I'm soaked through. Between the pack on my back and the chest harness that holds my camera for easy access, I'm a sandwich of sweat. "Bad weather makes for good photography" is how the old adage goes. I hate adages. Actually, at this point I'm pretty much a sour smelling sourpuss. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the area I'm hiking.
The area around Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia has pretty much everything you could want for hiking in the Southeastern US: rolling green hills climbing up to peaks just short of 6000 ft. and steep valleys with babbling or cascading creeks falling toward the surrounding farmland. It also has one ace up its sleeve as far as public interest goes - wild ponies. Yup, cute, photogenic wild ponies. An additional benefit is that a lot of the actual ridge line is open due to grazing and fire. The ponies can be seen from a long way off. All of this makes the two and a half hour drive from my place well worth a visit, even for a simple overnight.
I checked the weather and it looked good for photography. A 50% chance of rain the first day followed by a 30% chance the second. Rain means clouds, clouds mean interesting skies, and a decreasing chance of rain meant that there was an increased chance of clearing. Increased clearing means I probably wasn't going to get stuck under a blanket of even overcast, the only thing more boring in a pic than a perfectly clear blue sky. All-in-all, a chancy endeavor, I'll admit.
The temperature was also going to be in the low to mid 70s! Positively frigid compared to the 90s that had been the norm all summer in the Piedmont of NC. 'Nuff said. VA here I come. I decided on a route that I hadn't taken before. Climbing up from a trailhead in the State Park to the Appalachian Trail, I would make a 12 mile loop that would take me up from a creek basin and up and over the highest clear ridges of the area. The ideal trip, or so I imagined…
Two miles into the hike and I'm a dripping mess. Two words had escaped my thought processes during planning…
Relative humidity. Numerical value? 90%.
I hate adages.
I'm still in the woods and I won't break into the open air of the ridges until mile 4. The still air is mocking me, and I'm taking in water from my hydration pack like crazy. I'm sweating, it's 75 degrees, and my sweat is going nowhere. I take another swig on the Camel Back and recall a run-in with a pony on a previous trip.
I was kneeling to take an eye level pic of a foal when I felt a tugging on my shoulder. I turned to find a pony, the hose to my hydration pack in his mouth, casually taking a drink. After a brief tug of war, I pulled the hose out, only to find that he had bitten the valve - the one that keeps the water from pouring out all over the place - neatly off. The pony looked me squarely in the eye, chewed the plastic bit, and swallowed. I stood dejectedly with my water pouring out of the reservoir. Pony 1, Hiker/photographer, 0.
Nothing like that was going to happen this time I hope.
At about 4 miles I come into the open, the air completely still, the sky overcast like I had dreaded. My only solace is the blueberries and blackberries that line the trail. OK, it was good solace. In front of me, at 5 miles in, is the old corral called "The Scales," now a small campground nestled in a low gap and accessible for those who want to explore the ridges of the area via short day hikes. On the hill beyond The Scales, I see patches of white, black, and tan moving across the landscape. Ponies! Hmm, look kind of big though. Probably just a trick of perspective. I hurry down and across the Scales and start up the trail on the far side. Two hundred yards up the trail I round a bend and find…cattle standing in the trail, including…
Two. Big. Bulls.
Now I don't consider myself a coward, but I'll admit a certain tightening of certain muscles. I slowly make way around the bovine bystanders, ensuring that I don't get between the bulls and, well, pretty much anything. On the far side, I look back and see that there ARE ponies. Only, there is a herd of cattle with two long horns between myself and them. Discretion becomes the better part of valor and I move reluctantly on. "Well, maybe it'll clear and I'll get some landscapes up on the ridge." Three miles later, I'm slogging up the last rise into Rhododendron Gap. It's raining and misting on and off. Fog has encompassed the ridge and I'm thoroughly soaked in sweat and rain. I'm tired of being wet. I find a relatively flat spot on the bald at the gap, set up my tent in the rain, crawl in, and almost immediately fall asleep.
Forty-five minutes later a loud snort wakes me up! I prairie dog my head out of the tent and WHOOPS! I'm surrounded! The ponies had apparently followed me up the ridge and were now snacking on the grass in the gap. I quickly grab my camera and spend the next hour and a half running around taking pony pictures, including several of a photogenic young foal and its momma.
And this is where I have my run in with "Teen Miscreant Pony," a yearling, or so my uneducated observations lead me to believe. Teen miscreant pony is trying to eat my tent. I keep pushing him away, but he keeps coming back. He finally turns around to kick me. From that point it takes several well placed prods from the hiking sticks to keep him away. I gently put the tip of the hiking pole against his side and push. I'm pretty sure it didn't hurt him or even do much to discourage him because the following morning he would try to get to the granola bar in my pocket. It really is for his own good. If he colicked I will feel much worse.
Slowly I realize that the light is changing, becoming more directional.
In my effort to catch photos of the ponies, I had completely missed the fog lifting. I grab the tripod and head for a pile of rock that gives the best view over the surrounding landscape. I see that the low overcast has cleared and the sun is periodically peeking through. I also notice a fog bank rising from the valley floor. I'm amazed at its rate of ascent. I hope that it will hold off until sunset, but it isn't to be. I take pics until I'm once again engulfed in fog. The ponies have left for the meadow the next saddle over, so I make dinner and retire to my tent yet again. Reading with my headlamp on in the tent, I slowly notice the yellow interior of the tent take on a glow. Once again my head pops out and "Son of a…" I see the last light of the sunset breaking over the ridge. Once again I grab my gear to make the 200 yard sprint to the rocks and climb to my perch. The fog had settled back out again and it added amazing texture to the foreground. I spend the next few minutes mesmerized. When the sunset finally ends I return to my tent, happy with the end to a day that had a less than brilliant start.
The next morning I awake to a slight overcast, but a beautiful varied sky. The air is still and every surface is beaded with dew and condensation. I climb back up on the rocks, already considering the short hike back to the car, turn and take a couple pictures of my campsite. Looking back I remember the discomfort, the intellectual knowledge of what "bad weather" meant, and the dawning reality of cloth stuck to skin, socks squishing in boots, and the uncertainty of goals sought.
I hate adages, They're tired and nobody really thinks about what they really say, but that doesn't make them any less prone to truth.