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Trail Daze
The manifestations of old age proving all too evident.

Elk Garden, VA - Hampton, TN

We’ve been planning on launching our assault on Vermont this month, but the weather remains daunting, with a bit of snow, lots of rain, and ferocious winds forecast for much of the trip. Furthermore, the black fly season we’d hoped to beat has started with a vengeance, so perhaps an alternative section would suit us better.

Suddenly an idea comes to mind (a phrase certain to be my epitaph). Our time off includes the last couple days of 'Trail Days', an annual celebration of the AT in Damascus VA. Last year this event swelled the town’s meager population of 918 to an incredible 22,000. This section of the trail remained undone for us, and we can just catch the last day of the festival on the way through. Sounds like fun.

5/18 Elk Garden- Saunders Shelter (14.4 miles)

"The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure."
Joseph Campbell
A foggy Elk Garden Our morning begins in typical AT fashion to the sounds of a steady rain on our skylight, with an early morning departure for Elk Garden, in the Mt Rogers National Recreational Area (SW VA). It was here we left off on our January hike, and soon we’re climbing into a sea of cloud, the visibility falling to nothing. We creep our way into the familiar parking lot, finding a large horse trailer here and several riders cavorting about.

They're out for a short ride, showing off the horsies to passing hikers; and we load up, getting into the woods at a surprisingly early 2:00. In spite of the blanket of cloud, it's wonderfully pleasant climbing out through the woods, recalling the start of our NJ hike. We wind uphill across Whitetop Mt road, emerging onto the bald to be besieged by a stout wind, making it tough just keeping our caps on. There are some beautiful blooming rhododendrons up here at altitude, but the fog precludes good pix, and we'll have other such opportunities. As the descent starts, a cavalcade of northbound hikers begins, including Little Bob, Gary, Liz, and Rez Dog on their thruhike, along with a variety of both thru and section hikers over the next few days. We suddenly emerge from the cloud without warning – one minute everything's hazy around, and suddenly all the trees are clear.

Passing VA 601, the trail winds around a deserted brick house via a pair of fat-man's squeezers, and as we enter the pasture behind, there’s a dead cow aside the trail, with all the signs of having been so for quite a while. We’re easily persuaded to move on before taking our break, but we linger a minute or so here, looking back at the cloud-enshrouded summit of Whitetop standing in contrast to the clear skies. At Lost Mountain shelter we take our break finding it half full of hikers (one asked if there was a climb ahead, to which the best reply seemed, "yeah, just after you pass the dead cow").

Walking down out of the clouds
Renewed we shove off into the woods, descending to the Whitetop Laurel Creek junction, where the AT briefly joins the Virginia Creeper trail, a rails-to-trails project which is now a popular bike path. The area of their confluence is replete with picnic, fishing, and possibly camping areas, and it looks like it'd be an idyllic place to stop for the night, although we'd rather push on in hopes of more time at Trail Days tomorrow. We cross the creek on a huge railroad trestle, proceeding down the beautiful creek on easy trail, with Prairie Home Companion on the radio to entertain our final hour.

At 8:32 we come on the trail to Saunders Shelter – a quarter mile downhill off the trail, but it seems like a good place to spend the night, so we head down, finding a quartet of hikes here. Two of the thru-hikers soon retreat to their tent out back, and we're left here with Tara and the talkative section-hiker Frito. We have our sandwiches here at the picnic table as Tara huddles in her sleeping bag, shivering from the cold, and we decide to try sleeping in the shelter tonight. As Coleen lays out her bedroll however, she finds she's left her Thermarest at home, being replaced (for our "halfway" party) by a ensolite pad that'll probably be woefully inadequate. We may have to get her another at Damascus, but for the now we can tent out behind the shelter among the pines, using some piles of the needles for additional padding under her side of the tent. It actually works quite well, and she'll get a good night's sleep, although just as this crisis is averted, we find she also left the hot drink sack at home. We'll have to get some replacements tomorrow, and for the night we have hot water for now (surprisingly good), turning in under clear skies at 10:40.

A Goner
This can't bode well for us
The fete winds down

5/19 Saunders – The Place (Damascus, VA) (9.4 miles)

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!"
Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy

We're up after a good sleep at 06:40, with Frito and the still-cold Tara only getting around just before we leave. Today my packing skills are found wanting, finding my deodorant depleted, but it's an easy walk in from here, descending to follow the creek and the Creeper Trail once again. It's a beautiful walk, making good time, and soon we’re passing a constant procession of northbounders. Most share the sentiments of our friends at the shelter, that Trail Days is far more about alcohol and other bacchanalian delights than the AT, and that they're glad to be hiking once again. We joke a bit with a Konnarock trail crew out maintaining the trail, and soon we rejoin the Creeper Trail again just at the outskirts of town. Even though it's the tail end of Trail Days ("Tail Days", as one girl points out), there are still many hikers out and about at every open eating establishment, and as we approach our first destination – The Place – we see a small crowd outside, with a guitar / dobro duet being performed in the parking lot.
The Place is a hostel loosely run by the Methodist Church, and entering via the kitchen we find a woman who seems to be in charge, though on asking we find it totally self-serve. A small crowd hovers at the dining room table, scrounging the hiker box for anything of value, and snapping at tidbits left on the dining table like a pack of hungry gators. Sleep here would prove elusive, so we drag our packs upstairs to claim a couple vacant bunks before heading out in search of food.

Damascus is a typical small town, and a few blocks later we've seen most of its offerings, though at the far end we find the park still full of vendors, with a variety of culinary fare to be had. We settle on an excellent fare of grilled marinated chicken over wild rice and grilled veggies, followed by an extensive tour of the vendors. We don't buy much as we've 50 more miles to carry it, but we get a pair of down booties and some other odds and ends, stopping by Mt Rogers Outfitters to confirm our shuttle and buy a 2nd ensolite pad for Coleen. Back at The Place, there's little going on (we meet Sojourner, Philosopher, Big Bird and some odd guy wearing a suit and a rasta stocking cap who was drafted by Bob Peoples to sing at the Earl Schaefer memorial – sounds pretty rough), reading a bit before heading out for a surprisingly good dinner at the Sicily Pizzeria. Our leftover slices are devoured immediately by a couple girls back at The Place, and we settle in, although the noise and general debauchery increases as the night goes on. Several are heading over to Abingdon to see Star Wars II, their expected return at 10:30 not boding well for an early bedtime. Our attempt at turning in upstairs proves futile, squelched quickly when one of our roommates leaves his funky boots here - the unbelievable stench carries well out into the hall. We finally abandon the bunks and head outside to join the small crowd tenting in the back yard, which works surprisingly well, with both of us asleep by 11:30.

Tents by the river
Even at the festivities' end, there's still a pretty good crowd camping by the river.
Camping at 'The Place'
And here's our little group in the backyard of 'The Place', where we'd all retreated from the commotion within

5/20 The Place – Iron Mt tentsite (23.7 miles)

Our back yard neighbors
"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others,are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so."
Douglas Adams - The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

We're awakened several times as folks come and go, and the typical Dukes of Hazard cars roar down the streets on occasion. Coleen gets a great night's sleep using her earplugs, and as first light breaks we're surprised to hear a few hikers up and about. We find Spiderman wandering about bragging about being up all night; trying to hit on Angel Hair and Coleen, along with every other girl here as they wake up. The kitchen fills quickly as the dining room floor remains littered with sleeping hikers; and luckily we get our water heated and coffee consumed while there’s still breathing room. Soon there's a big discussion about safety on the trail, and as one bozo tries to make parallels to aviation safety, I know it's time to leave.

Our backyard neighbors -
Can you say "white trash"?
We're off at 07:12, a refreshingly quiet walk through the sleeping town, and at the town's end begin the gentle climb up Holston Mountain. It's a beautiful day for hiking, and we occasionally pass a tarp here and there with sleeping hikers, totally oblivious to our passing. The VA / TN state line passes almost unseen, our morning spent in the woods with gentle climbs and descents, although we do have a nice chat with Hookuks and Sr Chief, a couple of retired thru-hikers from CT who seem to share our perogatives, being glad to pull into Damascus after the big fete. He's a submariner and they'd be fun to hike with – maybe we'll run into them as we start the sections up north. There are few landmarks, until Abingdon Shelter magically appears ahead at an early 11:38 – we must be making good time once again. After lunch here (TN shelters aren't nearly so nice as the VA ones), we push on past an old emergency shelter (the guide book says it's been here since 1934), and as we continue the small roller-coaster of hills ahead, the skies surprisingly cloud up, with the radio indicating a chance of showers and even light snow tonight.
'Fat Man's Squeezer' At Low Gap someone has taken trail magic to a record level - a cooler stocked with all manner of beverages, although the Grand Marnier is long-since empty, and the Scotch has only a few fingers left. This also marks the start of a couple miles of other trail magic we’d heard of – bags hanging in the trees containing apples, hard candy, water, and cereal boxes which were allegedly left by Butch Cassidy, though there’s no sign of a name on any of them. After our pm break begins the climb up the Iron Mt's – a mere 600', but for some reason it hits us hard. Nearing the top, a steady rain of ice pellets begins, continuing for some 20 minutes or so – at least it's ice rather than rain, which would have us soaked by now. Even so, it melts fast enough to make our jackets and packs wet - we seem to alternate this section between freezing and sweating.

Over a rise at Double Springs Shelter we find an amiable couple of young guys on a section hike, having just finished finals at MU on Saturday. They drove all night to Erwin, catching a shuttle first thing Sunday morning to Damascus (getting chewed out for unloading in the church parking lot), and thence hiking south to here. They're slowly hiking back to Erwin, and would be fun to spend the night with were we not driven towards a stay at Kincora tomorrow night (reminds me of Don & my trip to Colorado after our freshman year). After TN 91 we enter an area of dense rhododendrons, quickly turning boggy and dark; and though we find one campsite right on the trail with a bench and nearby water, we continue in hopes of a more private and cheery one.

One of many 'Fat Man's Squeezers'-used to keep the critters where they belong
Next thing we know we're again climbing Iron Mt, with no hope of level campsites on the slopes, so in spite of our aching feet and legs we push on towards the top. Since pulling into TN the profile and actual terrain haven’t coincided well, so it's tough telling where we are, but finally we reach a level area at the top, and before long we find a suitable site, with a good sitting log. Not a moment too soon either, for as we do, the rain begins, so I hurry to get the tent up as Coleen starts the water for dinner. Finally we can relax and get into some warm clothes, and soon we're eating as the rain falls outside, only now confirming that we’ve hiked an incredible 23.7 miles today. We're comfortable enough, and soon after dinner the rain lets up, allowing us to finish the camp chores, getting to bed at 9:30.

5/21 Iron Mt – Braemar Castle (18.0 miles)

"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

We're up at 06:00, feeling renewed after a good night's sleep, finding our gear slightly dried over the night. It's still cloudy out, and we're glad to start with a climb to warm us up. Our first goal is the Nick Grindstaff Monument – a plaque on the chimney of one of the south's most famous hermits. The story's of little more than passing interest, but it finally confirms our position, and soon after we come on Iron Mt Shelter, finding one section hiker here, still huddled in his sleeping bag. We’re hiking through more trackless woods, though we do have one interesting moment as we come upon a hen of some type (grouse?) and her chicks in the trail. The tiny chicks - dozens of them - scurry in every which direction as mom tries to lead us off to one side with a mournful wail that sounds like a beaten dog. It was quite a spectacle, and I'd never imagined so many chicks could come from one brood. We pull up to Vandeventer Shelter a bit earlier than expected for our lunch break - we'd just passed one northbounder, and we find her three companions still getting out of the shelter in no particular hurry, so we head back to the rocks behind the shelter to take our lunch. It's a beautiful overlook of Wautauga Lake, the skies just starting to clear; but we're cold enough that we make hot drinks with lunch. There's a lot of giggling coming from the shelter, and I'm almost afraid to round the corner as we depart, but we find the last couple here getting ready to head out northbound as we head south.

At the 1st spring south another thru-hiker is filling her water, and we pass a few more hikers further down the gentle slope (surprised to find them northbound this late in the game). As we hike I make the mistake of suggesting that I couldn't thru-hike the trail with my short attention span, as some of these featureless sections become boring even on our short treks; and Coleen somehow turns it into an indictment of me for our long hiking days this trip. She can't buy my explanation that we've hiked yesterday's long day to facilitate a stay at Kincora tonight, and soon it devolves into a genuine spat. As we start our steep and speechless descent she falls well behind, so I stop to catch up on my notes, finding all seems forgotten as she pulls up. The trail intersects the Dam Road, which appears to wind around to the left towards the dam while the trail continues up ahead, climbing around and over a steep mountain. Once again, it's an integrity test, and we choose integrity, continuing on the trail, a tough mile of climbing instead of an easy half-mile of road walk – why do they do this to us? (Or should I say, why do we do this to ourselves?) We're pleased to see a few bootprints on the actual trail, and the tribulation is soon over, returning us to a steep road down to the dam.
An earth fill dam, Wautauga stands 360' tall and 912' across, with not a soul around to bother us, so we push across to a convenient rock on the other side for a quick break. The profile shows we have left a quick 2.5 miles of level walk, but it turns out to be far from the truth, turning back into the woods as we climb up and down past the shelter. We're both a bit demoralized (at least we're just about finished with TN and their inaccurate profiles), but we push on, with Coleen lagging considerably. The shelter provides a time check, but hardly an accurate one, the maps being so out of sync with reality; and I slow quite a bit so for Coleen’s sake. It's a beautiful stretch of trail, the lake just off our left and beautiful coniferous stands of trees, but we're both tired and aching, and starting to wonder when we'll ever get to the road at 321. Finally the trail approaches the road, and as I pull up, I see a pickup here unloading a hiker, the back end full of others. I ask the driver if he's Bob Peoples, and on getting a yes, I'm elated, asking if he's got any space in the hostel. My elation is short-lived, as he replies that they had 44 guests last night, 18 of them tenting outside and many on the floor; and on asking Coleen what she thinks as she pulls up, I get the short and immature, "I have to have a bed tonight", drawing an quick gasp from everyone in the pickup. Atop Wautauga Dam
Finally, the Wautauga Dam
Bob is very sympathetic, offering to drop us at the nearby Braemar Castle for the night – a hostel with either bunks or private rooms, suggesting that with his help, they can slack us to Kincora tomorrow. We climb in the crowded back end of the pickup, chatting with our fellow hikers on the short trip over (several have been doing trail maintenance, a party Bob organizes annually), and in a few minutes we’re at the Castle, a majestic stone building built in the early 20th century for employees of the Pittsburgh Lumber Company. The proprietor, Sutton Brown, is out; so we drop our packs on the balcony in front, and , begin searching the premises. There's a nice room with a double bed, and several with singles upstairs; with the basic needs including tv, microwave, etc. Although the floors slope badly, it’s more than adequate, and Sutton pulls up outside soon after. After meeting him, we decide on the room with the double bed and private bath ($35), and after making up the bed I talk Sutton into the use of his phone (an odd pulse / tone combo) to reschedule our shuttle to 1:30 pm at Kincora.

Braemer Castle' After showers our first priority is dinner - Bob had suggested the "home-cooking – like Ma makes" down at Jacks, a typical small-town café a few blocks away. We waddle our way down, finding the typical friendly waitress, and good prices on filling meals. It's a great meal, and Coleen's appetite exceeds my own, but somehow we get enough to tide us over. After a few more phone calls we settle down in front of the tv for our final night out. There are a couple other section hikers here – one finishing up tonight and another trying to hike down to Springer; along with Sutton's nephew, who's in college and also stays across the hall. As we're lounging around, Seiko comes up – a 60-year old, 13 time thru-hiker (looks far younger than we do) who Bob has enlisted to help slack us tomorrow. He's fixed up the apartment downstairs in exchange for his rent, and will get our packs down to Kincora if we check in tomorrow am before leaving, so with all done we can relax, turning in at 11:30.
Braemer Castle, a great respite from trail life
5/22 Braemar – Kincora Hostel (8.9 miles)

"On tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning."
Henry David Thoreau

It’s not a bad night’s sleep despite our being accustomed to a larger bed, and we get up for good at 06:00. After breakfast we head down to Seiko’s apartment, finding him up and about (stereo blaring loudly), and offering to drop us at the trailhead. As Sutton returns, he’s glad to let Seiko drop us, and we chat a bit more about his 13 hikes, finding he now prefers southbound hiking, with a preference for tenting, and trying to hike a couple hours nightly after an early dinner. At the trail head he gives us a couple tips about the trail, and off we go, with Coleen carrying the light pack to start. It’s amazing to both of us how easy it is, and it seems we’re racing up Pond Mt without a care. We get a short but beautiful look at the clouds clearing from the valley, and soon we’re leveling, far early than imagined. The profile continues grossly inaccurate, depicting a steady climb followed by a mile of level before a sharp descent. Instead, there are several sections of climb, almost no level space at the top, and an equally fragmented descent - steep in places, but soon we’re beckoned onward by the sound of rushing waters beneath, the beautiful Laurel Fork surging through the gorge below. It’s a beautiful setting, and after a short break at the Laurel Fork shelter we push on towards Laurel Creek Falls, our next destination.
Blooming Rhododendrons
Rhododendron season cometh
Tracks in the snow We pull up to the falls minutes later, and they don’t disappoint, a couple of hikers from yesterday’s Kincora group wandering around the base. We consider Seiko’s suggested side trip up an unmarked trail to a subsequent falls, but as we start to climb it we quickly reconsider, as it’s not only precipitous, but appears to end quickly. We resume the trek, the path shoehorning majestically between walls of stone, and soon passing a group of pre-teen girls, led by what appears to be a Boy Scout leader. The trail levels nicely, leapfrogging the stream, and in no time at all we pull up to the familiar Dennis Cove road. A quick trip to the right finds the hostel (after a huge sign suggesting a 180 to the competing Laurel Creek Cabins), and on pulling in we find Seiko here performing odd errands and such. Bob’s out on a lunch run; and on asking about a phone, Seiko suggests that he’ll haul us up to Elk Garden for $25. This is great both in time and money, so I run in to use the hostel phone to call Mt Rogers Outfitters, although they tell me Brandt is already on the way down, so it looks as though we’ll have to wait.

Coleen settles in and is soon besieged by inane stories from Seiko (a better hiker than story-teller), as I’m making all our needed phone calls. Soon Bob comes back, taking most of the hiker crowd over to the trail / town on various missions, and Coleen and I are left alone to wait on our shuttle, which doesn’t arrive until 13:45. He apologizes for being late, and we head out, quickly realizing why. He’s one of the most uncomfortable drivers I’ve had in recent times, slowing for every chipmunk in the road, and downshifting / upshifting continuously as we meander about the small country roads. He’s got a good volume of hiking experience, and knows the local area quite well, but it takes a full 1:40 to get to Elk Garden, our future never quite certain. It’s always good to get back to the car, our ticket to comfort, town food, and our own bed.

The beautiful Laurel Creek Falls

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