Storytellers have used animals to represent human ideas for as long as there has been spoken word. When these anthropomorphic stories extend into mythology, gods and spirits are created. When the attributes given to the animals are cunning, guile, deception, and craftiness, the Trickster is born.
Mount Rogers, the highest point in the state, looms over Southwest Virginia. It was once Cherokee land, and so the Trickster spirit here is Jistu the Rabbit. Jistu, like many trickster animals, is clever, just not as clever as he thinks. His antics often backfire, ending with the rabbit barely escaping with his life. Or, if caught by his adversaries, forced to do penance for his deceptions, such as being forced to eat grass for the rest of his life.
Jistu still resides here, peeking out of the grass, taunting the bear, and escaping the hawk, but perhaps the time has come for him to share his trickster position with a more recent addition to the region.
Today, there are animals on Mount Rogers and the surrounding Grayson Highlands that weren’t there when the Cherokee lived on the land. These residents have been there for fewer than forty years and were introduced to the area in 1975 to maintain the balds that surround the mountain.
The mountains in the Southeast US aren’t tall enough or have weather severe enough, to create true tree lines. It’s thought that grazing, logging, and fire have kept the summits of some mountains clear of vegetation. These grassy tops, cleared of trees, are called balds. When the grazing and logging stopped, the trees started coming back. The forest service saw aesthetic and recreational value in maintaining the clear summits, so they introduced ponies from Assateague Island to graze the mountain and keep the trees from growing.
In a short period of time, these critters have earned a reputation as charismatic, yet sly guardians of the mountain. A section of the Appalachian Trail runs through their domain and interactions with humans have also earned the ponies reputations as beggars who will do almost anything to get what they want. Most often they want food or water from a hikers pack.
“A Traveler walked among the monoliths because he heard tales of animals, once domesticated, now roaming free, inhabiting the wind scoured scape. These creatures were once ponies but now, perhaps, are something more. It's an overstatement to say they were worshipped by the local people. They were revered, maybe, and honored, definitely. The Traveler sought the spirit-ponies hoping to capture their images, both for posterity, and frankly, to sell the images to those who held the animals in reverence.
The spirit-ponies should not have been hard to find. Atop the mountain, the trees are stunted, gnarled, and low to the earth, and silhouettes of grazing animals stand out in relief against the sweeping lines of the horizon. Twice the Traveler thought he found the spirit-ponies but instead found grazing cattle when he approached. Perhaps they were spirit-ponies before he arrived, but now they were cattle. Dull eyes regarded him with little interest. Maybe the spirit-ponies did not want to be found.
After several miles, the Traveler passed through a narrow crevice in the rocks and onto a saddle between peaks. And there they stood. Like the trees, they seemed stunted, the largest among them barely reaching eye level. Unlike the eyes of the perhaps-spirit-pony-cattle, the spirit-ponies eyes held a light and a craftiness.
“Ah! I found you!” The Traveler exclaimed.
“Only because we allowed it,” the closest pony said around a mouthful of grass.
The Traveler froze while reaching for the tools he used to make his images.
Once addressed, the Traveler felt it rude not to ask permission before continuing.
“Please, I have journeyed far to visit you. And now that I see you I must create an image, for you are indeed handsome animals. May I?” He said, appealing to the spirit-pony’s pride.
“Save your empty flattery, we know we are handsome. Many come to capture our likenesses and we grow weary. They come and we receive nothing in return. What do you offer us?” He dropped his head to the ground to graze and hid his face from view.
The Traveler bemoaned his situation. “I asked out of courtesy. I didn’t think you would refuse. If you hide your face I cannot capture your image. Is it not enough that people will look at the image and adore you?
“We can neither eat nor drink joy, but to give it is a fine thing. Are you going to share our images with the world? Will you ask nothing in return?”
The man answered defensively. “I need to eat too, and, my feed isn’t scattered across the mountaintop as is yours. The tools I use to make my images were not given to me. In order to afford them, I must ask SOMETHING for the images.”
The spirit-pony peered around some long stalks of grass. “It is true that our food is all around us, but we are a long way from our watering hole. I see that you carry water on your back, and a tube makes it easy for you to drink. Share your water with me and you may capture my likeness.”
The Traveler hesitated again. “I’m sorry, but if I give you water, I might not have enough to see other spirit ponies. I plan on walking many more miles today and you are just the first pony I have met. There might be others as fair, or fairer than you. However, if you let me capture your image, I will come back with gallons of special water from places far away, water so clear and sweet, it will sate your thirst as never before. Just let me capture your image now.”
The spirit-pony slowly lifted his head.
“Aha!” The Traveler thought, “We have struck a deal.”
The spirit pony looked over his shoulder at a young colt. “Come here my son, and let this Traveler take your image. He has promised us great things.”
The colt came forward and the Traveler was happy because the colt was more striking than his sire. He was also very young and the Traveler knew that images of young spirit ponies were attractive to those who revered them. More so even than the adults. He set about his work.
The man knelt to be on eye level with the young spirit-pony, He knew that the people seeing the image would want to look the spirit animal in the face. To tower above him would seem arrogant and disrespectful.
He busied himself capturing the magnificent animal’s likeness when he felt a tugging on his shoulder. He turned to find the colt’s sire standing over his shoulder. By kneeling the Traveler had put the drinking tube within range of the spirit pony’s mouth.
The spirit pony stood blithely drinking from the tube.
Stop!” yelped the Traveler. “If you drink my water I won’t have enough to continue my trek!”
A tug-of-war ensued between the spirit pony and the Traveler. With a final yank, the Traveler pulled the tube from the spirit pony’s mouth. However, he was dismayed to find that the apparatus that allowed the Traveler to turn on and off the flow of water remained in the spirit-pony’s mouth.
With horror, he watched as the spirit-pony looked him directly in the eye, masticated the valve to a pulp, and slowly swallowed.
Without the valve, the water poured from the pack onto the ground, soaked in, and moved downhill.
“What have you done!” screeched the Traveler. “That was all my water, and without it, I must turn around! I won’t be able to seek any other spirit-ponies!”
With a slight shake of his mane, the spirit-pony spoke,
"Before, when I asked what you could give in return for my image, you flattered me. What use have I for flattery? I live high on the mountain. The only need I have for flattery is from the mares. Any other form is useless.”
The Traveler frowned.
“After that, you appealed to my benevolence and desire to bring joy to the world, but that motivation wasn’t enough for you. You wished to profit from my willingness to make your people happy. You thought I should be happy with my place in things while you used me to gain feed, water, and a roof over your head.”
The frown deepened.
“When I asked for what you could easily give now, you spoke of the future. You proposed that I trust you and believe that you would come back. Instead, I decided to take what I was owed, No more. No less.”
“But you spilled my water…” the Traveler pouted.
“If you let me drink, I would have stopped when I had my fill. My brothers and sisters are just over the next ridge. The walk is short. If you make the trip there now, you will only find cattle. Instead of sharing, you fought with me, and all of your water is gone. It will flow downhill and empty into our watering hole. You promised me a tomorrow based on trust when I knew I could have what I wanted today. Don’t pout. Your water will fill the bellies of colts and fillies. We will be here should you decide to return. Go, present your images of my son to your people. We both have what we need.”
The Traveler walked down the mountain and planned his return.
Now, I’m not saying that the preceding tale has any basis in reality, but there is a hydration pack sitting in my garage without a valve. I’ve been back many times, and the ponies have stolen food out of my pockets and have knocked a hot coffee out of my hand so they could eat coffee flavored snow. A yearling pulled some tent stakes out of the ground because I might have left some chocolate residue on them.
In each of these instances, the ponies seemed to act in teams. One pony would distract me with adorable antics while the other snuck up and did the deed. Street urchins in Dickensian London could not have done better.
So why do I keep coming back? Even without the ponies, the Grayson Highlands are breathtaking and a place where you can walk for miles above the trees. In the spring the ridges and valleys of Southwest Virginia fall beneath your feet like a crumpled green rug. In winter you can snowshoe around stony outcrops that cast blue shadows on pure white. It's a place that speaks to both history and wilderness.
But it is the ponies that addict me. The more often I go, the more individual personalities come to the front. Besides, the image maker has no choice. I can’t resist beautiful animals in a beautiful environment. If I need to be humbled in order to make images, I accept it as the price to pay for dealing with the Trickster.