Seven days alone

Published 5:47 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In the 1880s, construction began on the Abingdon Coal and Iron Railroad.

Later it became the Virginia Western Coal and Iron Railroad Company. Around the turn of the century it became the Virginia-Carolina Railroad reflecting its expansion into the mountains of North Carolina and southwest Virginia.

It thrived on the expanding lumber business and brought civilization into an isolated part of the world. The train carried people in and out of an area poorly served by roads. It brought the news from the outside world and took the mail back and forth. All sorts of goods once only imagined began to make their way into the backwoods area.

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At one time, seven trains a day crossed the 47 railroad trestles from Abingdon to Damascus. A hundred years later I found myself sleeping under one of those bridges, hiking along one of the prettiest parts of the Appalachian Trail.

The Virginia Creeper Trail, named for the train that closed in 1977, is best known as a mountain bike or horseback trail. From Damascus, the train climbed to Whitetop, Va., once known as the highest spot on a railroad in the eastern United States.

The long gentle grade means you don’t have to pedal a lick when you are headed down to Damascus from Whitetop. It also means it is a steady, but easy hike up, if you are headed in the other direction.

On one of my hikes I stopped in Damascus for “Trail Days,” a festival held in that small town. It is famous to anyone who has ever hiked the AT and is the largest annual gathering of hikers in the United States.

Good food and music surrounded the thousands of hikers taking a break and telling tales of the trail. The backpacking parade was fun for everyone and certainly contained one of the motliest looking groups of people I had ever seen.

I left a day before the festival, itching to get back on the trail. I enjoyed the Virginia Creeper Trail’s beauty as it led me out of town. I slowly made my way up the grade, enjoying the sound of water rushing below the many train trestles. I ate on one of the bridges, with my feet dangling high above the gorge below.

The rain started late that afternoon. It continued for several days and would prevent almost all the other hikers from leaving Damascus. I had experience in backpacking in the rain and that first evening I ate under one of the old trestles, which gave a bit of protection from the weather.

The next day I headed off the Virginia Creeper Trail and followed the Appalachian Trail toward Mount Rogers, the tallest point in Virginia. Little did I know that I wouldn’t see another human being until I got there.

I always hiked by myself, but backpacking is actually a fairly social undertaking. I always had someone to divide up a meal with if I wanted. Hikers work so hard at the same thing they often have a lot to share with each other around a campfire.

I had occasionally gone a day or two and pitched my tent alone, but even then I would often see a few hikers along the way. Even in bad weather, there are usually some that want to keep to a schedule rather than stay in a tent or shelter.

However, as I pitched my tent on the second day, I realized that I hadn’t seen anyone all day long. The third day and then the fourth were the same. If the trail hadn’t been so well marked I would have thought I was hopelessly lost.

When I finally reached Mount Rogers, I had spent the week totally alone. In retrospect, it was the hardest week of hiking I ever did, not because the terrain was difficult but because of being so unexpectedly isolated.

The biggest benefit of the week was adding another level of confidence in my own personal ability to survive. Hiking long distances gave me a lot of self-confidence in that way.

I also learned at just how much I enjoyed being around people. These aren’t your typical friends from home. Everyone has a different reason for undertaking the physical and mental challenge of hiking up and down mountains day after day.

I learned that no matter how different we appear from the outside, and no matter how different our paths may have been, that we instinctively need each other.

I never had to prove to myself again that I could do it all by myself. In most cases, I never wanted to do it all by myself again. Family, friends and just strangers are part of the fabric of our lives. They make our lives occasionally challenging, but mostly interesting and fulfilling.

Mother Nature taught me a great lesson. All it took was 63 miles and seven days alone.

Dan Ponder can be reached at