Cara and I packed the car and left Baltimore at 10am with Kaya in the back seat. I called Newman on our way out and he was still in the midst of packing subsequently he'd be a couple hours behind us - however there were already people from Washington Backpackers that had left and would be looking for a place for us to setup camp.
Cara and I made good time, stopping infrequently. The cloud laden sky followed us for several hours before breaking and letting blue sky and patchy sunshine through. After Roanoke I could see a thunder shower ahead of us, we went through a brief period of heavy rain before winning free.
Down towards RT91, the cutoff to Damascus, it became evident that a tornado had struck the area. Roofs were ripped off, houses destroyed, trees toppled, and advertisement signs gone. It looked as if the storm had happened a week prior, as clean up was well under-way. It was sobering to see the fury of mother nature.
We arrived into Damascus at 4:30. I drove us to the General Store across from the tenting area and payed $20 to park in the field next-door. We walked over to the store to use the facilities and grab a snickers. I called the numbers of the people that were supposed to be there already. On the 3rd number I got in touch with Gino. Cara and I grabbed the tent, as the sky was looking threatening again and I wanted to have a place to stow our stuff if it began raining. We came in to the far right and followed the path behind the new baseball diamonds to a field where some tents were being setup. We met Gino and he lead us from the field back to where he and Matt had staked off some areas for us to camp. A small stream lay just beyond Gino's tent.
Cara and I looked close by and found a spot we thought would hold the 4-person tent I had purchased for this trip. I needed a car camping tent for Cara, myself, and Kaya! As we cleared the area of poison ivy and stinging nettles the sky got darker and finally began raining. I decided to setup the tent quickly rather than wait it out. We hustled, pulling everything out, removing plastic and rubber-bands from the new tent. The base went together quickly, easy enough. We tossed the rain-fly over, both of us getting soaked by now, the rain having picked up the pace. We clambered into the tent, first pulling the fly this way, then that way, a couple puddles forming on the floor where rain was falling off the fly into the door of the tent. We sat there for a bit then decided that the experience would be much better if we had beers in hand!
Cara, Kaya, and I walked back up to the car, dripping wet, at this point, and grabbed the cooler and some other gear. Back at camp, with the rain lessening, and a cold beer in hand, we properly set up the tent, moved it out of a depression and staked it and the fly down. I toweled out the inside and we put our day packs and other gear inside. Cara was getting numb at this point so we walked back to the car to blast the heat and get some feeling back into hands! She also changed into dry clothing and put on a rain jacket. We carried the big blue tote down to the campsite. This trip was quite the opposite of backpacking or ultralite!! The guy at the end of the trail near our campsite made quite a few comments on all the stuff we carried back to camp!
In the blue tote was all kinds of goodies - including the tarp. I strung that up next to the tent. As I was doing that Cara noticed one of our neighbors bare-assed in the stream behind our camp, only partially hidden by some trees.
Cara and I were getting quite hungry at this point, and the rest of the group was heading into town to catch a concert at the town pavilion - we decided to tag along in the darkening evening to grab some food in town and maybe catch the music if we found something. Kaya trotting happily along-side, we made our way into town. At the Creeper Trail the group turned left towards the town park, Cara and I continued to town. We turned right on Main, passing a few churches and hiker hostels, one church showing a slide-show presented by (or maybe ABOUT) Warren Doyle. The next church up had free coffee and snacks - we wanted real food though so we continued up to 91, turning right towards Sundog and Subway. At the edge of town we saw nothing we wanted, so I went into Dot's to check their menu - which consisted of anything in the world... deep fried. I ordered the chicken tenders, what I hoped would be the least offensive item to be fried. After getting the order I went outside where Cara waited with Kaya. Cara saw some picnic tables in front of Sun Dog so we crossed the street and asked if we could sit at the end. The hikers there said sure, then proceeded to invite us to eat bow-tie Alfredo and a fresh vegetable salad along with some bread! The cook insisted on heating the sauce for us before serving it. Then we all sang happy birthday to the cook! awesome people opening up just by sitting down! This is why I love Trail Days! Needless to say, most of the deep fried chicken from Dot's got wasted.
As we finished dinner Theresa called to let us know she just got into town and was on a pay phone since AT&T had no signal. I told her where we were and she drove down and picked us up so we could walk her into camp - and we got a ride back to camp.
She parked in the $10 lot, which I hadn't seen on our way in to town. Opps! Theresa had packed like she was back-packing. The only car camping item she had was a camp chair. We walked back to camp and she left her stuff under our tarp as she found a place to setup her tent. A few minutes later Newman arrived with his girl-friend and son. They left quite a bit of stuff under my tarp.We crawled into the tent, cleaned Kaya off and situated her on a blanket by our feet. I brought my foam mattress and my 3/4 Thermarest - Cara got the more comfortable thermarest, of course, chivalry isn't dead! By the end of the night Kaya had the thermarest and Cara was on the ground between the two pads... apparently dogs don't prescribe to chivalry. There were drums beating and singing and revelry late into the night. I woke sometime later to a quiet camp.
Darwin came by the tent at 6:30am to tell us we were getting up for the hike soon. I lay there for awhile longer, listening to the birds singing their praises to the morning, the trickle of the stream, and mostly just the lack of noise in general. Soon Newman and others came over to our tarp to prepare coffee and hot water for tea and oatmeal. I motivated to get out of bed and we soon were packed for the hike and drinking some coffee from Newman's percolator.
We gathered all the people from the group and headed out - 4 cars full of people, including: Newman, Brandon, Kirsten, Darwin and his two dogs, Theresa, Matt, Toaha, Natalie, Barry, and Emil and his wife. Gino decided to go fly fishing before needing to head home that evening. Theresa rode with us, as we caravaned through the mountain towards Mt Rogers.
We finally made it to the parking area after a couple turn arounds. We put our packs on and headed up the trail. The sun was shining and the day was fairly clear. Off on the horizon there were some clouds, but they looked far away. We hiked up the spur trail to the AT and the we followed the AT through a patch of trees. Off in the distance we could see a horse back-rider on one side of a fence and a wild pony on the other. A pony sighting!
The Trail curved up over the hill and back down to the field we were looking at from afar. As we closed in on the gate, the same pony we saw came trotting out of some brush. He saw Kaya and started running toward her, then the horse looked over and saw Darwin's dogs and ran towards them instead. At first we didn't know what the ponies intentions were, so we drew back and distracted the pony with apples. As it turned out, the pony only seemed to be coming down to say "Hi" to the dogs - enthusiastically. The pony was completely tame, it seemed, and liked our presence, occasionally licking our hands for the salt. We took many pictures of our new pony friend before putting our packs on and heading on.
Beyond the gate the Trail split, we continued on the AT towards Mt Rogers. The views behind were spectacular, the valleys hidden by mist, the far peaks jutting through those low clouds. The clouds we had seen on the horizon were closer now.
We ascend to some more balds, over some rocky area. The AT cut off to the right, while another trail went up and over the rocky bumps on the tops of the bald. The AT chooses the easy way! The views were slightly better, and the rocks were fun to climb. Kaya is a rock climbing champ! To Cara's 'Heel' and 'Wait' commands, Kaya listens very well, not pulling on the leash.
Over the first rocky out-cropping and on to the second, the clouds were closing in on us quickly, the wind a bit more chill. Two people were having trouble on the rock hopping sections, so they went out to the AT to meet us on the other side of the hills. We stopped and ate a couple bars and took a few more pictures. In the bald around us we could see a few groups of ponies scattered around. At the base of the 2nd hill we re-grouped and took a photo of us all before polling everyone on whether we should start heading back or try to summit Mount Rogers. Everyone seemed to be trending towards going on - Brandon piped up and reminded us it would look exactly as it does now. A few other factors lead me to side with our voice of reason - the hiker parade was to start at 2pm, they close the road back to the campsites some time before that, we were getting hungry, the clouds we had seen in the distance were now rolling over us obscuring the view and spitting rain - that could potentially become a worse storm at any time. Convinced, we headed back the AT route towards the cars.
It didn't take us long to get back to the cars. Though we did stop to play with a larger group of ponies and their foal. Kaya got nose to nose to a few of them, she wanted to play with them. We had hiked upwards of four miles, not a long hike, and not particularly strenuous, but filled with ponies, good views, easy conversation, and some fun rock hopping.
We made it back into town right at 1pm. Parked back in our spot, the group split. Cara, Kaya, and I went into town directly to see the hiker parade and the gear vendors and grab some food. Everyone else stopped back through the campsite to drop stuff off. Cara and I walked up to the town green and perused the gear. We each found some stuff that could really come in handy - her a Loki jacket caught her eye, with built in mittens and face mask - good for the always cold individual! We also found a full length Thermarest for a price to good not to get for her. I found a kinetic energy charger - which would work great, but at 11 oz, really isn't needed on the AT, where you are always a couple miles from the nearest electric outlet! I could see having that out west or in Alaska. I also saw the Packa - which I had seen online, but really got a good feel for it, I want on now, and think it is one of those items all backpackers need to have. It is a raincover/raincoat/poncho all in one and at the same weight as just my rain jacket - it is feature rich with zip-pits, a flap to sit on, can be used as either just a pack cover or just a rain coat. It fits over the shoulder pads of the pack and doesn't allow water down one's back. The Packa The best part was, the guy manning the booth is the creator, designer, and sole salesman of the device - also a thru hiker. This product needs to catch on, and I don't see how it won't!
By the time we got to the end of the vendors, the parade had began - fortunately we were at the end of the street so we still got to see it all - all the fire trucks, and classes of hikers, all the different trail associations, and some random guys on horse back. Interesting parade, to say the least!
After the parade we went and finished looking at the few vendors we missed before heading down the Virginia Creeper Bike Trail towards Sun Dog. We had seen an ice cream parlor on the way into town that struck our fancy! I bought a couple little things in Sun Dog and we sat on the porch of the ice cream place. Our timing, impeccable, it began pouring rain, us covered and dry on the porch! A bunch of scouts rode up on there bikes, some getting caught in the rain. There was one boy that forgot his wallet and some of the other boys were muttering about ("i'm not his sitter"), Cara quietly offered to get him a cone - this simple act moved me. She's a good person.
We sat, finishing our cones and letting the rain slow, before putting up our rain hoods and heading back into town. We made our way eventually back to camp, stopping at the sponsor tents and getting some stickers and beer cozzies from Osprey.
Back in camp we kicked around looking for a spot to start a fire. Where Gino had camped the night before, right on the bank of the stream was clear - so I went down the stream and started chucking big rocks up, Kaya chased the rocks back and forth, and Cara put them in a circle for the ring. Go team, lol. We gathered some firewood and sawed it up, stopping to pop tops and begin drinking. I had bought a bag of firewood in MD, kiln dried, so it didn't take much to start the fire, even with all the wet wood on hand. I placed the other firewood around the fire to dry it out. After we got a good bed of coals I put on a baked potato and the hobo dinner - beef cubes, onions, green peppers, a dash of salt pepper and olive oil.
As we sat and drank we talked to various people walking or stumbling past. A friend of Kirsten and her friend Powhatan (Jonathan) stopped by. Powhatan is thru hiking for the second time this year, last time he thru-ed was in 2001. Great guy, very laid back fun to talk to, good humor. He had the long beard and an insatiable desire to drink beer. He bounced back and forth between Newman and Kirsten were under their kitchen tent, and were Cara and I were tying one on by our fire.
Eventually our food was done, and while the meat was a bit over done the potato was perfect. We savored it with a few more beers. Darwin came by and made us do a couple shots of Johnny Walker Red. The guys from West Virginia - one that Cara had seen bare-assed the day before - came by and spoke to us for awhile, they were worried their music playing was bothering us, quite the contrary!! Between the mandolin and a drum with their very Appalachian folk singing style I couldn't have asked for a better way to enjoy the evening. They were very nice guys too. Glad to have had the pleasure of camping near them.
After listening to the music, and the howls and occasional bottle rocket, beating drums, wind in the trees and trickling stream, Cara and I stumbled the few feet back to the tent. With Kaya clean we went to sleep - or rather I went to sleep - apparently Cara had to go to the bathroom and went wandering around for one all the way up close to the general store. I remember none of that; I passed out!
It began raining during the night and rained most of the way until morning. Plunking on the tent roof while we stayed dry inside.
We were awoken by the next camp over yelling that it was 15 minutes until sunrise, they stayed up all night waiting for it! We dozed off for a few more hours. We got out of the tent and made coffee then bacon then eggs and english muffins - roughing it I know! We went over and shared some bacon with the group. Some were already packing up and getting out. After a slow relaxing morning we began packing up, the rain firmly finished. I went over and got the car and we packed everything quickly. After saying our goodbyes - we headed out. We being muddy, grimy, tired, and itchy - but happy and content at the same time. We took our time going home, stopping frequently and just generally enjoying the trip, but boy did that shower feel wonderful when we got back to Baltimore!!!
Not a double rainbow - but I will take a full on, all the way rainbow!!