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We are thrilled to share the tenth update from Gerry and Rex Leonard who are hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise funds and awareness of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) and the disabled veterans we serve. In this travel log entry, they highlight the dramatic changes to the weather (winter is coming!), the beauty of Virginia, time spent at the Audie Murphy Memorial, Hiker Town USA – Damascus, Virginia.

Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.  

Read all their dispatches from the AT here:  Gerry and Rex Leonard Hike to Heal Veterans

Friends and Family,

Greetings from Damascus, Virginia! We have finally reached the end of Virginia! Damascus, known throughout the hiker world as “Hiker Town, USA”, is the southernmost town along the AT in Virginia. We are taking a nero today to enjoy the fall weather and to soak up the history of this quaint, but famous hiker town. Tomorrow, when we resume our hike, we will say goodbye to Virginia and hello to Tennessee. Damascus sits three miles away from the Virginia-Tennessee border. Since our last update from Troutville VA, we have hiked 263 miles, crossed the 1700-mile mark, climbed over and around 33 mountains and peaks, to include eight 4K’s and two 5K’s, and passed through the stunning and majestic Grayson Highlands. Most importantly, we have completed three-quarters of the Appalachian Trail!! With the end in sight, here are some highlights of our last 250 miles:

– Changing Seasons. The weather is changing…dramatically. Three weeks ago, we hiked through a heatwave with temperatures reaching the mid-90s in the mountains. Hiking in those temperatures alone was a challenge, but a lack of water due to a late summer drought compounded the challenge. Rain and near-freezing temperatures replaced the drought and high temps about half-way through our journey between Troutville and Damascus. While the heatwave zapped our energy, the near-freezing temps crippled our productivity…because neither of us like to get out of our sleeping bags in the colder temps. Besides temperature changes, the days are getting shorter. Instead of the twelve hours of sunlight we enjoyed in New England, we’re getting about eight hours of now. The most dramatic change we’ve seen is the emergence of fall colors. Hiking through a sea of yellows, oranges, and reds, or sitting on a mountain and looking out across a valley of brilliant fall colors is breathtaking and inspirational…and it makes the toils of climbing 4-5K peaks worthwhile. We hit southern Virginia at the perfect time!

– Southern Virginia. Virginia gets prettier and prettier the further south we hike. Northern Virginia was terrific…few places on the AT can compete with Shenandoah National Park. Central Virginia, with its beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, was even better. Southern Virginia, however, is in a class by itself and it may have supplanted Southern Maine as our favorite stretch on the AT. Southern Virginia combines the grace, charm, and beauty of Vermont with the majesty and ruggedness of New Hampshire, yet the trails are smoother and the ascents and descents more gradual. The breathtaking views from places like Tinker’s Cliff and Dragon’s Tooth left an indelible impression on both of us. One of our favorite spots was Mcafee’s Knob. Here we stealth camped (i.e., not a “sanctioned” campground) with our hiking mates, Sunshine and Steady, in order to watch the sunset and sunrise from a cliff on top of the Knob. Check out our pictures! Another breathtaking view was the one from Chestnut Knob. From this knob (mountain), you look straight down at a perfectly manicured Amish community nestled within a ring of mountains that form a barrier to the outside world. Locals call the view from Chestnut Knob, “God’s Thumbprint”, because the green valley nestled in the ring of mountains resembles a giant thumbprint. 

– Audie Murphy Memorial. We would be remiss if we did not mention the Audie Murphy Memorial that sits atop Brush Mountain. Somewhere in the vicinity of the Memorial, our nation’s most decorated soldier tragically died in a plane crash in May 1971. The shrine memorializes his life and legacy. WIth hundreds of dogtags and personal artifacts adorning the shrine, we remain hopeful that future generations of Americans (and AT hikers) will never forget his bravery, courage, and sacrifice.

– Semper Fi Farm. As we made our way south, our good friends, Tim and Shannon Maxwell, invited us to spend a day relaxing on their farm in Rural Retreat, VA. Tim, who is an old Marine Corps buddy, and Shannon have been fighting for and taking care of disabled veterans for years. In fact, they regularly open up their home and farm as a place for disabled veterans to heal from the scars of war through farming and physical labor. What Shannon and Tim are doing on their farm is similar to what our partner, Project Healing Waters, is doing to heal disabled veterans on our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Not surprisingly, the therapeutic and recuperative benefits of performing physically and mentally challenging tasks outdoors and in nature continues to gain steam in the medical world. Tim and Shannon, thank you for what you do…you are American heroes!

– Grayson Highlands. Maine’s mountains were rugged. New Hampshire’s were majestic. Vermont’s were stunning. But our (new) favorite mountain chain is the Grayson Highlands. This mountain chain, which includes a number of balds and Virginia’s highest peak, took our breath away. Perhaps it was the perfect fall weather, blue skies, and great temps, but nothing in our 1700-mile journey matched the beauty and inspiration we felt during our two-day walk through the Highlands, with its wild ponies, longhorns, green grasses, fall colors, and awesome views. Since we started our blog, we’ve made a number of recommendations for those interested in hiking portions of the AT. If we had to pick one place to visit…go see the Grayson Highlands. You won’t regret it!

– Hiker Town, USA. Among the many towns and villages we visited during our journey, Damascus, VA stands alone due to its location and history. It sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains interlaced with rivers and streams. The AT runs right through town. Hiking and biking trails are everywhere. Hiker hostels abound. A number of outdoor stores cater to hikers, bikers, and outdoorsmen. Besides being hiker-friendly, Damascus hosts “Trail Days”, the most famous hiker party in the hiking world. For a four-day period every May, AT hikers, past and present, flock to the town for a celebration and reunion. For some, this is the Woodstock of the hiking world. We plan to attend next May!

– Way Ahead…winter is coming. Next up for us is Tennessee and North Carolina. Snow has already fallen in the mountains of Tennessee. We’re expecting more, particularly in the Smokies. Fortunately, we were able to pick up some warmer clothes, rain gear, and a stove in Damascus. We have some tough hiking ahead, but we’re starting to see the end of the tunnel. Until then, thanks for partnering with us in our efforts to heal disabled veterans!!

Happy Trails,

Diesel and Pony Express  

Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.  

Read all their dispatches from the AT here:  Gerry and Rex Leonard Hike to Heal Veterans