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Road to Damascus

There's more to Virginia than just Shenandoah

The sun is clawing its way up over the Blue Ridge Mountains, dousing the horizon in vibrant pinks and oranges, and I’m stuck at a gas station in Blacksburg, Virginia. The pump’s busted, the woman behind the counter could care less, and I’m just desperate to hit the road. Holt and Tyson – my less-than-helpful companions – wander around inside, perusing Hostess pastries and decorative lighters against a soundtrack of conservative talk radio. I’m shivering, swearing at a gas pump.

“Take my money, dammit.”

                                                               ***

Damascus is a pleasant, sleepy little town sitting right on the Virginia-Tennessee border. “Trail Town, USA,” they call it, population 814. I say that I could see myself living in a place like this someday. Tyson looks around and chuckles. “Okay, Dave. Sure.”

I shed my sandals, tie up my boots, and shuffle into Mt. Rogers Outfitters. Gatorades, Clif Bars, and trail maps line the walls. I grab a compass (somehow, none of us had thought to bring one) and head towards the front of the store in search of a man named “Lumpy” who will shuttle us to the trailhead.  Behind the counter sits a man in flannel, sunglasses, and a beat-up pair of overalls. There’s a cane propped up against the counter, but he’s reclining in his roller chair, eying me from behind his shades.

“Looking for Lumpy?”

I nod.

He spreads his arms, silent. Well, you’ve got him. A grin peers out from behind his tangled gray beard. 

We exchange phone numbers, in case something happens to go wrong while I have a cell signal. Lumpy looks me up and down, glances at Holt and Tyson hovering behind me. 

“You boys ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

He stops, stares me dead in the eyes. 

“Son, calling me ‘Sir’ is like puttin’ an elevator in an outhouse. It just don’t fit.”

                                                               ***

It’s rough terrain all day, nothing but steep trails and harsh wind. Shenandoah ain’t got nothing on the sheer, rocky trails down south where the Blue Ridge butt up against the Smokies. The weather’s nice for mid-January, but if we stop moving for longer than about ten minutes or so, the chill starts to set in. The scenery is breathtaking from the jump, laden with horse gates and wide, tan fields. Holt and I are impressed. Eagle Scouts and veteran backpackers, this is some of the best hiking we’ve found anywhere, let alone here in Virginia. Tyson, on the other hand, is amazed. This is his first backpacking trip, after all, and even though we’ve thrown him right in the deep end, he’s already learned to swim. At some point, he looks around and takes a deep breath.

“WHERE MY SQUIRRELS AT?” he bellows into the forest around us. There is an echo, a pause, a silence. Then, somewhere in the canopy above, a chattering. We absolutely lose our minds. 

           

12 miles later, after having decided, undecided, and reconvinced ourselves that we’d missed a turn somewhere along the way, we make it to Thomas Knob shelter, about a half-mile below the summit of Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s tallest peak. The last rays of sun sink behind the mountains just as we drop our packs. Too fatigued for the intricacies of trail safety, we make dinner in the tent. Sure, we’re sleeping in the most bear-infested corner of the Appalachian Trail, but my knees are creaking like old floorboards, and I’m not about to brave the cold for a lousy package of freeze-dried chili mac.  

Our hungry hubris comes back to bite us when Holt spills beef stroganoff on his sleeping bag.  The tent is flooded with profanities. Later that night, when our food has been stashed halfway up a trailside tree (an odyssey in itself, but that’s a story for another time), I can’t shake the spill from my mind. All day we’d been trekking past signs warning us about black bears – nicer than grizzlies, but still plenty mean when they’re hungry.  

I mutter a quick prayer and roll over. Nothing to do but sleep, I suppose, and hope that hibernation trumps hunger. 

                                                               ***

The next morning we rise with the sun, mercifully in one piece. Tyson’s packing up the tent, and Holt and I fanned out to try and find a water source. About a hundred yards from the shelter, I scramble to the top of a big, flat boulder. The view of the valley below, perfectly still and washed in sunrise, nearly knocks the wind out of me. It’s a scene ripped straight from “America the Beautiful,” like a Thomas Cole painting spread out before my eyes. We’ve got plenty to do before we hit the trails that day, with 13 miles of hard traveling on the itinerary and an ambitious deadline if we want to catch the shuttle back to town, not to mention the 5-hour drive back to Richmond, but I can’t move. I’m transfixed. Spellbound. There’s nothing I can do but stand still, arms by my side, struck dumb. I don’t know how long I stay there, silent in the face of Creation, but at some point Holt appears behind me. For a few minutes, he’s silent too, taking it all in. Then he lets loose a low, long whistle. 

“You know,” he says, “if you wanted to convert me to a religion, this is how you’d do it.”

I can only nod.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

David Lefkowitz

College student in search of mountains