Mile 1725.2 (VA/TN): May 2, Campsite near Damascus to Tennessee Border

We had just 6,5 miles to hike into Damascus this morning, and mostly downhill. The overnight lows were around 60 degrees and by the time we started hiking it was already a little warm.

We only passed a couple people on the way down, which seemed unusual given the numbers we’ve seen over the past few days. 

And by 10:30am we were on the edge of town. Our goals were: find a place to eat and charge electronics for a few hours, resupply for the next two days, and find somewhere to get sandwiches or something to carry out of town for dinner. 

We came to Mojo’s as soon as we entered town. It smelled good and had a very hiker oriented menu: big breakfasts, half-pound hamburgers, and such. We went in, ordered, and spent the morning relaxing at our table. The restaurant only had a couple tables in use so they didn’t mind. And when they started getting busy with lunch crowd we were charged up (stomachs, phones, and power banks) and ready to move on. 

The trail literally passes through the middle of Damascus which makes it the most convenient resupply stop ever. We picked up the food we needed at the Dollar General then retraced our steps to a convenience store deli to order another afternoon snack and sandwiches to carry out for dinner. We sat for another hour and finished charging during our final town stop. 

We passed by an artist’s shop. He made sculpture and interesting bent wood items. Along the backyard fence he had “The Tire” and an amazing price of only $1.00 for two kicks of the tire. There was even a slot to put your money in to save you time if in a hurry.

It wasn’t far to get back to the trail and we started uphill again. In case I haven’t said it out loud yet: we go downhill to towns, rivers, and roads—and back uphill when we leave. The valley is where normal life happens. So, it was almost 3 miles uphill to our campsite, which happened to be right at the Virginia-Tennessee border. By chance, Ryan’s hammock was in Tennessee and mine was still in Virginia…so we spent the night in different states. 

And here are some of the other things we found interesting along the trail today. 

Mile 1714.5 (VA): May 1, Campsite near Piped Spring to Campsite near Damascus

We got a good start and were hiking by 7:30. It’s over 21 miles to Damascus, Virginia where we plan to resupply and I’d like to be close enough to town tonight to make an easy hike the next morning. That way we can hike in. have lunch, resupply, then perhaps hike back out later in the day. Or, if all else fails, check into a hostel for a night. 

The first mile or so was still in highland grassy fields with great morning views. 

But shortly after we descended into the trees for the remainders of the day. We were amazed to hike with the forest floor covered with flowers for as far as you could see in any direction.

The small white flowers were dominant at the moment but were accompanied by small yellow flowers that looked like little orchids. From above these looked like tiny, half-peeled bananas. Later came small purple flowers that looked like irises, then complex dangling red flowers, and several others. And finally red star shaped flowers and blooming rhododendrons. And, most interestingly, we found what looked like a native pitcher plant—the first like this I’ve ever seen in the wild. After the amazing views and excitement of the ponies yesterday, today’s long walk among the spring flowers was a subtle, peaceful contrast. 

Yesterday Ryan mentioned he had heard about “ramps” from a couple people while awaiting f his shoes in the hostel. I had also heard of them in Maine from a hiker who had just come from Virginia. He described them to me. And today, partway through the hike, I noticed some plants that I thought might be them. Ryan and I dug one up cleaned it, then broke it open and inspected it. It smelled just like a mild onion—which is exactly what we were looking for. We cleaned some and tried them raw. They had a flavor reminiscent of a spicy green onion or leek. We gathered a handful to bring along for tonight’s dinner. 

Ryan’s heels felt okay today but we had to take it slow. We stopped a few times for him to “ice” his feet in a cold mountain stream. And when we arrived to our planned campsite around 4pm we were happy to find a wide mountain creek accessible just below the camp. The afternoon had been a little warm and we both went in for a cool dip in the water. 

We were happy with the delicious one-pot dinner of ramps, olive oil, noodles, cheesy potatoes, and summer sausage. We resolved to keep our eyes out for more ramps. But tomorrow we expect to eat “town food” and will take up our foraging again later. 

I sent Ryan off to set up the “bear hang” for the food bag. I followed about 15 minutes later to see how it was going. I found him with the line and rock bag stuck on a very high branch. It turns out it was also a very strong branch. We worked for a good while trying to free the line without luck. I fully expected to lose the line and bag at this point. I have seen many forlorn rock bags and carabiners stuck high in trees out here. But we decided to try the brute force method and see if the whole branch might come down instead. The branch was plenty strong to hold either of us alone. So I tied loops suspended in the line a few feet above the ground. Ryan stepped into one loop and I into the other. We both put our full weight on the branch and bounced up and down. With a loud crack it broke about halfway through. It took another ten minutes of pulling and twisting to try and break it off. Finally, we both swung on the hanging branch, like a pair of chimpanzees, and it finally came down. We both went down along with the branch into a ditch, all tangled up among the branches and rope. But we were fine and, once we brushed off the leaves, we had our rope and rock bag back. I’m sure we were quite a sight. I almost wish we had the episode on video. Almost.

And here are a few other interesting things we saw on today’s hike.

Mile 1699.4 (VA): April 30, Grayson Highlands General Store to Tentsite near Piped Spring

Six hikers stayed the night, including me. We made our way into store in ones and twos, ordered breakfast, and talked while we waited and ate.  I had finished breakfast and was talking to a group of three, Atticus, FattyB, and NotYet, while Dennis, the owner, brought out their food.

As he handed NotYet her plate he confirmed it was gluten free bread. “You don’t eat wheat?” I asked. She said she had Celiac’s and couldn’t eat gluten.

She looked to be in good health and not starved so I asked how she managed to resupply and eat. She said it hadn’t been as hard as she thought it would be. She had prepared a lot of dinners in advance and was having them mailed to certain places as she went. And she said breakfast and snacks didn’t seem to be a problem. 

Bob from Bear Garden Hostel arrived with Ryan by 8:45. Ryan picked out a few more snacks and we loaded up the shuttle van and in a few minutes we were back at Massey Gap. 

It’s hard to put the rest of the day into words for some reason. It was one of those days where all of our senses were engaged in the best possible way. I’ll try to let pictures tell the story.

Glad it doesn’t mention ponies…

So there you have it. A picture is worth 1000 words. These 45 are priceless to me…

Mile 1690 (VA): April 29, Old Orchard Shelter to Grayson Highlands General Store

It was a short hike, about three hours, to Massey Gap, the pickup point for Grayson Highlands General Store & Inn. I got going around 7am and reached Massey Gap at 11:00. 

It was a cloudy day so I didn’t see many of the famous views today. I did, however, come across two groups of wild ponies. They seemed very docile and let me approach to take pictures. They were also fairly uninterested in me as long as I moved slowly and quietly. 

Just before the side trail to Massey Gap I passed Wise Shelter where I met Sneaky Pockets from Finland, Thunder Pee from Denmark, and Happy Face (not her real trail name) from France. They were a cheerful bunch and had lot of questions. I was in no particular hurry today and we talked for quite a while. I wished them luck and continued on my way. 

And on my way to Grayson Highlands General Store I saw the only good bear print I have seen so far. I happened to be off the trail quite a ways in a place people wouldn’t normally be. I found it crossing a little creek with a muddy bank.

I reached the store around 1:30pm, in perfect time for lunch. The store offers a deli, grill, and decent hiker resupply. I had a burger and onion rings and purchased some trail food for the next couple days. 

I planned to meet Ryan at this location tomorrow, Tuesday morning. However I didn’t realize camping isn’t allowed in Grayson Highlands State Park. So I inquired with Dennis, the owner, about staying. I took the “hiker cot” for the night. I had lunch then hung out in the back yard where a large stream flowed by. It was a good half-day’s rest and the cot was actually a twin-size memory foam folding bed that was quite comfortable.

So tomorrow Ryan and I should meet up and continue on. We expect 2-3 days until Damascus then a couple more days to Boots Off Hostel where Ryan’s car is waiting. 

Mile 1681.9 (VA): April 28, Partnership Shelter to Old Orchard Shelter

I had a great night sleep and woke up feeling ready to go.  I was happy I had put up my tarp as there had been a few drops of rain during the night. It wasn’t enough to make anything wet. But, if the tarp wasn’t up I wouldn’t have slept well wondering if a heavy rain was coming. 

It was a mostly cloudy and windy sort of day. There were no views really. Just a “normal” day out here I guess. 

Again I passed a bunch of northbound hikers. I asked a couple their start dates and they were both at the very end of March. 

Only one guy stands out in my mind. And it was because I’m not usually a fan of super needy people. I haven’t encountered too many of these out here. But because today was such a normal kind of day, this interaction stands out. So allow me to share the stories of a few needy hikers I have met along this 1600-mile way. There have been others. But, if they are polite and skilled at getting their needs met, I love to chat and help however I can.

The first I can remember was in New Hampshire. This guy was a NOBO and we said hello on the trail. It was getting late in the day and he asked me if I had seen any tent sites up on the mountain I had just come down. I thought for a second and told him “no,” I had not. The plants along the trail had been dense and scruffy with no good tent sites in the past few miles. And I told him that. 

“Are you sure?” he asked and looked at me skeptically. I told him again I didn’t think so. I hadn’t noticed any good tent spots recently. 

“Well, how about places to pitch my tent ON the trail itself?” He seemed confident there was something and I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I told him by my memory the trail seemed rocky and muddy with no open flat spots that I noticed. Again he started to ask a variation of the same question but I stopped him. “I didn’t notice anything, but I wasn’t really looking for that. I’m sure you’ll find something, even if it’s not perfect.” Then I turned and left before he could press me further. 

Just yesterday I met a section hiker with a similar question. And, don’t get me wrong: we ask each other all the time for needed information about the trail ahead. But, my needy friend asks like this: “Were there any good tent spots at Davis (such and such) Campsite?” I had no idea what campsite this was. “I’m not sure. Where is that?” 

“Well, you passed right by it. It was the one with a ruined shelter.”

Me: “Hmm, I didn’t see a ruined shelter. I’m not sure which site that is, but there are lots of good places to camp coming up.”

“You didn’t? (Disbelief) Well you passed it. And I just want to know about that one because it’s the one I was planning to go to.”

Me: Hold on, let me check the Guthook App (trail guide). What was the place called?

“Oh I have Guthook’s. I know what it says but I just wanted to know from you since you passed it.”

At this point, this line of questioning has gone several exchanges beyond the norm. This guy needs a tour guide and I’m just not doing a good enough job at it. And we just met, in passing, a few seconds ago. All I can say is “sorry, I can’t help you with that one.” 

Usually we want to know: 

  1. how are the water sources up ahead?
  2. did you notice any good “stealth” (unofficial camp) sites recently?
  3. resupply (food) options up ahead?

These are the top three questions for people coming the opposite direction. And if they don’t know, they don’t know. You can just ask the next hiker. Maybe they will know. 

So, back to today. Needy hiker story #3 crossed paths with me today and was sort of blocking the trail so it was harder to escape. Keep in mind this was a full-on adult. Older than me, I think. 

Me: hi, how’s it going?

Hiker: hey man, how far is it to Marion from here by car?

Me: blank look (I’m standing on the Appalachian Trail, nowhere near a road)

Me: um, Marion by car?

Hiker: yeah. How far is it?

Me: I have no idea

Hiker: you don’t know? Marion? Virginia? How far to there by car?

Me: I really don’t know

Hiker: Really? It’s like the next town up from here

Me: I uh. Well, I’ve been hiking like 300 miles and I don’t know how to get there by car. But you can get there from the Partnership Shelter. There is a city shuttle that runs like three times a day. 

Hiker: oh, I thought you were a local

Me: blank look (what gave you that idea?)

Hiker: cause I just need a zero day and I want to get there faster

Me: well, the shuttle’s not that far away. I just left that spot this morning. You could be there tomorrow. 

Hiker: I know where to get the shuttle. I have Guthook. But I just want to get there sooner. I have hiked like 18 miles today over these rocks and everything. That is a LONG day. 

Me: yes, that’s a long day. If you’re getting burned out maybe just dial the miles down a bit. Take it easy for a couple days then take the shuttle to Marion. That’s the easiest way out. 

Hiker: I just wanted a faster exit. I need to know how to get there by car from one of these cross roads. 

Me: oh you have a car?

Hiker: no, I just want to get there faster than the shuttle. I need a zero day. 

Me: ok. Well, good luck

I honestly don’t know how these people will make it. Firstly, these are not in any way emergency situations. And secondly, none of them were charming enough to pull off this type of neediness successfully. They either need to up their charm level significantly, or do what most people do: use the guide and map to do their own research. Then ask a polite question on trail to help fill in the blanks. 

Ok, thanks for listening to (or reading) that little rant. It truly was a very good, normal kind of day. 

Mile 1633.6 (VA): April 25, Lick Creek to Bear Garden Hiker Hostel

It was just 5.5 miles to the hostel and I got started early. It was still dark so I hiked by headlamp. 

Hiking by headlamp is a very different experience: quiet, narrow, eerie, and, of course, dark. One revealing thing about night hiking, and something I like, is seeing the glittering eyes of tiny spiders on the ground. They are everywhere; among the rocks, leaves, grasses, and dirt. I assume they are there during the day as well—but we don’t see them. With a headlamp you see their eyes twinkling like tiny jewels, like distant stars, as you approach. They seem to watch you…then they duck and hide if you get too close. 

Daylight came and I slowed down—only to avoid arriving before 8am. Then I saw the first magnolia bloom of the season. I wanted to stop and smell the blooms but they were sharply downhill from the trail and I couldn’t reach them.

Tomorrow, or tonight maybe, is supposed to be rainy. Unlike the past three days, the morning was already cloudy. But it’s still nice to see the silhouette of the terrain around you through the trees. In a few weeks we won’t have that. It will be all trees, all the time…except for the infrequent overlook.

I rolled off trail at 8:30 and was happy to see the hostel sign as soon as I reached the road…Bear Garden was almost visible from the trailhead. 

Ryan was already there and settled in awaiting his new shoes. Late in the day the hostel owner, Bob, took us to (unfortunately named?) Bland, Virginia for groceries. It was nearly 30 minutes away, a $25 shuttle ride. We were truly in a remote valley—and peacefully quiet. Few cars passed along the road out front. Later in the evening the rain started. But we were high and dry for the night…

Mile 1628.3 (VA): April 24, Near Laurel Creek to Lick Creek

I didn’t hear a thing all night, except the creek, and woke up feeling pretty refreshed. I momentarily thought about trying to make it all the way to Bear Garden Hiker Hostel today, about 26 miles, but quickly banished the thought. There was no reason to rush and it would be better to break it up over two days. 

It was almost light when I headed out from the lovely little campsite and followed the stream downhill until it merged with another, larger one at the bottom. One footbridge later and I was headed uphill again. The early part of the morning had me walking along the side of a ridge with fairly steep slopes on both the uphill and downhill sides of the trail. I imagined having to try and retrieve something that fell downhill…and resolved not to touch any gear until I was on more level ground. 

Then, after a good long uphill, the AT guide mentioned the trail followed along the upper rim of an 8-mile long and 4-mile wide crater, or limestone sinkhole. I really wanted to see this thing, but unfortunately the views were fleeting and narrow through the trees. On the other side of the ridge I caught glimpses of lush farms in the valley and listened to cows below mooing as I hiked. 

Then the final big climb of the day led to Chestnut Knob, a grassy mountain top with an old stone shelter and nice views toward the west. There were still no views of the crater to the east, but there was a clear view to the farm land to the west below. I stayed up there a long time enjoying the sunny, breezy afternoon. 

I passed about twenty northbound hikers today and spoke to a few along the way. Here is “In A Day” hiking from Georgia back to her home state, Maine

“Legend” from Pennsylvania: thru hiking north with his 18-month old dog

The trail down from Chestnut Knob was several miles long and about a 2500 foot descent. I passed a few hikers on their way up and was glad to be headed downhill this late in the day. But those going up to camp up there were going to get quite a sunset and, most probably, a great sunrise too. 

I crossed a series of small streams on my way down and finally arrived at a larger stream with a nice campsite right alongside it. There were two nicely spaced trees below the rhododendron canopy and I set up there, alone again for the night. I had a hot dinner then waded into the creek to splash some water around my lower body to wash off the trail dust and get cleaner before bed. It promised to be another clear night so I left the tarp in the backpack. I watched the sunset and saw the sky darken from inside my hammock. I was less than 6 miles from the hostel and am hoping to be there before noon tomorrow.

And here are some of the other interesting things I passed on my hike today. 

Mile 1607.1 (VA): April 23, Jenny Knob Shelter to Near Laurel Creek

Last night quite a few northbound hikers arrived to the shelter area and took a while to quiet down. But, as hiker midnight (aka darkness) approached, they dutifully quieted and went to sleep. And suddenly all seemed right with the world. 

I may have been the first awake in the whole camp and was up before 7am packing. Ryan woke up soon after and did the same. He said his Achilles’ tendons were still sore this morning. We discussed what to do and decided to hike on for a few miles and see how he felt as he warmed up. He had noticed the soreness on the second day but didn’t know what was causing it. Last night he determined it was the back of his shoes wrinkling and pressing on this spot as he hiked. He removed a piece of stiff plastic bracing from the outside of the shoe last night and was hopeful this would solve the issue. 

As we walked he noticed things didn’t get better, but weren’t getting worse either. After hiking a couple hours we decided he seemed okay to get to the road where a little store called Brushy Mountain Outpost was. The store had a deli/grill and allowed hikers to camp behind the store for free with food purchase. At least here we could rest, figure out what to do next, and importantly, not run out of food. 

The last couple miles were a road walk and Ryan decided he would be better off walking in either his socks or camp shoes.

When socks are more comfortable than your shoes…

As soon as he took off the boots he had some relief from the pain. At that point we agreed he had to have different shoes so we decided on an alternative plan.

Even better! Socks and camp shoes!

Our plan: Ryan would stay the night at Brushy Mountain Outpost and I would hike on. He would order new shoes and get a shuttle the next morning to Bear Garden Hiker Hostel, about 30 miles further south. I would hike two days and meet him there.

As we sat in the store eating our enormous hamburgers, he ordered new shoes from Amazon for delivery to the hostel. He would get new shoes, a couple days’ rest, and get back on trail with me after I arrived. Before I left we had both conquered the “Brushy Mountain Burgers” and fries, which was no small feat, even for hungry hikers. 

So I said goodbye to Ryan and got going again around 4:30pm. I continued several more miles to a tent site along Laurel Creek, the next water source. It was a beautiful rushing creek and I was the only one camping there that night. The night was supposed to be clear night with temperatures in the mid 50’s—a great night. And it it didn’t take long to fall asleep after a long day, and under the spell of the rushing creek. 

And here are some of the other interesting things we passed on our hike today.

Mile 1588.4 (VA): April 22, Tentsite to Jenny Knob Shelter

It was a nice, clear night and a bit cool. As I slept I did feel a little cold creep in occasionally and suspect it was in the high 30s overnight. The changes I made to my sleep system make it less comfortable in weather below 40 degrees, but much more comfortable to carry. Thankfully most of the nights coming up will be in the 40s and 50s. 

We got going around 8:30 again this morning and it was a beautiful day—sunny, breezy, and cool. We planned to stop by Trents Grocery to pickup a little food and get something hot to eat. It was less than 4 miles to reach the store and we arrived before 10am. After hamburgers we picked up a few more supplies and left.

In the parking lot a nice guy called “Lemonade” was waiting with his car to meet friends for an 80-mile hike. He gave us a lift back to the trail and we headed back uphill.

At the top of the mountain we were able to get signal and called home while we rested. We got to talk for a while longer as we hiked before we lost the signal. 

We hiked down to cross another road then up for another 1.5 miles to the shelter. On the way up we saw a bunch of dandelions and pulled off a few flowers and blooms to eat—get your fresh foods where you can, we thought. 

As soon as we arrived to the shelter Ryan sat down to rest. Within a minute he was asleep.

It was a little early to stop for the day but time had come. I set up my hammock, filtered water, then rested in the hammock while writing this post. And here it is just 5pm with everything nearly finished for the day. It looks like another early bedtime tonight!  

But, before I go, here are a few other interesting things we saw today.

Mile 1578.2 (VA): April 21, Doc’s Knob Shelter to Tentsite near Dismal Creek

I got up about 7am and was happy to see the rain had stopped overnight. I was already packed when Ryan got up and I helped him get packed as well. We sat in the shelter and ate a few snacks for breakfast before getting started at 8:30. 

We hiked along in the cloudy and cool morning and, by early afternoon the sun was starting to break out.

We stopped at Wapiti Shelter for a lunch break. Wapiti Shelter is supposedly haunted, but we found it a great place to stop for a break. Ryan went down to the fast moving creek and got into the water to rinse off. It looked cold but he said it was “refreshing.”

We hung out for a little while after lunch enjoying the sun and rest. Then we got started again for our last few miles. On the way we met an exceedingly cheerful hiker called Book Bag from Massachusetts. Her mom had flown down and spent a zero day with her and she was in a great mood. So we continued on a bit buoyed for the afternoon.

We passed a series of dense rhododendrons which gave the sense of hiking in a tunnel. There have been several of these areas over the past week.

We reached our camp site about 4:30pm and took care of camp chores and dinner. We were ready for bed again by 7pm…just a bit later than yesterday!