Thursday, September 17, 2015

Last Saturday I actually went on a peaceful relaxing hike. I hate to disappoint my readers who always anticipate some crazy twist or near death experience; but believe me, it was exactly what I needed. My original plan was to go solo on a short hike and recover some from the beating I took in the Linville Gorge the previous Wednesday but when Shane called letting me know he was available to do some hiking, everything changed.

The day begins.

Shane leading the way toward Damascus.
For several months we had been looking at a hike from Low Gap near Shady Valley, Tennessee into Damascus, Virginia. Our research showed that the hike had very little elevation change and stretched for nearly 15 miles. Shane has been out of town on work assignment and our hiking time has been very limited since it began so the thoughts of knocking out a long hike had me ready to roll although my body was still a little wore down from Wednesday's trip. The only decision we really had to make was on which end of the hike to start. Shane hinted at starting the hike in Damascus and ending at Low Gap but I read that the brewery in Damascus was opening early that day and I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate a long hike than by having a nice craft beer. Shane mercifully agreed, and I met him in Damascus early Saturday morning for the ride over to Low Gap.

For whatever reason, I've never traveled from Damascus toward Low Gap by foot or by car and as we passed through Backbone Rock and the scenic countryside I was kicking myself for not doing it sooner. At the intersection in Shady Valley, it's a short winding road to the top of the mountain and we found we had the gravel parking area to ourselves. As I stepped out of the truck I was stuck by a very cool mountain air, a stark contrast of the temperatures that had almost melted me a few days earlier. Shane was a ball of energy and took the lead as the first section of trail gradually climbed along the spine of the ridge. I've always found the first mile the hardest especially after riding for a while. Both Shane and I broke a sweat a short distance in and were breathing hard when the trail finally leveled out for a stretch. The level walking eased the burn and our conversation flowed after barely seeing one another for a few months. The constant breeze was a wonderful bonus and we started finding our normal pace as the miles began to fall in our wake.
Shane wading through the wildflowers.
One of the large old growth trees along the trail.
Shane scales the size of this fallen giant.

The cool air was a benefit to our hike but a sad reminder the summer was fading and several leaves were beginning to turn as we continued on. Occasionally, I found a nice mushroom or large old tree to stop for pictures and Shane waited patiently while I worked to get just the right angle. The trail stayed level and easy and we had limited views of the valleys below through the leaves. We found another small climb ahead of us and when it leveled we noticed the remains of an old fire tower. The open canopy around it was a dead giveaway and we both paused remarking of what a great view it once was.

On a slight downhill grade from the tower I noticed a tiny wooden shelter off to the side of the trail. I mistook it for an Appalachian Trail shelter but Shane corrected me saying it was the old emergency shelter. There was a tiny sleep mat inside and I sized it up by crawling in. I quickly decided that I would have no trouble sleeping there. We continued hiking and I noticed someone coming in our direction. It was an elderly man but he was moving at a strong pace. When we met, he was quick to greet us and we shared a few minutes talking, telling us that he was from Mississippi and every year he hikes for a few weeks while he pays for his wife to go on a cruise. The man clearly had life figured out. He told us we hardly had any uphill hiking left at all and that the trail was "like a damn interstate" into Damascus. The good news had me excited about settling into a brew once we reached town and Shane revealed that he had brought his custom mug he had purchased there a few weeks earlier. I recounted the story of Linville and Shane cautioned me to avoid the long solo hikes in the future since it leaves so much room for something to go wrong. He did however find it quite amusing that I was forced to drink sweaty hat water to keep moving and commended me on having the presence of mind to do whatever it took to get out of the dangerous situation.
Shane at the emergency shelter near the old fire tower site.
Only the second time I've seen this fungus.

A few uneventful miles went by before we arrived at the nicest Appalachian Trail shelter I've ever seen. The Abingdon Gap Shelter lies in a beautiful saddle in the ridge and is surrounded by campsites that scream to me to return with a tent. We stopped in the shelter to have a snack and read over the trail journals when I noticed a separate bag in the back corner of the structure. Inside the bag, I found a dri-fit shirt, batteries, and an energy drink. Someone had left trail magic for a fellow hiker! The shelters walls are littered with various quotes and hiker trail names. We noticed one that we had found on the Iron Mountain Shelter a few months back that I found particularly poetic, it read: "Go everywhere, question everything, fear nothing." I literally had to force myself to get up and hike again the area was so peaceful. The trail had stayed on the ridge the majority of the hike but as it leaves Abingdon Gap it swings to the right side of the mountain and travels through tunnels of laurel and a much different landscape from what we had been traveling. Fresh off encountering two bears after dark in Linville, our mindless hiking was brought back to reality when we found fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail. When I say fresh, it couldn't have been more than a few minutes old with steam still rising off of it. It's scary to think how large the bear could have been and how easily it had vanished. Despite the danger, we spent several minutes scouring the area looking for the animal in hopes for at least a picture. Shane had to remind me that the brewery would be open in an hour and a half to regain my focus and keep hiking. We crossed an old forest road and seen another hiker approaching the trail from down the mountain as we kept moving. Shane told me of how he used to hunt the area and after finding the trail to be so close to where he was stalking animals with a loaded gun decided to find somewhere else to do his hunting.
Abingdon Gap Shelter.
The trail seemingly splits but the left fork heads to more campsites near the shelter.
Another strange mushroom.

Our friend from Mississippi had told us the majority of the climbing was over but after about the third stretch of uphill hiking since we encountered him, I began to question his memory. Shane said we would soon be arriving in Virginia and there was a sign for a photo op when you cross into the state. Another group of hikers came trudging up the mountain in our direction and the man in the front had the strangest expression on his face when he saw Shane walking toward him. He exclaimed, "How did you get on the other side of me?!" I was unsure what was going on as well, and Shane explained he had met the hikers in Damascus while waiting on me. They had been having trouble finding the trail up from town and Shane had pointed them in the right direction. They told us they had walked over to some apartments where two women were smoking on a porch step. When they asked the ladies where the trail was one of them paused from her smoking long enough to tell them, "The trail is everywhere." Either she was extremely enlightened, or those weren't cigarettes.

The trail has miles of flat stretches like this.

A purple mushroom that Shane spotted.
Just as Shane had predicted, I spotted a wooden sign on the left of the trail ahead of us. The Tennessee/Virginia State Line sign was a welcome rest spot and I took the time to use the Gopro for our group shot of the day. The sign indicated we only had 3.5 to Damascus and one hour until the brewery opened. The challenge was laid out and we pushed ourselves as the trail began a long downhill grade toward Damascus. After the first mile of stiff downhill hiking, I told Shane how thankful I was we weren't heading in the opposite direction and he agreed, we would have ran out of time with as much climbing as we would have faced. We passed several groups of hikers and even caught others as we continued downhill. Shane made a point that I have never noticed before he mentioned it, we catch many groups of hikers on our trips but have yet to be caught by anyone else. Soon we heard the familiar sounds of civilization, lawnmowers and chainsaws far below and a distant motorcycle heading toward the highlands. Within the hour we had went to high on the mountain to being able to identify people standing in their yards as we hit the finial switchbacks leading into town.
Bear scat. FRESH bear scat.
The state line welcome sign.

After popping out of the woods just over an hour after we left the state line sign, the trail led us through someone's front yard and down a road circling back to the park and where my truck was parked. A large wooden sign hangs over the trail welcoming hikers to the town of Damascus and I paused to let Shane take my picture. We found the comfortable temperatures we enjoyed during the hike were gone as we had left them high on the mountain. It was a short humid hike back to the truck. A five minute drive across town had us pulling into Damascus Brewery. It's built in what looks like a metal garage building but the inside is very inviting. We found a spot at the bar and wasted little time picking out our brews. We thumbed through the Thru Hiker Yearbook and visited with the brew master. I was jealous of Shane's nice cup and ended up buying one of my own and before I realized it another hour had passed and it was time for us to head our separate ways.
Arrival in Damascus.
Inside the brewery.

I left Shane at the gravel lot at Low Gap and chose a different route home traveling down highway 421 and across South Holston Lake. The drive was relaxing and beautiful and I couldn't help but think of my wilder days and some crazy times in Bristol as the road refreshed my memory. In only five hours, we had hiked almost fifteen miles and had one of the most enjoyable hikes of the year. I had a new cup, a camera full of pictures, and a blog to write; but first there was some football to watch! Until next time, happy trails.

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