When I left you last, Tiger and I were caught in an old episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Not really, but it sure felt that way! We were the only hikers at the Laurel Fork Lodge on the night of April 23. It was like a ghost town, but it was great. I soaked my leg in the Laurel Fork River before heading out the next morning. We followed the river to a magnificent waterfall. There we met a hiker couple with a retriever type dog. This dog was amazing! If you threw a rock in the river the dog would bound after it, stick his head completely under the water, and come out with the exact rock you threw in and bring it back to you!
After playing with this dog for a little bit, Tiger and I followed the river to the Laurel Fork shelter and had lunch there. The trail headed up the mountain at that point, and it was a brutal climb: 2000 feet in altitude in 3 1/2 miles. What made it hard was it was around 85 degrees with precious little shade. You see, there a no leaves on the deciduous trees yet at these high altitudes. The only place I could find relief from the sun was in thickets of rhododendrons. I would climb in, take my pack off, drink water, and eat a Snickers bar. That’s the way I got up Pond Flats Mountain. On top, I was amazed to find a beautiful spring where I filled up my water bottle. Incidentally, I started my Appalachian Trail hike filtering my water to make sure it was free from pollutants, viruses, bacteria, and cysts. Along the way, I was talked into switching to chemical treatment in order to save weight. I now use a product called Polar Pure which is iodine based. I cannot taste it and have been assured that it is safe.
So, I treated my water and headed down the mountain toward Watauga Lake. This lake was formed by the Tennessee Valley Authority from 1942 to 1949 by damming up many tributaries, the Little Stoney Creek, Elk River, Little Dry Run, Hopper Creek, Digger Branch, Spice Branch, Cobb Creek, and Doe Creek among them. This lake is huge. The trail took me around its western end to the Watauga Lake shelter. This was a 10 1/2 mile hike but was one of my hardest days on the Trail. Not only that, this day of hiking gave me my first blister. 400 miles without a blister! Why now? Maybe I was getting too cocky and sure of myself. With the progress I had been making in getting over my shin splints, maybe I was feeling invincible. The blister took me down a notch. I soaked my leg in a creek near the shelter that night and the next morning.
Another thing was different about my hiking. I had lost my Trail companion Tiger. A hiker at the shelter that night reported that Tiger had decided to camp on top of Pond Flats. The heat got the best of him. I took this news with mixed emotions. First, I was concerned for Tiger’s wellbeing. Second, I was sad to lose his company. But I have been told that the Trail is like a caterpillar: sometime the tail moves up toward the head. Hikers fall behind and then catch up. Hopefully, Tiger and I will see each other again.
The morning of April 25 I climbed into the Iron Mountains above Watauga Lake. These mountains are famous for their magnetic iron ore. The views of the lake below were beautiful, but it was almost like the line from The Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!” The springs up there were few and far between. I compensated by packing more water when I came upon a rare water source. Problem was that water is heavy! I was carrying eight pounds of water, but it gave me peace of mind in the continuing heat.
As the day wore on, storm clouds gathered over the lake below. With claps of thunder coming more and more frequently, I picked up the pace of my hiking. I had four miles to go before I could get to the Iron Mountain shelter. When the first drops of rain came, I stopped to put on my rain parka and I covered my pack. I ended up racing the storm to the shelter. I arrived at 5:00, but the storm seemed to split and go around me. I had the shelter to myself. I cooked my supper by adding boiling water to dehydrated Chicken Ala King with Noodles. I am using an denatured alcohol stove now. I sent my Coleman fuel MSR whisper lite stove home. Again, this decision was based on cutting down weight in my pack.
It was 8:00 and almost dark when another hiker arrived. This young woman pointed to her ear to indicate she was deaf. I spelled out “Welcome” in one-hand sign language. “Thank you!” she signed back. We both went straight to bed. “Hiker Midnight” routinely occurs as soon as it gets dark.
The next morning was Sunday. After we packed up, I wrote on a piece of paper, “What is your name?” The young woman wrote back, “Redtree.” Redtree left the shelter earlier than I did. I saw her next at a spring about two miles up the trail. Here, she indicated to me that she was sick and had a fever. I told her to drink lots of water. She hiked on in front of me. It was another very hot day. The farther I hiked north on the trail, the more I heard the roar of car or motorcycle engines. When these motor sounds got really loud, I realized I was coming to a gap with a paved road, Low Gap. Just before I made the last descent, I saw Redtree sleeping in her sleeping bag on the side of the trail. There was a note attached to her hiking poles. “I am very sick, I have a fever. Please help me get a ride to Damascus.” I did not wake her, but rushed down to the gap. I realized then that the reason Redtree did not know she was close to a road was because she could not hear the motors. I recognized a couple of thru-hikers at the road, Patch and his wife Spoon (and their dog Haily). Spoon used her cell phone to call Mount Rogers Outfitters in Damascus and arranged a shuttle ride for Redtree. Spoon also arranged for a place for Redtree to stay. It took a hour to get Redtree, still wobbly with her fever, off to Damascus.
I hit the trail again with six miles left to go to the Abingdon Gap shelter. I arrived at 6:00, found the shelter full of people, and decided to set up my tent nearby. At dawn the next morning I was serenaded by a wood thrush’s melodic trills. The took me back to the births of both my children, Joseph and Elizabeth, when thrushes nested in our backyard and provided us with similar melodies. I should point out here that today, April 28, is Elizabeth’s 21st birthday. Happy Birthday Elizabeth! I’ll call you tonight!
I got on the trail at 8:00 that morning with ten miles to go to get to Damascus, VA, a noted Appalachian Trail town. I was still in Tennessee, but a little after 10:00, I saw a guy standing by a Mt. Rogers National Forest sign. A line of rocks were by the trail. “Welcome to Virginia!” he says. I got him to take my picture by the sign and continued on to Damascus.
On the descent an amazing thing happened before my eyes. All of a sudden the trees had leaves. I was used to the bare trees of winter at the higher elevations. Now, I was surrounded by maples, beeches, oaks, and chestnut oaks fully dressed in their leaves. Dogwoods and cherry trees were blooming along the trail as well. When I came out onto the streets of Damascus and followed the white blazes of the AT down the main street, it was as if summer had arrived. I was immediately overwhelmed by all the cars and lumber trucks. By talking to some of the locals, I found out that this town lay at the confluence of the Laurel Fork and Beaverdam Rivers. By more nosing around I discovered that the area’s first permanent European settler was Thomas McSpadden and his wife Mary in 1776. Henry Mock established a mill on the Laurel Fork in 1821 and the settlement was first called Mock’s Mill. General Imboden of Civil War acclaim believed that this area could be as famous as the Damascus in the Mideast as a steel producer and named the place Damascus.
It is true that this area is surrounded by the Iron Mountains and the Abingdon Coal and Iron Railroad was founded soon after to extract these minerals as well as manganese. The railroad changed its name to Virginia-Carolina Railway Company in 1906. But alas, all the dreams of a rich steel town failed to materialize. A couple of hosiery mills and a chemical company that used the bark of the chestnut tree to dye leather sustained the economy for a while, and the trains chugged slowly up and down the mountains. Some say it was the slowness of the trains that earned them the nickname, the Virginia Creeper. Others say that the initials V-C on the side of the railroad cars spawned the name. Still others declare that the train took its name after the tenacious vine of that same moniker. When the train company finally dissolved, the dormant tracks from the top of Whitetop Mountain down to Damascus and on to Abingdon were eventually torn up leaving a nice clear roadbed. It is this vestige that gave birth to the Virginia Creeper bicycle path, 16 miles from Whitetop to Damascus and 16 more from Damascus to Abingdon. Each year, thousands of bicyclists come to Damascus to ride the Virginia Creeper trail. At least the first part, from Whitetop Mountain is all downhill! The locals told me that the bicycle trail brings more people to town than the Appalachian Trail.
Oh, and one more thing about Damascus. The highway that comes through this town was called “The Crooked Road” by all the mountain people. This road and the hollers and the peaks that surround it gave birth to much of the Old Time Mountain Music and Bluegrass that we know today. Ralph Stanley and the Carter Family are but two examples of this musical heritage.
I continued my stroll through the town and met hikers who I had lost contact with. Several recommended that I stay at The Hikers Inn. I made a b-line for this place and was lucky enough to secure the last bed in the bunk house. For $20 a day I would have a place to stay, a place to take a shower, and a front porch to sit on and watch the lumber trucks.
All this has proven to be fortuitous for me. I have had a great time in Damascus. I have eaten my way through the place. I have socialized with hiker friends old and new. And my batteries are recharged to hit the trail tomorrow. Virginia is the longest state on the Appalachian Trail, 536.5 miles long, almost a quarter of the entire Trail. Needless to say, I’ll be in this state for a while!
I have no idea what the future will bring, but my shin splint leg is healed, My blisters are on the way to being healed. I am ready for some trucking!
I will do my best to get some recent photos to Colin Law, my Internet guru, for posting.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles