It was a cold and slightly soggy night but everything in the tent stayed pretty dry save a few wind swept rain drops. I managed to get a fair night’s sleep until about 3am when it turned into the usual choppiness because I was worried about a downpour with every concentrated smattering of drops hitting the tent walls. Oakland had another bifurcated sleep that sadly was not nearly enough total hours. We turned to each other in our sleeping bags and discussed the strategy for our morning duties – pun intended. I volunteered to go first, then Oakland. It wasn’t actively raining but all the trees were wet as was the ground where I dug my cat hole. I had sympathetic nervous stomach and the process took longer than usual, which my knees did not thank me for. Oakland tromped off into the soggy forest after I returned and came back triumphant. Then we got our food bags down without event. Success! As we wound up our ropes it started to actually rain so we headed for the cover of the tent to eat breakfast in bed which is good for no one’s back but is better than getting soaked.
After carefully eating our food, we packed up inside of the tent and then broke down the tent itself, which wasn’t as dirty of a process as expected. Task rabbit came over to say hi as did hank the wonder dog. We Left with soggy clammy hands at 8:05, and stopped after a few minutes of hiking because Oakland needed to rearrange things to reduce the noise in her pack.
We continued down the misty, wet trail with rocks and roots. I had cinderblock toes that did not want to navigate the tricky footing.
There was a fair amount of water on the trail and we crossed several small sources, so much so that oakland remarked on the abundance of water relative to hiking in northern california. We also spotted a Snail exploring along the rocks.
The Trail Flattened out now and then but the rocks persisted. The woods around us were a vibrant green as we made our way Down to the elk garden parking lot where there was a bathroom and a trash can! We made us of the facilities while a couple of older hikers came southbound through the cowfield across the road.
We ate snacks, emptied our trash and then made our way through the cows up a short hilly pasture. I was glad the sun came out a tiny bit and that it wasn’t raining as we traversed the open field and went back into the woods.
The woods were dark and misty with the occasional juncos cavorting on the trail. We eventually took an actual break (versus the snippets of breaks we’d taken thus far because of the cool temperatures) to put a bandaid on my toe and get off our feet for a few minutes. We Checked out the water sources as the wind picked up. The goosebumps and shivering dictated the end of our break. The rain started to come down harder not long after we got moving again. I didn’t take that many notes for the rest of the day because I needed to protect my phone from the rain and I was too aggravated by the rockfields that you’ll get to later in the post. I’m going to let the pictures do more of the talking for the middle part of the day.
We trudged our way up the rocky climb in the rain. I borrowed oakland’s phone to take a few pictures but for the most part it was a head down, just get it done kind of section.
We eventually came to an open area with tall ground cover all around and fog blowing through the air just enough to give us passing views of the mountains down below.
There was pony poop everywhere! We finally made it the shelter where a giant gaggle of teenagers took up most of the floor space. A guy standing outside the shelter said to me, “they went around back.” I no idea what he was talking about, and I had little patience in my cold, frazzled state. I said, are you talking about the ponies? because right now I don’t care about ponies. He was actually talking about someone who was looking for two hikers, but he quickly figured out that we were not the hikers in question.
We set our packs down at the rocky edge of the shelter and pulled out our food bags. I was prepared to ask the teenagers to move but they decided it was time to leave of their own accord, so we waited for them to tromp out of the shelter in their ponchos. We plopped down in our soggy clothes onto the shelter floor. I boiled hot water in an attempt to get a bit warmer. A couple of bedraggled looking SOBO section hikers showed up and did pretty the same thing we had which was collapse and complain about the weather while eating and trying to get warm. A mouse made an appearance and proved to be crafy and very persistent. He didn’t actually get into our food bags but i’m sure he would have if he had been given a minute long window to make the leap. Dark eyed juncos also landed on the shelter floor in search of crumbs. The sun came out in fits and starts but the wind negated a lot of the sun’s warming qualities. I was in a state of disrepair and had no desire to stay put OR to keep hiking, but that was our best option. Oakland kindly filtered all of the water so that I wouldn’t have to touch anything wet. We Left around 1:45. I had sore, numb feet that were so cold that the impact of the ground hurt. The sun had cleared away enough of the fog for us to get a decent view of the hillsides around us.
Not too far from the shelter, we finally spotted our first batch of Ponies! We went back into the woods and walked through green tunnels of varying widths. In a slightly more open section, I happened to notice a swath of purple blossoms on the ground off to the left of the trail and decided to call it a snowdodendron because it looked like purple snow.
A little farther up the trail, I saw a small path lead off to the left and end at the base of a giant rock. Oakland teased me a bit, but of course we had to find out if there was a view. We scrambled up the giant rock and kept our balance in the wind to take in the sweeping views.
I took a video of the view, but again wordpress is being cranky. You can get a small sense of the wind if you look at my jacket in the picture above. Anyway, the views were incredible and it was worth the drop in body temperature to stand up there for a few minutes. Then we continued through the rocky shitpile, which I have dubbed most of the highlands because of the pony poop and the ENDLESS rocks that NO ONE TALKS ABOUT.
I think everyone is pony blind, because it was some of the more aggravating terrain I’ve come across in the southern half so far. We finally ran into a troup of ponies that stood practically on the trail. There was also a pony right on the other side of the sign that said “no horses,” which we both found hilarious. The top picture for today is oakland giving a quiet hello to the group and here are a few more pictures from the pony times:
After making it into grayson highlands state park and going through another batch of ponies, we took a break on a sunny rock to eat snacks and give our feet a rest from the rocks.
We Passed through a field of shrub sized mountain laurel still in full bloom with little pony side trails veering off in all directions. There were several trail junctions that all had good signage. At some point, Oakland really had to pee but was dismayed by the public nature of the trail. It was close to a parking lot so there were families around. I convinced her to take a side trail just out of sight. She definitely felt better afterwards.
We continued past several rocky formations and I felt grateful that we didn’t have to walk over them. We did however not get much in the way of a break from the rocks. The trail eventually flattened out a bit and led us through a sea of ferns. Then we descended soggy log stairs, some which were already unstable even though they looked like a new addition and we crossed a steam with a footbridge and a cable.
We eventually went through a fence line and took a hard right to face more rocks. when the rocks finally receded a bit, the roots took over. Task rabbit caught up with us and we walked silently together for the rest of the way to the shelter.
Thankfully there was a bit of sun at the shelter area so it wasn’t completely frigid. Oakland and I dropped our packs and conferred about where to set up our tents, not knowing that there were many more tenting sites around the corner from the shelter. We had differing opinions and I was close to a food exhaustion meltdown but we managed to pick a site. I grabbed a few snacks for the setup process and we got down to business. When the test was ready, we crawled in to make sure the lumps and the angle were hospitable enough for all parties. We agreed that it would do just fine. Then we took our packs over to the shelter area and boiled water while talking to snack rabbit. Once our food was set to cook, Oakland and I took turns setting up our beds. It’s possible to do it st the same time but much easier to stagger the giant flotation devices bopping around inside the tent. I sent our gps location to the parentals and Then we ate dinner with task rabbit. bare burrito with leftover lunch tortillas and a few Fritos for both of us. Another guy we’d seen at Thomas knob shelter arrived while we ate. His name is Tad and he’s a talkative person. I felt like I was scarfing my food, partially because it was warm and partially because I felt like a bottomless pit. Oakland had a slightly better appetite than she did the day before and easily made it through her dinner.
After dishes and dessert we wandered around tending to our dental hygiene while task rabbit and tad took a trip to the water source an eighth of a mile north. Oakland and I followed suit with our food bags because there’s a bear box on the way! I can’t tell you how much of a luxury it is to not throw a bear line. Granted, there’s the fear that mice will eat through our bags, but in the short term it’s a relief. We dropped off our bags and saw a southbound sign that said no camping in the shelter area. No such sign exists on the northbound side of the shelter so we had no idea there were more tentsites across from the bear box. We wandered down the trail looking for the water source. We followed the sound of water through a poorly designed fence and found a raging creek with a well constructed but frightening crossing (pictures of that to come in Day 52). Oakland exclaimed that it should have a railing on both sides and I agreed. We filtered a bottle of water each and filled our sawyer bags for the morning supply. On the way back, my hands did their usual revolt and went numb in the cool evening air. We decided to put our water in the tent tonight because word is that the wild ponies will chew and suck on anything left unattended outside. Oakland got in the tent for the evening and I went to the shelter to throw my feet above my head. Then I made a visit to the moldering privy which is new and has a full supply of leaf duff for “flushing.” The walk back let me know, once again, that I am tired because my feet were not following my brain’s instructions as I stumbled the short distance. I got in the tent to get warm and batten down the hatches but I stubbornly got back out to retrieve Aleve for Oakland. She didn’t want me to, but it seemed like an easy sacrifice to make if it helps with her sleeping in any way. Then I finally settled in for the evening. I was about to write up my notes when we discovered that we were about to get behind schedule on food drops. I mistakenly thought we had more time to get our second box after Damascus in the mail but we needed to have it out by Saturday. I hate sending urgent texts to HQ about postage because I feel guilty for requesting short turnaround times. It hits my “get your shit together” button. I had a mini meltdown when Oakland suggested we work on the box tonight because I hadn’t started trying to put my notes into complete sentences yet. I responded with exasperation that I couldn’t handle that kind of task right now but I also didn’t know when else to do it. We decided that I would do notes and she would start the process of figuring out the mail. Then we sat in the dark and populated our food lists so that when we got phone signal they would get through to HQ. I’m finishing this to the sound of the wind (it may gust up to 40mph over night), the rustle of the ziplock that my cracked phone is in, and Oakland shifting in her sleeping bag while she stares at our AWOL guide with her headlamp.
Mile 492.6 to mile 504.1 (11.5)
Checklist total miles: 512.3
Oakland total miles: 33.4
Creature feature: a deer crossing the road at elk garden, ponies!, robins, the occasional crow, and the moo cows
I am finally doing catch up. While sorry ya’ll had to work through the chilly damp weather, it’s 100 degrees today and your descriptions and lovely foggy photos have cooled me down a bit! I wonder what the story is behind the wild ponies?
VA has been steeeeeamy! The ponies were brought in to keep vegetation along the highlands from becoming overgrown. Why that was necessary other than for aesthetics/tourism, I’m not sure.