Grayson Highlands

Land Use

In the west, Grayson County, VA stretches skyward to become the highest point in the state – the peak of Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet above sea level. That peak is clearly visible and accessible from the Grayson Highlands State Park. Simply hop on the Appalachian Trail and hike a few miles and you’ll end up quite close.


Trail log from the AT at the parking area

If you are worried about getting Fringed on the trail, perhaps neighboring Whitetop Mountain is more your speed; it’s the second highest mountain in Virginia, but there’s a nice road leading right up the summit. I wouldn’t try it in winter, though.


Drive or hike several miles down a little 4WD road, unlatch the livestock gate, and take a break in the grassy paddock. There you might see a high-clearance pickup truck and perhaps a tent or two. This is the Scales/Elk Garden area of the Grayson Highlands. It’s been a cattle grazing area for pioneers and farmers for at least two centuries, and it was still being grazed by cattle and WILD PONIES (more on that later) when I was there.


The roots of the mountains, and on up their slopes, are studded with relatively flat spots, which were apparently logged as soon as the area was settled. All that grazing and rocky terrain keeps those flat areas pretty clear of vegetation throughout the years, creating “balds” where the ground beneath your feet might be stone, caribou moss, or grass.


Farmers used to sell their horses and cattle (by weight) in this area, leading to the name, “The Scales.” In fact, you can still buy colts….


…of the wild ponies that roam the highland slopes. The ponies were introduced in the 60’s and pretty much left alone. The population as a whole is managed, but they are not pets (and they will bite you; I’ve seen it). I’ve spotted ponies all over the mountain. Certain areas are fenced off from them, but heck, I’ve seen them in there too.



Note that a pony is not a word for a young horse. Ponies are their own breed. These wild ponies will never grow to full horse size. You can ride a pony (probably not these ponies). However, Virginia does have some feral horses, especially in reclaimed or abandoned mining areas. Horse owners dropped them off as a local coal economy declined or as agricultural laws changed. The feral horses can breed but it seems their population remains fairly stable and limited. Other times, horse owners might just have deals with the local mineral rights holders to allow grazing on reclaimed strip mines or natural gas extraction areas.


I wouldn’t take a horse with me on the Fringe. I don’t think they have a dog’s natural immunity, and they’re too much a mode of transport. Something terrible would probably happen to it, and that would break my heart much more than injury and discomfort to my own person.


The trails were lined with berries of all kinds. A Fringe Hiker could stay alive out here by wading into the thorns and picking his fill. I only stayed for a bit this fall, but I sure ate a lot of berries.


The balds are beautiful picnic spots and scenic vistas. I see lots of plant species up there that I don’t see elsewhere in the region. The ecosystems are also different.

Some of the flatter forested areas form duffy swamps, even at the high elevations. You start seeing yellow birch and spruce.


Yellow birch has an interesting habit of growing in “nurse logs.” The seedling starts shooting up from within a rotten log that acts as compost for the young tree.


Roots are sent out, draped over the log, until they find the real soil and dig in. The roots and stem thicken as the log rots away, until it has vanished completely and you are left with the strange sight of an adult tree whose stem doesn’t start for a full twelve inches above ground level.


I spotted several such trees intertwined with each other.


And even a tree that had used the hollow of a larger tree as a nursery site.


The stones are interesting too. They reminded me of the glacial erratics in the Midwest, big stones dropped by melting glaciers. They’re very different from other stones in the area.


I asked a naturalist, and she told me Mount Rogers is the only part of Virginia where evidence of ancient glaciation can be seen – an ice age even older than the ones that shaped the Midwest. Furthermore, Mount Rogers and the surrounding area were formed by volcanic activity!

I’ve been on so many great trails in the Grayson Highlands, and this blog only details a few areas of the park. Get out there, explore, and don’t forget to take the long way home.



It’s National Novel Writing Month, so we’re hard at work on the Fringe Hikers book.

The goal of Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words in a month. We are getting a little behind, so here are the tips we have found work well for reaching that elusive goal.

1. Never use one word when two words will do.
Instead of “hurry”, try “Make haste.”

2. Use the perfect continuous conditional.
“He would have been running” is a lot more words than “He ran.”

3. Use prepositions.
You can chain together a very long sentence in a short time with judicious use of prepositions.

4. Write in an analytic language like Vietnamese rather than an agglutinating one like Iñupiat.

5. Use “Very.”
Instead of “He was furious,” use “He was very angry.” In a pinch, you can double up or even triple up on your use of “very.” “He was very very very very angry.” That’s a lot of emotion!!

6. Double up for emphasis
Whenever something important happens in your story, it’s OK to put a little more emphasis on it by reiterating it twice. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just use what was successful earlier!

7. Use prepositions.
You can chain together a very long sentence in a short time with judicious use of prepositions.

Cats!! And other pets of the Fringe

I found a litter of feral kittens today.


I fed them some peanut butter
I fed them some peanut butter

They were all alone in a broken down cabin in the middle of the woods. My buddy Jordan and I waited 5 hours for mama to come back (we wanted to give her a home too!), but the kittens were dirty and extremely hungry and we didn’t think she was still attending them. Either way, Jordan decided the kittens should belong to him instead of being feral, so we carried them home in a box.




They all have brilliant blue eyes, but each of the four kittens is a different color!

This is Anne
Here we make eye contact with Morpheus
Here we make eye contact with Morpheus
This is Tulkas, or Brawly
This is Tulkas, or Brawly
Shai-Hulud, or Shel. He likes to burrow. We think he is the only male.
Shai-Hulud, or Shel. He likes to burrow. We think he is the only male.
Tulkas fell asleep while fighting his sisters.
Tulkas fell asleep while fighting his sisters.
Anne was the last cat out of the abandoned attic.
Anne was the last cat out of the abandoned attic.


Shel hates sleeping, just like me.
Shel hates sleeping, just like me.
But he loves cuddles
But he loves cuddles
Just heap 'em up.
Just heap ’em up.

These are short but uncompressed videos; might have to let them load.

Video time!

I think Jordan is planning on finding homes for most if not all of these tiny kittens, so if you are in my area and need a tiny fuzzy floofball of happiness, let me know.


What does this have to do with Fringe, you ask?

Isn’t it enough that I found them in the woods? No? Ok, we’ll talk about how the two kinds of pets relate to the fringe: Dogs vs cats!

Dogs, I feel, are almost cheating!


A dog has an amazing sense of smell and direction. It always knows which way is home.

A dog is always happy, no matter what, as long as it is with a human. It resists misery and doesn’t care about most things a human would find uncomfortable.

I’m not sure yet if dogs help their hiker resist the Fringe’s effects, or are a target for its machinations, or what.


Cats are extremely independent and stubborn. I think if Fate tried to turn a cat into a fringe hiker, the cat would refuse and just show up in your house even though you locked the door.

A fringe hiker with a cat companion would receive a lot of comforting cuddles, but even though the cat knows which way is home, it probably wouldn’t share that information with the human. Cats like to pretend they don’t know what we are saying.

Most cats, including this batch of kittens, hate rain though. Fringe hikers love rain. I think the cat would meow until you tucked it under your shirt to keep it dry.




Chantarelles, a delicious wild mushroom

I’m gonna get Fringed.


I found delicious Chantarelles, an edible and much-sought-after mushroom, three days in a row without even trying.


Remember, don’t eat mushrooms unless you have been helped by an expert. When in doubt, throw it out, unless you are trying to earn karma by undergoing a very painful gastrointestinal experience.


Anyway, chantarelles are a very tasty mushroom that can last an entire week in your fridge, which is good because I found 3 lbs of it. They are known as the Queen of the Forest, and I think I might use either that or “chantarelles” as a name for a character someday. They can be made into stews or a creamy pasta sauce. Like most shrooms, they must be cooked first.

Here's my stew, with just a hint of spiciness to it
Here’s my chantarelle stew, with just a hint of spiciness to it

Chantarelles grow on the ground, not on wood.


They have false gills that are simply a fold in the main structure of the mushroom, not a separate reproductive part of it. Often the gills criss-cross. A luxurious earthy apricot smell is released when you get enough of them together.


Their scariest lookalike is the Jack-o-lantern fungus, which grows in clusters but has a similar color and gill pattern. (Though with the lookalike, these gills are true gills that can be picked off the stem). This mushroom will make you very sick, though it won’t kill you.


If I was a fringe hiker, I’d probably have to eat this half-rotted Chicken of the Woods fungus:




What is a fringe hiker?

A fringe hiker is a wanderer who lives their life under the assumption that any good things in their life will extract a price later. Conversely, by purposely undergoing hardships, they can satisfy the perversity of the universe and avoid inviting catastrophe.


Furthermore, all fringe hikers are trying to get Home, whatever that may mean to them. Fate, of course, conspires to prevent them from reaching home; they tend to meet with bizarre disasters whenever they get too close. Like the legendary Odysseus, fringe hikers often wander for decades while seeking a way back to their wives and homelands.


Between Scylla and Charybdis
Odysseus Between Scylla and Charybdis

Much like Odysseus, fringe hikers are very hard to kill. Some theorize it is because they are the playthings of the gods. But the gods hate having to interfere to save the life of a fringe hiker, and always exact a price for it later. To cope with the trials of the Fringe, a Hiker must become powerful in the ways of the wilderness.


There is a thin “fringe” of routes that satisfy these requirements and still wind slowly homeward. The miserable soul “walks the fringe” where he is uncomfortable but not dying, wandering but making progress. It’s often a thin line to tread.


We all see aspects of the Fringe in our daily life, and live by it half-consciously.

Traffic is worst when you’re in a hurry.

If you pack your raincoat, it won’t bother raining that day.

Examples of Fringe are very common in literature, from mythology to the classics to contemporary Discworld novels.


As a reader, you may find beauty in the idea of wandering the wide open world and overcoming all nature can throw at you.