I woke up and left the hostel at around the normal time and immediately entered the Pond Mountain Wilderness, which showed itself to be a beautiful section of trail almost immediately. There were towering cliffs, the large Laurel Falls, a sparkling river, and plenty of flat trail.
I meandered through this section, taking my time and enjoying the sights before turning to begin the steep climb up and over Pond Mountain. This climb felt long even though it was only 2 miles. After descending down the other side the trail led to Watauga lake, and I set my pack down to sit on the beach and soak up the sun with a couple other hikers for a few minutes. While hanging out on the beach a hiker I didn’t know came over to us and offered a giant bag of snacks, saying that he was quitting his thru hike and therefore didn’t need the food anymore. I grabbed a handful of snacks while we talked about his hike so far, and he didn’t seem too upset about his change in plans. I continued hiking around the lake and across the dam, then the trail connected with a road and I followed the road for almost a mile until the trail led back into the trees. I had almost constant views of the lake as I followed the trail up the hills, and still had a nice view when I got to the Vandeventer shelter for the night. I set up my tent in a small space between the shelter and some large rocks, but this closed in area guaranteed that wind wouldn’t be a problem during the night, which I was certainly fine with.
After a good nights sleep I got packed up and headed out. The section of trail today had the easiest elevation of the entire trail so far, and I was looking forward to pushing big miles. Unfortunately, pretty soon after I started I got a steady stomach ache, and a headache followed. Feeling ill made me much slower than usual, and on the uphills I needed to take little breaks after every few dozen steps. Thankfully the trail remained pretty easy, mostly taking me up and down on top of ridges, without any very long or steep climbs. I trudged on throughout the day. The idea of eating lunch made me feel nauseous, but I stopped and forced myself to eat some goldfish, knowing I’d need the energy. Finally by mid-afternoon I started feeling a little better and was able to push a rough 20 miles to a stealth camp site about 13 miles away from Damascus. I still felt ill at the thought of eating dinner, so I forced down a granola bar, and headed for bed early.
I’ve woke up feeling a little better than the day before although still not great, and I spent some time lounging around in my tent before making myself get up. The terrain looked nice and easy again, and I was able to keep my momentum going better than I had the day before. I found a trail magic soda that I sipped on as I went, and the sugar and caffeine helped me keep moving. I finally saw my first little snake on the trail, which I think was a garter snake, and I prodded it lightly with my trekking pole until it moved off trail.
The little snek
I spotted the TN/VA state line in the early afternoon and snapped a couple pictures before continuing down the long, but not too steep, descent into Damascus.
Made it to Virginia!
The town of Damascus seemed geared towards hikers and bikers with multiple hostels, outfitters, and a variety of restaurants within walking distance. I headed to the hostel I’d booked and took a nice shower and relaxed for a while, still not feeling great, before heading out to try to find some dinner. Unfortunately, it was Monday in a small town, and everything nearby was closed for the day, so I settled unhappily for some gas station snacks for dinner and headed to bed early to try and recuperate.
My zero day in Damascus was wonderfully relaxing and I managed to eat a bunch of food while moving minimally from my bed. So far small town diners have had some of the best food of the trail, and Damascus was no exception with the delicious breakfast hamburger I devoured from their diner. I resupplied for the next stretch of trail and hung around the hostel some more, glad to avoid an afternoon rain shower.
I got out of the hostel early, grabbed another big breakfast from the diner, and headed back onto the trail. The day was warm and quickly got hot as I climbed uphill out of Damascus. The Virginia Creeper trail is another trail that goes through Damascus, is nicely graded and covered in pea gravel, and intersects with the AT in a few places, and as I was hauling myself over the hills I was regretting not taking the easier route. As I went along I spotted my first red eft of the season, which was exciting because I love those little guys.
Watch where you put your feet, the lil dudes are finally out for the year
Now I’ll have to be even more careful about watching where I step, because they can blend in pretty well. I passed a handful of hikers I recognized slackpacking south and I chatted with them as they passed (they were dropped off somewhere north carrying only lunch and water and hiked south back to Damascus). The heat sapped my energy pretty quickly, and with predicted thunderstorms overnight I decided to call it after about 15.5 miles at the nice Lost Mountain shelter. The shelter was very full but I managed to squeeze in and spent the evening socializing with all the other hikers there.
Of course I managed to get the sleeping spot next to the loudest snorer in the shelter, and I’ll admit that I may have “accidentally” bumped him a couple times during the night to get him to stop for a little while. The storm rolled through during the night bringing heavy rain which was nice to hear on the shelter roof, especially while staying dry. Most of the other shelter dwellers turned out to be early risers, so I was woken up a little earlier than normal by their packing up, but I was fine with the early start. I headed out into the light mist ready for a 2000 foot climb into the Grayson Highlands to start the day. The climb wasn’t super steep, just lengthy, and light rain occurred on and off throughout the morning. After getting into the highlands the trail continued up toward Mt. Rogers, and I kept an eye out for the feral ponies that roam the area, finally spotting a few of them literally licking the outside of Thomas Knob shelter.
Someone must have spilled something tasty, because they were licking it all over
The trail started a pretty gradual descent and gave nice views of the surrounding mountains and large rocky cliffs nearby for the next few miles. Eventually I passed the 500 mile mark, almost a quarter of the way to Katahdin!
Awwww shewt ya girl done made it 500 miles!
Having completed 500 miles both feels like a long way and doesn’t at the same time, I’m certainly proud of making it this far but there’s still a ways to go. The terrain was pretty rocky and my feet were feeling pretty sore when I finally rolled into the small Old Orchard Shelter and grabbed another crowded spot to sleep in.
The night was chilly and filled with the scurrying of shelter mice and the snores of the other hikers. I got ready for the day slowly, faced with a conundrum: the weather was predicting rain and snow showers starting around 3 pm and lasting for a couple days which I didn’t want to tent in, but I also had to meet my dad the next day around the Mt. Roger’s Visitor’s center which was about 24 miles away from Old Orchard Shelter. I started hiking undecided about what to do, but the draw of pizza and being indoors on the upcoming cold night made my decision easier; I’d try to push the full 24 miles and then get a shuttle into Marion, VA and stay in a hotel overnight. Because of the big mile day I tried to hike fast, which was helped by the relatively easy terrain, with only a couple noticeably long climbs. Around 11 am snow flurries started to fall, despite the weather report saying they weren’t supposed to start until after 3, and light snow and rain fell on and off throughout the rest of the day, making me have to pause a few times to change my layers and put on my rain jacket. The trail wound by a waterfall and through an open meadow, providing nice views while I trucked on by.
A nice meadow view
By around 4:30 I was still managing to keep up a good pace but my feet were starting to ache, and it was helpful that the last few miles weren’t very technical and sloped gradually up to the large Partnership Shelter, where a big group of hikers were staying. A few hours earlier I had scheduled a shuttle to pick me up around 6 pm, and it was both gratifying and annoying to have hiked so quickly that I was an hour early for my shuttle. I donned all my warm clothes and hung out in the loft of the shelter with a group of hikers while waiting for my shuttle to arrive. Never have I ever seen five fully grown men be as fully entertained with trading types of tea and hot sauce packets as these guys, but for hikers food, and especially having different flavors to add to the repetitive food we eat, is worth haggling for. Their tea black market was certainly thriving in the loft. Eventually my shuttle arrived and I made it into town, ready for a quiet and warm night of rest and to meet up and hike with my dad for the next week.
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