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Ponies and Thru-Hikers: The Wildlife of Grayson Highlands

It’s Tuesday morning and I can hear a slow drizzle dripping off of my gutter outside. Soon I’ll get up to go to my job that I love but that operates mostly at a desk. Out there, in Grayson Highlands, the thru-hikers are packing up in the rain for another trek.

In one day they’ll most likely cover more mileage than we did in double that. My hiking companions this past weekend, Corndog and Cruise, are thru-hikers themselves, completing the trail in 2013. When they hiked over the rolling balds of Grayson Highlands they were chased by constant storms probably not unlike what the hikers we met are trudging through now. They invited me to accompany them back to this magical stretch of the AT because I have my own dreams of thru-hiking, and because they wanted to replace the mucky memory they had of what the guidebooks call one of the most beautiful and iconic stretches of the whole trail.

I thought surely that the ponies would be the highlight. I imagined them sensing they could trust me, cautiously approaching and coming just close enough to touch. In my mind I was the pony whisperer in a field of shy and wild creatures.

Grayson Highlands is known for its wild ponies. Introduced in the mid-seventies, the ponies eat the vegetation that would grow up and reforest the windswept balds that give the area its distinctive moor-like look. Feeding and harassing the ponies in any way is prohibited and warned against in signs along the trail. Visitors are also advised that ponies do kick and bite and are not to be approached.

I had not yet read the signs.

Instead, when we spied a pony approaching our lunch rock by the shelter below Mt. Rogers, I threw down my tortilla, hands sticky with hot sauce, and barreled through the woods towards it with my waist strap unbuckled and my giant pack flopping side to side. Corndog hadn’t yet given me some tips to reposition the awkward weight distribution of my load and I probably looked and sounded like a top-heavy yeti. I tumbled towards the pony with such determination that I missed it altogether. Skirting through the woods away from me, the wild beast approached the shelter where my friends and another thru-hiker, ‘Lone Hiker’ were finishing up their lunches. Sure, I was disappointed, but before I could even turn back another pony came charging around the corner.

This one was brawny tan with a glamorous Fabio style mane. It barely gave me a second look as it hoofed past just a few feet from where I stood. Why these ponies could not feel our connection was beyond me, but by now Cruise had rounded the bend and Corndog was close behind her. I just hadn’t found the right pony, I thought, as Cruise told me that the two I’d seen had come right up to them. Together we hiked around another curve of trees and there he was, a little appaloosa with creamy white fur splotched by big dark brown patches and a chocolate vanilla swirled mane.

I froze. Here was my pony. This time I cautiously approached him. I stopped, edged forward, trying to stay cool. I tip-toed closer and then, looking at the pony instead of the ground, fell down and was nearly crushed by my excessively full pack. I struggled to my feet and stopped, holding out my hand. He looked up from underneath his shaggy pony bangs and clip-clopped closer, smelling the salt from my sweat and the remnants of lunch. His soft nose pressed into my knuckles and I ruffled his mane and scratched his neck before he, doing a little turn for all of us, gracefully wandered into the brush to nibble on soft mountaintop grass.

We thought our pony sightings were over after we distanced ourselves from the first small herd, but throughout the miles that day and the next we looked out over vista after vista only to see it made even more magnificent by a dotting of rugged creatures. The seventeen miles we covered were craggy, sending us through ‘Fat Man’s Squeeze— a boulder tunnel that reinforced my need to trim down my gear. We climbed up and over other outcrops where the white blaze was spray painted onto rock instead of tree. We walked through a campsite blanketed with such soft green grass that I wanted to lay down and press my cheek to it.

Other packs of ponies were clustered closer to the two parking areas we passed through. Showing their less-wild nature they paused for photo opportunities with families, toddlers and young children in tow, who were as delighted as I was by the thought of a tiny horse living high in the mountains. We distanced ourselves from these cars and dirt roads quickly, but not as fast as the thru-hikers that blazed up behind us on the trail. But Corndog had brought a cache of snicker’s bars in his pack, ‘trail magic,’ and could make anyone of them freeze in their stride and backtrack.

These tough and determined souls trekking from Georgia to Maine were truly the wildest creatures out there. No offense to the ponies, but talking to the thru-hikers and being near their frank joy for the trail was the highlight for me. At the AT shelter near where we set up camp, we spoke with a young woman named Brightside who was hiking with her husband. She asked us if we were aspiring thru-hikers and Corndog jokingly scoffed, “Why would anyone want to do something as crazy as that!” She said, “Because it’s amazing!” She went on to tell us about the views, the wonder of eating lunch in a different place everyday, and about her restored belief in the goodness of humanity. “In your normal life,” she said, “people rush along and don’t think about each other, but out here everybody is so nice – so willing to help you out.” I felt this too as we passed a lively kitchen camp set up by a man everybody kept calling ‘Fresh Grounds’ who was famous for whipping up hot meals of french toast,fresh fruit, and other delicacies for hikers on the trail.

Corndog and Cruise gave me some tips about the best water filtration system they’d found and ways to pack smart. They also shared their memories and some of what the trail had meant for them. The 17 miles up and over Grayson Highlands gave me a taste of the AT, one that has already gotten me hungry for the next trip. I will, on this rainy day in my house, think of Brightside, Chicago, and the others we met who are putting one foot in front of the other on the way to satisfying their hearts’ desires.

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