Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On the home stretch to the 500 mile goal I knew there would be some days that I would have to pile up a lot of miles. I flipped through guidebooks and websites before finally deciding on a hike through the Grayson Highlands from Elk Garden to Fox Creek. The guidebook I used to plan the trip listed the hike at 17 miles and I knew it would take every ounce of daylight to complete. Also the hike would require two cars to shuttle us after completing our day so I enlisted my long distance hiking partner Amy Hall for the mission along with John Lane since he had been wanting to do a long day as well. I had bumped into John at Kingsport Oktoberfest and told him my plan and he was glad to take a personal day to join us and break in his new DSLR camera.
First picture of the day. Fox Creek parking lot.
Amy sandwiched between Jesus and the Devil. You can guess which is which.
First white blaze of the hike. Several hundred to go.
There they go, talking as fast as they are hiking.

The morning of the hike I met John off of exit 74 at Bass Pro Shops and we stopped off the Damascus exit to meet Amy. She was running behind as usual so we took the time to grab some breakfast and snacks for our all day hike. Amy showed up a few minutes later and led us to where we would leave her car at the Fox Creek trail head. Keeping up with Amy on the winding road was a real challenge and John said, "if she hikes like she drives it will be a long day for us!" We arrived at Fox Creek and jumped in the truck for the short trip back to Elk Garden some twenty minutes away. I had anticipated some vibrant fall color since we had passed through some gorgeous sections of trees on highway 58 from Damascus but when we crested the mountain at Elk Garden the trees were all stripped off their leaves already. The week before had been windy and rainy and it had taken a toll on the higher elevations. As John and Amy finished grabbing their gear and visiting the last restroom we would see for some twelve miles, I crossed the road and stepped onto the Appalachian Trail first and strode up the field scanning the horizon for the day ahead. The air had a chill in it but the sun was starting to rise from the valley and I knew we would warm up once the hiking started. Amy and John had never met before but were quick to get lost in conversation and they caught me at the edge of the forest passing me as they never stopped talking. I didn't mind trailing behind as I slowed my pace and took pictures to mark what would be the longest hike of the year.
This was tree was a whopper.
I tried to push the tree over but it didn't work.

The hiking was fairly easy and I didn't anticipate it to get any more difficult since Amy and I had looked at the elevation profile finding that there was only about a 1000ft gain from start to finish. White blaze by white blaze passed by and each wooden sign was a reminder of our progress. Amy had hiked the same trail a few years earlier but used it as a backpacking trip so she was able to tell us of points of interest before we arrived.  A blue blazed trail exited to our right leading out into a clearing with some huge boulders. Amy told me I would want to go out for a look and I scrambled on top of the largest boulder noting some of the more prominent peaks deep in North Carolina. Back on the trail we heard a jet approaching and as it screamed past it sounded like it would clip the trees. When we passed our first group of hikers of the day a few minutes later they said that it was most likely military related since Air Force One was scheduled to pass through later in the day. I didn't think about it at the time but the fact they knew that was a little strange, perhaps they were some undercover agents on the ground. John and Amy continued to lead the conversation but were kind enough to let me join in every few minutes and we shared laughs making the miles fall quickly and painlessly. The first four miles were in the books and we passed one of the biggest evergreens I've ever seen next to the trail. The base of the tree was split making a irresistible tunnel for us to play in. We all took turns taking pictures next to it before moving on. Within the next half mile we entered into the Grayson Highlands State Park and once again panoramic views greeted us as we trudged uphill through small shrubs and bushes. At the spur trail for Mt. Rogers summit a fellow hiker had stuck an American flag in top of the sign and Amy and John were treated to my rendition of God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood. Apparently my singing was on point because they seemed to be re-energized as they quickly shot off toward the Thomas Knob shelter a short distance away.
Look at those views!
Mount Rogers spur trail. USA! USA! USA!
Thomas Knob Shelter.
John brings so much fun to a hike! This was next to the Thomas Knob Shelter.

At the shelter, we took time for a break. My heavy pack was wearing on my shoulders and it felt great to take it off for a few minutes. John and I shared a fiber bar and Amy lounged on the picnic table in front of the shelter. We didn't want to eat this early in the hike but our stomachs shifted our conversation to when we would have lunch and each of us had brought some special treats to celebrate our day. John had packed some whiskey in a water bottle and I had brought a single Highland Cold Mountain brew, Amy had ensured we would eat like kings having brought summer sausage and Butterkaise cheese. As tempting as it was to eat immediately I slid my heavy pack back over my shoulders and left the Thomas Knob Shelter in the distance. The trail winds through an ever changing scene inside the park, from craggy rock outcrops to thick laurel
tunnels it has a little bit of something for everyone. I really liked the section near Rhododendron Gap with towering pines and lush campsites, I could have just settled in for the rest of the day there. The arrival in the gap was marked by finding a nice rock outcrop that I had somehow hiked past in three previous visits. When I climbed to the edge of it I was stunned to find we were about seventy feet high from the forest below. I told Amy to be careful that the fall would be fatal and she slowly worked out to the edge as John worked his way to the highest point on the rock and began dangling his feet for pictures. I found a little dip on the cliff edge and leaned back in the natural chair to take in the view. To my left was Mt. Rogers looming over the surrounding mountains, it's rounded forest covered peak is the highest point in Virginia. To my right was the rising rock formations that make up Wilburn Ridge. It was truly a perfect scene and as I write about it months later it's as if I'm still sitting on that rock tonight. I took pictures from every angle and as thirty minutes passed it took Amy to get John and I moving again, in a classic school teacher move, she used the promise of snacks to get us back on schedule. We passed through Rhododendron Gap and headed toward Wilburn Ridge but I knew we would be slowed as I seen a familiar friend on the trail ahead.
Through the Rhododendron tunnels.
Some nice evergreens shade the trail.
Somehow John made both Amy and I look good. THAT is a nice camera!

One of John's reasons for hiking the Grayson Highlands was to see the wild ponies. The ponies are not really wild as they receive support from park officials and encounter so many hikers they hardly flinch when you approach them but they are still a sight to see with the surrounding landscape. John went into full kid with a toy camera mode firing wildly as he approached the ponies ahead of Amy and I. My attention shifted to something else as some Longhorn cattle were grazing just downhill from the ponies. It was the first time I had seen them in the highlands and I took a few pictures before deciding I should rejoin John and Amy with the ponies. As I mentioned earlier, I've hiked in the park several times but I never tire of the Highlands. We were approaching double digit miles and my legs felt great as bounced through the rocky portions of trail. Swinging around Wilburn Ridge the Appalachian Trail gets pinched through a narrow boulder pass known as Fat Man's Squeeze. It was so cool between the boulders that ice had formed and John and I took turns passing through while Amy waited on the other side to take our picture. The trail stays rocky as our pace slowed heading toward Massie Gap and the main parking area for the park. There were plenty of other hikers in this area and many of them took a second look at the giant and a man appearing to be Jesus pass by. When we finally passed through the gate exiting from Wilburn Ridge I was relieved to be off the rocky trail for a while and Amy decided it was time for a bathroom break from all the laughing we had been doing. She went off trail in search in some solitude while John found another group of ponies to photograph. I seen a small grove of trees and a fallen log and decided to rest there until they rejoined me. A rogue pony followed me to my resting spot and nosed through my pack before deciding to hang out with me in the shade. Amy finally returned and we were back to hiking and mercifully losing some elevation as we left the confines of the park. It took about half a mile before Amy realized she had left her hiking stick in the bushes during her bathroom break and John offered to go back and get it but she decided to go herself and sent us on in search of our lunch destination at the Wise Shelter.
Hey! Check out this rock!
Ok, work it John!
John had no clue. He was being harassed. A true professional.
John is really high in the air here.
A LONG way down!
The look of seduction. Mt. Rogers in the background.

A bit of my prankster youth returned and I decided to hike as fast as I could to beat her to the shelter and be ready to leave when she arrived. John stayed close on my heels and we swung downhill through laurels and toward the sound of water. In a few minutes we popped out of the woods onto a narrow foot bridge across a rowdy stream. I had to take a few pictures and as I finished putting up my camera, Amy came sprinting down the hill ruining my plans.  We hiked together once again following the creek downstream and with the lower elevations, we started seeing some nice color on the trees that had held onto their leaves. We found another tributary that fed into the main creek we were following and I took the time to filter some water to resupply for the remainder of the hike. The last trail sign I had passed listed the shelter as only a couple miles away but I don't know if it was my hunger or the terrain but it felt like it took forever to finally reach it. The trail passes by a nice privy and then a small side trail takes you over to the Wise Shelter. Once again a picnic table sits in front of the main building and the floor inside the structure was clean with a broom leaning in one corner and a plastic bag containing the trail journal stuck neatly inside on one of the roof beams. I threw my pack off my shoulders and laid back on the floor. John and Amy began to unpack their treats and I finally mustered the energy to start shuffling through my own pack. Amy clearly had the best selections and had brought enough for John and me to eat a hearty lunch. Besides her summer sausage and specialty cheese, she also had boiled eggs and pretzels. I had recently switched water bottles and found that my custom filter wouldn't screw on the top so I spent the first part of my lunch moving water into smaller empty bottles from my pack so that I could have something to drink besides beer or whiskey. John passed his bottle of spirits around and although it was strong it was refreshing after we had nearly eleven miles on our legs. I popped open the beer and we all shared our drinks and food as an hour passed before we even realized it. When the bliss of the food and conversation had worn off we had an empty pack of cheese, sausage, and our Whiskey was missing. It was hard to get motivated to go back to hiking but we were in a better mood and not very far away from the shelter we found a sobriety checkpoint. Amy cackled at the obstacle just repeating, "there's no way, there's no way!" A large set of wooden steps formed an upside down V that lifted us over a five strand barbwire fence. Somehow Amy gathered herself enough to make it across with John and I close behind. I was convinced the hard part of our day was behind us but I was wrong as the trail began to gradually climb lifting us around Stone Mountain. I was really sweating and was thankful I had replenished my water as we came out into an open field with a large herd of cattle. Normally I would have went to take some pictures but I kept trudging toward the growing ridge in front of me. When we topped over the rise in the ridge I could see down into a saddle in the valley and a lot of fencing, we had arrived at the Scales.
A look through Fat Man's Squeeze.

Heading on down the trail.
Where's the ponies?
"That's an interesting angle you chose there, John."
Wait! A longhorn!
This pony is not amused.
You guys go on, I'll stay here and eat this cow.
Seriously, I need food!
Nearing the Wise Shelter.

I couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of the area I was so gassed from the uphill hiking and spent the majority of the trip down to the Scales watching my step in the deeply rutted trail. Suddenly I heard another jet and caught a glimpse of a fighter jet flying dangerously low to the ground in the valley below the Scales. I grabbed the camera but it escaped behind a ridge but then I noticed another jet being flanked by two fighters high above us, could it be Air Force One? I told John and Amy that even Obama wanted to congratulate me on the longest hike of the year to both of them rolling their eyes. At the Scales, Amy visited the pit restrooms built on a side of the hill, I dare say that might be the most inspirational spot to take a crap in the mountains. John and I read the information board while we waited on her and I told him we should only have one uphill section of hiking left taking us the side of Pine Mountain for one last view before the descent to Fox Creek. The sun was beginning to sink low in the sky and the afternoon clouds were starting to turn colors. Amy caught us on the trail as we climbed toward an increasingly pink sky. Through the woods I had to take a few breaks as my legs were starting to wear down but John and Amy helped keep me motivated and soon the horizon that seemed so far away was getting closer and we finally leveled off as a spur trail shot off toward the summit of Pine Mountain. I knew the climbing was over and found a new energy as darkness started closing in on us. We all laughed and joked our way through rocky sections and small stream crossings before reaching the last shelter before Fox Creek. The Old Orchard Shelter had two AT section hikers having dinner in it. We paused briefly to visit and exchanged trails stories before leaving them to their meal.
Lunch time! Wise Shelter.
Time to dig in!
John up for the challenge of the whiskey ladder.
I believe I can fly!
"I did it, YESSSS!"
Another pony!
and another!
Hiking around Stone Mountain.
More rocky trail through the upland Bog.
John with the hat change at the Scales. Amy in the background emerges from the bathroom.
This is a quality fence. I know a good fence when I see it.

I had originally told John that the hike was 17 miles but my GPS was already nearing 17.5 and I told him I thought we might squeeze 18 out of the trip. He turned to me with a serious look and said, "Now wait a minute! I agreed to 17 miles, this extra mile is a deal breaker" before he broke out into a hearty laugh. Just before the parking lot and the safety of the car (not her driving) we crossed a small wooden bridge. Insignificant to most, to thru hikers it marks the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail. I took a few pictures giving John and Amy time to make it to the parking lot ahead of me. When I finally came out of the woods and into the gravel lot they both were there to congratulate me and mark the occasion with a picture. I dug through my pack and found my Star Wars musical birthday card Amy and I had found on Viking Mountain and opened it up for a tune and some more laughs.
God I'm tired.
The sun fading as we work toward Fox Creek.
The 500 mile bridge.
The end. Nine hours and 18.7 miles later.

In all, we had hiked 18.7 miles through a rugged and tough terrain. We were tired but not exhausted and as we cruised back to Elk Garden we all talked of what a great day we had together. I stared out the window at the mountains glowing red from the last light of day. I was still a few miles short of my 500 mile goal but I had hiked the longest hike I've ever completed on what was only the second full day of my vacation. In my heart, I knew I had it in the bag. Stay tuned to see how it plays out. Until next time, happy trails!

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