While most students spent Friday night drinking, socializing and doing what Knoxville folks do in the comfortable darkness of the Fort, one engineering senior and two recent graduates set out into the Virginia woods somewhere near Mount Rogers. Around 2 a.m., after five miles of dark trails, they found themselves in the windswept high country of the Lewis Fork Wilderness. Even before the bars shut down back in Knoxville, UT students Dima Falkner, Zach Meadors and Scott Searle were deep in adventurous territory.

"We only intended to do about two and a half miles that first night, but after we hit a sign that said we had already done four miles I knew we had passed our campsite," Meadors said.

The group pushed another mile past the 4-mile marker to the Lewis Fork Wilderness boundary, where they spent the night.

"The stars were awesome, and it was cool knowing at that point that we were some of the highest people in Virginia," Meadors said.

A staple of the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area, where the Lewis Fork Wilderness is located, is a population of feral ponies used to manage the area's undergrowth.

"When we woke up we were in a pasture surrounded by wild ponies," Falkner said. Before setting out for the summit of Mt. Rogers, Falkner decided to interact with some of the wildlife.

"I'm pumping water and look up to see Dima chasing about 15 ponies with his hands in the air," Meadors said.
"I made friends with one of them, scratched it behind the ears and then decide to herd them," Falkner said. The early morning shenanigans were followed by a quick one-mile jaunt up to the Mt. Rogers summit then lunch. With full stomachs and plenty of daylight, the exploration continued.

"We didn't really know where we were going, but in the distance we could see a formation we wanted to get to," Meadors said.

After approximately two miles of increasingly spectacular trail, the day hike climaxed at a rock outcropping near Rhododendron Gap.

"My favorite point was probably when we hiked up to the cliff with the rock formation, and we could see every way, a 360-degree view," Meadors said. Visible from the outcropping were mountains in three states: North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. As Searle recounts, "That view was incredible."

With the sun fading, the group pitched camp at a site in the Grayson Highlands State Park and settled in for a cold night. The following morning was accentuated by ice-covered foliage and a rolling fog.

As Meadors recalled, "When it's that cold in the morning you have to move fast."

With six miles between them and the trailhead, the group got an early start heading out. Hiking through a silent haze, already reminiscing an adventure not yet over, Meadors joked, "I wonder what we missed out on at Tin Roof this weekend."