AT 2017: Day 38, Thomas Knob Shelter to Hurricane Mountain Shelter

Wild horses couldn't drag me away

Wild pony in Grayson Highlands

When I left my campsite this morning I was walking at an elevation above 5,000 feet, but not for long. The trail soon began a slow descent and it will be a long time before it takes me to this elevation again.

I will not be above 5,000 feet again until I reach Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That's more than 1,300 miles away. The trail will stay mostly below 3,000 feet until it crosses Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.

For now, though, I can be content with focusing on something much smaller. I will be walking through meadows populated by more than 100 wild ponies.

DateFriday, May 19, 2017
WeatherMostly cloudy, changing to partly cloudy; warming to the mid 80s
Trail ConditionsLong sections of rocks and roots
Today's Miles16.3
Trip Miles513.4

As I expected, the weather stayed cold and breezy last night. I was glad to be tucked in my tent, protected among fir trees.

After I took down my tent this morning I thanked my neighbor again for letting me camp in the narrow spot near his tent.

Morning near Mt. Rogers

Before leaving, I spent a little time taking in the view from the meadow near the trees where I camped. It was chilly there, but no way near as cold as the last time I had been here, a year ago last January. That time, the temperature dropped down overnight to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

I was on my way by 7 a.m.

View from near Mt. Rogers

The scenery here is always dramatic, no matter what time of year. It doesn't make you think of Virginia or the Southeast. It looks more like some place out west.

It didn't always look this way, though.

As I said yesterday, lumber companies clearcut this land in the 1880s.

In the denuded, rocky soil, farmers like Lee Massie, for whom nearby Massie Gap is named, attempted to cultivate crops and raise livestock.

The elevation, with its harsh weather and short growing season, made that difficult. It wasn't an easy existence for farmers.

Starting around 1901 attempts were made to preserve and protect the land, but it wasn't until the Weeks Act was passed in 1911 that the government had the power and funding to do it.

Right away, the government bought 13,450 acres. Eventually in 1966 this land became part of what today is known as the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

Fir-spruce forest

To some extent, the fir-spruce forest is slowly creeping back, but it isn't likely to ever grow completely back to its former state.

Rocky terrain

For one thing, the terrain is extremely rocky. There isn't much topsoil and there are a lot of exposed rocks.

Ponies seen in the distance

The rough weather and rocky terrain notwithstanding, another reason exists which will keep this a largely open landscape, and it was now coming into my view as I walked down the trail.

It was wild ponies, descendants of a herd brought here in 1974.

Ponies in Grayson Highlands

The feral ponies live here year-round, content to munch on a steady diet of grasses and shrubs.

About once a year they are rounded up to be checked by veterinarians, but that is the only human care they get.

Another view in Grayson Highlands

The trail passed through several rocky outcrops. The ponies mostly stay away from these areas, choosing to scatter in several small groups in the grassy expanses.

More ponies in Grayson Highlands

They are indifferent to humans. If you want to pet one, they are tolerant, but that's about it.

Mothers are a different story. They are more protective of their foals, as you would expect.

Near 500-mile point

After the trail crossed into Grayson Highlands State Park I was expecting to pass a hand-made marker indicating 500 miles, the distance I had hiked since leaving Springer Mountain in Georgia.

I completely walked past it without seeing it. Thinking maybe there was no marker, I asked a couple section hikers behind me if they had seen it. They said they had seen a 501 written in sticks.

That made no sense. I think someone must have partially kicked some of the sticks, changing the last zero to a 1.

Whatever. I still walked the miles, regardless of a marker being there or not.

Besides, stopping to take a picture of a bunch of sticks on the ground was only going to slow me down, and for now I needed to keep walking.

Two-and-a-half miles later I reached Wise Shelter. It was about noon and I stopped there for some lunch.

When I got back on the trail I continued walking for about a half mile until I came upon a group of young people and their leader. They were unsure about where they should go to reach the shelter.

I told them I had just come from there and pointed out the route.

When they left I realized I had hiked this section of trail the last time I was here. I thought I knew where I was going, so I didn't bother to confirm I was going in the right direction.

After walking about a quarter mile, I began to slowly realize I hadn't seen a white blaze in a while. Pulling out my phone, I checked my mapping app.

Yep. I had walked right past a spot where the AT split from the trail I was on. I was on the Scales Trail.

Scale Trail marker

I walked back to where I had missed the trail turn. An old, weathered sign marked the junction, which I missed. It was standing near the spot where I had been talking to the young hikers.

If I had kept going on the Scales Trail, I would have ended up back on the AT in 1.4 miles, and skipped an addtional mile-and-a-half of the AT.

I may be in a hurry, but I don't need to be taking shortcuts.

More ponies

I took the AT in its longer, looping direction. It went through a wooded area before returning to the open meadow, where again, ponies were feeding on the grasses.


The area called Scales was like a corral, circled by a fence. The trail went through the middle of it.

At one time this was a place to weigh livestock. Today it is used during the annual round up of ponies when they are given a health check.

Rocky trail

The trail then re-entered a forest. It also became rocky again as it made a couple ups and downs.

When I reached Old Orchard Shelter I stopped to eat an early dinner and to cool off. Today was the hottest day so far on my hike, and I was feeling it.

Basecamp and Lookout

Just 1.4 miles beyond the shelter I came to Virginia Highway 603. Basecamp (pictured left) and Lookout were there with trail magic. Basecamp got his trail name as he supported Lookout on her thru-hike last year.

The cold drink they offered me was much appreciated on this hot, humid day.

Fox Creek

Leaving the road, the trail crossed a bridge over Fox Creek, then began another climb. It was now 5 p.m.

I was starting to feel worn down, but at this point I had only hiked just over 13 miles for the day. That wasn't enough for me to stay on track for my goal tomorrow, reaching the road just past Partnership Shelter and meeting my wife.

I decided my best option was to go about three more miles to Hurricane Shelter and stay there. It wasn't as many miles as I wanted to do today, but it was close enough, and I felt I could make up the difference tomorrow.

The climb up Hurricane Mountain to the shelter wasn't difficult, but I was so tired it felt much harder.

When I arrived at the shelter there were four young men already set up in the shelter. They told me they were celebrating their recent graduation from Vanderbilt University by hiking a section of the AT.

At this point I was so worn out I didn't care if there were other people sleeping in the shelter tonight. I was going to sleep there too.

For that matter, I didn't care if mice, snakes or bears were in the shelter tonight. Not even wild ponies were going to keep me from seeing my wife tomorrow as planned.

I know I've dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom but I don't have much time
Faith has been broken tears must be cried
Let's do some living after we die

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses we'll ride them some day
Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses we'll ride them some day


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.