Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content.
The forecast called for sun and 70 degrees. Of course, they lied. Or guessed wrong. At any rate, I squeezed a few hours out of my other duties to make my first official hike of the season. I decided to jump in with both feet and tackle a section of the Appalachian Trail which runs between Virginia Route 7 on the north to US Route 50 to the south. This section is familiarly known to local hikers as "The Roller Coaster." For good reason, as the trail continually climbs and descends. Rather than start at US 50, I decided to get on at a different place.
I headed out about mid-morning bound for Ashby's Gap rolling down my window to luxuriate in air that seemed actually warm. But about halfway out, the wind appeared with a vengeance. I frowned, thinking I had not seen that in the forecast. I got to my turnoff, Blue Ridge Mountain Road, one of my favorite motorcycle rides, and headed north.
About halfway up Blue Ridge Mountain Road, their lies the infamous Mt. Weather FEMA facility, ensconced behind chain link, barbed wire, and an assumed host of sensors. Directly across from the front gate is a dirt path carrying the grandiose name of Virginia Route 605. About a mile or so down (and I do mean down) that road is where the AT crosses. There is a shallow pullout on one side of the road, and on the other side an elevated sort of grassy road meant to service the power lines that snake alongside the road.
I got out of the car, geared up, and faced the trailhead. There was no warmup flat trail here. The path became a rather stiff climb right off the bat.
The wind by this time was howling. The forest, devoid of birdsong and leaves, was filled with the unnerving sound of trees creaking as they flexed back and forth. It was an uncomfortable reminder of an incident that occurred in the Catoctin Mountain section of the trail in Maryland last Sunday. The winds were blowing hard that day as well and a 36-year-old Philadelphia man was crushed when a large, heavy limb separated from a tree and fell. The memory was never far from my mind today.
The woods in summer are a delightful place. Life abounds, the air alive with birdsong. But the woods in the winter, or in this case, almost spring, the forest is silent and lonely. The wind gusted among the bare branches, causing them to sway and the trunks to creak in a very disturbing way. Low gray clouds scudded above, blocking the sun and giving the landscape a creepy kind of noir patina.
But hey, it wasn't snowing and I was hiking. So I put the dark thoughts away (while continuing to scan the trees) and started the climb.
Because of a stubborn hip problem, I had been very lax this winter with my workout regimen. Only in the last three weeks had I gotten anything close to serious about exercise. My slothful behavior began to pay me back. The first half-mile was a dead climb, but I was working pretty hard, a lot harder than I remember on similar inclines last summer. I crested the hill and headed into the first valley. At about the 1 mile mark, I came upon a stream rambunctiously bounding down the hill. To the left about 200 meters away, a pretty good waterfall shot from a cliff face.
It was a noisy stream, but the sound of the wind was pretty good competition. Climbing out of that particular valley, I headed uphill again, this time on a set of switchbacks which made the ascent a bit easier. The trail then flattened out a bit (it's all relative, you know...) before starting another ambitious climb.
At this point, I encountered a set of ruins, what appeared to be a stone foundation for a structure, and the remains of a stone boundary fence.
But before starting up, I heard the telltale sound of a hiker coming up behind me. I turned to behold a young man who looked for all world like a leprechaun. Red hair and beard, a short, stocky appearance and a ready smile. But what impressed me was the size of the pack he was carrying. It seemed almost as big as he was. I couldn't imagine that load weighing much south of 75 pounds. I greeted him, remarking, "I think you need a larger pack." He grinned and introduced himself as Aaron. As it turned out, He was one of the first of the hardy breed of through hikers, those who started their journey at the AT's southern end in Georgia, intent on getting to its northern terminus in Maine by summer's end. Aaron started his journey on January 1 and spoke of enduring snow, sleet, ice, and bitter cold on his trek to this point. After hearing his story, I stopped grousing and hiked on. Facing me (us) now was a really ugly climb.
Carefully, I picked my way among the rocks, making sure I had good footing. It turned out to be not as bad as it looked, and topping the ridge, I remembered the reason we endured such climbs was to enjoy vistas such as this:
And, of course, the obligatory selfie...
I stopped to rest and enjoy the view as Aaron continued on. I wished him well. At two-and-a-half months into his journey, he still hadn't reached the half-way point.
The trail eased into an easier downhill slope at this point, and I swung along enjoyably. I encountered four other hikers, a couple day-hiking like me, and two other more serious types toting impressive loads. The only difficult point was where a tree had fallen across the trail, which required some unwelcome gymnastics to get past. I reached the two-mile mark, looked at my watch and decided to head back to the car. As much as I wanted to continue on, the memory of my other responsibilities began to throb unpleasantly in my brain. The hike back was not as hard, as I was warmed up and loose.
I got back to the car in good shape, albeit a bit disappointed in the time it took to do this hike. But it was the first of the season, and it was a very difficult stretch, so I'll look to those ameliorations to ease my disappointment.
I have a several goals I want to accomplish this summer. This was step one.