John Muir once said, “Thousands of nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”
I believe these words ring true in every sense of today’s society.
People are slowly realizing that the calm of the forest brings a peace that is otherwise unheard of in the everyday bustle of life. This thought is what drives me to get outside every chance I get, to hear the sounds of nature and to escape the chaos.
I thought about this as we drove up the winding road toward Damascus, Virginia. The trip was becoming familiar after having come to my favorite escape over a dozen times in the last few years.
My friend Luke drove just outside of a comfortable speed as we wound through the tight curves. I could tell he was just as excited to get the the Highlands as I was. At the end of a beautiful spring we had finally gotten the opportunity to get out for a weekend to enjoy some time with the mountains, and we were anxious to get there as fast as we could.
The honorary pit stop was in order as we neared the humble town of Damascus. Luke and I always stopped at one of our favorite coffee shops as we drove through the little town.
The shop was decked out with all kinds of Appalachian Trail decor. This being one of the major AT midway points, hikers headed North-bound to Mount Katadin, Maine found a beautiful selection of hiking and camping gear at the two local outfitters, and lodging at three different hostels.
The town was used to seeing hikers come though, weary and ready for a zero-day. As we pulled out of the coffee shop, hot drinks in hand, I thought about how in less than a year I would be walking through this town, just as weary as anyone attempting the 2,180 mile journey ready to rest my feet for a few hours before continuing to Mount Rodgers.
The remainder of the drive up the mountain was long but beautiful, off the side of the bank was White Top Laurel River, winding its way down the river accompanied by the well known bike trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail.
After about an hour we finally turned into the gates of Grayson Highlands National Park. I drank the last cold sip of my coffee as we parked in the overnight backpackers lot.
In a few brief minutes Luke and I had our packs on and were headed up the mountain. The sounds of the wind blowing through the rhododendron bushes reminded me that I had made it back to my favorite place.
The hike was moderate, nothing that Luke and I hadn’t done a thousand times, it would have left us sweaty and a little winded if it weren’t for the dozen times we had stopped to pick from the massive wild blueberry bushes that littered the balds of the Highlands.
At the top of the mountain, our stomaches full of tasty berries, we laid our packs down by a few trees in a little area we had adopted as our own camping area any time we brought friends up to the mountain.
As evening approached I lit my cook stove and began boiling some dehydrated noodles for dinner while Luke finished tying up his hammock. The clouds were looking a little angry so we made sure to put up a large tarp over each of us incase of a storm.
After dinner the rainclouds still hadn’t let loose on us so we decided to head up to one of the large outcroppings that were typical of the Virginia Mountains. Onto of a large boulder you could see an entire three-sixty view of the Horizon. We each smoked an evening cigar taking in the immaculate view, then as the dark threatened us to find our way home without flashlights, we started back down to our campsite.
The dark always seems to leap on you when camping, and it made me glad that we had thought to collect a large pile of firewood before it had gotten too dark to see. Luke lit up a nice blaze and we finished our cigars by the fire.
Luke pulled out his little pocket bible and read me a few verses from Psalms while the crackle of the fire filled the otherwise quiet woods.
After an hour or so we crept back to our separate hammocks and crawled in, zipping up for the cold, windy night.
At about seven A.M I woke to the sound of Luke packing up his bag. “About time you got up,” He yelled over to me, “I was beginning to think you were going to sleep clear through the best time of the day. I’ve already seen the sunrise from up on the boulders.”
I tumbled out of my hammock wiping my sleep-filled eyes.
A few cups of camp coffee and a granola bar later and I was ready to hit the trail for the day. We left our backpacks all packed at camp, we would return to get them in the afternoon. Only carrying a water bottle, a few snacks, and my camera we set out.
The walk across the ridge is never too hard, sometimes rocky, other times soft with mountain grass naturally growing on top of the balds. As we approached the first group on wild ponies I pulled out my camera to get some photos.
The ponies up on the mountain have become less scared of humans since hikers and tourists have started hikes up here to enjoy the view. They now walk close enough to touch you and graze calmly as you walk by.
For the rest of the day Luke and I hiked around to our favorite views and small bouldering faces until four o’clock came around and we decided to head back to our packs and then down the mountain to the car. Another amazing weekend trip up to the Highlands ended with a lovely hike down the trail and off of the mountain.
On the drive home, Luke played music as we flew down the small curvy road. I thought about how, no matter how busy life can get, how loud, how chaotic, nestled far about Damascus, Virginia, right next to Mount Rodgers on the Appalachian Trail I’ll find Grayson Highlands always ready to be explored.
John Stephens is a coffee enthusiast and native to the mountains of Boone, North Carolina and author of “The Journey”. He spends his free time exploring the amazing Blue Ridge Mountains and traveling the country in search of the best backpacking and camping. Follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter.
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