Day 71 – Wild Ponies

Wild ponies live everywhere near Grayson Highlands State Park, and all the hikers were looking forward to seeing them as we went through on the AT. Everyone except me, as I didn’t want to have my hopes up. The last time I hiked there we saw exactly one pony, who was not interested in us whatsoever and didn’t seem all that wild. So my hopes were low when we headed into the park a couple weeks ago.

Boy, was I surprised after all! There were ponies everywhere! We must have seen at least four different herds plus many more ponies along the trail. Seeing them was delightful and filled me with smiles and laughter.

Wingman saw a herd in the distance miles before we reached the park. They were about a quarter mile away across a grassy, thorny bald and the fence had been removed between us and them, so we decided to stroll out and see if we could photo them. We clicked away as we came closer in case they spooked and ran, but the opposite happened!

When they saw us coming near, they came up and surrounded us. We hoped they did not mind we had no treats to share, and it was a little spooky when they kept crowding around. We took a bunch of photos and walked back to the trail, excited with our encounter with the wild ponies, but that was just the beginning.

As we neared the shelter, a hiker told us a pair of ponies came up and licked the salt from her arms and legs. Thank goodness she gave us the heads up, because that’s exactly what happened to me a minute later. It tickled and we finally had to keep moving along before they would stop.

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That night a herd was near our campsite, just outside the park boundary. We heard neighing in the evening and morning before we caught sight of them. Then we saw at least two or three more herds as we walked through the park and back out.

The ponies were brought in several decades ago to help control the thorns and grasses. They munch right down on the thorny brambles and survive cold Virginia winters just fine. Although ponies are used to people coming along the trail and in the park, the ponies are meant to stay wild and are left on their own for the most part.

I’m so glad we saw so many ponies! It was a real treat, especially since I know they are sometimes more elusive. Plus, we didn’t have them steal our food bags when we weren’t looking, like other hikers did. One hiker even found a pony trying to swallow his boot gaiter. (Another quick thinking hiker saved both the pony from indigestion and the gaiter from being a snack.) That night we hung our food bags away from both bears and ponies.

My hopes were low when I reached pony territory, but my spirits were high when I left!

Day 47 – Bears

We have been warned about bears pretty much consistently by every Ridgerunner, park ranger, and other experienced person along the trail for six weeks now. We diligently hang our food bags (even though it’s really hard sometimes to hang on a high branch), and use the bear containers or bear cables whenever they’re available. One time we used a very secure back door to a trash bin to keep all our food. Mice were our primary concern at that shelter.

These videos show you how much work it is to hang food bags, which for some reason we call bear bags. Ironic, isn’t it?

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Sometimes a Shelter area will have bear cables, which make it much easier to hang the bags well. They are on pulleys and have handles to pull them up and down, with clips to hold them in place. Bears haven’t figured out the pulley system yet. Look closely and you can see the cable system in this photo after a freezing rain.

I have to admit most the time I think I’m hanging my food bag to keep the mice from getting my food more than worrying about bears. Still, all those past stories of bears dragging hikers out of their tents because they had a candy bar in their pocket come back to haunt me as dusk settles and I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

A couple of days ago we were near an area closed due to aggressive bear activity, and when we stopped to pick up a friend’s mail drop at a nice hostel and campground, we decided we would just camp there. It would be 7 miles before we were completely out of the bear zone and we didn’t want to hike that far after 4 o’clock.

A fellow thru hiker, Smoke, decided to hike on and made it to the outer edge boundary of the Bear zone. He was the only one camping at his campsite, and in the middle of the night he heard something large moving around his tent. It became pretty plain it was two bears circling his tent and looking for something to eat. While he frantically googled what to do about bears, they continued sniffing around until they found the source of the smell that lured them to his site.

It was his food bag, which was not too close to his tent and hanging in a tree about 10 feet off the ground and a few feet from the branch and trunk. He thought he had done a pretty good job of hanging his food bag, but in the morning it was gone – not a trace of the bag, the food in it, or even the rope he used to tie it off. The bears had snatched it all and taken off.

Although there was much consolation that they just took the food bag and didn’t bother him, he was about 17 miles from a road. His guidebook listed a barbecue place that would deliver meals to that road crossing, so his plan was to hike as hard and fast as he could and make it by dinner, order two meals to be delivered and hike on to Damascus the next day, another 21 miles.

Fortunately for him, there were trail angels at that highway who had tons of food, fed him well, then gave them a lift to town where his dad could come meet him. He must’ve been doubly lucky, because his dad had already planned to come meet him the next day and wasn’t too far away. Many dollars later, he had a new food bag, cook stove and food, and his dad was bringing him back where he left off just as we were enjoying the same trail angels’ generosity the next day.

We all quizzed Smoke about how he hung his bag, where he was, and what it sounded like. You can believe we are much more careful to hang our food bag according to protocol now.

I’m glad we hung our bag so well that next night, because although nothing happened on the forest service road trail where we were camped, two other friends who camped right on the trail had bears prowling around their tent that night. They didn’t have their food bag stolen, so I guess we are becoming better at hanging food bags!

Day 44 – Hostel Territory

All along the trail, people open their homes and set up bunkhouses and B&B’s for thru hikers. Most are “primitive” as one owner mentioned, and others are more like quaint retreats. It rained a lot last week while Melynn was with me on the trail, so we stayed in three different ones during her adventure in the thru-hiker life.

Prices range from $5 to $30 for a spot in a bunkhouse or shared room, and usually include shower with towel and a “real” bathroom. Some include cereal breakfast, have a place to do laundry, and/or offer free shuttles to town.

Let me show you some of the differences and you can see how eclectic they are:

Mountain Crossings Hostel at Neal’s Gap less than 30 miles in the trail. Trail Angels came with dinner and the thunderstorm and cold were kept at bay… for us.

Top of Georgia is run by former thru hiker and they clean like maniacs. Bunkhouse was basic, but they had loaner clothes and washed your laundry for you.

We just had dinner at Standing Bear Hostel, as we wanted to put in more miles. It had pizza and beer and a little resupply place. Some hikers sleep in their tree house.

Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn is more of a retreat, with a few rules that made sense, like leaving boots on back porch, no cell phones in common areas, and sign up for dinner by 3 pm. The house smelled fantastic all afternoon as Elmer cooked for us. He’s also a former thru hiker. Dinner and breakfast were fabulous!!

Bob People’s is a former thru hiker and now trail volunteer. He runs Kincora Hostel and hikers make themselves at home whether or not he’s there when you arrive. It’s the first time I’ve gone inside and helped myself to clothes and a towel before showering in a stranger’s home when no one had been there to greet us. It was a very relaxed place.

CeeCee moved the tables in the top photo so seven people could sleep on the floor in a rainstorm. I was lucky and had a bed!

I camped at Boot’s Off Hostel, and still could use their shower, “privy”, kitchen, shuttle, and WiFi plus the cereal breakfast for $10. What a deal!

There are so many stories to tell about each one, the quirky owners of some, the rules, and adventures, but the trail waits and I need to hike on.