Ponies, and cattle, and bears, oh my!

Everyone who told us Virginia is flat was a big fat liar. So far it’s been mountainous and rocky, and my knees are not happy about it. Upon leaving Damascus, Anthony, Shane, and I took a little detour by hiking about five miles on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a popular Rails-to-Trails bike path which runs parallel to the Whitetop Laurel River in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It was an easier and more scenic alternative to the AT in this section, although trail “purists” (cough, cough, Travis) won’t stray from the white blazes and continue over the few small mountains on the trail instead. We met back up with him at Lost Mountain shelter that evening, along with a Sprite from the Creeper Trail Cafe, where we had stopped for lunch along the way. Travis’ biggest craving out here is Sprite, and it has become a running joke to point out the frequent Pepsi logos at places we stop to eat. 

Creeping on the Creeper Trail

 

A few days later, we skirted Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet, and continued on towards Grayson Highlands, where we had been looking forward to seeing the wild ponies for weeks. We were surprised when we came upon a group of them before we even reached the park, just outside of Thomas Knob shelter. There were twelve ponies, including two foals, grazing in a clear, sunny patch between the surrounding forests. They were smaller than I had imagined, only standing at my shoulder height. Some shied away from us to continue  nibbling on the grass, but most of them approached us with curiosity. They surrounded us and began licking our arms, extracting the salty sweat from our skin. We laughed at their tickly tongues and shooed them away from our packs, where some were munching on the straps and hip belts. The babies laid in the grass on their sides, soaking up the sun. We didn’t try to pet them, since their mothers were standing protectively nearby. Of course, we took lots of pictures! 

This was one photogenic pony.

  

  

Bad pony! Don’t eat our packs!

  

So little!

 

   

Just takin’ a nap in the sun

   

The next day we continued into Grayson Highlands State Park, which had beautiful views from the rocky cliffs of flowering orange and pink bushes descending into the valleys of the Highlands. Later we passed a migrating herd of longhorn steer, and read that the original purpose of clearing the Highlands was for logging long ago, and then eventually to graze cattle. In the 1960s, the park service introduced the ponies as a land management tactic, so that they would eat the low brush and help keep the land cleared on the balds. Here their descendants remain, save for the ones that have escaped through downed fences to live in secluded, truly wild tribes, like the ones we first met.
Though we did our usual number of miles through Grayson Highlands, we were exhausted and sore by the end of the day due to the extremely rocky terrain, which taxed our feet and knees. As the sun began to set, I hobbled up the final mountain of day, drained. I wasn’t even paying attention to a crashing sound in the woods when a small black bear darted onto the trail in front of me, ran down the trail for a bit, and back into the trees, scared by my presence. He was so fast that the only part of him I really saw was his fluffy behind as he scampered away from me. I laughed and turned back toward Anthony and Shane, who had just missed him. Seeing my first bear took my mind off of my screaming feet for the rest of the evening, and I was relieved that it had not been a more intimidating encounter.
Two days later we made it to the much- anticipated Partnership shelter, which is near the Mount Rogers Visitor’s Center. This shelter is highly discussed among hikers because the visitor’s center is on a main road…and that means pizza delivery!! I am ashamed to say we each ate 3/4 of a large pizza, and donated the leftovers to some other hikers. It turns out that eating mass quantities of food is not as fun when you still have to hike eight more miles that day. We rested a bit by checking out the little museum inside the center, and even learned from a student display what equipment a thru hiker needs to complete the trail! Then we reluctantly hit the trail again, with too-full bellies and groaning on the uphills that we would never eat again.
The next day we hiked into Atkins and had a lunch buffet at a restaurant called The Barn before stopping for the evening at a motel. We had also passed a restored schoolhouse that morning called the Lindamood School, where several church groups routinely leave trail magic for hikers. We had snacks, resupplied small toiletry items, and admired the antique desks where hikers sometimes sleep during storms. On the way out of Atkins, we took a detour to the Davis Valley Winery, which was only a mile out of the way and perched atop a hill with views of the valley. We did the wine tasting and decided to stick around to wait it out when it started pouring down rain. The rain lasted for awhile, and it would’ve been rude to loiter without purchasing anything, so… We bought a few bottles of wine and made an afternoon of it.
The next few days were slow-going over lots of small mountains and one large one, Chestnut Knob, climbing over two thousand feet in elevation in just a few miles. We took Bubba’s shuttle into the aptly named Bland, Virginia, where we’re currently staying at the Big Walker Motel. No laundromat, so we had to improvise:
 

Look at that water! ‘Clean’ is a relative term out here.

 
Looking ahead at the AWOL guide, the terrain seems to be relatively flat for the next seventy miles, so maybe we have some easier trekking to look forward to, providing the trail isn’t as rocky as it was in the Highlands. At any rate…
  
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