“I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life’s mystery and unpredictability, of life’s generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation.” – Jane Smiley
Cy Clops and I awoke and got packed up. I gave him my winter gear (base layer pants and shirt, winter gloves, & thick socks) along with my prescription sunglasses (not used) and rain pants (not used enough) to mail to Janet for me. This will lower my pack weight and volume until I need these items again later on up north.
We then headed to Mojoe’s Trailside Coffeehouse for breakfast…Cyclops by car and me my foot, as I had not yet hiked that section of the trail through town. Moses and Conductor joined us for breakfast. Conductor informed us that 25% of aspiring thru-hikers never make it beyond Neels Gap (mile 31.7) and another 25% never make it beyond Damascus (mile 469). While it feels good to have achieved that milestone, being in the “top 50%” isn’t the goal. The goal is to reach Katahdin’s summit and earn the title Thru-Hiker.
Moses and I took a few photos with Cy Clops, said our farewells, and headed north out of Damascus…with Bohemian Rhapsody still ringing in our ears. Near mile 474 Moses, Conductor, several other hikers and I stopped for second breakfast and to ponder a warning sign. It told us that a bridge was out .5 miles ahead and thus, to avoid having to ford a river, an approved (and shorter) detour could be taken. Moses, the only one among us with any chance of parting the waters, chose the detour. I had waited a lifetime to ford an AT river and, along with several others, chose not to take the shortcut. I got to the river and saw that there was a moderately risky path across on boulders, but they were slick, wet, and spaced such that trekking poles would be needed to jump from one boulder to the next. It was a water and rock Fobstacle Course. I estimated that I could probably make the journey 3 out of 4 times without falling in. Liking those odds, I just went for it without taking my boots off. I made it! That wouldn’t have happened 30 pounds ago. As I reached the other side, the other hikers were putting on their shoes and socks so I assume they walked across in their water shoes.
Light rain fell off and on throughout the day. At mile 481.3 I stopped to eat the second half of my Subway spicy Italian sub from Damascus and soak my feet in a stream. A couple miles later I passed the long and beautiful Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge. After 15.8 miles I called it a day and tented with Moses, Conductor and others near the Lost Mountain Shelter. Just as I got in my tent and zipped up inside my sleeping bag, the sky opened up and a massive thunderstorm hit. There’s nothing quite like dozing off to sleep atop a mountain with heavy rain pounding the side of your tent.
Despite rain throughout much of the morning, I was pretty motivated because today we would come to the beautiful Mount Rogers (highest point in Virginia) and scenic, wild pony-filled Grayson Highlands. Near mile 490.6 Moses caught up to me near the summit of Whitetop Mountain. As we sat there on a couple of rocks having snacks, two deer approached fairly closely, froze, stared at us, and then wandered off. I was able to video that and post it to my Facebook page. After descending the mountain, Moses, Olive Oil and I took a long break at the VA 600 parking lot. I spread out my wet rain fly and ground cloth so they could dry out in the sun, and laid in the thick grass picking granola crumbs out of my beard.
After a 12.3 mile day I stopped at Thomas Knob Shelter, well within the southern boundary of wild pony country. While I’m really not much of a horse guy (that’s Lil Jan’s domain), for some reason I was pretty excited to see and interact with some midget wild ponies. Unfortunately, my first interaction was anything but positive. As I traveled for water at a spring 50 yards behind the shelter, I approached a momma pony just standing there a yard or two off the path. At her feet was her dead baby pony or foal. We believe it died in the heavy thunderstorm the night before. A hiker returning from the spring told me the mom had been standing over it for the past three hours. She would occasionally nudge it, trying to wake it up. It was the saddest thing to watch. I wondered how long she would stay there before realizing all hope was gone. Whether it be humans or ponies, there is something very special about the love and care of a mother for her offspring.
As I went to hang my bear bag near the shelter that evening, two wild ponies emerged from the woods and walked right by me. It was strange, exciting, and magical, and I started channeling my inner Dr. Doolittle. I wondered why I was hanging a bear bag, when surely a bear would choose a fresh wild pony over packaged Beef Stroganoff. In my unbridled enthusiasm, I asked if they were from Filly and whether they were Spurs fans. They didn’t speak, but I could tell they thought I was a stud, maybe even the shelter mare. I told them I had Ramen noodle-induced trots, was not stable, and couldn’t talk furlong.
A bit later, just before sunset, I explored an area north of the shelter and came across a campsite with more wild ponies. All I could think of was that every dad (or mom) with a daughter (or son) who loves horses really needs to camp here and give them the experience of a lifetime. I decided it was time to fulfill another sub-AT bucket list item and interview Mary Brook, a wild talking pony. I chose her because of her pleasant disposition, wide girth, and ability to speak English. Video of the interview is posted on my Facebook page. I harnessed my courage and asked her if she had ever seen a long distance hiker better looking than me (answer: nay); whether it bothered her being a midget horse and having people call her names like Colt Shorty-Five (answer: nay); and whether she would like to go to “mane” with me (answer: nay). Off camera she told me, “I canter do this interview any more,” and then left the area with a handsome mustang.
I returned to the shelter, ate some cheese with thorough bread, and then took a position next to Conductor in the shelter’s hind quarters. All horsing aside, I needed a good night’s sleep in order to get out of the gait early and get a leg up on the other hikers.
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