Copyright © 2014
By Ralph F. Couey
Just before my wife left for her biennial trip to Hawaii to visit her family, she told me that she'd be interested in going hiking again when she got back, despite the cold. This was a fairly significant revelation, since my impression of her trips with me this summer were something close to boredom. I was hiking by myself until I had that bear encounter on the AT. Since then, she has accompanied me. I'm not sure if those two are related, but even if it wasn't as interesting to her as it was to me, I was happy to have her company.
She fractured her foot in October and since it took a distressingly long time to heal, she has been laid up, at least for hiking since then. Now that she is showing interest again, I decided to take a practice cold weather hike today.
I went to a familiar place, the Manassas Battlefield, about 15 minutes south of home. After checking in with the Ranger, I decided to take the long path, the 6.5-mile loop that hits mostly sites related to the second battle of the two that were fought on this same ground.
The temperatures would struggle to reach 40 (f) despite the brilliant sunshine. I bundled up accordingly, layering a long-sleeve t-shirt under a thick hoodie topped with a lined jacket. I had a knit stocking cap, the kind that covers cheeks and chin. I wavered on the base layer, then decided that hiking would keep my legs warm. I started out with gloves and liners, but the liners came off about an hour in, and the gloves alternately came off and on as conditions warranted. Since it was so cold, I decided not to fill the Camelbak reservoir, but just take a few bottles of water.
The longer of the two trails leaves the visitors center down the main driveway and then crosses Sudley road as you make your way up towards Chinn Ridge. For the first mile, it's an asphalt roadway, which kinda doesn't really feel like hiking. But eventually I got up to Chinn Ridge, make a left out of the parking area and headed into the woods.
I won't burden readers with a redux of the battle, except to say it was one more action where a Union general declined to look after his flanks. While the Union Army escaped towards Washington down what is now US 29, it was a considerably smaller force. Confederate casualties were also high, but they held the field at the end of the action, and that means victory.
Throughout the summer, my hikes were always serenaded by the sounds of life in the forest. Mainly birds, but also the chittering of squirrels and the somewhat annoying buzzes of insects. But today, a week and a half into winter, the woods were utterly quiet, the silence broken only by the occasional "scree" of hawks soaring overhead. I walked steadily, maintaining a brisk pace. The steady rains of the past two weeks left a lot of wet spots, and some places where the water-proof claim of my boot manufacturer was put to the test, successfully. I took a couple of extra loops, since I haven't spent a lot of time on this side of the National Park. One of the key actions was along a place where a deep cut from an abandoned railroad construction project gave Confederates great cover. The Union troops were ordered to attack this excellent position, and like Fredericksburg, were repulsed at great cost.
From this excellent position...
...Confederates mowed down Bluecoats
marching across this open field.
At one point, an intrepid regiment from New York
reached the lee of the embankment to the right,
fighting Confederates against the embankment to the left
As the Southerners began to run out of ammunition,
they picked up rocks and pelted their enemies.
The New Yorkers eventually had to retreat, since
all the other brigades were making tracks in the other direction,
leaving this regiment completely alone.
There is always for me a sense of sadness in visiting Civil War battlefields. Some 600,000 soldiers died, mainly victims to obsolete tactics appropriate to Napoleon without any regard to the vast improvement in technology in muskets and artillery. For some reason, Generals, and Admirals, always end up re-fighting the last war, while the individual soldiers and sailors pay the ultimate price. Also, the North had serious battlefield leadership problems which persisted until the gotterdammerung at Gettysburg brought to the fore more capable leaders who would be far more interested in the battle at hand, rather than what General Halleck in Washington might be thinking.
I was thinking about this today, probably since the quiet on this trail made things seem more somber. Still, after this too-long time away from hiking, it was good to be back. I could tell the time off had hurt me, since my legs were in constant complaint mode after about 4 miles. I haven't done much running since October, so it's like I have to start rebuilding my strength all over again. There wasn't much of a wind, but at times it kicked up to the point where I had to pull the stocking up a bit. But as long as I kept moving, I remained surprisingly comfortable. I made excellent time, as well, chalking up 7.2 miles in just over 3 hours, averaging 26 minutes per mile.
Not a bad winter hike, all things considered, especially since we still haven't had any snow of consequence thus far, although we are promised some significant snowfall come January and February. I may try to do this next week, depending on my other obligations. It's clear though that if I'm going to tackle the challenge of the AT come spring, I'm going to have to get myself ready.