Monday, February 13, 2012

Trail Town, USA

According to their official website, Damascus Virginia is "traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, Virginia's Birding and Wildlife Trail, and lies within a short distance of hundreds of miles of other hiking, horse, and biking trails."

The Appalachian Trail well and truly traverses this town, traveling along its main street (Laurel Ave.) where virtually every building (other than the town hall) is either a trail-related retailer or restaurant, a hostel, hiker rental cottage or inn, or a church. And it did not escape my notice that there is not one single traffic signal in the entire town.

The public library on Laurel Street is for sale. That's because a huge new library and welcome center building is under construction right next to the free backpacker's long term parking lot off Water Street (at the south end of the town park). I parked in that lot today (Monday, February 6th) as the base of operations for my official trek on foot through town. But by the time I left, the lot had virtually filled up with construction worker vehicles. Come spring and hiking season, there are going to be conflicts here.

And that was not the only 'work in progress' that affected me today. The two ends of today's 14 mile walk were memorable - Damascus town on one end and the spectacular Whitetop Laurel Gorge on the other, but in between I ran into strangely botched section of trail where a "relocation is planned" according to the current guidebook.

This is in the vicinity of a very large stream called Feathercamp Branch. And the only relocation work accomplished so far is to *tear down* the footbridge crossing this stream and paint white blazes on two rocks twenty feet apart on either side of a required ford - meaning take off your shoes and socks and hike up your pants and wade through knee-deep, fast-flowing ice-water. Current swift enough that it could easily sweep you off your feet was the least of the problems. The water was so cold it makes you shout to distract yourself from the delayed-reaction pain. Well, at least I got my feet washed. Twice - once on the way out, and then on the way back.

There's no hint of where the relocation will go, but I think they want to separate the AT from the multi-use Feathercamp Trail, so I suspect that the AT will cross Feathercamp Branch creek using the US 58 culvert and then follow the west side of that stream for 150 yards or so up to the point where the AT currently diverges from the Feathercamp Trail. That bit of new trail would traverse a steep, sometimes rocky side slope above the creek - not an easy trail building job.

But why tear down the bridge (the sawed-off pilings on either side of the stream are clearly visible, with white blazes leading to them painted over with black paint) before you've even started the new trail? I'd like to think that there's a good reason, so here's my best guess: bureaucracy. Think 'environmental impact statement' for either replacing a bridge that was no longer safe or for cutting new trail through the delicate vegetation on that severe slope. The 'relo' is being held hostage by desk-bound regulators whose only daily hike is to the coffee machine. Make them ford that damn creek once a day until they finish shuffling their paper!!! There ... I feel so much better now (even if it was all a pure fantasy).

OK, on to the river gorge. The only way through it is via the AT or on the Virginia Creeper Trail. And there are a couple of nice connecting trails between the two that allowed me to experience bits of the Creeper Trail, such as this bridge crossing above some rowdy rapids. Come to think of it, the entire gorge is one continuous succession of rowdy rapids creating a roar you can hear from a mile away on a calm day such as this.

The AT does some gymnastics through the gorge in order to stay on the north wall and avoid using the Creeper Trail. One of the best results of that is this footbridge over a hearty cascade as it plunges directly into the waiting river just a couple dozen feet below. Couldn't adequately capture the drama of this setting on camera - you had to be there.

In between the 'works in progress' you climb one small mountain. Near the top there is this one peaceful vista - a chance to pause and reflect on all I've seen and experienced on the AT in Virginia. Counting hikes I took before 2012 began, I've covered the entire AT in this state, or will have tomorrow, when I do the last three miles of it and then cross into Tennessee.

It strikes me that the AT in Virginia is well-blessed, not just with its great length and amazing scenery, but by being book-ended by two iconic trail towns - Harper's Ferry just across the border in WV, and Trail Town, USA, here on the threshold of Tennessee.


Here's the GPS track. Click on the title for more detailed information and many more photos.

AT Day 34 - Whitetop Laurel Gorge
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Virginia

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