Wednesday, April 22, 2015
We spent the previous night at Claytor Lake State Park in Virginia enjoying kielbasa sausage and onions cook on a cast iron skillet over the campfire. Delicious. After a few warm beers and a good night’s rest we headed towards our first multi night backpacking trip through the Mount Rogers Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park along the Appalachian Trail.
Our plan was to park at the Grindstone Campground and spend three nights in the backcountry, enjoying quite nights, scenic views, and hopefully spot a wild pony or two. We arrived to a closed gate and gusting winds. Luckily, as we were desperately trying to identify a backup plan (without cellphone reception) a campground host arrived to help rescue us. He let us know the campground would not open for another week, but allowed us to park behind the locked gates for the following few night as we hiked. Crisis averted.
With the wind howling, our hike out of the campground involved dodging falling tree branches and limbs, while wondering if we should just turn around and spend the night in the car until the weather died down. We pushed forward and soon became accustom to the constant falling shrubs. Also, meeting other fellow hikers weathering the unpleasant wind help to motivate us onward. Eventually, after crossing several green fields and meadows we reached the Application Trail and began our ascent into the surrounding mountains. We soon began encountering our first groups of Northbound AT thru-hikers as we hiked south along the trail. Quite the cast of characters. We settled at the Old Orchard Shelter as the rain pushed in, and enjoyed Spanish rice and Spam before calling it a night.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
The following morning we stayed huddled in the tent as long as possible as the sun warmed up the mountain side. Other hikers reported that the temperature dipped below freezing during the night and the ice on top of our tent corroborated these claims. Hot chocolate mixed into our homemade granola (thanks mom!) served as just the pick me up we needed for another day in the cold, windy weather. Feeling strong on the trail and with the subpar weather, Nadine and I soon decided that we’d shorten our trip to two nights and push through to the Thomas Knob Shelter under the Mt Rogers peak for our second night. This would make for a 12 mile day on the trail and also take us along some of the higher ridge lines and balds where the infamous ponies reside.
As it warmed and we climbed, I shed layers of clothes to keep from overheating. However, as we reach our first clearing after about 3 miles, the wind picked up again and I quickly re-layered to break the gusts. We passed the Scales campsites and attempted to climb up to the Stone Mountain bald, but were constantly blown sideways by the ever increasing wind. Happy to be out of the wind, we reached the Wise Shelter where we sat for lunch. At the shelter we met a disgruntled thru-hiker, “Yoh”, who was not only saddened by not spotting any ponies, but he had also left his cooking pot at the last shelter and was not looking forward to eating cold food during the remainder of his thru-hike. We exchanged emails and promised to send pony pics if we spotted any along our way and also arrange to grab his pot and drop it off at the next northbound road crossing, which was on our way. At this point, Nadine and I were beginning to feel the strain our legs, so I decided it was good enough time to surprise her with a full size Snickers bar for dessert. The secret weapon.
We soon emerged from the woods again and followed Wilburn Ridge, which provided some excellent 360 degree views of the surround valleys and mountains. At this point we finally spotted our ultimate goal of the backpacking trip, Mt Rogers, in the distance behind several other summits we’d need to tackle first. However, to our dismay, there were still no ponies in sight. The hike soon became a quest to spot some wild ponies to lift our spirits in the whipping, cold winds. As we trudged on, in a somewhat dazed state, I began calling out to the ponies, hoping to attract them with the promises of a good rub and some food. “Here pony, pony, pony, ponies!”, I called over and over again. I managed to amuse Nadine for a bit, but still no ponies.
We had nearly given up all hope until we rounded a corner, just inside the Grayson Highlands State Park, and there stood three wild ponies grazing along the trail. These guys were not shy and walked right up to us, begging for a good scratch and scratch of food. We were soon joined by two other ponies, who seemed to be hiking along the trail the same way we came. They didn’t hesitate and left without even a nod as if to say “Just passing through, nothing to see here”. With our quest complete, we found new energy and climbed higher along the ridge toward the summit. We decided to take a side trail that promised some rocky climbs and fantastic views but were surprised to stumble upon a second herd of ponies. We counted 18 in all, including a baby pony that was very interested in getting to know Nadine. At the top of the side trail, we were greeted by the strongest wind gusts on the trail so far. Clamoring along narrow rock ledges, we had to focus intensely to keep our grip and to not get blown over.
Finally, after almost 7 hours on the trail, we reach the shelter and setup camp in a nearby wooded area. After quickly setting up the tent, Nadine and I were in our sleeping bags, hiding from the cold.
Friday, April 24, 2015
We woke early in the cold so that we could first summit Mt Rogers before heading back down the mountain towards the car. The hike to the summit was a short, half mile side trail up into a view-less evergreen forest, but the goal was set. As we hiked upwards in the morning hours, the trail was skirted by flowers of ice and frost from the night before. Some of the ice structures formed resembled ribbon candy that was drawn out of the ground by the blowing wind. We quickly made it to the top, snapped a few pictures, and quickly turned back down, excited to be heading towards our car and warmth.
The following 6 mile descent was fairly uneventful, except for the deteriorating state of Nadine’s mood. She wanted off that cold, windy mountain and she wanted it now. I soon realized that I had deployed the secret weapon (the Snickers bar) way too early and we were both paying for it. Next time. When we finally reached the campground and the car was in sight, we were both exhausted and ready for a good nap and shower. Overall, the backpacking trip was challenging, but the views and wildlife outweighed the pain. We also began to see how strong we are getting on the trail, only a few weeks into our road trip.