Welcome To Damascus, Now Climb This Hill

7 JUL 14
VA Section 45 trip: Day 1
Straight Branch-Saunders Shelter
Miles today: 4

Set a stout heart to a steep hillside. –Scottish Proverb

I departed Charlotte at 1145 this morning after screwing around buying some last minute items and getting my camera and tripod set up for the trip (in case there was any interesting stretch of road I wanted to film). Arrived in Damascus at 1500. Right off the bat I realized just how accurate Google Earth Street View is. It was if I’d already been here a few times.

Damascus (nicknamed “Trail Town USA”) is a little hamlet in southwest Virginia, just a few miles from the Tennessee border. Its population is about 800 people, and there are pretty much only two roads running through it. Okay, not literally, but it’s very small. The Appalachian Trail runs right through town; it was pretty cool seeing the white blazes on utility poles, and pretty much everything is within walking distance- less than 1.5 miles one way.

Despite it’s size, four major recreational trails crisscross through it: The Appalachian Trail, The Virginia Creeper Trail & Trans-National Bicycle Trails, the Iron Mountain Trial, and a few others. What it lacks in population, it certainly makes up for it in charm

So anyway, I parked at Mount Rogers Outfitters (MRO) and was immediately greeted with that small-town charm. I told the guy at the desk I was supposed to be shuttled out to Straight Branch. He told me Bill would take me, but he was running a few minutes late. No problem, I walked around the store checking out all their stuff. It seemed obvious that they were all about backpacking & camping. Nice. I spied a couple of things I wanted to grab before the end of the trip.

Bill showed up and said I could park across the street at Dave’s Place (the hostel they run) and for $2 per night. We loaded up (with his little dog whose name I think he said was “D.O.G.”) and made the 10 minute or so trip on US 58 out to Straight Branch. Along the way he pointed out the numerous campsites along the banks of Whitetop Laurel Creek, the stream that parallels the Creeper Trail. He then mentioned that he had pretty much lived along the banks for quite some time, and he’s known as the “Creeper Keeper” for his efforts to keep it clean. Well to each his own. At least he was very helpful explaining the re-routing of the AT where a bridge had been washed out.  He also mentioned that a giant salamander called the Hellbender, lives along the creek. I’d like to NOT meet one, thank you.

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Once I got underway, I was greeted by hordes and hordes of cyclists. Not the kind on professional road bikes, but tourists on single gear beach-cruiser types. They were all saying “hi” and “hello” and a few were even encouraging me. Umm, okay the trail (at this point the AT runs along with the Creeper Trail) was totally flat if not at a slight incline. All the way up the Creeper it was nonstop person after person after person on bicycles. Some of them looked as if they hadn’t been on a bike, ever- I got a little chuckle when a lady riding across one of the trestles slowly just ran slap into the side of it. It wasn’t bad and she wasn’t going fast at all so I couldn’t help but wonder how she managed to do that. Oh well, the guides all said it was a popular area. I knocked out the first 2 miles in 45 minutes when I saw the junction where the AT broke a hard left away from the Creeper Trail.

Of course it was going to climb up a nice slope. The trail wouldn’t have it any other way. The switchbacks were ruthless. Just a few days ago I had summited Roan and Hump Mountains, but I felt as if I had never climbed anything before in my life. Looking at the Guthook Trail app, I saw there were going to be at least 16 or 17 switchbacks before the top where the Clyde Smith Shelter is. Damn. Okay, well let’s get it on.

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A group with a few kids was ahead of me, about 3 turns up. One of them yelled out “Hi hiker”. I said hi back, and then thought “I guess I won’t get peace & quiet on the trail this time”.  I was thinking they’re gonna be camping at the shelter and the kids will be asking me a million questions and I’m going to be tired & grumpy from this climb probably. Sigh. Oh well, complaining to myself wasn’t gonna get me up the hill.

Switchback. Zig-zag. Up and up and up. The trail stair stepped up the hill, so I could always hear the kids ahead of me. One seemed to be crying. I don’t blame him or her. I should cry too. My legs certainly are. At one particularly wide turn I caught up with them. They were all sitting down (or lying down), packs off, taking a break, a man and a woman and kids. I said hello and where are they going. “Saunders Shelter” said the woman. Great. I bet they’re gonna be noisy and keep me up all night. Oh well maybe there’s enough real estate where I can get some distance between us.

I had longed for a few days of peace & quiet and was feeling rather antisocial. A lot of bad things had been going on in my life, and I wanted time to clear my head and get some trail therapy and be to myself. Ah well screw it. It is what it is, and I’m still not at the top.

“Okay, well I’ll see you guys at the shelter”.

I hit the side trail for the shelter which was a quarter mile away at about 5:30 pm. Saunders has a pretty good camping area- nice & flat with pine trees everywhere, so the ground is padded with pine needles. It even has a privy (which I paid the obligatory visit to, but it wasn’t an extended visit, I just had to deposit some excess water if you catch my drift). I dropped my pack in the shelter, signed the register, and unloaded to start dinner.

Shortly thereafter, the family came up. There were actually five kids with them. We made space for everyone and *GASP* the kids got a fire going. Well just damn. My fire making skills are completely nonexistent, so kudos to the kids! Must be scouts or something. I’ll tell myself anything to feel better at not having been able to get a SINGLE fire going on the trail so far.

The family was actually really nice. The adults were Jen & Curt and they introduced me to the kids, who were extremely well-behaved and respectable. There was a little blond boy who was a hoot. He was running around playing with bugs & stuff. He must have been the one who called out to me on the way up. They offered me some beef jerky & Oreos (which I wasn’t turning down). Their plan was to go all the way to Grayson Highlands, and were travelling pretty heavy, having to bring enough food for 7 and not having full grown adults to carry all that. She’s a doctor at the VA (coincidence right?) so we talked about the ongoing VA “scandal” & all that. I will say this- having a physician on the trail nearby is a comforting feeling.

I went with Jen & one of her daughters to go get some water. It took me a couple tries but I eventually got my food bag hung in the one perfect branch, 12 feet up and 6 feet out from the trunk. We sat around chatting for a while, then set up the tents to bed down. I had a nice flat spot among the trees.

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4 miles today and 6.6 miles tomorrow to the next shelter. Goodnight.

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