Trail Town, USA

Sunday, August 12, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Damascus, VA
After completing our jigsaw puzzle and saying goodbye to Ryan, who had to return home this morning, we left for our adventure to Damascus, VA (pop. 981), the self-proclaimed Trail Town, USA, and home of the annual Trail Days Festival, a celebration that attracts AT veterans and honors hikers as heroes.  To reach this tiny village which hosts more than 20,000 festival goers each year, we had to cross the northeast corner of Tennessee.
On the way north, we stopped in Mountain City and located a letterbox that had been planted a couple of years ago but never found until today.  As we crossed into Virginia on TN-91/VA-91,  the road began to twist and turn, reminding us all too much of Friday's road to ruin Roan.  But the town was only three miles north of the state line and soon we were headed for the Damascus Old Mill restaurant.  Having read their menu and some excellent reviews on Yelp, we were looking forward to plenty of delectable vegetarian options.
What a surprise to learn that on Sundays, they serve a country cooking buffet at a city price— $14.95 for all you can eat of the fried chicken, vegetables laced with fatback pork, and other meat lover delights.  And don't even think about ordering from the menu, not on Sunday.  We're convinced they have a different cook for the buffet and give the regular chef Sundays off.  With some Yelp help, we ended up at Quincy's Pizza, where we had an acceptable lunch, before going off to learn more about Trail Town, USA.
Among numerous others, four major scenic trails converge in the townthe Appalachian Trail, U.S. Bicycle Route 76, the Iron Mountain Trail, and the Virginia Creeper Trail.  The streets and trails were handling some heavy bicycle traffic today.  In the town park, we located the intersection of the AT and Virginia Creeper, a landmark in the clue for a letterbox we wanted to find. 
Typical Virginia Creeper Trail trestle bridge
After stamping in, we hiked a bit on the Virginia Creeper trail, a 35-mile stretch on an old rail bed from White Top to Abingdon, VA, with Damascus as its midway point.  Popular with hikers, cyclists and equestrians, the Creeper features numerous old trestle bridges hinting at its previous life as a railroad.
In search of a letterbox, we headed a mile north of town to search another stretch of the Creeper.  Though we didn't locate the box, Emma did make another new dog friend.  Lucy, who was walking with her "aunt" cycling, seemed equally happy to make Emma's acquaintance.
One of our primary reasons for this Virginia visit was locating a home for our Virginia letterbox, part of our plant-in-all-the-48-states project for 2012.  After checking and rejecting a couple of locations in town, we finally settled on a spot off the AT just south of the Damascus city limits on VA-91.
On the AT near our new letterbox's home
Our mission accomplished, we decided to return by way of TN-133 so we could have a look at Backbone Rock.  In the early 1900s, the area's booming timber industry prompted the construction of a railroad track from Shady Valley, TN, to a sawmill near Damascus.  When the team building the railroad reached the 75-ft. tall stone ridge known as Backbone Rock, they decided that the easiest and cheapest way to get the railroad to the other side was to blast a hole through it, creating a 20-ft. long tunnel.  After the track was laid, the tunnel was not quite high enough, so its top had to be hand-chiseled to allow the train engine’s smokestack to pass through.
Backbone Rock
By 1920, most of the timber had been harvested, and soon the tracks were replaced by a road.  In the New Deal's public works building frenzy of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built stairs and a trail to enable visitors to climb the rock, which we did, before continuing down 133 to Shady Valley, where we found a letterbox at the wetlands known as Schoolyard Springs.
Little did we realize that our frolicking at Backbone Rock would come with a price.  As we turned onto US-421 in Shady Valley to head back east to North Carolina, Marion suddenly recognized a venomous reptilea stretch of road that motorcyclists love to call "The Snake."  And if you guessed that this name comes from the pavement's tendency to twist and turn, you are correct.  "Noooooo," we moaned, turning green just off the memory of Friday's trip to Roan.  To encourage us that day, Marion had told us about a much worse road which she had ridden with friends several years ago.  And now we were wrestling with that very road.
Fortunately Shady Valley is the midway point of this 33-mile stretch of road traversing 489 curves, three mountains, and one valley.  Though we never realized before that he was a snake handler, Driver Ken was extremely kind and took this dizzying, stomach-churning roller coaster of a road very, very slowly, rarely getting above 20 mph.  Needless to say, this speed was not to the liking of the motorcyclists who had come there specifically to experience the curves and bends, so we made good use of the many pull-offs to allow them to be on their speedy way.
Proud to say that we survived the snake without even turning the least bit green, we stopped at Harris Teeter before heading back to hearth and home.  Since we arrived later than we expected, our plan to have leftovers seemed prescient.  By 9:00, we were all ready to retire and recover from our reptile-wrangling experience.
  • Weather:  sunny, 55° to 79°
  • Letterboxes found: 4
  • Bicyclists on trails in Damascus:  638
  • Climbers at Backbone Rock:  35
  • Snakes we wrestled:  1

Ken feeds water to an injured butterfly
Emma on Virginia Creeper
US-421 snaking through eastern Tennessee