PONIES IN THE GRAYSON HIGHLANDS
Miles 469-542.7

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Buzzard Rock, 5,080 feet

The last few days have gone by like a flash, and it feels as if I could still be lying in the warm and therapeutic bed at the Woodchuck Hostel in Damscus. But almost magically, I am waking up in the Partnership Shelter, mile 531.5. It’s a beautiful shelter, one that can sleep 16, and I had it all to myself which I was a bit worried about last night because it was a Saturday and it sat near a road. The park HQ locks the gate at night though, and to be honest, I am very, very protective of my sleep. I am one irritable hiker that you don’t want to mess with if startled awake. That said, the shelter has two floors, the second accessed via a wooden ladder, with it being a fully enclosed floor, perfect for keeping the cold air just the slightest bit at bay. I slept soundly and woke up fully charged by 5:30am. After coffee, I had 11 miles to hike until reaching the Red Barn where a few resupply packages were waiting, including one from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. I do believe caffine is the secret to this winter thru-hike and I may have developed a slight addiction to it’s superpowers.

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Virginia Creeper Trail

Leaving Damascus, I looked forward to setting foot in the Grayson Highlands State Park. But first I had a decision to make: to be a purist or not to be? To follow the white blaze or, while still connecting my footsteps, to blue-blaze on an easier alternate? I am all over the idea of blue-blazing if it avoids an exessive and repetitive walk into/out of a shelter, or avoids bad weather and a slippery fall, or if shaves off a few bonus miles that could otherwise be referred to as a PUD, or if that blue-blaze leads me ever closer to that pint of IPA…Like up north when I hit the Long Trail Brewery!

I choose the blue-blaze out of Damascus called the Virginia Creeper Trail, and a route the outfitter claims majority of hikers take. It follows an old railway, and a path that has been converted for the pleasure of cyclists and hikers. It’s gravel and dirt, and follows the river while passing, at least at this time of year, a dozen small waterfalls. It’s scenic, shortens the distance by two miles, and most importantly, avoids two PUDs. After about 13 miles, it joins the AT for a half-mile or so before parting ways. I enjoyed every flat moment of that walk.

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The Grayson Highlands begin not too far after, but first, the AT climbs to Buzzard rock, a 5,080-foot outcropping with great views overlooking the valley to the south. Rime ice and frigid temperatures kept my pace steady, pausing only briefly to take a few photos of this beautiful spot. The trail then entered into the highlands, a gentle landscape that rolls casually over mountaintops and winds it’s way through meadows where wild ponies graze. I was excited to see them, overly eager at times, so much that I shouted in joy when I saw my first pony. I walked up alongside a handful of them, not too close of course, but enough to see the detail of their winter coats, and boy are they thick. They range in color, from white with dark chocolate, to deep caramel with blonde and white manes. I reminded Squackers not to feed them, and like a dutiful plastic orange duck, he obeyed and remained up top on my backpack.

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I eased through the meadows wondering how it was that I could have forgotten such a beautiful scene. Ten years ago, I would have passed through here in late June. Now set it winter, rime ice stuck to the shade, or to some of the old, weather beaten posts. It was a high of 20-degrees that afternoon, certainly a chilly day, but an otherwise beautiful one without a cloud in the sky.

Like a pony being led by a carrot hanging in the sky, I continue north, one step at a time.

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