September 4-7, 2015
The invite came via email from Chris, the organizer, in early spring. The 10th annual Virginia Creeper Trail Campout and Bike ride was to be scheduled sometime that summer. We’d joined this group a few years back and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Emails traded hands and before too long Labor Day Weekend was chosen, leading to our making a reservation at Grindstone Campground, located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
We’d originally planned to camp from Thursday night through Monday, but my job on campus took Thursday out of the equation, so with the car loaded up Friday morning, we took off for Damascus, Virginia to hit the lower section of the Virginia Creeper Trail followed by the short trip to Grindstone to set up camp. We arrived in Damascus a little after noon following a fairly easy drive using the interstate route; we’ve done the more direct mountainous route in the past and although a bit shorter, the challenge of curvy mountain navigation is best left for when you have time to relax and enjoy the drive.
Parked on a grassy strip alongside Highway 58 (Jeb Stuart Highway), adjacent to JC’s Outdoors, a spot we’ve used in the past, as we were unloading the bikes and preparing to ride we were approached by a young man on a cruiser bike who told us that the property belonged to JC’s and normally we couldn’t park there. It would be slow that day though without much traffic and he felt we’d be OK continuing to park there, but to consider parking elsewhere on Saturday.
We thanked him for the advice, locked up the car and with the Creeper Trail running right through the strip, took off north through town heading in the direction of Abingdon, our destination sixteen miles away. We would ride round trip giving us about thirty-two miles for the day, this section a bit easier than the next as there is little elevation gain or loss compared to the ride to Whitetop. It was a gorgeous day out, warm but not oppressively hot with little humidity, Damascus situated at 2,000 feet above sea level.
This would be the third time we’d ridden the trail, but the first riding out of Damascus. Regardless, it was a pleasurable ride, sailing past familiar points of interest. A little over halfway to Abingdon we happened upon another cyclist while stopping to open one of a number of gates that keep livestock from wandering onto the trail who I would ride with almost all the way into town.
A professor at the local community college, he and his wife had lived in the area for many years and so we passed the time engaged in conversation, a great way to relive the tedium of a ride.
We hit the Abingdon trailhead, took a brief break while filing up our water bottles, snapped a picture of a gigantic Oak tree estimated to be over 150 years old and began the ride back to Damascus. The familiar landmarks flew by until we hit the one I was waiting for, the Old Alvarado Station, a former train stop and now a place to buy food and drink.
We parked our bikes and went inside, delighted to discover one last remaining piece of Apple Pie, which we purchased and consumed with great relish, a reminder of how many times we did the same thing last year in Europe.
We rode the last six miles into Damascus, loaded up the bikes and made our way to Grindstone. Although not far in terms of distance, the middling stretch of the highway is posted at 25 miles per hour and they are serious about that speed limit. This is twisty, turning, sharp curves driving, beautiful scenery sliding past the windows as you keep your eyes on the road while trying to catch a glimpse every now and then.
Our campsite was situated down the hill two sites from where the others would camp and not being sure when they would arrive, we quickly set up the tent, put all in place and began to prepare a quick dinner. We cooked ground chicken the day before and froze it (helps keep the cooler cool) and combined it with a jar of Chili sauce we’d received as a gift. Adding in pinto beans and fresh onion gave it more flavor and we ended up with a hearty yet fairly healthy meal after an afternoon of pleasant physical effort.
The rest of the group arrived later that evening and we walked up the hill to greet those we knew and introduce ourselves to those we didn’t. After an hour or so we made our way back to our site and crawled in for the night, one that would bring strong winds and heavy rain, weather that was forecast for the whole weekend. Our new tent, the Marmot Limestone 6, held up nicely as we had witnessed at the Outer Banks and we slept well that night, warm and dry in our little home away from home.
The next morning cleared up and as luck would have it, good weather would stay with us the rest of the weekend. Upon arising we discovered that a loud noise we’d heard the night before was the result of a good sized tree limb that fell into the driveway of our camp site, shades of our experience in Austin. We ate breakfast, glad that we hadn’t been clobbered by the branch or that it had hit the car. A lazy morning in camp eventually led us up the hill to the other site and after some discussion, it was decided that we’d all set out on a hike up the trail from camp towards Mt. Rogers.
The trail was crowded that day, the good weather bringing out many hikers. A good sized group of young adults outfitted with backpacks passed us at a good pace. We’d catch up to them later when they were resting and exchanged pleasantries. It made me long for the days, pre arthritic knee and disc related back issues, when I could put on a 40-pound pack and spend a few days in the back country. The hardest part of growing old is the things you have to give up, your body no longer able to accommodate a particular kind of activity.
About half way into the hike, a good three miles of steady uphill movement, Joanna and Elise decided to hike on hoping to find a view point, while Elise’s husband and son turned back with me for the return to camp. We made good time with gravity on our side and arriving back in camp, I settled in for a relaxing afternoon of reading followed by a good hot shower in the nearby restroom. We all gathered that night for dinner, each party bringing something to cook and eat. This is one of the best times to be in camp, food preparation and cooking and conversation occurring simultaneously, all parties joining in and contributing, many subjects discussed, a quick bonding that comes from a shared common experience.
The plan for the next day was for us to get an early start so that we could ride up the Creeper Trail from Damascus to Whitetop and meet up with others who would be taking a shuttle. This is how most folks do the Creeper Trail, a shuttle ride to the top and then 16 pleasant mostly downhill miles to Damascus. Sleep came quickly again for us, another nice long day of physical activity combined with good food and drink. The next day’s ride would be challenging; we were left wondering how it would go as we drifted off to sleep.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forest: http://www.recreation.gov/recreationalAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=1050&recAreaId=1050&agencyCode=70903
Virginia Creeper Trail: http://www.vacreepertrail.com/
Old Alvarado Station: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Old-Alvarado-Station/114184261947094