The over arching theme that comes to my mind when I think of this ramble is the generosity of the people we've run into. Thank goodness for them all. People have been so kind. We stop to water our mules at a stream and Melinda McCoy from across the street comes out of her house with three apples for our mules. She also spends a good bit of time giving us directions towards Mountain City.
We are on back roads. We are far from home now. Our map doesn't have a lot of detail in this area. We don't want to use a cell phone and mostly there is no service or battery to rely on out here anyways. So we ask people for directions.
We want to go to Mountain City because we've decided to ride our mules to Grayson Highlands in Virginia to see the wild ponies and to witness the miles of scenic horse trails for ourselves.
Only we aren't quite sure of how to get to Mountain City and the day is already starting to wane on us. We don't have a place for the night. Soon we will have to change our focus from trying to find the best way to Mountain City to where to spend the night.
Around four pm we are still looking for the way to Mountain City. Maybe we are on it. Maybe not. A landscaping truck is pulling out a drive. Two guys are in it. I did not catch their names, maybe Bernie did. We ask them how to get to Mountain City and they ask us about the mules and our ride. We tell them where we have come from and we tell them we are heading to Grayson Highlands.
That's when they tell us we don't want to go to Mountain City. They both used to ride horses in this area. Instead they tell us we can get to the Virginia Creeper Trail mostly via dirt roads and that the Virginia Creeper Trail will take us to other trails from which we can get to Grayson Highlands.
Having just minutes before fled along a series of long guard rails with streams of traffic behind us, this sounds like Heaven. So with these new directions and a new destination, we shift our focus in the dwindling daylight to finding a place for the night.
Bernie goes in to the community center in Creston to ask about the field across from them and other options of land to picket the mules for the upcoming night. While he's in talking with them, I wait outside with the mules. That's when I meet Jay who comes over to say hi to the mules. I introduce myself and tell him we are looking for a place to camp and picket our mules for the night. He tells me if we want to ride about another three miles up the road we can stay with him.
We arrive at Jay's around six pm. He tells us to follow him in his SUV and he drives ahead of the mules on a dirt lane that winds its way steadily up the mountain. Eventually we come out in a nice clearing with a spring above it. It's ours for the night.
We set the mules up and pitch the tent. Then we chat with Jay for a while and hear about his plans to build himself a house and woodworking shop just above the spot we've tucked in for the night. Jay's plans are ambitious to say the least for a single man in his mid sixties doing it almost all alone. He's already built an amazingly solid road and seems to have endless energy and ambition. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years Jay is sitting on his porch up there drinking a beer and toasting his completed homestead. I fall asleep thinking of Jay's generosity, dirt roads leading all the way to Virginia and listening to owls calling.
The next day is wonderful. Dirt roads and more dirt roads! So much scenery I can't stop clicking the button on my camera. I can't stop. We can let go of the reins and just wander along. The paved roads we come to have no traffic, none. It's a glorious experience. Click, click, click. It's just me and Bernie and our three mules, the sunshine, the breeze, the falling leaves and all this country scenery (movie quality). How can we be any luckier?
Then the directions go off. A unexpected cross roads. The day is getting late. Which way to White Top? There are few people to ask. The two different people in passing cars on the gravel road we ask aren't sure but try to help anyways with vague answers. One points down the road, the other up the road. Eventually we stop at a little house with an old man on the porch. We tell him we are trying to get to White Top via a place called Farmer's Store. It turn's out the old guy is Mr. Farmer who used to farm at Farmer's Store, which is just a cross road today. He steers us in the right direction. As we are chatting with him both the cars we have passed and asked for directions pull in the drive. They want us to know that they have given us the wrong advice and have come back to tell us how to get there. Now we know.
Now the question concerning us most is where to camp. Again we are running out of light and the rain cloud overhead is so pregnant she's due for delivery soon. The wind is starting to kick up. We see a lush hay field behind a family cemetery.
We see the house that must own both down a long manicured drive. I see an older lady in the yard. We ride down the drive waving. We will ask her if we can stay there for the night. As we get closer we can see that there are three people in the drive. There's a man with his head up under the hood of a mini van, a woman standing next to him and the older lady we'd seen from the road. The mini van is clearly broken and the people are grumpy about it.
I can tell they really wish we'd just go away and let them get the van fixed but they politely hear us out and agree to let us camp in the field for the night. That's generous! To be that kind when you are grumpy speaks of a special breed of generosity. That's a lesson for me to file away. So a special "thank you" to you Flossy Taylor and your family. Flossy's field was full of lush grass that has really helped the mules maintain their weight.
The next morning we made it to the Virginia Creeper Trail. What Heaven it is! A double wide trail along a white water river. Tons of beautiful well maintained railroad trestles to cross over many feet above the river. The Creeper Trail follows an old railway bed for 30-plus miles from White Top to Abingdon, VA.
At the first visitors center we came to the volunteer visitor hosts, a kind couple, the Gillmans, gave us two packages of cheese and a container of cold cuts. Like two hungry wolves, we consume half the meat before leaving the visitors center.
We rode all that day along the Creeper Trail. And oops, once again night is at the door. This time we run out of light. Luckily, there is a field right next to us and though we REALLY do wish to always have permission. This time we have to just tuck in and we do. We never meet the owner but we try our hardest to leave the land looking as close as we can to how we have found it, which isn't exact with the three mules.
The next day we taste the famous chocolate cake at the Creeper Trail Cafe, eat a burger there too. Then we ride all day arriving in Damascus Va at four pm. We head to a store called Hooked where we meet the owners, Kelly and Sharon. We buy a bag of cracked corn from them and take it outside and feed the mules as much as they want to eat of it right there in the parking lot. Mules are good that way. Unlike horses they rarely over-eat. Our mules now really need some calories so we let them eat until Dusty starts chewing on a stick so we know they're full.
Everyone at Hooked tries to help us find a place for the night. Kelly calls a realtor and gets permission for us to put our mules in a seller's field. Another guy, Ed, who has been hanging out at the store, offers to take the rest of the bag of corn down to the field for us. We accept the offer and head off to find the field with the mules.
When we get there we realize the whole field is mowed poison Ivy. No way can we stay there. It's after five now and we need a field for the mules. We are hoping for one with grass for them to eat and where we might rest them at least a day but now we are getting less picky as the time ticks on. We have no idea what to do or where to go.
We see a little road that looks like it heads in to a narrow farmed valley with cows grazing along slanted hill sides. Both our instincts are to wander up this road. We come to a junction. Both our instincts are to go on the smaller dirt road to the right. We pop up into a beautiful valley. We see a man picking apples on his lawn. We say hi. His name is Jim Osborne. Jim offers us some Stamen apples which we accept. Next to his house is a long drive into a beautiful cow farm with big fields. We inquire about the farmer and Jim tell us his name is Mike Johnson and that he's a very nice man so we ride up to meet him.
All Mike's family is out to greet us when we arrive. They smile warmly. We chat with them. Mike goes off with Bernie while I stay with the mules and chat with Mike's daughter and his wife, Cindy. They are all warm, smiley individuals. Mike shows Bernie a whole pasture we are welcome to and tells us we can use his hay barn and stay as long as we need to.
This generosity is amazing. It's like mule travel is indeed magical. People seem to love that we are out there doing this with these great hardworking animals. They love that we are unconventional and free. That we are on the road. They want a small part of it. What they want to do it seems, is to help us do it. They want some one out there and they make it possible for us to be.