Day 45: Trail memories, trail magic, and PONIES
May 27th: Whitetop Mountain to Wise Shelter (11 miles)
In the morning, we are socked in fog. It’s chilly and damp, but at least our food bags are still hanging untouched in their trees. Then, while we are packing up, the sun punches through the mist and raises the temperature like someone is holding a magnifying glass over us, and the warmth feels impossibly good on my achy limbs. It’s supposed to rain today, but for now Etienne and I spread out our tents and other belongings to dry in the rare sun and steady wind.
We get moving around 9am.
It’s a familiar stretch of trail through the woods from the summit of Whitetop down to the road. The Elk Garden parking area is the very first place I set foot on the Appalachian Trail, unknowingly, in 2004.
My Floridian family was on spring break at my grandparents’ house in southwest Virginia, and it was unseasonably cold for April. It was 40 degrees and raining in Draper, at only about 2500 feet. My parents wanted to give us kids our very first chance to play in the snow, so they looked up state parks in the area at higher elevation and found the Grayson Highlands. We piled into the family van and drove south down Interstate 81 in search of bigger mountains, and sure enough the rain turned to snow. We drove up a windy road until we found a parking area off to one side with about four inches of fresh powder. We played for an hour, marveling at this strange precipitation, totally foreign to me in my almost eleven years. Suddenly, three bearded men with huge backpacks came traipsing out of the woods.
Appalachian Trail hikers. My parents chatted with them and learned that they had started walking in Georgia, and they were going all the way to Maine! They were surprised and annoyed by snow in Virginia in April. We wished them luck and they crossed the road and trudged up the opposite hill until they disappeared.
My family moved to Draper, Virginia the following year, but I didn’t step on the trail again until McAfee’s Knob became a common weekend hike for my friends and me in our late teens. Once, we met a 19-year-old girl who was doing a 400-mile section hike by herself. That’s when I started to wonder—could I hike the Appalachian Trail?
It’s May 27th, 2018, fourteen years and seven weeks after my first AT photo was taken. Today, there’s no snow at the Elk Garden parking area, but there are a dozen people and the biggest display of trail magic I’ve ever seen. We were in Damascus just two days ago, but the fresh fruit and baked goods and juice and soda… it’s all heavenly. We linger for around an hour, and we learn from the woman who organized the trip that it’s a yearly event for them. Her husband and son thru-hiked a few years before. Her husband passed away soon after, and now, each year in his honor, she and two other families make a pilgrimage to the AT, to the exact spot where her husband and son had been on that calendar date, and they offer food and assistance to hikers. She shows us her husband’s meticulous handwritten notes of his mileage, and sure enough, on May 27th, he walked the same miles we are walking today.
The encounter is both heartwarming and sad, and it’s a moving reminder of just how much this 2200-mile stretch of dirt means to so many people. I think of all the hikers who have walked here on all the May 27ths since the trail’s inception, and I’m thankful to be among them.
Eventually, we keep walking.
Clouds are gathering. We cross the road, climb the grassy hill, then trek through the woods for a few more miles before the terrain opens up again— the famous Grayson Highlands. The views to the south of Mount Rogers are beautiful, but the rain is coming. We make it to Thomas Knob shelter as it begins to drizzle. Moments later, it monsoons. A ridgerunner arrives, soaked to the bone. His trail name is OK, and he asks us about our plans for the day and any bear encounters we have had. Right now, OK’s biggest responsibility is educating hikers about the problem bear in the area. Despite his best efforts, this smarter-than-the-average bear has stolen upwards of 60 food bags in the last few weeks, with no sign of stopping. OK shows us a picture of the bear and tells us he has destroyed an Ursack and cannot be foiled by any type of hang, including a quality PCT-hang. The park has designated a couple of food storage areas with electric fences to keep the bear out, but the best option is to hike straight through and avoid camping in his territory at all.
When the downpour subsides, we thank OK for his information and keep hiking. It’s still cloudy, so the views are mostly obscured when we reach the wide-open ridgeline that leads to the park border. I’m a little disappointed on Etienne’s behalf, because I know from previous hikes just how stunning this section of trail can be, and I wish he could see it. But my mood brightens when we encounter the actual best part of the Grayson Highlands: ponies!!!
Feral ponies keep the highlands in their open, un-forested state. Visitors typically ignore the signs saying not to touch or feed the ponies, so they are not exactly wild. A couple years ago, I had the cork handles of my trekking poles eaten off by some hungry ponies when I wasn’t paying attention. We come upon a small herd, including a few mares with young foals not much bigger than Labradors. As a huge horse lover, I am elated. I am a firm believer in LNT and attempting to keep the ponies wild, so we don’t feed them, but when a tiny foal walks straight up to me and starts nosing my hip belt pockets, I can’t help myself-- I pass a hand over his sweet baby fluff. He’s unbelievably soft. Etienne is kneeling to get a picture, and I laugh when the foal proceeds past me and tries to grab the phone straight out of his hands.
I could spend all day with the herd of ponies, but we are almost to the 500-mile mark. 500 miles! We’re halfway to doing what the Proclaimers would do in order to be the man who wakes up next to you. We keep walking and find the marker. We take pictures and crack open a beer we have carried since Damascus. (Virginia contains a quarter of the trail and Harper’s Ferry WV feels very far away, so we’ve resolved to transition our Border Beer tradition to 100-Mile-Beer.)
Then we keep walking, through the narrow stone tunnel Fat Man Squeeze, past the wooden corral at the Scales, to Wise Shelter. It’s a good spot for dinner, but tenting is not allowed and the shelter is close to full, so we hike a few tenths of a mile further on, cross a river to exit the park, and find campsites just on the other side. It’s dark by the time our food is hung and we’re ready for bed, even though we’ve only come eleven miles. But it was a day full of trail magic, milestones, and ponies, and I’m relieved that my knee feels okay after yesterday’s fall. As I snuggle into my sleeping bag, I feel content.