There's a reason why hikers get wide-eyed and eager when they hear "Grayson Highlands." There's a reason why those who have been before return time and again, and why those who haven't been are encouraged to go as soon as they can. Ponies! Balds! Easy hiking!
Of course with my fabulously disorganized packing and planning we got lost on our way. Well, more like I directed us to a campground that doesn't open until mid-April, so we ended up as good as lost somewhere in Virginia with no service on a twisting back road. But okay, backtrack, try again, reroute, forge ahead.
Take two meant arriving at Grayson Highlands State Park and taking a spur trail up to the Appalachian Trail. Grayson Highlands is known for its grassy balds and wild ponies, but on the first day we only saw pony poop and one jarring horse skull with a dozen or so vertebrae still attached. The ghastly sight stopped us dead in our tracks and of course I had to take pictures, all while keeping Ryder away - no small feat considering it was the first time he'd come face to face with death. (Too much? I'm sorry.)
Despite the late afternoon start we made it up to Wise Shelter and pitched our tent in high spirits. I ran around taking pictures while McCrae did useful things (like cook dinner), and as the sun sank we warmed ourselves by a small fire in a stone circle. McCrae intensely worked the flames while I sketched a nearby view with some charcoal from the fire pit.
It got cold that night - colder than expected - and I zipped myself snug in my sleeping bag against the wind and enjoyed a tent fly-free night full of stars while the full moon rose over the treeline. Well, I say we enjoyed a fly-free night under the stars in our tent, but the morning was punctuated by grumpy remarks from two popsicles who didn't get enough sleep because of the cold. Even so we were soon on our way to the Scales.
If the previous afternoon had been incredible, this section was jaw-dropping. It was one long open traverse: hiker's bliss in terms of flatness and vistas. Wind ripped and roared up the grassy mountain face and bullied us in our heavy packs which caught like sails and buffeted us so we staggered and stumbled along the trail as though we were drunk.
I might as well have been drunk from all the wide-eyed wonder surrounding me, and after a couple miles of this hiker paradise we made it to the Scales.
The Scales is a pony corral used each winter to round up the wild equines, check their health, and manage their population. These ponies are pastoral grazers who keep the grasses and shrubs short to preserve the scenic balds, and when the ponies are not rounded up their corral is one wide open field used by hikers for overnighting. We stayed at the Scales for a while and enjoyed rehydrated lasagne for lunch. As we ate a small herd of ponies appeared on the far slope and I carefully approached them for a closer look and pictures.
I'd heard the ponies of the highlands are generally harmless, even friendly, and they were. One approached me curiously and sniffed me hoping for a treat. The others just grazed dolefully, immune to me and the wind and their dusty pony smell and the sweeping mountain view beyond the rocky slope.
I could have easily stayed longer, but we had several miles still to cover, so I descended from the hills and met up with McCrae and Ryder just in time to see a family arrive with rambunctious, noisy boys. I frowned as the boys herded some ponies into the paddock and chased them clear across the corral. The ponies' tails flared behind them, their shaggy fur rippling as they raced, eyes wide and nostrils snorting. I was astounded as the parents stood and shouted uselessly at the kids who had cornered the ponies. One of the boys started to move in towards the herd, so eager to pet the ponies that he didn't register their wild eyes and stamping hooves.
"Don't corner the ponies!" I called out, already imagining his tiny body trampled under hooves. "They will kick you." It was the nicest thing I could think to say; after all these were wild ponies and any wild cornered animal is a dangerous animal if treated without care. And really, I just didn't want to help get some kid airlifted to a hospital. He just gawked at me, and then finally heard his parents shouting for him and turned away. Harmless, mostly.
McCrae and I just shouldered our packs and tried to put some distance between us and the family. Here the trail meandered into the woods, past a sign saying "No Horses" and eventually beyond the area designated for the ponies, slipping past barbed wire and a narrow pass-through that is too small for horses and apparently too narrow even for foam sleeping pads to get through unscathed.
Next the trail climbed, but even so it climbed gently, an absolute delight compared to the more rugged ascents in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests sections of the Appalachian Trail. This was the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest - the mountain playground of mid-Atlantic metros like Richmond and DC - and it rose and fell peacefully under my feet.
We were only a mile or so into the forest though when Ryder had a total meltdown. I suspect it was a leg cramp, but he screamed and whined so that the whole woods could hear (if you're familiar with Siberian Huskies you'll know what I mean; if not, then just know Siberians are the drama queens of the canine kingdom). Pack off, snacks fed, paws and legs checked and massaged, and a little while later we were good to go with a happy, unharmed dog, though somehow McCrae and I ended up with all Ryder's backpacking weight.
The rest of the trip was all visual, like a montage sequence of a film. Balds, vistas, wide gravel bridle trails, narrow side paths, and one big rock outcropping that McCrae and I just had to climb.
I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm terrified of heights. I have been since I was a kid. I remember in elementary school never being able to climb the jungle gym because I would freeze at the top. Five feet off the ground and I'd freeze like I was under a Petrificus Totalus spell. So my obsession with mountains is problematic enough, but my desire to climb? Sheer insanity. Still it's something that I want to pursue, so McCrae and I have been bouldering as we find the opportunity. There's something about pushing through fear, of going to the precipitous edge and dangling your legs, because fear is where adrenaline is and adrenaline is where your heart pounds, head pounds, and all the world glows bright and intense and incredibly close, and all we want is to feel close and bright and alive.
So we climbed and we peered over the edge and we clung to rock lips and dangled fingers and legs over the end of the earth, and we whooped to the bright open sky and we squinted into the rippling horizon. And then we returned to the trail, a little lighter, a little happier.
Vista, trail, rock ledge, repeat. We looped back onto the Appalachian Trail from a connector trail, again going north, again seeing hikers we'd crossed paths with before, again following the white blaze, ever faithful to the footpath. We ran into the same family again as we re-entered the state park, a polite wave as we quietly passed through.
And that was the end of the bouldering and the open vistas. A small herd of ponies was waiting as a send-off crew just before we turned off towards the backpackers' overnight parking lot where we'd left our car. The ponies stood still and quiet, milling about in grassy patches and some on the trail. A smaller pony - a yearling maybe - stood right on the edge of the trail and whuffled at us as we passed. It raised its lips as though laughing at us, saying, "Harmless, mostly."