Traveling the trail to Damascus with my Trail Family

It’s just after 1PM and I’ve already decided to stop hiking for the day. I’m dry, I’m warm, and I’ve got 5 days worth of food in my pack. The shelter I’ve stopped at is called the Mountaineer, and it’s a new 3-story palace in the woods. A nearby stream for getting water and soaking sore feet is fed by a cascading waterfall.


Mountaineer shelter

Mountaineer shelter

Cliff Bar and Jem show up shortly after and are surprised to see my sleeping pad and bag laid out in my preferred north corner spot. “You’re already done for the day?”

“Yup. I’m meeting a friend in Damascus in 5 days, so no need to rush. Besides, this is the best shelter we will see for quite awhile… and the price is right.”

They stayed for a long lunch, and we were joined by Teddy and Skittles, then a tall, curly-haired, squinty-eyed hiker wearing an Aggies hat showed up. “Who’s that?” I asked. Jem smiled, “that’s Eagle.”

I shared my plans to hike casual for the next few days to reach Damascus. There was the usual shelter banter: favorite foods, recounting our own experiences with the recent freak storm near Roan Mountain, and friends that weren’t able to continue the hike.

“I don’t want to be one of those guys that keeps sharing observations and comparisons about previous hikes, but one of the things I’ve noticed that is different from the previous year’s I’ve hiked…” I started to say and noticed several others roll their eyes. “Anyway, it’s awesome to see so many more female hikers on the Trail.” There were an equal number of female and male hikers in the shelter, which was fairly typical this year. “Despite all your advantages, we guys will always have one that makes all the difference… We get to pee standing up.”

One of the females moved purposefully to her pack and pulled out what looked like an oversized, floppy pink Chinese soup spoon. I guess you could use that to eat with, but it’s not long enough to get all the food from the bottom of food pouches. 

“This,” she said, holding up her floppy pink spoon, “means that we can do everything you can AND have babies!” I tried to jump the mental chasm separating me from eating device to external catheter as the conversation took a weird shift. Suddenly we were talking about how to control the direction and vector of our streams, and how to avoid splash back. There were dramatic reenactments.

By the time we’d finished show and tell, sleeping bags were out and we were all settled in for the night.

Laurel Falls

“You’re a bad influence. you know that don’t you?” This was the first thing I heard the following morning as I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. Everyone else was packing up and fixing breakfast. The plan was a leisurely 18 mile hike to the shelter near Laurel Falls.

The trail was muddy, so I had the chance to play in my monkey feet. We all played a hikers version of leap frog as we passed one another throughout a day filled with lots of breaks. It felt great to stroll along a muddy trail, stopping to enjoy views or chat with members of a group I was already growing more comfortable with.

I descended the 124 stone steps leading to Laurel Falls and stuck my feet in the frigid water. No way I’m taking a quick swim in this. 



Beautiful Laurel Falls behind me. Despite the badge of honor that would go with taking a swim, there was no way I was getting in that freezing water.


The whole crew arrived at the Laurel Falls shelter in time for an early dinner on the adjacent lawn. I grazed on several Snickers and some Trail Mix (technically fruits and vegetables right?) while the others prepared elaborate meals. Jem, a vegetarian, rehydrated black beans and rice and added a host of seasonings including ghee (clarified butter). I gotta start eating better.

The shelter side conversations were increasingly familiar. We moved beyond the tell-me-about-yourself topics into the more familiar and personal. During the day’s hike, I’d been thinking it was amazing that such a disparate collection of people could bond together so quickly. However, as I learned (and shared) more, I realized that we had much more in common than the craziness that drove us to undertake a 6 month hike. All 8 of us were professionals with service related jobs (teaching, ministry, medicine) except Teddy who was an archeologist and aspiring privy analyst, and White Cap who (like me) was using the Trail to rediscover a better version of himself. White Cap’s journey is an interesting one that I’ll leave to him to describe more fully through his blog (https://myappalchiantrailblog.wordpress.com) Female, male, on sabbatical, retired, married, engaged, single. Regardless of our lives before we began this hike, I was beginning to feel like those differences were the seasoning that made our evolving family more flavorful.


Watuga Lake


The weather has grown much warmer. I still start the day with hot chocolate (and Pop Tarts) but realize that soon it’s going to be too warm for cooked breakfasts. Cliff bar, who hikes at a slower pace, is gone before I wake up, and most of the group is nearly finished by the time I get out of my sleeping bag even though it’s only 7:30. Teddy reminds us all that it’s her Birthday Week, so she and Skittles are going to detour into town to get Subway and ice cream.

The rest of us plod over a hill called Pond Flats that is a pointless ascent through forest to a summit with no view, and a rocky scramble right back down the other side to meet up with a side trail that would have taken us within a mile of town. I try to console myself with the knowledge that I didn’t take a short cut off the AT.

Our reward is a break at Watuga Lake. Shady lawns, cool breeze, public restrooms, and potable water fountains. It was an amazing treat to sit around in a hiker circle for a lazy lunch (we naturally separate by about a meter, probably to avoid each other’s stench, or, to limit exposing others to our own scent).



Eating lunch at Watuga Lake. From left to right: Cliff Bar, Pish, (her dog Chef), Eagle, and Jem


Vandventner Shelter

We stopped at a shelter 33 miles from Damascus called Vandventner Shelter. I was right on schedule to meet John in 2 days. The graffiti on the inner walls are filled with tributes to Bob Peoples (who has done so much to maintain and improve the Trail). The shelter is also located in front of a rocky outcropping with a gorgeous view that would be a great spot to view the sunrise from. Jem, with her infectious enthusiasm, rallied us 30 minutes before sunrise so we could get in position for a family moment on the rocks. This would be the 3rd time I was out of my sleeping bag before 6.

There were a few mumbles and grumbles as we got around, but once we huddled together on the rocks to watch the black sky turn purple, then red, then light up the landscape, the majesty of the morning stunned us all into a comforting silence.

The hike followed a blissfully level course. This 33 mile stretch is sometimes referred to as the AT highway because the terrain and elevation changes allow for a quick pace. Perhaps because we knew we were about to reach Damascus, and that many of us had different plans for the days following that wouldn’t allow us to keep hiking together, we tended to take breaks in clumps: chatting, snacking, and just being together.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I saw another bear cub in a tree about 10 meters from the Trail. It wasn’t afraid of me, just watching me curiously from its safe perch. Despite my internal warnings, I shot a video. I couldn’t see mama bear. Eventually, probably out of boredom more than anything else, the cub rapid=dly climbed back down the tree, and fortunately, away from me. Shortly after, I saw a turtle on the trail. It let me get right up next to it. Another photo worthy moment.



Meeting a southbound (SOBO) turtle on his way to Georgia. Wonder if he’ll make it…


Abington shelter

Only 10 miles from Damascus. I was really excited about getting there in time for breakfast. The previous night, most of the family wisely chose to set up tents and hammocks while Bear Finder and I sheltered with a German family out for a few nights of camping. Dad snored. His oldest son was either very frustrated with the noise or had night terrors. As the noise settled, a pair of incredibly acrobatic mice had found a way to scurry through our packs, even though they were suspended from ropes that were tangled in mouse obstacles. I shined the light from my Kindle on the packs to see one of the mice leap half a meter from one pack to another in search of any edible morsels. We shifted our packs and considered moving them to a tree, but after 30 minutes of hassling with our gear, we surrendered to the obvious masters of our home for the night.

I woke before at 7, grouchy and tired, but motivated to get to town in time for breakfast. Along the way, I saw these mushrooms growing out of a tree.



Trail pancakes. I can’t prove Mojo’s restaurant planted these mushrooms as a cruel subliminal advertisement, but I can promise it wasn’t necessary. We were ALL coming for blueberry pancakes.


I hiked head-down and determined to make it to Damascus by 10 (hiking 10 by 10). I reached the Welcome to Damscus arches at 10:07, but close enough. I met up with most if the family at Mojo’s and was surprised to see Pooch still there. I was so hungry I licked on the leftover butter packets while waiting for my pancakes to arrive. If anyone thought anything if this, it was probably my clever use of resources. Lots of laughing, easy, familiar conversations, but also a sense of melancholy as we realized that we would be traveling the same path, but not together for the near future.

Without any real prior planning, we all happened to meet up together at the same restaurant for dinner. While we scarfed down typical Americana dinners (burgers, pizza), it felt like Viking feast, a victory dinner. We did it. We make it to Damascus.



A typical Trail family dinner. From left to right: Cliff bar, Bearfinder, White Cap, Jem, Eagle, Skittles, Teddy, Me (Sketch). Boars head not included

Just over 1700 miles to go…


  • Reply John (bypass) Bock July 21, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Must be 700 vs 1700

  • Reply Monica July 21, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Looks like ur “cooking” lots of interesting relationships. Or maybe I’m just missing your cooking! I miss you very much, but I’m happy you’re having fun!

  • Reply White Cap July 21, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    I’ve found memory to be an intriguing thing since being my grandmother’s caregiver (she suffered dementia). The way I remember Mountaineer is this: you and I had been hiking together with me leading. I blew right off the AT up a blue blaze that ended in a little campsite and you said “well we can say we did a blue blaze today!” I had already decided to stay at Mountaineer in order to hold spots for Teddy & Skittles, and since I was already firm on that, you decided to go ahead and call it a day. And I don’t recall seeing Jem’s Pstyle…although I may have just blocked that out, lol. I remember you telling me Jem worked for NASA and I believed you, lol.

    This was the first group I felt like I bonded with and after we split up I definitely suffered from some Virginia blues for a couple of weeks…but the trail provides! I’m still hiking solo the vast majority of the time, but I’m in a good bubble now and having a great time. Eagle passed me early in July, but I re-caught him on the 4th and me and his buddy Wallet camped together and we had a good time reconnecting. He’s back ahead of me at this point. And just the other day I ran into Skittles! We hiked 24 miles together and also enjoyed hearing about each other’s adventures. I’m pretty sure she’s ahead of me now as well. I’m in a motel in Branchville NJ – hiked like 3 miles today. I’m healthy but tired. Napped a bit and ate a lot. Hopefully I’ll be back on my game tomorrow!

    Looking forward to when we next meet Sketch! Until then… happy trails!

    PS I tried entering my blog site in the box provided but it wouldn’t accept it for whatever reason…

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt August 2, 2016 at 7:46 am

      White cap!
      Thanks so much for your additional observations. You’re right about memory being a tricky thing (good thing we journal a lot to help fill in the gaps!)
      I’m in Unionville NY now (so this blog narrative is about 900 miles behind) so I’m probably about a week behind you, but looks like I might be gaining a bit of ground. We might see each other again before too long.
      Keep enjoying this amazing experience White Cap!

  • Reply fancypaperblog October 19, 2017 at 3:00 am

    It looks like such a joy to have your own time to get somewhere and just live simply. Love it.

    • Reply Gabriel November 5, 2017 at 6:24 am

      This already seems like a lifetime ago (although it was just last year). But you’re absolutely right. There is something magical about taking a journey for the journeys sake and meeting others with similar goals along the way!

  • Reply angelanoelauthor October 19, 2017 at 7:06 am

    Every time I read one of these hiking posts I stand in awe. The people, the experience, the process of putting one foot in front of another–and doing it with joy–gives me goosebumps. I know not every step feels like a step closer to enlightenment, but as I read I think of all the hard things we do in life by choice or not. These steps, real and metaphorical, may not each be glorious, but collectively and certainly upon reflection, they lead to grace.
    And peeing standing up sounds fun.

    • Reply Gabriel November 5, 2017 at 6:29 am

      Sweet Angela. Not only are you encouraging, but so wise. My wife and I have been discussing similar topics lately… how to move towards Grace. While we can’t “reach” Grace on our own, its the effort to move along a purpose-driven path that will enable us to reach our destination.
      And yes… peeing standing up can be fun 😉

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