Into The Great Wide Open

One of the many ponies found throughout the Mt. Rogers High Country

Damascus Virgina is a small community just across  the Tennessee state line. There are several trails that go directly through the town limits including the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, Bicycle Route 76, and of course, the Appalachian Trail. Although it’s status as the AT’s friendliest town can be debated by many, it is nonetheless a primary stop for those doing a thru hike. W and I chose this as our starting point and we would spend the next several days hiking through some of the best scenery Virginia has to offer.

The AT at the intersection with Beartree Gap Trail

We spent the first couple of days climbing and descending several smaller mountains before we would reach the heart of Mt. Rogers NRA and the surrounding highcountry. Once we reached Whitetop Mountain and the Grayson Highlands, I knew we had made the right decision to hike in this place. I had seen several Appalachian Balds over the past couple of years, but what the high country around Mt. Rogers had to offer was truly unique. It has often been described as a slice of Montana set in the middle of the southern Appalachians. The broad expanse of grassy land was  interspersed with many rock outcroppings, the most spectacular being Wilburn Ridge. I was especially enthralled with the wild ponies that the Forest Service uses to help keep the balds clear. The Appalachian Trail also traverses Grayson Highlands State Park, creating a large C shaped portion of trail. By the time we reached the Fox Creek Trailhead, we had seen the best of Virginia. I had also made a very important contact during our hike as well.

Fat Mans Squeeze on Wilburn Ridge

A few days into our hike, we met the ridgerunner, an individual whose job it was to hike the same portion of trail we had just hiked once a week, performing visitor contact and shelter and maintenance upkeep as well. I mentioned that I had just returned from a month-long hike in Maine and was not ready to deal with the world back home in Tennessee. When I asked him if he knew of any job opportunities in the area, he suggested I check with the Forest Service. After our hike was complete, I stopped in their office and spoke with a person who was their dispersed recreation technician. He was responsible for all the trails in the backcountry. When I explained my situation to him, he suggested that I might want to work as a backcountry ranger. It would be volunteer position and he offered fifteen dollars a day and a place to stay. Considering what I had just seen the past few days, I eagerly accepted and by the end of that week, I had gone back to Tennessee to pick up some personal effects, and drove back to Mt. Rogers. This would be my home for the next couple of years.

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Back Home Again

RestLess- Mt. Katahdin to Gorham, NH 1998

By the middle of August, 1998 I had hiked from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Gorham, NH, a distance of about 300 miles. Money was becoming slim so it had come time to go back to the real world, get a real job, and carry on with life. The dissolution of my marriage had been a tough time in my life but the past year had provided a time of healing and I felt I was ready to get back to the daily grind. One day after stepping off the trail, I was on my way back to Tennessee.

Although I had fallen in love with the Maine’s North Woods, I missed the southern Appalachians, my home for over 20 years. It had become familiar territory as a result of my hikes in the Smokies and the surrounding area. I wasn’t so much drawn to Sevierville as much as I was drawn to the mountains close by. After returning home, I used some of my time to visit areas that I had not been to since leaving earlier that spring. It felt good to be back in the mountains where my hiking had began.

Over 900 miles of trails thread through the Smokies

It didn’t take long, though, for discontent to settle in. I thought that I should try to settle down again, but as much as the mountains drew me, there were many other things that repelled me. Being a popular destination for tourists, the traffic in Seveirville and the adjacent communities had become unmanageable. Even the backroads that the locals had used for years, were now becoming clogged with cars bound for Dollywood and outlet malls. It was then I knew that I had to find another place to settle down at.

A friend and I had done a couple of local hikes in the area, but the suggestion had come up for us to go somewhere else to escape the throngs of tourists. We both looked at maps, and having thru hiked the AT a few years earlier, my friend had made the suggestion that we should travel to Virginia and check out Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. I had never been there before, and everything I heard about it piqued my interest.

“Sure, why not?” , was my reply, and less than one month after I left the trail in New Hampshire, I was on my way to another place, filled with new adventures. Without realizing it, my life was about to take on a whole new direction.

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One Adventure Comes To An End…

Mt. Success

The last couple of weeks of my hike through Maine were filled with climbs and descents of numerous mountains, both named and unnamed. The biggest thing that stood out to me was Mahoosic Notch, a mile long rock  scramble through a narrow mountain passage. I never took any pictures of the Notch; it had a horrible reputation of taking anything that wasn’t packed tightly inside your pack. Those of you who have been through here know what it is I speak of.

Journal Entry August 8, 1998; part 1

The Mahoosic Range, on the other hand was spectacular. With its vast open views, I found it to be one of the more inspiring places. It was sitting on top of Mt. Success, that I composed one of my last journal entries while on the trail that summer.

Journal Entry July 8, 1998, part 2

I had spent over a month on the trail hiking through some of the best scenery in the east. Within a couple of days of my journal entry, I would find myself heading back south. Towards Tennessee once again, in an attempt to reestablish myself in the community. I would fail miserably, but a month later I found myself not only being thrust beyond my comfort zone once again, but embarking on a path that would decide the course of my life for many years to come.

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Southbound Once Again

Pierce Pond

After a couple of days of rest and relaxation, I was ready to hit the trail again. As the AT travels southward through Maine, the mountains get bigger and the views grander. The first thing, though, was to cross the Kennebec River. A canoe ferry was available and makes the crossing less dangerous as an upstream dam could have a release, raising the water level unexpectedly.

Pine tree on the edge of Pierce Pond

The day we crossed the Kennebec was spectacular. We followed along a smaller river for the better part of the day, choosing to camp at Pierce Pond. To this day, this remains one of the top five campsites of all my hikes. What made it all the more special was Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps, a fish camp less than a half mile from the pond and shelter. In the mornings, they would provide a cheap pancake breakfast to hikers and I took full advantage of it the following morning.

By the third week of July, the bugs had ceased to be a problem and summer was settling in. The trail between Monson and Stratton has it’s fair share of mountains, but none made an impression as much  as the Bigelow Range. The biggest challenge I faced in climbing Avery Peak was in climbing to the summit from Safford Notch. For the first time, I honestly believed that quitting would be easier than pressing on. The Bigelow RangeThe view that awaited me  at the summit reassured me that the reward always outweighed effort. I prevailed this time, but there  would be other mountains, other rivers, and other obstacles waiting to challenge my commitment.

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The 100 Mile Wilderness, Part 2

The North Maine Woods

Monson is a small town in the heart of Maine and is located in the Moosehead Lakes area. The Appalachian Trail comes within a couple of miles of town and the town does a great job at making hikers fell welcome.Most hikers stayed at one of two places-Shaws Boarding House or The Pie Lady’s. We chose the latter and were not disappointed. The hospitality and the food  were outstanding and here homemade pies were legendary. We spent one night in town and then hiked North on the AT back to Gulf Hagas.

Barren Mtn., July 1998

It took three days to finish up the 100 mile wilderness back to Gulf Hagas. The summer heat had settled in and I was glad for the relief that some of the higher peaks provided. Barren Mtn. was one such peak with its observation deck. The other thing that stands out in my mind from this time was Maines reputation for bugs. Everything I had heard or read about seemed to be true and I was glad when a stiff breeze would blow the bugs away. On top of Barren Mtn., while taking a break, a dragonfly landed on me while enjoying a moose fly as its meal.

Ready for some R & R at the Pie Lady's

The trip back to Monson was much more memorable as that I wound up walking a good deal of the distance to Greenville. There was not any traffic and it wasn’t until the entrance gate that I was finally able to get a ride. By the time I reached Monson several hours later, I was ready to sleep and enjoy a few days off the trail.

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The 100 Mile Wilderness, Part 1

Mt. Katahdin, ME, July 6, 1997 11:41am

July 6th 1997 was an outstanding day to be on top of Maine’s highest mountain. Mt. Katahdin is also the northern terminus for the Appalachian Trail which runs over 2100 miles in a southwesterly direction to Springer Mtn. in Georgia. Most people finish on top of Katahdin; it does seem to be a more fitting end to such a journey. Along with two friends from home, I would start there. They would go on to finish the trail, while I would spend the next month or so hiking as far as Gorham, NH.

Mt. Katahdin, ME

We spent the night at Daicy Pond in Baxter State Park and left early the next morning, hiking south into the 100 mile wilderness. It’s not a “wilderness” in the true sense of the word. Logging roads are never far from the trail but the Appalachian Trail does a great job of hiding civilizations presence for the most part. I thought it was fitting that, being in Maine, I would see a moose for the first time from in front of the shelter while enjoying a morning cup of coffee.

Rainbow Stream Lean-to, 100 Mile Wilderness, ME

Over the next few days we hiked past lakes, ponds and streams and over a few mountains  with names like Nesabunt, Rainbow Ledges and White Cap. We stayed at lean-tos with names like Hurd Brook and Potaywadjo. None of the stream crossings  were deep but we had read in one of the shelter registers  the story of one hiker who was stranded at a shelter for several days due to a storm that made a couple of river crossings impassable. He simply waited for about four days until the water levels decreased then continued on.

Six days after leaving Katahdin, we arrived at Gulf Hagas, a popular destination for day hikers. We had endured a few days of rain and quite a bit of mud since the start of our hike.   As much as we enjoyed being outside in the woods, a part of us also longed for a good burger and a few beers. A family returning from a day hike, offered us some sandwiches which we devoured like vultures. The conversation turned to how far we were going and where we were from. They offered to take us to Monson with a side trip for some ice cream and after some discussion, we were on our way to take a day or two off in Monson before returning to the trail.

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Driving South to go North

Along the Kancamangus Highway, White Mountain NF, NH

In June of 1997, my time working for the Appalachian Trail Conference had come to an end.  As I drove back towards Tennessee, I pondered over the different things I had seen over the past several months. I had not expected to visit New England, much less see the things I had. As the miles rolled past, I found it difficult to be enthusiastic about returning to an area overrun by tourists.

The weekend before July 4th, I sat in traffic for a couple of hours trying to get back to Sevierville. I felt the frustration level growing in side of me and the first people I went to visit, were two friends who were thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail that year. They were starting at Mt. Katahdin and hiking south.

Sitting next to the Mt. Wahington Auto Road, NH

Since I had some money saved up, I made a last-minute decision that I would drive to Millinocket, ME and hike as long as I felt like. I knew a thru hike wasn’t in me, but I felt up to the challenge that hiking Maine presented. So on July 2nd, I once again turned my car back to the north and drove to Maine with a short stop in the Whites.

Looking into Tuckerman's Ravine, WMNF, NH

We were in New Hampshire and on July 4th, we hiked Mt. Washington via Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. It was unlike any hiking I had done before and a clear day was our reward. We camped just down the road from Pinkham Notch and the following day, we would be sleeping in Baxter State Park, our last night before summiting Mt. Katahdin.

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