short” days.
After heading out from Buzzard Rock, the trail leveled out a lot. We enjoyed a nice stretch of practically flat trail, which is truly unheard of out here. That made for a really enjoyable few miles. Then the trail began a gradual ascent up Mount Rogers. The first 2 miles of the climb were wonderful. We were all feeling really great and the views all day long were vast and breathtaking. Today the trail passed through the Grayson Highlands, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful portions of the trail.
All of us stopped to fill up water partway up the climb. There was a large trail family hanging out there who we met in Damascus and have been leapfrogging with a bit. They’re all super nice and one of the guys has a cute dog. We topped off on water and then continued on the last 2 miles of the climb up Rogers.
When we arrived at Thomas Knob Shelter at the top of the climb we decided to take a nice long break. It was a great spot with some epic overlooks just before the shelter. The Grayson Highlands has a population of wild ponies which we were hoping to see. And while we were sitting at the picnic table by the shelter someone said there was a group of ponies just down the trail! So everyone ran over to see them.
There were about 5 large ponies and one itty bitty calf. It was unbelievably cute. The ponies aren’t fearful of people, so they didn’t mind us taking photos. They even got incrementally closer to us as time went on. One guy got pretty close and a pony wound up coming up to him and licking his leg! It must have enjoyed his salty skin. What a wild sight to see. All of us stayed there for a while watching the ponies before going back to the shelter.
I wound up making hot lunch because we were taking a long break. In town I got a kimchi ramen which looked interesting. It actually came with a packet of kimchi which I was not expecting. What a delicious surprise. I’ll have to try that one out again next time.
While we were at the shelter, a lot of other hikers arrived. Boosted and Roxy caught up pretty quickly, which was great. He’s contemplating doing an alternate trail today to cut off a big chunk of the AT. His friend Carson is having a bit of a tough time and probably can’t do another 16-17 mile day today. So we may just wind up seeing them tomorrow if that’s the case. That was kinda sad because I’ve really been enjoying hiking and camping with Boosted and Roxy. But hopefully, we’ll get the band back together tomorrow.
Towards the end of our break at the shelter, one of the ponies and the calf wound up walking towards us down the trail. I got to see the baby super close up, which was amazing. It was so cute and tiny. They were really curious of us and got shockingly close. I made sure to keep a pretty good distance, however. Ponies could definitely kick you or bite you if they had the desire. Then the rest of the group of ponies came over to the shelter as well. They came over to the table and tried to grab some guy’s food. We saw that as a sign that we should probably pack up and start walking again.
The rest of the day was some of the most gradual terrain on the AT so far. There were a couple rocky portions but other than that, it was super cruisey. The views continued to be epic and we saw even more wild ponies over the next few miles. It was easily one of my favorite days on trail so far. The weather was perfect and the trail felt exciting and new. The Grayson Highlands certainly did not disappoint.
Along this stretch, we passed the AT 500-mile marker and I couldn’t resist playing the classic song by The Proclaimers while we took pictures. Then we walked along for a few more miles after that. At one point, we passed an area called the Fat Man Squeeze, which was a fun obstacle. You had to climb up and through a short stretch of rocks. We all had a lot of fun going through there.
Then it was only another 2.5 miles to the shelter that we were hoping to stay at for the night. The issue with hiking through the Grayson Highlands is that you either have to stay inside the shelter or hike through the park. You aren’t allowed to tent in the park, likely because of the horses. So if we arrived at the shelter and it was full, we would have to push on another couple miles.
But to our surprise, when we arrived at the shelter around 6pm it was entirely empty! We were definitely not expecting that. So everyone got situated inside the shelter and began to cook dinner. We got a text from Boosted saying that he and his friend had stopped a lot earlier on for the day. His buddy’s morale was sadly really low and he was contemplating getting off the trail entirely. Hiking is a rough combination of physical and mental exertion. Sometimes your biggest obstacle is shifting the narrative in your mind to make the most of the situation, even when that feels impossible. If you’re in a situation where you’re hurting physically and not able to push through that mentally, then you may not be able to keep going.
All of us cooked dinner together and I made myself a hot chocolate as a treat. Later on, Smokey rolled a joint and a few of us smoked. Then we retreated to our sleeping bags to call it a night.
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