Today was full of nice surprises!
I knew it would be a slow "run" because this section is mostly uphill - about
5,000 feet of elevation gain and only about 1,800 feet of loss. I didn't know
much about the Trail surface, other than a recent e-mail from David Horton
saying it was rough north of Damascus.
So I gave Jim a conservative time estimate of when I'd finish, and started
walking at 7:30 AM.
Horton was right. This is a rocky, rooty section that starts in the Whitetop
Laurel Creek gorge. This creek has been designated a "Wild and Scenic River."
The AT passes through dense shade and hovers about 100 feet above both the
creek and the Virginia Creeper Trail for about a mile before starting a two-mile
climb to the top of Straight Mountain. There were no steep climbs today, just
Near the top of the ridge I entered the most beautiful section of blooming
rhododendrons that I've seen in the past month on the AT, even though there have
been numerous rhododendrons in the last 450 miles. Such a profusion of lavender
and fuschia-colored flowers! I've been waiting for this.
I felt like I was in a botanical garden for a mile.
Numerous bees were feeding off the nectar, their buzzing almost drowning out
the sound of Laurel Creek in the rugged gorge below.
I stopped several times in pure awe, drinking in the amazing beauty of the
blue sky, white clouds, gray rocks, and glimpses of Virginia's two
tallest mountains in the background, Whitetop and Mt. Rogers.
I wish Jim could have been with me right then, but he wouldn't have liked the
rocky trail. There wasn't much smooth trail today.
Above 3,500 feet on this ridge, and later as I was climbing to Buzzard Rock,
there were numerous wildflowers that I'm following north as they bloom:
pink Lady's slippers, white fringed phacelia, red columbines, bluets, spring
beauties, cinquefoil, squawroot, fire pinks, spiderworts, serviceberry, and
After nine miles of quiet, dense forest in the Mt. Rogers National Recreation
Area, the Trail suddenly spit out onto the Virginia Creeper Trail again. I had
to put on my sunglasses to ward off the sudden glare. The Creeper trail is
mostly shaded, but nothing like the AT was.
I forgot to mention yesterday where the bike trail got its name. The train
that used to run through this gorge went very slowly because of all the
mountains in this part of Virginia and North Carolina. Hence, the "Virginia
There weren't as many cyclists as I expected for a holiday on the Creeper
Trail, which the AT follows for about one-half mile. It was a gradual incline
paralleling Laurel Creek. There were several benches along the way, each
dedicated to someone. Most bikes were going downhill, heading to Damascus. Only
two cyclists were going up the same way as me.
Why? Because most people prefer to ride a van up to Whitetop Mountain, get on
their mountain bike (or a rental one from town), and ride only one way:
down to Damascus! Kinda like some ski resorts do in the summer to extend
their business. Only this trail isn't on some steep incline like ski trails are.
It's gradual because that train used to run here, and train tracks don't
have steep climbs or descents.
The uphill rider lives in the area. He told me there is a 70-year-old local
man who rides his bike up to Whitetop every day and back down again. He never
takes a van. What a great example for others!
The Creeper Trail was a nice diversion, but I was happy to get back into the
woods again. Now I had to climb over 3,000 feet up to Buzzard Rock and along the
grassy bald of Whitetop Mountain, a little below its summit of 5,560 feet.
I was following yet another creek through dense forest, switchbacking up and
up over rocks for about three miles until I suddenly came to an open, sunny
meadow. I rounded a bend and was in someone's back yard! As I dutifully followed
the white blazes around the side of the house, I noticed the windows were broken
out. It was vacant.
Across the little dirt road was a welcome surprise: Jim and the dogs!
I wasn't expecting him there, but was very happy to see him. He had been there
only about five minutes and was pretty sure I hadn't come by yet because the
dogs didn't act like they could smell my footprints.
Don't laugh! These dogs, especially Cody, are great trackers. They know
exactly when Jim or I have been on a section of trail recently.
I spent a few minutes talking with Jim, then headed out for the last few
miles with Cody. I wish I'd had him earlier, since there was lots of shade and
water. Of course, there was less and less of each as we climbed ever higher to
Buzzard Rock and Whitetop.
Above 4,500 feet I entered a beautiful bald with low shrubs and large
boulders. It looked sub-alpine, and the views of the valleys and mountains were
the best I had all day. Cody and I climbed up to Buzzard Rock and talked with a
young couple who frequent the area with their beagle. They like to just sit on
the rock and survey the world. Sounded great, but I needed to move on after
taking several photos.
As we entered the woods again (some of the last Fraser fir and red spruce
until the Shenandoahs), here come Jim and Tater, who'd walked and run in about
three miles to meet us. Because of the rocks, we had to walk half the way back
to the truck at Elk Garden, which is on the Eastern Continental Divide and
separates Whitetop Mountain from Mt. Rogers, which I'll climb tomorrow.
I really enjoyed today's section even though it was very slow. I saw a lot of
hikers out today, including many teenagers. I stopped to eat a harvest muffin at
the second shelter and talked with three section hikers and one thru-hiker
there. The thru-hiker, "GQ," is a young man in his 20s who runs marathons. He
had lots of questions about my run, and has heard of Horton's AT speed record
and Andrew Thompson's attempt this year. I was hoping to see Rain and Dance and
their dog, but I must have gotten ahead of them.
Jim scored a lot of points today after surprising me on the Trail, coming in
to escort me back to the truck, doing laundry, going to the grocery, AND getting
the best steak I've had in years to grill out for supper back at our campsite!
He's a great cook, and he's taking excellent care of me during this adventure
run. Thanks, honey! I can't make my AT dream come true without you.
Jim will probably run with me some in the morning. We're looking forward to
seeing some wild ponies on Mt. Rogers and in the Grayson Highlands. Hikers say
they are very friendly, so maybe they'll let us pet them. Stay tuned for photos!