It has been quite a while since Damascus, in fact I think this may have been the longest time I have gone without spending at least a night in town. I was out from the 25th of April until yesterday, the 3rd of May. I was more than a little dirty by the time I arrived. Anway, it was a rather eventful week I think. The first day out of Damascus I tried to make a decision to no longer care about time or distance. That is I will try not to care how far I have gone in how much time. If I don't get into camp until late, it shouldn't matter. It's not like I have an appointment. This sounds really easy and obvious, but is in actuality rather difficult. Its hard to break through that element of time that is built into all our lives. However, I think I am getting better at it, and its a good thing because I think if I had continued that way, it would have really started to damage my enjoyment of the trip. On a slightly less serious note, I also made a decision to no longer carry Snickers bars in my top pocket when its 75+ degrees as they tend to liquify rather quickly. That first day out of Damascus was about 16 miles and just breezed by, I had a really nice walk. A lot of it was riverside, which made everything seem very lush. I made my first of at least two attempts to end my own life that night however, when I some how managed to leave my lighter in my cookpot and then proceeded to boil my meal. Fortunately, the lighter did not explode, nor was the plastic of the lighter breached. Go me. I spent that night with Larry, Yorkie, Owl, Beat Box, and Loner Boner (his last name is actually Boner, so don't get any ideas). The next day we headed into the Grayson Highlands. Buzzard Rock afforded some very nice views. Unfortunatley, just as I was about to head up Mount Rogers, where things were supposed to get really pretty, it started to look like a storm. That storm started as I headed up the Mountain, and as a result there was mist all over the highlands when I got up there. This is the first time that I have really been kind of bummed out by weather. I have heard that the highlands were really pretty and I wanted to see them. Granted mist provides a certain attractive quality all its own, but in this case I just wasn't satisfied. The mist did break open later. One of the other things people always talk about the Highlands is the ponies. Most people saw a bunch. I saw one that afternoon and it seemed pretty skittish. Even just that one was pretty cool though. Its a kind of odd experience to suddenly round a bend and be faced with a wild horse. Even a small one. They are pretty impressive animals. Anyway, the mist broke enough for me to get a couple of good views later that day and I ended up spending the night at Wise Shelter with Yorkie, Larry, Signage, Pearls & Starvin Marvin, and Yorkie's friend Jesse Jackson who had come out to walk for a couple of days. This is incidentally his real name, not a trail appellation. The next day started off very nicely, the weather continued to look kind of threatening, but it at least wasn't too misty. As a result I got several uninterupted miles of highland vies. Honestly, they reminded me a great deal of the Scottish Moors I had seen when visiting that country a number of years ago. Granted my memory could be a bit faulty, but Yorkie (who is from England) agreed that there were definitely some similarities. Basically, they just look really wild, brown grass, scrub, and rock as far as the eye can see. I think the wind and dark sky added to the similarity as well. It doesn't sound particularly beautiful but it is. Startlingly so in fact. I had to go into Troutdale that day to pick up a package and the people at Jerry's Store there, particularly Jerry himself were immensley helpful. They made it possible for me to get in and out of town in relatively short order and on to the next shelter well before dark, so I would very much like to thank them for all their kindness and hard work. That shelter that I pushed to was one called Trimpi (a very weird name I thought) where I camped with Yorkie, Jesse Jackson, Triple A, Larry, Bonnie Carolyn and many others whose names I did not obtain. The next day was kind of a mixed bag. The day broke bright and sunny and we did a nice bit of walking through pastureland early which afforded some nice views of the surrounding mountains. However, shortly thereafter my ankle really started to throb and it didn't really stop all day. It can really mess up a day when that happens. We took an immensley long lunch at the Partnership Shelter. We took a long lunch here because there is an Italian Restaurant that will deliver to the shelter. Most people got pizza and I got a chicken salad, which while not pizza, was still pretty good. The Partnership Shelter itself was very plush as well. It even had a shower (its located very near to the Mount Rogers visitors center). Yep, its pretty hard out here on the AT, but we tough it out somehow. Around 3 I left to do the remaining 7 miles to the Chatfield Memorial Shelter where I spent the night with Yorkie, Jesse Jackson, Mountain Mike, and Beat Box (freakin psycho did 27 miles to catch up to me and Yorkie). The next day constitutes the reason that I am out here. It was beautiful. Maybe it was just my state of mind, maybe it was the fact that the weather was flawless, but whatever it was, everything seemed exceptional. The first few miles were largely different from what I am used to. They were over a lot of fields and low hills. It was a nice change. The fourth mile is all within view of what I think was I-81. Now, at first this seems like it would be a real downer. The idea of the trail is to get out in the woods and the intrusion of such a man-made monstrosity seems like it would be awful. Quite the contrary however. I found myself thinking about how when I drive on the interstate I often think about what it would be like to be walking around the surrounding countryside, and here I was doing exactly that. I was experiecing that same part of the country in a way that all of the people on that road probably never would. It was actually kind of comforting. I also saw what I think was a red-winged blackbird around that time. I have never seen one of these before. They are remarkably pretty birds. That flash of color against the dark is very striking. That afternoon I experimented with shirtless hiking as it was rather hot. I expected it to be uncomfortable but actually found it to be rather pleasant. I passed through a lot of farm country which provided some really great views that were a nice change from woodlands. The next day was extremely long so I'm going to try and distill it down to some key events. I did ten miles to Chestnut Knob Shelter for lunch and hung out for far too long. It was just too nice a spot, bright sun, good view, good company. I think I could have hung out there all day. I did a hard ten miles over flat but difficult terrain from there to Jenkins shelter. There were a bunch of people there. It was here that I made my second attempt at snuffing out my own life. I was re-lighting my stove to make hot chocolate and for some reason the alcohol basically exploded out of the stove. I don't think I did anything different, but it scared the living crap out of me. It also burned off some of my arm hair and set my pants on fire briefly. Don't play with fire kids. Beat Box and I had decided we were going to try a little night hiking that night, and oddly so had everyone else at the shelter. So just as the last light was leaving the sky Box and I left the shelter. Now I saw all light left the sky. That isn't really true, the moon was so bright we walked almost the entire way to our campsite by moonlight. We only turned on our headlamps during a kind of sketchy roadwalk where it was difficult to find blazes. We cowboy camped (read no tent or shelter) in a group of about 10 with at least 10 others tented nearby. It was where hikers go to die apparently. I can't say I'm going to turn nocturnal, but night hiking was an interesting change. Honestly, the next day was mostly monopolized in my mind by the trip I had to make into Bland (which is very deserving of its name) to get a mail drop. As for the rest of the day all I can really think of is a really long ridge walk with very little water. Probably not the most fun 10 miles I have done, but you do have to take the good with the bad. At Jenny Knob Shelter that night I was with Beat Box, Diamond, Stretch, Stubble, and I met Bucket, Old Yeller, and Singe (who I discovered also eats Turkey Spaghetti from lip-smackin backpackin', though hers isn't Gluten free). The next day was crazy. I got going early and really hammered out some miles, both my ankles felt good and I was at the suspension bridge that marked six miles in no time. It was a cool bridge by the way. From there it was only 1.6 to Dismal Creek Falls which was supposed to be something that was not to be missed. The falls itself turned out to be kind of mediocre, but I was very glad I went anyway. There was quite a party of hikers hanging out there including Numbtoe and Shadow, who are friends of my friends Burt and Carol Smith. There was also a big pool at the base of the falls, which I decided to go swimming in though it wasn't really all that hot and the water was clearly very cold. This produced the interesting scenario of me hanging out by a fire in a public park, soaking wet, in my underwear. Never a dull moment. I got to the next shelter after that by about 2:30, took a long break for lunch and was about half a mile up the mountain when some very serious thunder started. I didn't fancy walking a ridge for 7 miles in a lightning storm so I returned to the shelter to see what would happen. What happened is the storm blew away, but it took two and a half hours to do so. As a result I was leaving for my destination around 6:40 and I ended up walking the last three miles or so in the dark. Alone. I am now going to put a disclaimer up, in the next few sentances I'm going to sound like a big whimp, however unless you have done this you don't understand and if you have and disagree with me...well I would ask you to kindly shut up. I was very nervous. Hell, I was scared. The woods is a big empty place in the day time. It is a huge, empty, dark space when it is night and you are alone. I don't think I've ever walked quite that fast without really being able to see where I'm putting my feet, and incidentally navigating boulder fields in the dark is a pain in the butt. The fear was starting wear off during the last mile or so into the shelter, but it is not an experience I am dying to have again. On the other hand I am glad I did it on some levels. I arrived at the shelter around 10 and went to sleep as quietly as possible. I woke to rain and it only got worse as the day moved on. Fortunately I only had 7 miles to go to Pearisburg, which is where I currently reside, taking it easy and preparing to head back out tomorrow. Walking in the rain is never as pleasant as when you know you don't have to stay wet. The pictures I am leaving you this week are of the Grayson Highlands and myself in Dismal Creek. Take it easy.
-The Breadless Horseman