A young dog was brought into our hospital a couple of months ago after being hit by a car. She had sustained multiple fractures of her pelvis, femur, and tibia. It had clearly not been an easy life for her up until that point either. Barely a year old, she had already been bred and had a litter of puppies. Faced with the expense of surgery, the dog’s owners decided to euthanize her.
It should have been an easy decision. There are lots of healthy dogs out there that need homes. But when Sophie rolled over to show us her little belly and to give gentle kisses, the decision was made. My wife and I assumed financial responsibility for her and she went to surgery later that day.
After a second surgery and a month of physical therapy, Sophie was well on her way to recovery. My sister in law who lives in North Carolina had agreed to take her, so after x-rays confirmed that she was knitting well, my wife broached the subject of how to get Sophie down there. The wheels started turning. “I’ll drive her there”, I answered sweetly. “Maybe she could meet me in, oh I don’t know, Virginia?”
My wife looked at me flatly for a minute, “It’s a long drive to Virginia. You’re probably not going to want to rush right back?” She knows me too well.
“You’re probably right”, I said. “I guess I could think of something to do there for a day or two.” As it turned out, my sister in law wanted to meet in Wytheville, not far from Grayson Highlands. I quickly mapped out a roughly 55 mile loop that would take me from Grayson Highlands to the summit of Mount Rogers, then back down to circumnavigate the Mount Rogers area along the AT and the Iron Mountain Trail. I planned on doing the loop in a day and a half with a light pack.
Finally the day came. I had been planning on a 6 am start to meet my in-laws by 4 pm that day, but I was awake by 2 am and too excited to fall back asleep, so I loaded Sophie up and we hit the road. I’ve always loved road trips, in part because of the ever changing scenery (except for Ohio, which always looks the same to me until you hit the southern part of the state), but mostly because of what my wife and I refer to as “road rules.”
Road trip with Sophie
“Road rules” means that anything goes. Well, not picking up hookers or snorting coke while doing 90 on the interstate, but at least food habits become more flexible. At home, my wife and I tend towards a locally raised, minimally processed diet. On extended trips though, we lower our standards and eat whatever we like, no questions asked. Or as my 5 year old daughter says, “road rules means that daddy can eat as many burgers as he wants.”
On this particular trip, road rules took the form of a McDonalds breakfast, a roadside hot dog bought from a questionable vendor in West Virginia, and finally a large piece of lasagna made by my sister in law. I had met my sister-in-law and her daughters at 2 pm, ate a late lunch with them, and then watched for a while as Sophie got fussed over, brushed, and pampered. It was a little hard to leave Sophie, worrying that she had been passed around so much in recent weeks, but seeing how quickly she became taken with the girls, I soon felt better and headed out to the highlands.
Sophie with her new family
It had thunderstormed for the entire drive down, but as I reached the highlands, the sky miraculously cleared and I could see for miles.
I parked at the overnight lot by Massie Gap and headed into the highlands. It wasn’t long before I ran into some of the locals, the allegedly wild ponies. Of course, no one had told them that they were supposed to be wild, so they quickly came over to check me out.
Heading out along the rhododendron trail, I was immediately taken by the views of the balds, rock formations, and skyscapes.
I like to roll up my rock guides to keep the cuffs from becoming dew dampened, even though this makes me look like some kind of dorky Huck Finn. I’d go back to zip offs, but I really like the feel of these pants.
Along the AT headed southbound
Maybe the answer is to just crop my pictures at the knee so no one will know
Entering the Mount Rogers area I ran into another herd of ponies. This colt came to check me out once he was done attending to more interesting matters.
I took a detour along the Wilburn Ridge trail to check out some of the rock formations.
There were some fun rock scrambles in this area. As someone who has never grown up, I can attest to the fact that kids would love this section. Heavily laden backpackers maybe less so.
The view from atop Wilburn Ridge
The Wilburn Ridge trail may not be the best route to take if you are interested in making big miles. Today though, I was just looking to get into the park a ways and set up camp. I would start my fastpacking adventure with a summit of Mount Rogers in the morning.
On the AT looking back towards Wilburn Ridge. I loved these wide open stretches of ridgeline.
Nearing the Thomas Knob shelter, yet another long view of the mountains. Views like this became almost commonplace on the trail.
I arrived at the Thomas Knob shelter by about 6:15 pm. John, a long distance hiker, was already eating dinner at the shelter when I arrived. Wood shelters are not particularly comfortable when your sleeping pad is the size of a postage stamp, so I decided to pitch my poncho tarp in a nearby clearing. I then returned to the shelter to eat my dinner with John. Dinner was spaghetti squash with meat sauce and it tasted pretty good, though the squash had lost some of it texture in the dehydration process.
John, who had initially mistaken me as a day hiker, was very curious about my gear. He looked thoughtful as he hefted my little alchie stove and MLD pack, discussing his plans for spending the next couple of months on the trail. We had a nice conversation that spanned a variety of topics and I retired to my tarp by 8:15. Thunderstorms had been forecast for that evening, but the night passed uneventfully. I’d wake periodically, find this nice concavity in the ground that my hip fit into perfectly, and fall back asleep in downy warmth. I woke at 5 am, looked up at the stars still twinkling brightly, and fell back asleep for another hour.
When I woke at 6, something was wrong. Unable to make it out of my bag in time, I rolled over and vomited on the ground. Amazing! Here was another advantage to the tarp that I couldn’t quite remember anyone ever mentioning before.
Probably just an acid stomach, I thought. I carefully broke camp, still nauseous, hoping that whatever it was would pass. Unwilling to call off the adventure, I decided to summit Mt Rogers. This would not significantly increase my distance from the trailhead. If I wasn’t feeling any better afterward, I could always bail or hole up at the shelter. John was stirring as I passed the shelter. "Have a great hike!", I called out, trying to hide the fact that I had just hurled. "You do get up early", he said.
The hike up Mount Rogers was not particularly difficult. I took it slowly, pausing to watch the sunrise behind me. As dawn broke, I could see mountains to my left rising out of the mist. Soon though, I was amongst the trees and there were no more views to be had as I reached the summit.
The view from Mount Rogers
Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling any better. As I descended, I found myself frequently hanging between my poles as I vomited. This was followed by diarrhea, then by vomiting on my diarrhea (TMI, I know). That was the last straw. It was too late to bail gracefully, but I decided to bail nonetheless. I had contemplated holing up at the shelter for a while, but knew that if I couldn’t hold down water, the chance of finishing my loop in the time I had was unlikely.
I passed the Thomas Knob shelter at around 8am, glad to see that John was gone. I didn’t really want to explain why I was headed back the wrong way.
Another herd of ponies
Sick as I was, it was hard not to be taken by the many sights that the AT offered and I stopped periodically to take pictures. I bypassed the Wilburn Ridge Trail this time around, but still found the adjacent section of the AT to be challenging in my current condition. I had finally stopped vomiting, but was now feeling muscle soreness and headaches and felt like I was literally dragging myself over the rocks.
Sunlight shining through a narrow passage between the rocks. I think they call this “Fat Man’s Squeeze”, but I called it “Almost blowing chunks”.
I made slow progress back to my car and passed out for a little while when I got there. Feeling a little better, I started the long drive back home, and was able to hold down water midway through the ride. It was hard not to wonder if I should have tried to stick it out.
Post trip thoughts:
Grayson Highlands was a truly magnificent place, and one that I intend to return to in order to complete this hike.
I guess that every now and again, you need a real stinker to make you appreciate the trips that go well.
Although I’m disappointed not to have seen more of such a beautiful area, I have no regrets about the decision to bail. I was feeling too sick to truly enjoy the experience, and was within reasonable distance of the trailhead to make out easily. As a solo hiker, it’s sometimes best to make the conservative choice.
I’m still not sure what took me out this trip- road food, dehydrated food, or a run of the mill stomach bug. In retrospect, buying a heatlamp hot dog from a toothless vendor in West Virginia may not have been the wisest move of my trip. Given the too-short duration of the trip, personal hygiene and water sources never had a chance to factor into the equation.