Editor’s Note: Westbrook native Gretchen Carroll, who goes by the trail name Ukalady, is hiking from Georgia to Maine along the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail. So far, she has spent 58 days on the trail, hiked 656 miles and raised $1,015 for Rippleffect scholarships.

The journey into Virginia has been marked by buds, flowers and wildlife. Hiking at this time of year means I am thoroughly enjoying watching spring arrive. It’s amazing the difference a few thousand feet can make. Earlier in the week I was taking pictures of budding leaves and realized that soon I would not have as many views of distant mountains and towns. I then walked out of the mountains down 2,000 feet into Damascus, Va., and there was leaf cover everywhere. It was as though I had fast forwarded through weeks of the spring process.

Before hiking the trail I had heard of the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park but wasn’t sure I would see any. I was so happy when I saw a few off in the distance. Later that same day I saw one 20 feet away out of the woods. One of my hiking partners, Chameleon, being more brave than myself, slowly walked toward one. After a bit of wandering we had six ponies around us! Clearly they were used to hikers because a particularly mischievous pony tried to eat my snacks out of my hip belt pocket. We took pictures and continued on our way up the trail.

I saw my first bear! I heard rustling in the woods and looked over expecting to see a squirrel or chipmunk. Instead I saw a black spot. I immediately knew it was a bear, nothing else in the woods is that black. It ran off, then climbed onto a rock to look back at me. After remaining still for a bit I slowly moved down the trail. The bear continued to watch me; we made eye contact, then it ran up over the ridge. It was amazing to interact with a bear from afar.

Virginia seems to have so much wildlife. I also saw my first rabbit. It froze in the middle of the trail when it saw me. On a different day Chameleon yelled, “Do you see those bulls?!” I froze in the trail as I waited for what I later learned were long-horned cows to saunter away. One afternoon I watched two woodpeckers chase each other from tree to tree. Were they fighting for territory or attracting a mate? I have no idea.

One interesting aspect of trail life is being very aware of the weather. In a way it drives me crazy when hikers or trail angels try to give me weather updates. They almost always predict rain and we have been fortunate enough that it is often wrong. I prefer to wake up in the morning, take a look at the sky, and determine my own weather forecast. Granted, I can only predict about an hour out, but it’s more accurate than what people tell me days in advance.

I had the pleasure of mailing home my cold weather gear. My pack now comfortably fits all my gear and six days of food without straining at the seams. It turns out people’s advice to bring a smaller pack was good after all.

To donate money for outdoor education scholarships at Rippleffect visit www.gofundme.com/GretchenAT. To read more about my hiking experiences on the trail visit www.mtnrvr.blogspot.com.

Wild horses comes over for a quick snack in Grayson Highlands in Virginia.Gretchen Carroll, hiking the Appalachian Trail, pauses to do some yoga.


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