When I started vacation last Saturday I planned on hiking to the summit of Mt. Rogers. The mountain has the distinction of being Virginia's highest peak and even though there are no views from the top, I had been itching to hike there for quite some time. I usually hike with my buddy Shane on the weekends but was able to talk him into finding an evening during the week to go with me since he had been a few times before.
|Blooming bush along the trail leaving the parking lot at Massie Gap.|
|The Appalachian Trail leaving the Rhododendron Trail.|
Our original plan was to go on Tuesday but threatening storms and Shane's schedule conflicted so we settled on Wednesday. The forecast wasn't looking the best with more storms in the forecast but I was determined to hike and packed my rain gear just in case. I had several errands to run that morning and a host of problems seem to greet me at every turn. Somehow I managed to get to the parking lot in Abingdon by 3:30pm, our agreed meeting time. When I didn't see Shane sitting there waiting on me I became a little concerned as he is usually the early one. When he finally came roaring into the lot at a little before four, the look on his face told me his day had been stressful as well. I tossed my gear in his truck and we were back on the road heading toward Damascus. I usually drive on our trips so getting to be the passenger was good for me to enjoy the scenery and settle into story telling unwinding from the days stress. Shane told me at one point he thought he may not get to come and was going to tell me to just go on without him, but as the drive went on we both got in better moods anticipating a fun hike.
The road to Grayson Highlands from Damascus is narrow and curvy and only a short distance in we found ourselves stuck behind a slow driver. The skies overhead grew increasingly threatening with several distinct thunderheads hovering over the mountains. I told Shane not to worry that with our pace we could easily knock out the four miles between the showers. Shane had a puzzled look on his face saying, "Four miles? Jason, it's EIGHT miles!" My mind started racing as I glanced at the clock on the dash seeing that it was now a few minutes until 5pm, and we still were a long way away.
|One of the pony foals near Wilburn Ridge.|
|Another foal near Wilburn Ridge.|
We finally got rid of the slow driver on our turn toward Whitetop Mountain but we still had to stop and get some snacks and change to have some cash to pay to get in at the park. By the time we reached the park entrance it was going on 6pm and we were the third car in line. The driver of a truck at the pay window didn't seem to be in any hurry either having a map unfurled pointing at it as he questioned the attendant. My patience was wearing thin and it took everything in me not to reach over and blow the horn. It's a short drive up to Massie Gap and both Shane and I were excited to see there only a few cars at the parking area. We were in such a hurry that Shane had decided to change out of his work clothes when we arrived and I worked on getting all my gear rounded up for the eight mile race against sunset.
|Looking back over the rocky path that makes up the Wilburn Ridge Spur Trail.|
|Shane reaching the top of one of the rock outcrops of Wilburn Ridge.|
|Gopro shot from Wilburn Ridge.|
|One of the few times I got to use my real camera. Wilburn Ridge from the Canon Rebel.|
Suddenly, a stranger's voice said, "Can you guys do an old hiker a favor?" My first thought was 'how annoying' we were already pressed for time and now someone was asking for a favor we didn't know. I listened on and off as I continued stuffing my pack making sure I had enough water for the trip. The hiker told Shane he had originally planned to hike to Fox Creek where his wife was to pick him up but found the trail to be too difficult and couldn't make it before dark. He couldn't get service to contact her and asked Shane if he could try to use his phone to reach her. Shane happily agreed and was able to send a text and leave a voice mail. The hiker introduced himself as Enoch with Shane asking, "from the Bible?" Enoch said, "yes, that's my trail name!" Shane asked how far he had hiked that day and when he answered. "23 miles" he had my full attention. They continued talking with Enoch telling him what a spiritual journey the trail had been so far and asked him how far he had planned on hiking, and when Enoch answered, "all the way" I now stood in awe. Enoch wasn't a very tall man and looked to be in sixties but here he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. I finally butted into the conversation introducing myself as Dozer, which is my trail name. Enoch said he could see why they would call me that and I asked him more about his hike. He told me that his brother had fell ill with Parkinson's Disease five years earlier and the medical burden and heartache on his family led him to trying this hike to raise awareness and money for Parkinson's Research! It was if someone had took a hot iron poker through my heart since my family is going through the exact same thing with my Uncle John. I grabbed my wallet and handed him a ten dollar bill with Enoch waving it in the air exclaiming, "THIS matters!" He told me that he had been sponsored for a hundred dollars a mile and so far had raised $35,000 dollars. I almost fell over....35 THOUSAND dollars! Shane felt better about Enoch being reunited with his wife if he went to the ranger station at the bottom of the mountain. He flagged down another hiker and told him that Enoch needed some help and asked him to give him a ride. He seemed a little reluctant but Shane told him, "this man has a great story and is doing big things" and the hiker agreed to take him telling him to grab his stuff. Enoch ran over grabbing his pack and hollered to Shane as we set off down the trail, "Thanks, you guys are my trail angels."
|Enoch aka Don Havener. Please see the link later in the blog to read his whole story.|
Despite the lost time with Enoch I didn't care. Our visit with him had moved me in a way that I can't fully express and made it clear that all the delays and frustrations of my day where meant to be, I was meant to meet Enoch. Both Shane and I were on an emotional high and our legs showed it. easily obliterating the first mile toward Wilburn Ridge. We passed a hiker who told us about a group of ponies and foals up ahead across the ridge. I ran on ahead of Shane who had called home to tell his wife the story of Enoch and when I popped across the ridge I found a group of around fifteen ponies. I quickly snapped some pictures with Shane catching up and taking a few of his own. I probably could have stayed there the rest of the evening but he reminded me we needed to keep moving since we were about thirty minutes behind.
|Shane's panoramic shot of me on Wilburn Ridge.|
|Coming off Wilburn Ridge to more fantastic views.|
From the Rhododendron Trail the beginnings of Wilburn Ridge were as far as I had ever hiked. It only took a few minutes on the Wilburn Ridge Spur Trail for me to realize my mistake. The rocky pass lifted us high above the surrounding mountains giving us some of the best 360 views I had ever seen. Shane kept our pace fast and each time I stopped for a picture he would vanish across another set of boulders. When I would catch up he would remind me of our time constraints and take off again, increasing the pace each time.
It was a role reversal for him that I'm sure took some getting used to. Normally I'm the guide taking him to some of my favorite places and my reactions to all the new scenery had him grinning from ear to ear. The blue blazed trail was a challenge with lots of scrambling across uneven boulders. I took pictures as fast as I could while trying to keep sight of Shane. Being behind we avoided the second section of Wilburn Ridge and rejoined the Appalachian Trail passing through an area known as Fat Man's Squeeze, a narrow pass through some rock formations that popped us out to more stunning scenery. We were only two miles in, and I had proclaimed it as the best part of the Appalachian Trail with all the variety so far.
|Shane at the entrance of Fat Man's Squeeze.|
|Inside of Fat Man's Squeeze.|
When we finally left the rocky outcrops the views were no less spectacular. I could see deep into Virginia and North Carolina and recognized several peaks on the horizon. Both the Roan Highlands and Grandfather Mountain were visible and I cringed thinking about how crowded they probably where as Shane and I were alone the majority of our hike so far. We encountered another group of ponies and the distant views behind them made for some more wonderful pictures. Soon we entered into the Lewis Fork Wilderness and the trail winds through some pine forests and large dead trees haunt both sides of the trail. The AT passes between two huge boulders that perfectly frame Mt. Rogers and Shane looked back at me saying, 'THIS is your sunset spot." I agreed but looked nervously over to Mt. Rogers thinking we still had a long way to go!
|More long views.|
|Grandfather Mountain and Roan Highlands from the Appalachian Trail.|
The trail mercifully levels and I was able to close up on Shane's heels. A short distance later we came into a clearing at a shelter and found some hikers preparing dinner at a picnic table. We visited with them briefly before tearing off again knowing we were closing on the summit spur trail. Sure enough, within five minutes we found the small sign and spur trail with Shane taking the lead pushing me to keep up. We passed through blooming blackberry bushes and started seeing the old growth forests ahead.
|Mt. Rogers Spur Trail.|
|Entering the old growth forest.|
Nothing could really prepare for me the scenery in the forest. Thick green carpets of moss covered everything and knee high ferns lined the trail. The occasionally peeks through but only in bright rays and I started to really hate myself for not carrying a tripod. When I caught Shane he was stopped on some rock stairs and let me take the lead cluing me in that we must be close to the summit. I wound up the steps almost circling back on myself arriving at a rock jutting into the air and the survey marker indicating the highest point in the state of Virginia. I had worked so hard to be here I almost knelt unknowingly and kissed the marker in celebration. Shane and I both posed for a few pictures and I made sure to get one of our hiking sticks next to the marker since Uncle Jim had made them for me and I wanted him to be part of our celebration, if only in spirit.
|Shane leading the way toward the summit.|
|A woodbooger finally captured on film.|
|The celebration of the summit.|
|Shane on Virginia's highest point.|
|The tallest man in Virginia on it's tallest peak.|
Having succeeded on one half of our mission, I found new energy and both Shane and I continued the fast pace as we raced the sun back to the rocks near Wilburn Ridge. I looked at my watch as we passed the spur trail sign noting that it was ten minutes til eight. I pushed myself as hard as I could realizing the sunset would be within the hour and when I made it back to our rock it was only 8:15! The sun was already beginning to streak some color in the sky. Unfortunately some other sunset hikers had arrived but I was able to get several good shots before deciding to climb higher along the cliffs to a rock with Shane to watch the sun fade from the Heavens. I celebrated with a granola bar and some water before deciding the sun had ran it's course and packed to head out as darkness started surrounding us.
|Mt. Rogers framed at Sunset.|
|Mt. Rogers from a rock outcrop near Wilburn Ridge|
|Shane was an excellent guide and picked a great spot for sunset.|
|Mt. Rogers shot with the Canon Rebel.|
|Appalachian Trail toward Mt. Rogers. Shot with the Canon Rebel.|
Hiking back was no less of an adventure. We passed another group of ponies and a small foal approached Shane for some scratches. I took a few pictures before deciding I wanted one of me petting it as well. When I attempted to scratch it's head it latched onto my finger causing Shane to erupt with laughter. I shook free only to have another foal approach and steal the button off of my cargo shorts pocket. My turn to laugh came only a few minutes later after Shane said he had never seen a snake although it looked like a prime habitat for one. Just as he finished saying it, he stepped on one unleashing a hilarious dance as the snake retreated into some tall grass out of sight. The snake served as a blessing to me as it slowed Shane's pace as he watched the ground the rest of the way back.
The park closed at 10pm and we made it back to the truck with 10 minutes to spare. The drive home was no less entertaining with wildlife popping out of the woods everywhere. Some of the highlights were two foxes and a doe with a very small fawn. Shane was so pumped about our day that he blazed by where my truck was parked before realizing the mistake a few miles down the road. He dropped me off at 11pm and we said our goodbyes agreeing it had been our finest overall hike. I lingered in the parking lot after he left for a few minutes to look through my pictures being too excited to wait for when I got home. Once I got on the interstate my phone buzzed with a text from Shane. It was a link to a news article about a 76 year old Ohio man who was attempting the Appalachian Trail to raise money for Parkinson's Research. Our friend Enoch aka Don Havener, was indeed, the real deal. To read the entire article please visit here: http://weeklyvillager.com/garrettsville-man-takes-epic-journey-along-appalachian-trail-for-parkinson-research/
There are several records being attempted this year on the Appalachian Trail with Scott Jurek's speed attempt and a double amputee to name a few. Both of them have gained national media attention while Enoch marches on through the highlands a virtual unknown with a purpose. When news crews finally catch up to him somewhere along the way he may tell them the story of the day he was reunited with his wife only hours before their 55th wedding anniversary by two trail angels. Until next time, happy trails.