Day 51 (May 27): With a big day ahead of us, we woke early and had a larger than normal breakfast. I scarfed down pop tarts, a cliff bar, and coffee to get me moving and we were on the trail before 9:00am. Our hike started with some dull PUDs to get our blood flowing. When we reached Iron Mountain Shelter, where we had originally planning to stay the night before, we were glad we stopped early since we could smell the feces as we approached and the flies pointed out a few piles of fresh dung. At mid day we were surprised as we left the woods and crossed TN 91 into a cow pasture which provide views of the valley and surrounding hills.

Cows grazing near the trail.

Cows grazing near the trail.

The trail through some grassy fields.

We stopped at Double Spring Shelter for a larger than normal lunch (the hiker hunger must kicking in) of hot ramen and pepperoni/cheese wraps. At Low Gap, Dead Weight left the decision on weather he should hitch to Damascus or keep hiking up to the hitch hiking gods. He gave himself five minutes with his thumb out to make the decision. Not more than a minute later, a shuttle van from Damascus showed up to drop a hiker off. The gods were good to him that day. For the rest of us, however, we still had almost five miles to hike before the next shelter. Along the way, Nadine nearly marched over a pair of young adolescent bears that I startled as I passed. She didn’t even notice as she trudged ahead. Eventually we reached Abingdon Gap Shelter (mile 458.6) and pitched our tent. I went to fetch water which turned out to be the hardest climb down and up for the day. We had Spanish rice with spam and mashed potatoes for dinner before crawling into bed early, tired as dogs. Tomorrow Virginia.

Random trail thought of the day: I’m a morning person out in the woods. Something about waking up with the sunrise and the birds tweaking really gets me moving unlike in the other world.

Day 52 (May 28): I woke with the sunrise on my face and ready to hit the trail. We packed up early, ate what snacks we had left, and jumped on the trail to hike the last ten miles into Damascus. Before we knew it we had already reached our first break spot and were making good time. All we had on our minds was a cold beer, a hot shower, and a warm bed. Heading down hill we crossed the border into Virginia, celebrated with a high five, and continued on our mission for sanctuary.

Enjoying the Virginia border.

When we emerged from the woods in town (mile 469.0), Nadine exclaimed “Wahoo!” and we bee lined it to the bar for a cold one and some lunch.

Nadine entering Damascus.

Afterwards, we met up with Dead Weight, Sam, Jonny, and Alex, checked in at Woodchuck Hostel, and headed toward the brewery for some more hydration. On our way back we stopped in at the local pizza joint to gorge ourselves on their pizza buffet and resupplied at Food City in the same shopping center. By the time we staggered back to the hostel, everyone was ready for an early night sleep. I opted for some Netflix and chill.

Woodchuck hostel.

Day 53 (May 29): I woke to the smell of waffles and coffee. Both Nadine and I had just about the best night sleep so far on the trail and it was made even better by the fresh, free breakfast being served. We dined on waffles with cool whip and bananas, hash browns, hard boiled eggs, and freshly brewed coffee. It was a good start to our planned zero in Damascus. After breakfast I crawled back into bed and worked out plans with the other guys to see a movie or two in Abingdon, the town over. At noon we headed out to try and catch a hitch, but were unsuccessful due to some rude hikers who stole our ride. Deadweight called a shuttle and we were on our way to see Captain America: Civil War. We opted for large popcorns and sodas so we could refill before and after the movie. After our first movie we decided to stay for another so Nadine and I watched The Jungle Book while Sam and Deadweight saw the new X-Men movie. After hitching back to the hostel, the guys and I headed to the bar for a few drinks to cap off our successful zero. Another comfy night in a warm bed was exactly what we need to kick off Virginia.

AT markers in downtown Damascus.

Day 54 (May 30): Had another early morning and fantastic breakfast at Woodchuck Hostel. We originally planned to hit the trail by 8:00 am, but I got caught up giving Dead Weight a pack shakedown to help him drop some weight. Instead we left at 9:30 am and stopped several times in town at the outfitters, convenience store, and Subway. Ended up leaving town at around 10:30am. So much for our early start. The first of three climbs for the day was easy and went by quickly. We stopped on the far side  of the mountain to refill water and take a short break before continuing on to the next climb. We came to a detour in the trail due to a bridge washout, but decided to stick to the trail anyways, which crossed a washed out bridge. I was able to rock hop across the river while Nadine opted to strip her boots and get her feet wet. Our next climb wasn’t as easy as the first and we were huffing and puffing up the steep switchbacks in the midday sun. We stopped at Saunders Shelter for lunch and were glad we weren’t staying when we spotted mice sniffing out our food. Eagle Eye had written a detailed description of why the shelter was built specifically for mice in the shelter log. Before the last climb of the day the AT joined the Virginia Creeper Trail and we crossed an old railroad bridge converted into a hiking/biking trail.

The trail crossing a railroad bridge.

By this time, Nadine began having issues with her left foot due to blister but managed to keep hiking. Near the top of our last climb and the next shelter she decided to abandoned her shoe and hiked the last half mile in just her sock. All was better when she was able to pull off her shoes and dry out her feet, however. We decided to tent behind Lost Mountain Shelter (mile 484.8) with Sam, Jonny, and Alex for the night. Deadweight stayed in the shelter to test out his new, lighter sleeping bag and mat. Bear piñatas were hung, a very lazy campfire was lit, and an early night was had. Tomorrow we march toward 500 miles and ponies!

Day 55 (May 31): We had an early 8:00am start to try and beat the storm we’ve been hearing about. We were told that a tropical storm is supposed to reach us either tomorrow or the day after so we wanted to get through Grayson Highlands before it hits. Our morning hike took us through more cow pastures and then up one very long uphill climb. We stopped several times as we climbed to catch our breath and once so Nadine could dig a cat hole, which she really needs to plan for so it’s not on the side of a mountain. Once we reached the top we had a great view of the surrounding area from buzzard rock.

Pocahantus climbing to Buzzard Rock.

The view North of Buzzard Rock.

We enjoyed our second breakfast with Keg Legs and Alex while we bragged about how well our boots kept our feet dry. Climbing over the bald toward a spring, we spotted one grey cloud that looked as if it was moving away from us. As we finishes filtering water it began to drizzle, which we were thankful for since it was beginning to get hot in the midday heat. As we hiked on, it slowly began raining more steadily so we threw on our pack covers just in case as we enjoyed the cool rain. Before we could say “I’m glad it’s not pouring” the grey cloud dumped everything it had on us and we were soaked head to toe. I quickly dropped my pack and threw on my rain coat as I cursed the sky. Within five minutes the trail became a raging flood of water and our boots were soaked through, mocking my early comments. Once our fate settled in, I did the best to enjoy our predicament by jumping in every puddle along the trail. A few miles down the trail we came to Elk Garden where we found a cooler full of Gatorades and a toilet to huddle in, out of the rain. Sam, Jonny, Charlie Dog and Deets were already waiting there for us. As we waited for the rain to end, the bathroom awning slowly filled up with hikers. Nadine and the other girls ended up waiting inside the toilet since, while it was smelly, it was much warmer. As the rain slowed, more trail magic arrived in the form of fresh, make your own burritos with tomatoes, beans, cheese, lettuce, onions, salsa, and sour cream. I had two of the best burritos of my life. After chowing down, we headed up the next hill toward Thomas Knob Shelter (mile 497.1). We spotted our first few ponies in a field not far from the trail, but continued on since we heard thunder approaching. By the time we reached the shelter, several more grey clouds were approaching and Nadine was having issues with a blister on the bottom of her foot. We thankfully decided to spend the night and it began to storm soon after. We cooked ramen and hot dogs in the shelter before slipping into our sleeping bags early. Around 8:00pm, while it was still light out, a parade of ponies marched by the shelter, almost as if they were trained to do so each night.

Pony parade at the shelter.

We planned to hike early again the next day to beat as much of the storm as possible.

Day 56 (June 1): We left the shelter at 7:30am, our earliest start yet. The day started off with a blanket of fog over the trail, but it quickly began to clear as we climbed toward Grayson Highlands.

Cloudy morning entering Grayson Highlands.

After the clouds cleared in Grayson Highlands.

By the time we reached the first rock scramble the sky cleared and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. We hiked over rock outcrops and through caves and clearings to reach our 500 mile mark on the trail.

Reached the 500 mile mark.

Rhododendrons along the trail.

Along Wilburn Ridge we spotted more ponies grazing in the distance while we hiked through blooming rhododendrons. We took a break in the grass at the Scales while another hiker practiced playing a guitar he brought along. As we relaxed, we spotted an enormous grey cloud moving our way but we never got more than a drizzle. So much for the rain.

View of The Scales.

We enjoyed a large than normal lunch of ramen, summer sausage, cheese, tortillas, and gold fish at Old Orchard Shelter. After lunch Nadine’s feet began bothering her again but we were able to make it to Hurricane Shelter before collapsing. Despite the already tough day, we all decided to push on a few more miles to shorten our hike the next day toward Marion and a resupply. Nadine almost immediately regretted her decision to push on as we hiked another three miles to the Dickey Gap Trail  campsites (mile 516.3). We arrived just before she gave up all hope. There were very limited tents sites and we ended up pitching our tent in a flattish spot that was almost on top of the trail. I was able to improve Nadine’s morale, somewhat, by making breakfast skillet and ramen for dinner with cherry limeade to drink.