Days 40-44: Damascus to Marion, VA

Miles hiked since Springer Mtn: 531 | Miles left to Katahdin: 1658

After two zeroes in Damascus, I was dragging my feet a little when it came time to hike on. In the end, I strapped on the pack and headed out of town around 10:30, about 2.5 hours later than I would ordinarily hit the trail.

Look Dad! Anglers! These ladies hadn’t caught anything yet when I came across them, but the day was still young.

When the thunder started rumbling at around the 11 mile mark, I decided to pitch at a pond 1 mile later. I had no sooner set up my tent and moved all my belongings inside than it started to pelt down. My tent kept me dry throughout. 

Pitched at the pond

I had to break down a very wet tent the next day, and it rained on and off a little throughout the day, but I was afforded pretty stunning views from Buzzard Rock, atop Whitetop, along with the lazy wheelings of two large birds of prey (whether they were buzzards or not I couldn’t have said, but Junco has confirmed that they were). 

View from Whitetop

The rain got me down a little in the later part of the day, along with the reappearance of the turd in Damascus, and his continued presence on the trail, so (entertaining thoughts of quitting) I tried calling a B&B but they were no longer in business. I resigned myself to the three more nights on the trail that would come before my next resupply and decided it was probably a good thing to not have that easy out. Not that I would have quit then and there. Someone wise once told me not to quit on a bad day. To get to town, get clean and dry, rest up and think long and hard from a position of warmth and comfort before making any decisions. And once I resigned myself to the three nights, I found my mood lifted. 

Forest fairyland

I found another forest fairyland – one which caused me to wander off the path (we know from fairytales and folklore that such actions never end well, but in this instance, it was just the change of pace I needed). I put down my pack and went for a ramble, returning to the trail fresher of mind and of body. Laura suggested that rather than trying to out-hike the turd, perhaps I might be better off letting him overtake. As of that morning, I knew that he was just ahead of me on the trail, so I decided on another short(ish) day, camping in a sweet little spot just for one, near the Elk Park trail junction, after a 12 mile rollercoaster of a day (not to be confused with an upcoming section of the trail that has been dubbed the rollercoaster because of its long series of ups and downs).

Solo tenting under a rock

From Elk Park, the trail crosses VA600, a major road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, before ascending most of the way up Mt Rogers (Virginia’s highest peak) and on into the Grayson Highlands State Park. 

Passing 500 miles

Someone made the AT symbol out of pony poop

Grayson Highlands

This is a section of the trail that everyone gets excited about, as there are wild ponies roaming the highlands, creating a scene directly out of Scotland. They are wild, yet tame, and they wander right up to you, completely unafraid. I guess they’ve encountered many hikers over the years, and though it’s frowned upon, they’ve probably been fed a fair amount as well.

Wild (but tame) ponies!

Although the weather was not showing signs of improving all that much, seeing the ponies put me in a much better frame of mind than I’d been in the day before. I walked 15.5 miles to Old Orchard Shelter and pitched my tent in what was initially an all female campsite (with 6 women camped before a man arrived). When I arrived, there was just Foxfire in camp, and she’d already lit a fire, which I added to throughout the remainder of the evening. We were soon joined by Tammy, a Virginian native, who has given herself two months to hike her home state. Next to arrive were Mountain Goat (my first Australian compatriot on the trail!) and Finch, both of whom I’d met back in Damascus, and we were soon joined by My Shadow, who I met one stop before Damascus, Mr Koolaid, who I started the hike with back on March 11 (and whom I’d actually been on the same train with, from NY to Gainsville), Firecracker (who I met on my second night in the Smokies) and Kodak, who I’d seen and chatted with several times, but whose trail name I didn’t know until that eve. I won’t be testing you on all these trail names (Frank ๐Ÿ˜Š), but I think it’s important to make mention of the way people weave in and out of one another’s hikes out here. It is people like this that can turn your experience of the trail around in the course of one evening around a campfire. This kind of community’s concern for each other’s wellbeing remind you of why you came out here to experience the trail in the first place. Old Orchard campsite, coming as it did after the Grayson Highland ponies, was one of the high points of the trail for me, and it came at a time when a high point was sorely needed.

Left to right: Tammy, Firecracker, Dr Koolaid, Kodak, Mountain Goat, My Shadow & Finch

It also came right before one of the coldest days on the trail so far. Everyone had warned me that the temps could plummet in the Mt Rogers Recreational Area, and I have to say, I made use of every single item of clothing in my bag through these few days. The morning coming out of the Orchard was near freezing. I came across Junco as I was coming down the mountain, and we both had a similar plan re breaking up the remaining miles to Marion, so he said he’d keep an eye out for my tent towards day’s end.

Comers Creek Falls

More lovely lichen

 I managed to make it 14.5 miles before the rain started, and I was at Trimpi Shelter at the time, but it was only 3pm and I really wanted to get to within about 6 miles of transport into Marion, so as to get into town early for a nero (akin to a zero, but where a small number of miles are hiked in order to only spend one night in town accommodation, yet maximise town hours so as to be able to do laundry, resupply, eat delicious town food and soak in a tub) the next day. The rain had well and truly set in by the time I arrived at camp, so I set up my (already wet) tent in the rain and then lay in the relative warmth of my sleeping bag listening to other hikers arrive. I was waiting for a lull in the rain in order to hang my bear bag. Or should I say: “mouse bag”. The little devils chewed through the bag and raided my stash while I was camped at the pond three nights prior. They need to make a little rainy tent emoticon, something which combines these two images: ๐Ÿ•๐ŸŒง

At the time of writing this I was still waiting for that lull… But I arose to the sound of no rain and discovered that Junco had made it into camp as well, so after a muddy, though easy 6.5 miles, we made it into Marion, where we proceeded to accomplish all the town chores (washing, tent drying, resupply) in addition to consuming two delicious town meals (pizza for lunch, Mexican for dinner). 

There is nothing quite like the feeling of being warm and dry after 5 days of persistent rain.

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