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robert stubblebine

Finding Brigadoon

The rain that day was biblical. It was the hardest rain in what had been several weeks of nothing but rain. The last section of sidehill trail before Clyde Smith Shelter was so badly eroded and slick with greasy mud that it had been risky business just to keep from sliding off into the hollow below. By the time I collapsed sodden onto the shelter floor I knew that Roan High Knob would wait another day. Some of my hiking companions stopped in briefly and continued, and others pulled out their dry clothes and settled in for the night.

Very late in the day another thru-hiker, someone we had never met, came down the trail. I was amazed to hear she had come over twenty miles that day (to my measly eight). She was excited to see thru-hikers and had been logging a lot of long days hoping to catch up to others who planned to be in Maine in the fall. But I came to understand that her intense drive was really born of her love for ponies.

Ponies? Yes, not too far away in Grayson Highlands it is well known that there are wild ponies that tend to gather around the Thomas Knob Shelter. Though Megan came out to thru-hike the trail, and she did make it to Katahdin many months later, it became clear that all that would be necessary to make six months of sweat and wonderful hardship worthwhile was for there to be ponies at that shelter when she arrived.
Over the next several days of hiking together, hiking toward Damascus - a Mecca and worthy milestone of all hikers in the Appalachians, I heard about almost nothing but ponies, horses, and her lifelong love of riding and caring for her own pony. I was never absolutely certain but I believe that sometimes while enjoying the blue of the sky through the forest canopy from an inviting patch of grass I would hear her coming down the trail lost in the rhythmic mantra - ponies, ponies, ponies ...

A little more than a week later, Damascus behind us, we were making the long climb up to Buzzard Rock—the final rampart before Grayson Highlands. We were in the midst of, you guessed it, a torrential rainstorm but pressing onward. A bolt of lightning struck so near ahead of us that you could feel the electricity singe the air and the concussion in the ground. We considered the situation for a moment and turned around and headed back down into the gap below, where we waited out the storm in my tent. Perhaps Thomas Knob would wait till tomorrow. It wasn't so long though before the light in the tent brightened and the air developed that crispness that signals the passing of a front. In short order we were on our way.

It was late in the day when we finally spotted the shelter—a beautiful little stone lean-to sitting atop a rock outcrop that looks out over endless fields of high pasture and distant mountains. The sky was absolutely clear and you could see forever—and you could see that there were no ponies anywhere at all. It was already evening when we arrived and it was obvious that the lack of ponies was not part of Megan's plan. She stood out on the outcrop and stared into the distance ... waiting. Indeed there was an arrival, but not ponies - a bank of thick fog came drifting over the pastures toward us and soon even to stray more than a hundred feet from the shelter would have been foolish. Then it became dark - pitch dark, and still she waited. Some time later I was getting ready to hit the sack and thought I'd feel my way along the rock outcrop to say goodnight and found Megan now sitting, back to a gnarled and weather worn old tree, still looking off into, well, nothing.

I don't recall what if anything I might have said to Megan that night but I remember like I am returned there right now what happened next. Looking off into the fog with her, a chill breeze came drifting in out of the heavy darkness so that the mist became tattered and transparent and there, not forty feet away, returning Megan's gaze, were ponies—ten maybe, I'm not certain, I could just barely see there outlines scattered around. They must have walked toward her, drawn, in complete silence. One, the largest, was standing close and though moments before there had been no light—now, inexplicably, I could see well enough to witness the intensity in its eyes. While I stood there transfixed I barely noticed Megan hop down off the outcrop and walk toward the ponies. For a few moments I was able to see her approach the closest pony and run her hand along it's neck, then the breeze fell away and the fog settled once more  

- Robert Stubblebine

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