Grayson Highlands State Park (GHSP), located in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail about 30 miles north of Damascus, Virginia, is the home of the wild ponies. I looked forward to hiking through this park from the first moment I heard about it. Every book I read about the AT made mention of an encounter with the horses as the thru-hiker made the journey through the highlands.
In my mind’s eye, it was a place of gentle meadows with tall grasses and an occasional apple tree. The highlands should have revealed rolling hills boasting of lush green moors and the distant call of bagpipes and Scottish tenor drums played with soft mallets. I imagined a cool breeze blowing across my face as I followed the narrow path through the fields of wild ponies, stopping to stroke the neck of colt or filly, or gazing at mare with her foal close by her side.
In reality, my thru-hike of 2014 through the GHSP was significantly different. There was no gentle meadow but rather a rocky trail over rugged terrain. There was no cool breeze but rather a blazing sun that made me glad for my long-brimmed hat. The canopy of trees had opened to reveal not lush green foliage but a strenuous path with lots of elevation change to add to the adventure. I experienced some rock scrambles and some trails richly populated with trip roots and loose rocks. It was not what I was expecting but it was still breathtaking and beautiful in its own way.
The horses were there! I came upon ten beautiful ponies as I hiked down from Tom Knob Shelter. They greeted me warmly and welcomed me to the highlands. One pony, in particular, walked right up me and put his nose against my chest. I quickly realized that he wanted to eat me or at least lick the salt off my sweat-filled hiking shirt. He took a nibble of my shirt in his mouth, and I rubbed the blaze on his nose, talking is calm tones to quiet his advances and my pounding heart. He decided that salt produced by a 64-year-old thru-hiker was not worth his effort. We parted friends with my shirt in one piece including just a little horse slobber as a free souvenir.
I did not see too many ponies through the highlands themselves, but close to the end, I took a short side trail and found six or seven ponies – one new born sleeping close to mom. When I arrived at Massie Gap, just south of the park’s northern boundary, I heard a bazaar noise to my left. The trail was a narrow path with tall, five-foot high brushes on either side. Suddenly, a horse trotted by right in front of me, followed by a foal, followed by another adult horse. They did not pause, look at me, or slow down. They reminded me or a snooty church going family arriving late for Sunday school.
As I made my way through the stiles at the north end of the highlands, I thought I could hear the faint sounds of bagpipes and drums. I continued to walk the trail with hopes of returning to visit the ponies on another day.