Another year has come and gone and as of September 8, 2009, the RAT is another year older,this time the magic number being 47. Each year I try to take a 5 day hiking trip around the magic day, last year of course was the 20 miler from Devil Fork Gap to Allen Gap along that section of the A.T. during a very dry year with hardly any water making for some really heavy packs. This year, for what reason I do not know, I chose a much longer and much more strenuous 40 mile stretch from Fox Cr. Va. 603 through the Grayson Highlands, Mt. Rogers and Whitetop on down to the Va. Creeper Trail ending in Damascus, Va. Due to my being out of shape and having put back on an extra 30+ lbs., I was only able to make about 34 miles which was plenty! Including my starting pack weight of 42 lbs., my total weight was 271 lbs. ! Yes, I needed a trip like this to get me back on the right track to re-losing this weight!
We got a late start since I worked until 4am the night before and it was pouring the rain when we left and I wondered if this was a foreshadowing of events since after all, Bol’Dar was going with me! We stopped by to climb the short trail to see Backbone Falls on the way so by the time we found the Legs man at Hoppy and Birdie’s place and then hooked up with Gecko Goat (who volunteered to shuttle us to the drop point) it was after 5pm when we got out of the truck at Fox Creek. By this time, the rains had stopped and it was actually a very nice evening. We did the 1.5 miles to the Old Orchard shelter (complete with handicap accessible privy) and despite the rocky trail which would be impossible for a wheelchair to access this location), which was just enough to make us realize that as always, despite leaving things behind, the packs were still too heavy. This was our first time hiking with Legs and it was already promising to be a good trip. Bol’Dar was trying out a new home made alcohol stove and he left the heavy tent at home this time, plus I got a new titanium non-stick cook pot I was anxious to try out as well as some new shorts and a new rain jacket that my g/f got me for my b-day.
The spring was great, it is a lovely area, and when I got back Bol’Dar had a makeshift birthday cake he made for me using the Lembas bread he always bakes and carries with him. We had a great supper (mine was cajun turkey) as always on the first night and while we were eating, Legs noticed a huge ‘stealth’ owl sitting right over us checking us out. Was really cool although it was too dark for the pics to turn out very well. After dark Bol’Dar noticed a light coming down the trail from the South which turned out to be our shelter guest for the night. Dave from Danville, Va. out for a few days going North doing way more miles than I ever could. It rained really hard most of the night and into the morning and there was much snoring to be heard.
The next morning it was probably 9am before anyone got up and at least 11 am before we were packed and ready to hike and luckily the rains had stopped. Dave continued North and we headed South up the 2 mile hill to the high country.Packs still feeling very heavy up the rocky terrain so it was slow going for me but finally we came out at the top above Scales however since it had been at least 13 years since I was here last I forgot how rocky and long the trail down to scales was so we did not take the killer shortcut down the hill, but instead walked the extra miles down and around seemingly forever through the creek bed, jeep type trail from hell to get there. Then instead of taking another shortcut 1 mile down to Wise shelter, we once again took the long way (2+ miles) up the hill through the first part of the high country through the total whiteout which was the weather for that the second day out. We did pass through blueberry heaven and seen some of the first of the feral ponies that live here including the black stallion leader which I managed to get some pics of despite the whiteout.
After a slow and grueling 6 miles or so through some rough trail down to Little Wilson Creek, we finally reached the Wise shelter where we decided we had had enough for the day, and proceeded to take over the little structure that seemed to be facing the wrong way. Bol’Dar opted for the green algae like spring water where Legs and myself chose the red tinted water of Wilson Creek. Of course they pumped and filtered theirs where I always just filter it through my teeth. So far so good. Was another night with more snoring (according to Legs) and already he was talking about bailing out on us at Massie Gap. It rained more that night but it was dry again the next day which turned out to be awesome as we trekked through the Grayson Highlands.
Another late start of 11am and Legs was not feeling his oats and had pretty much decided that he was going to get off the trail at Massie Gap and get back to Damascus so after a couple hours of more rocky uphill trail, several piles of bear scat, and a F-14 doing maneuvers all around us, (which was kinda freaky since it was 9-11) we did reach the high country and the road that leads to the gap where we met some nice folks from NC. where Legs departed our company. It was sad to see him go, but it was the safest decision as there is not much access or help to be found in case something happened after that point of the journey. He also promised to pick us up somewhere along the Creeper Trail which would be much needed as we already realized making the entire 40 miles would most likely be a bit much. We had a nice break at a cool lunch spot then said our goodbyes. Legs headed down the .5 mile road to the parking lot as Bol’Dar and I started the long all day climb through the highlands where they were herding hikers through like cattle.
After gaining some elevation and passing through some beautiful territory along with a few wild ponies, we stopped at a rocky outcropping where we perched around the backside out of the winds to have a safety meeting in Legs’ honor. After a short break there we spent the rest of the day climbing up and over one rocky hill after another each providing a new a different breathtaking view of the Grayson Highlands which can only be seen to be believed. It was like walking through a Ross painting. Higher and higher we climbed until finally reaching the cave the A.T. passes right through until we finally got our first view of the Fir and Balsam pine tree covered Mt. Rogers and then Whitetop which as aptly named was cloaked in a shroud of white clouds.
We took our time all day enjoying the sunny weather, the numerous ponies all looking for a treat, and taking the time to absorb all the incredible views the highlands have to offer as we continued to make our way on towards Thomas Knob shelter. We had already decided not to camp there but to try and make it past that point, over Mt. Rogers and hopefully down out of some of the elevation to Deep Gap. We spent the last part of our time in the high country on the last and largest rock cliff at Rhododendron Gap.
A sheer vertical drop off the back side of at least 100 ft. or more made for some adrenalin rushing views which we tried to capture with many pics but somehow like the rest of it, you just have to be there.
We said our ‘UmBa BaGumba’s’ and headed on through the Mt. Rogers area passing through more alpine type environment and wild ponies until reaching Thomas Knob shelter where we took a snack break and contemplated our plans for the night. Those plans turned out to be doing another couple miles around Mt. Rogers down to Deep Gap. Luckily we stopped for water along the trail as it bubbled right out near the summit of Mt. Rogers as the water at Deep Gap was 500 yards down the mountain! We got by with what we had and set up our tents there for the night and had another good meal and a few shots of spirits before settling in for the night. About the time we dozed off we were awakened by the rains which had returned so we scrambled out to throw up some tarps then it was back to sleep as were were very tired after a long and tiresome but awesome day.There was one time where a very loud owl perched above Bol’Dar’s tent and let out a scream but otherwise I am sure the only noises being heard there was snoring.
The next morning I was very sore and stiff so it took awhile to get b-fast done and get things packed up and ready to continue down the mountain in search of our next water supply which turned out to be some bottled water given to us by a nice couple at Elk Garden, Va. 600 who also offered to take our picture. It was an overcast morning very foggy but it was cool temps and downhill so no complaints from me. Whitetop was completely engulfed with clouds as usual but it promised to be a very nice day once the sun burned it off. We took a break at the road crossing at Va 600, pausing to look back at Mt. Rogers for the last time, and then began the slow climb to the top. Once entering the woods we noticed some strange tubing attached to several trees like a spiderweb going up and down the wooded area like some sort of alien experiment which I have yet to find out what it was all about.
Pretty soon we came to a nice spring which we took some time to fill our depleted water supplies from then it was a slow step by step climb as the change in elevation went from hardwoods to alpine passing by several gnarley – trees until finally reaching near the summit of Whitetop mountain.
It was awesome as always and the clouds were burned off by the hot sun by then so we got some nice pics of the killer views as well as some very nice alpine flora including a ‘closed gentian‘ that lives only in that type of area. Many more blueberries caused me to go into yet another berry feeding frenzy. I carried a ziplock baggie of them the whole time.
We reached Buzzard Rock where I took bunches of pics, (a nice one of Bol’Dar) some video and tried to get a signal on my cell phone. I was able to leave some voice mail for the first time this trip. Despite major altitude in the highlands I had not had a signal since we left which shows just how remote this area is although we could see for 30 to 50 miles!. The sun being very hot and being exposed on the summit, we descended on down to the treeline where we took another break deciding how far we would be going that day. The decision was made to try and make it an 11 mile day to Lost Mountain shelter. After more downhill but much smoother trail we eventually reached the nice campsite in the pine trees just before the spring box at Va 601 where we cameled up, filled our bottles and Bol’Dar poured plenty of water over his head! We then had to enter the cow pasture and brave the huge black bull and cows that live there. Luckily they were more scared of us than we were of them.
Passing by some very old and very large trees made for some good pics then it was on down to the next road crossing before heading up the last 1.5 mile hill to the shelter. I was very tired at that point despite the pack being much lighter and as the evening sun sank lower and lower, the hill to the shelter really kicked this Rat’s arse but I finally made it before dark to find a young, somewhat strangely different, kinda young, dude there and Bol’Dar setting up out behind the shelter as he knew from previous experience that the resident mice are not the friendliest on the trail.
I snapped a pic of the shelter and then went to where Bol’Dar was setting up, dropped my pack and just sat there exhausted before finally (after some coaxing by Bol’Dar) setting up my camp. Although I knew we would not be having a fire that night, I had to remind Bol’Dar that my shirt did NOT need burning ! This is an old joke that goes back to our last trip there together where on approach to the shelter I found a decent shirt laying in the trail which I kept exclaiming that the one I was wearing was nasty and probly should be burned! Later that night around the fire as I was drying out that shirt, Bol’Dar tripped over the sticks it was on and it fell into the fire and burst into flames ! He then said, “well, you said it needed burning !” So I ended up wearing the shirt I found the rest of that trip.
After a supper of mac n cheese, some chocolate for dessert, and the last of the Crown Royal, we talked for a bit then settled in for the night under the clear starry night. It was the warmest night of the trip. I slept like a log but did hear a few bumps in the night but mainly was just dreams of the 16 mile day that faced us for the next day if we were to make it all the way to Damascus (although I had hopes that I would find a ride before having to walk that far). We knew we would hit the Creeper Trail at Creek Junction near the old original HoboCentral camp but it was still over 14 miles of that which would have been hard on this ole Rat.
I awoke early to the sounds of birds chirping and the feel of the sun shining on my tent. I got up before Bol’Dar hoping to get an early start on what was to be a long day. I rousted him up on my way to the privy where I spent an extra 20 minutes there to read the long detailed story of the Lorax and the Biggerer that someone had took a lot of time to write.
After a breakfast of grits and bacon along with hot chocolate, I packed up and was headed down the trail before Bol’Dar was finished packing.It wasn’t long before I seen a doe dash off up the hill, but then right around the corner I saw a young deer who was willing to pose for me while I changed batteries and snapped a few pics but sorry to say none of them turned very well as it was too dark in the deep hollow I was in. After awhile I came along a nice stream and small falls where I took a break to fix my boot and drink some water. it was there that Bol’Dar caught up with me for a safety meeting and we then hiked on down to the first gravel road crossing (Va 859) where I left a Rat Patrol mark and continued on. I was hoping that Legs was somewhere in the area looking for us (we found out later that he was and we had just missed him) but I remembered him saying he was heading out of town by 10 am and it was already nearing 11am.
The trail is very nice and easy going downhill gradually at this point so we made it to Creek Junction and the old Hobocamp in record time where we then hit the Creeper Trail and started the long trek into Damascus dodging the many bicycles that were constantly passing us from both directions. It was a beautiful day and was getting hot already.
We stopped for a snack break and then later checked out a killer swimming hole complete with falls and various swimming holes. I am sure to come back to this location soon. We continued on and I was starting to feel a blister starting on top of one of my toes as the flat trail and quicker pace was much different than the previous trails we had been on and I was contemplating stopping to soak my feet in the river and make some boot adjustments as there was still about 8 or 9 miles left to go, when a gentleman on a mountain bike going North stopped and asked us if we might know a full bearded fellow who might be waiting on us a mile or so down the trail at Taylor’s Valley!
This was excellent news to me as I knew then that Legs was waiting on us not far ahead which gave me a new burst of energy so I dumped out my extra water to take a few lbs. off my back and started a much quicker pace with thoughts of cold beer and a car ride into Damascus where there would be real food and more cold beer! After another mile and a half I arrived at Taylor’s Valley and there was Legs chillin` in a chair under a canopy and yes, equipped with cold PBR’s ! Hairnt! How much better could it get? After a while, Bol’Dar also arrived and we rested there for a short while before heading to town where we stopped at Dot’s,the local hiker bar for another beer and I believe Bol’Dar had some fries.
Then it was back to Hoppy and Birdie’s to pick up the car and complete what turned out to be an awesome birthday hike of 34+ miles through some most awesome areas. Legs made his rounds to say his goodbyes around town and then began his long 5 hour ride home. We stopped by Ben’s farm and then by his homeplace (where the funky yard birds live) then ended up hanging out at the Lazy Fox – B & B (Ben’s ‘mailman’s’ moms place) snapping green beans while we waited on my g/f to arrive where we then went to Quincy`s for some delicious food before heading back to Johnson City where the trip officially ended.
I am already planning and looking forward to next years traditional birthday adventure hike.
For another perspective on this adventure please see Bol’Dar’s personal blog ‘here‘.