The Stream is the Path

Injuries and scheduling vagaries had kept us off the trail for a while, but last Sunday we carved out time to head for Little Devil’s Stairs in Shenandoah National Park. This hike is best in spring when the waters of Keyser Run are most abundant, though we have also done it in the dead of winter, when ice crusts over the rocks and meager water, and icicles drip down the walls of the ravine.

Last Sunday turned out to be a rather stormy spring day, and I was uncharacteristically underprepared for the trail. As we drove up the highway into a steady downpour, I realized I had not packed any rain gear nor extra socks. The umbrella in the trunk was probably not going to cut it. The day was warm, though, and I’ve been wet before. I’d survive.

At the trailhead we unloaded packs from the trunk, and I found mine had gotten soaked almost completely through by a leaky Camelbak bladder. I slung the cold, wet pack onto my back and we set off into the drizzle. This mild discomfort quickly became a blessing as we trudged upward; the steep grade brings the heart rate up quickly and the damp, cool pack actually felt good. Thirty minutes later, discomfort and pleasure alike had dissolved into the simple reality of sweat pouring down my back and water all around us.

keyser 4

There is no feeling quite like that moment when the trail pace is found, and you are steadily traveling upward with absolute ease, despite the intense work your body is doing. Consciousness merges completely with all sensation and then transcends it; your body is working in such perfect synergy with the air around you, the log across the stream, and the dirt beneath your feet that a moment arrives when climbing begins to feel easier than standing still.

keyser 2

And so we climbed up Little Devil’s Stairs, alongside Keyser Run, up through a steep and rocky ravine in which the water dances downward through one waterfall after another. In many places the stream becomes the path, as the water flows around rocks, trees, and everything else in its way in relentless pursuit of the ocean.

keyser 3

The beings that love water were out to greet us in full force; most especially the red efts and newts that revel in springtime.

red eftnewt and millipede

Reaching the top of Keyser Run, we turned toward the woods and began to loop back down to the trailhead. The rain had stopped, and thin sunlight started to penetrate the leaves and illuminate the wildflowers alongside the path. The sweat began to dry, and there was a good rock to sit on and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Perhaps the reason I love this hike so much is that the trail simply gives itself over to the will of the stream. Many trail-builders carefully keep the trail alongside the stream, and search for the perfect crossing spot (or perhaps even build a bridge). Keyser Run is untamed by its trail. The stream itself is the path much of the time, and you will join with it, whether you like it or not.


It may be raining, your pack may be soaked, and you may be sweating buckets–none of it will matter, because you were always going to get wet anyway. You were always going to simply let the water flow over your feet for several minutes while staring, mesmerized, at a newt on a log. You never really needed extra socks on a warm spring day. You were always going to get dirty by sliding down a steep, muddy bank after losing the rather whimsical trail. That’s the lesson of Little Devil’s Stairs: don’t bother overthinking your journey or looking for shortcuts around the difficult spots–the stream is the path.




Even if From Afar: Andalusia

Tales of conquerors who imposed their cultures and beliefs on others, often only to be conquered themselves in turn, can be found in nearly every corner of the world. In Andalusia, though, there is an uncommon sense of vitality to cultures long since gone, as if at any moment you could turn a corner and stumble upon people still living their daily lives as they did one thousand years ago, with nary an idea they were supposed to have moved on. Perhaps it is the olfactory component: the spice shops, the almond blossoms, the oranges dropping from the trees to split on the street. This intoxicating blend of scents has surely existed unchanged all these years, and now it has become a mode of transport; a conveyor of distant delights you can practically taste but will never be able to see.


One culture presses down upon another in Andalusia, like translucent circles that never made much effort to obscure what came before; they merely incorporated it into the new. The soaring architecture of the mosques became cathedrals and churches, and markets filled with Arab merchants still thrive alongside. Muslim neighborhoods still bear street signs in Arabic, and newly-built (relatively speaking) mosques welcome the public into their gardens, over which loom the spires of Gothic churches.

Nearly every city in Andalusia has ruins of Arab baths. When the Muslim culture was dominant in Iberia there were once as many as 900 baths in Cordoba alone, and even the tiny city of Ronda boasts well-preserved baths.


Likewise, the famed Alhambra did not disappoint; we spent hours absorbing its meditative geometry, velvety pools, and cool green courtyards.

alhambra windowalhambra poolalhmabra courtyard

Late one afternoon in Granada, we climbed up the steep hills above town to visit the Sacromonte neighborhood, which consists of cave dwellings carved into the hillside in the 16th century by Jews, Muslims, and Gypsies who were pushed out of the city after the Granada War re-established Catholic monarchs in Andalusia. Following a map in Sacromonte is an exercise in futility, so we ambled without intent as the sun began to sink.

Stopping at a stone wall to gaze down at the city, I began meditating on one of the smooth, small rocks in the wall. I imagined a stonemason carefully setting it hundreds of years ago and could feel that fleeting connection, so hard to maintain in consciousness. I began to memorize everything I could about the rock: every visible line, its contours, the patterns of its colors. As I did, I recalled the dozens of previous times I’d undertaken the same exercise with other rocks–and stumps, twigs, and flowers. Every single one I had forgotten, and no doubt I’d forget the current object of my attention within an hour. But for a few minutes, I would know this random stone more intimately than possibly anyone ever had, or ever would.

The stone persists in anonymity, with perhaps someone to come around every few hundred years and take an interest in it for a moment. There is a certain comfort to the fact that 100 years from now there will be no one left alive who can remember us, and perhaps there was also comfort in that for the millions of souls who have inhabited Andalusia. They are now largely resigned to oblivion (except for a few who transitioned to history, at least for a while).


However, there is no anonymity for Andalusia the place; it is wildly alive in a very specific and unforgettable way. By day the deep blue skies open to every horizon with a generous heart, and by night they are the color of eternity itself.

blue sky



That Time

There is no off-season for hiking (at least not in Virginia), but fall may be my favorite. It’s a season of remembrance, of transitions, and of grounding; and there is no better place to fully experience all of these than in the wilderness. Our history together has been steeped in our love of the outdoors, and in fall the memories quickly come calling.

That time we hiked mountain laurel tunnels for miles on Austin Mountain (our very first hike together):

austin mountain (2)

That time we took our first camping trip together, at First Landing State Park, and stared into a campfire for hours in blissful silence.

first landing

That time we hiked Rose River and Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park on a crisp and still Thanksgiving weekend:

dark hollow

That time we spent a day hiking the Niagara escarpment at Christmas in a light dusting of snow:


That time (the first of many!) that we laughed at danger and went beyond the warning sign (at the Trail of Ten Falls in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon):


That time we hiked for endless hours in Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania, and hid in a cave beside a waterfall to wait out a downpour.


That time we came upon those deer along the Appalachian Trail, posing in a pool of sun as if awaiting their photo op:


That time we humiliated ourselves by setting out underprepared for a simple two mile hike into an unexpectedly icy gorge and were forced to climb back out up a slippery cliff. We settled for an ice-encrusted Niagara Falls as our consolation prize:


And that time we returned to the site of our ignominious defeat to finally reach the Eternal Flame Falls:

eternal flame

That time we got stuck behind a wild pony traffic jam on the Appalachian Trail on Magic Pony Mountain (aka Mount Rogers National Recreation Area):


That time we paddled into the perfect island campsite at sunset in Algonquin Provincial Park:


And then were graced by a moose swimming out in front of us the next morning:


That time we rock-hopped for hours in the bogs of Dolly Sods:

dolly sods

That time we went winter camping and he snuck behind me at sunrise to take the most beautiful photograph:


That time a thunderstorm chased us up a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park and we huddled inside our hastily-pitched tent until it passed, before tumbling out onto the most amazing beach:


That time he gave me an aurora borealis for my birthday, at a beach bonfire with hot chocolate, and deep, sharp lungsful of Arctic air:

auroraThat time six months ago when we hiked Old Rag Mountain in utter solitude, setting out before dawn and watching the sun rise as we climbed.

old rag

And then, that time this past Friday when we ascended Old Rag again, enveloped in the joyful energy of a group this time around as we kicked off a weekend of celebration. The journey itself has indeed been a stunning destination these past five years, but we had a chance last Saturday to stop for a particularly lovely view.

Reader, I married him.




A Night on Halfmoon Mountain

There’s a certain kind of tiredness that can leave you mentally depleted while at the same time the flesh is practically squirming on your bones, restless. That’s mountain-climbing time. Pick a steep one, and within minutes your flesh will settle into your stride. Your thoughts will pop like bubbles, the air will rush into your skin, and your breath will become deep, strong, and then, finally, imperceptible.

Pitch a tent with your head pointed north, and in the late afternoon lie down inside it to watch the ants and spiders explore the strange mesh that suddenly blossomed in their woods. The September leaves will shimmer down the light, and joyful winds will gust high overhead; the remnants of a hurricane that displaced tens of thousands from their homes just days before. Thirteen hundred miles away, you chose this: to sleep for a night on a mountain with a small bag of things to keep yourself alive until tomorrow. How do you measure the size and the shape of this privilege?


Eat your dinner out of a plastic bag at the edge of a cliff, keeping an eye out for timber rattlers. See only a skink with its skin torn at the shoulder, perhaps the survivor of an avian attack that’s lived to see another day.


Scramble up to an outcropping that looks to the west, and sit for every minute of an hour waiting for the first splotch of orange molasses to drip down behind the clouds.


Make a small fire and watch till the last embers glitter; spit water at it until they go up in a hiss. Zip yourself up in your tent and breathe the woodsmoke in your hair as your body releases into the ground. Home.

The birds will wake you at the first rays of sunlight, so that you can hurry from your tent to find an easterly view. Then oatmeal, and fresh socks, and a gathering of the things that you needed to stay alive (so much more than you really needed, of course); and then a leisurely walk back down the mountain, through gullies and runs, over ridges and tree roots. It could be the woods, but perhaps sometimes it is the ocean floor. It’s always both, anyway.


Break a bone here and this mountain, or one of its minion rocks, will leave a tiny mark on your skeleton for the rest of your days. And you with your footsteps among legions of footsteps dating back thousands of years, all the way to the mound-building cultures that lived in these woods long before this was a “state” or a “country”: you are leaving your mark, too. You are wearing this mountain down, and after it gave you a home for the night, no less. How do you measure the size and the shape of this gift? How will you ever repay it?

At Play Where the Devil Bathes

On our way home from viewing the North American solar eclipse of 2017 we took the long way back through southwest Virginia in order to finally visit the Devil’s Bathtub. A relatively short and easy hike (more on that later), it is almost a 6 hour drive from Richmond so it was never going to be a simple trip for us. At long last, the day presented itself like a shiny apple on an ornate silver tray. “My dear children, you will be driving right by. You simply must stop. It would practically be rude not to.” Old ‘Bub knows it doesn’t take a whole lot of tempting to get us to stop for a promising hike.

The trailhead is many miles off the highway and down a deeply rutted Forest Service road that would be very unkind to low-clearance vehicles. Shortly down the road a large sign with a skull and crossbones on it loomed alongside the car. Beware of wispy green smoke around the Bathtub? Do not speak to the talking fox at the first stream bed crossing? Nope–just a good old reminder of snake and bear safety. Got it.

We started up the trail, which first travels mostly upward at a mild grade. Very quickly we came upon the stream, and the first of many crossings. Wending our way back and forth across the stream for a mile or so, our only companions in the quiet woods were the gnarled mountain laurel (did they bend just so in order that we might pass? or was that the wind?), and the little newts that kept sentry at the stream crossings.


Rounding a section of the trail that clung to the cliff using a rope bolted into the rock, we laid eyes on the first swimming hole, a blue-green oasis on a hot and humid day. I promptly stripped down to my bathing suit and headed in; my intrepid companion scrambled up behind it and out of sight.

swimming hole

A few minutes later I followed my disappearing associate over the twisty tree roots and moss-slippered rocks to find the trail’s true treasure. Invisible from the swimming hole, tucked into the sandstone walls, lies the famous Devil’s Bathtub. The devil likes his baths cold (very, very cold), but the setting and formation are stunning.

devil's bathtub

We lingered for photographs and then, mission accomplished, we headed back down the trail toward the parking lot (we did the quick 3.6 mile out and back version of the hike; there is also a 7.2 mile loop).

I can’t end my little tale without a Public Service Announcement on behalf of this beautiful area, which speaks for itself quite eloquently but in a language too few humans remember. Are you new to hiking and want to see the Devil’s Bathtub? Great, welcome to the hiking community! Please know that this area is fragile and overused, and this seemingly innocuous little hike could easily be very dangerous. With the slippery rocks and multiple stream crossings (some can’t be rock-hopped and must be forded) this is definitely not a hike for small children. Coming here after heavy rains would be asking for trouble: the creek is rapid and deceptively deep; you could easily be swept downstream and end up with a head injury (or worse).

Too many visitors to the Devil’s Bathtub have apparently not heard the very first maxim of hiking: pack it in, pack it out. There’s so much litter marring this beautiful spot. We encountered a pair of hikers carrying Big Gulps, and one of them threw his onto the ground while talking to us (his wife saw the horror on my face and immediately picked it up).

For a great experience at the Devil’s Bathtub, try to go on a weekday as early in the day as you can. Take a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle and drive all the way into the parking area. Parking on the Forest Service road will block others and make it impossible for two cars to pass each other; we encountered someone driving in while we were driving out, and by that time there were so many cars parked on the road the other driver had to back all the way out. Parking on the county roads, or anywhere you see a No Trespassing sign, will get you towed in an area where there is no cell service. And if you want to be a true angel, take an empty trash bag and pack out all the trash you can on the way out. I doubt the Devil will mind one bit.


At Play in the Heavens

We’d planned the trip a year in advance, centering it around a Monday afternoon in August on which, for two and a half minutes, we’d see the moon fully block the Sun from the Earth’s view and cast us into a temporary night. Totality.

The nearest place for us to experience it was in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. We kicked off our trip by camping for two nights in the Cataloochee area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hiking relentlessly, as if we’d never have the chance to hike again, we soaked up miles of soaring views; forded icy mountain streams; and communed with the famous Cataloochee elk, including an adorable calf that frolicked among the impassive adults of its herd.

baby elkelk2stream GSMNP


On the Day of Totality we broke camp at 3:49 am and made a beeline for our chosen viewing spot: Wayah Bald. We’d hoped the early departure would give us a jump on the crowds, but we’d underestimated the will of our fellow eclipsers: many had already camped out on the tiny hilltop the night before. Nonetheless, we arrived in time to snag a decent parking spot, set up our little day camp in the shadow of the observation tower, and watch the Sun take the stage on the day of its big adventure.

sunrise eclipse

Perhaps there is no point in telling the story of an eclipse. It has been told so many times, by gifted writers, storytellers, philosophers, and scientists, that what can there be to add? And yet, its story has never been told; there can be no unitary account of any eclipse. The highly subjective nature of human perception quite literally means there are millions of stories of the eclipse we watched this past Monday, all different and each entirely accurate. There are billions more stories of the eclipses that preceded it; all different and each entirely accurate. To reflect on this is to reflect on the wonder that we ever think we are certain of the accuracy of any perception at all. (Thank goodness for physics, which at least anchors us to the universal truth of the trajectories of Moon and Sun.)

And so, on our little chosen hillside, we watched the Moon eclipse the Sun alongside hundreds of fellow souls. As the partial eclipse began, whoops of joy went up from the watchers. For 90 minutes the Moon moved imperceptibly but inexorably across the Sun and then, just before the last sliver of Sun disappeared, I experienced a palpable crackle of collective excitement course through the crowd. Throughout our two minutes and 31 seconds of totality I felt intensely fused to a indivisible, shared human energy. This sense ebbed and flowed during totality in what felt like a physical wave moving through my body.


Time seemed limitless, even meaningless. I stared at the eclipse, watched the wonder on others’ faces, and felt a complete absence of urgency as the moments stretched out like a giant rubber band. There was no processing, only sensing, knowing, and being–as if I had been plunged into a deeply meditative state without preparation or intention. In a flash the rubber band snapped back, and a murmur rushed through the crowd before people began to slowly gather up chairs, blankets, and snack bags. Our walk back down the mountain road and the ensuing procession of hundreds of vehicles was quiet, orderly, and completely calm.

This is not the story of the eclipse, but it is exactly what happened.

Eventually the Forest Service dirt road gave way to winding country roads, which led to suburban highways and a return to a version of reality with which we are more accustomed: traffic. We inched along for hours before accepting we’d not be camping in southwest Virginia that night as planned, and we stopped at a roadside hotel. Much-needed showers, sandwiches, and sleep were obtained, and the next morning we made our final push into Virginia. One last wonder was in store before journey’s end, and for that, dear reader, I am afraid you must wait for the next thrilling installment.

Here Be Dragons

This past January a dragon roared right into my face. Today I climbed onto its tooth.

Usually I write about hiking and travel, but this time it’s an inward journey. Almost six months ago I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and it’s been a rough go. Although I didn’t plan to write about it, I’ve benefited so much from reading others’ stories online I felt I owed the internet mine as well. If you’re here because you love hiking, don’t go! It was a beautiful weekend in the Blue Ridge and I’ll share a few photos to prove it. If you’re here because you or someone you love is facing Bell’s palsy, perhaps my story will be another piece of the puzzle as you chart your own way forward.

I went to an urgent care clinic on a Sunday morning after a night of intense earache, and upon noticing that my mouth drooped downward on one side. Bell’s palsy was immediately diagnosed, and I was cheerfully told that if I kept my eye lubricated I’d be fine in a couple of weeks. I bought an eye patch on the way home and was ready to go with the flow, but then I got home and started reading.

Many people do recover spontaneously in a couple weeks, but there’s a broad continuum. In my case, the paralysis continued to worsen, and I ended up at the doctor again. Then I was referred to a neurologist, and found out I had a lot of factors associated with poorer prognosis: older age at onset (a couple weeks before my 49th birthday); gradual rather than sudden onset; disruption of taste sensation; and total paralysis. The neurologist went so far as to imply he thought I might not recover at all, and that was hard to hear. I couldn’t eat or drink without dribbling or dropping bits of food, I couldn’t smile, I had a speech impediment, and the right side of my tongue felt abraded and painful. The worst part, though, was my eye.

I’ve always had an aversion to anything involving eyeballs, my own or anyone else’s. They’re useful and important things, but I prefer to pretend they don’t exist. When Bell’s palsy hit, my world began revolving around my right eyeball. I struggled to keep it lubricated, and after several corneal abrasions (fun!) an opthalmologist ended up gluing it down. The ungluing process was off-the-charts painful, and for several weeks all I could do was sit immobile, holding a compress over my eye, waiting. Afterward, I still had to set an alarm every two hours to lubricate my eye, which involved pulling down the lower lid to squirt ointment at the base of my eyeball. For someone with an eye phobia, this was sheer torture.

For several months I wore an eye patch 24/7, to avoid any further corneal abrasions.  During this time, I struggled with significant depression. None of the doctors I saw prepared me for this, but I read others’ accounts online. Total paralysis, accompanied with a poor prognosis, is a very difficult pill to swallow. I forced myself through all the motions of healthy living, but inside there was a dark well of sadness and out of it flowed all kinds of self-pitying thoughts.

Reader, it got better. The weather warmed, and one day I simply couldn’t bear to put the eye patch on. I haven’t worn it since, and nothing bad has happened. Then finally, about four months in, I noticed that a tiny muscle just beside my nose could be moved, with great effort. It was so subtle no one else could see it, but I knew it was happening. Then I was gradually able to move the right side of my mouth a bit. The lower lid of my right eye stopped sagging quite so much, and I could no longer see the white of my eyeball below the cornea.

I’m close to the six-month mark now, and my smile is about 50% back. The wrinkles around my eye have returned (so happy to see them!), and I can close my eyelid with great effort (it still can’t do involuntary blinks). I am an absolute whiz at putting ointment in my eye, and the exposure therapy of the last five months has largely cured my eye phobia. My speech impediment persists, but is slightly better. One of the little things no one told me about that I still live with: there are tons of tiny muscles in your nose that control the egress of its contents, and when they stop working you should definitely start carrying tissues everywhere.

The depression and self-pity are not totally gone, but I’ve beaten them back pretty well. On the full spectrum of health conditions an almost-fifty-year-old woman might need to face, this could have been far worse. When I look in the mirror, the person there is not quite me, but perhaps a wiser and stronger version for having battled a dragon she didn’t even know existed. This October she will put on a wedding dress, and dance, and scarf down vegan cupcakes, and, for the first time in her life, what she looks like seems pretty darn inconsequential. There may be further healing, which will be welcome. There may be none, and that will be ok.

I am officially back in the hiking saddle. The first month I didn’t hike at all, terrified a twig would snap into my frozen-open eye and blind me forever. I gradually set out on longer day hikes wearing safety goggles, and this weekend was my first overnight on the trail since the onset of Bell’s palsy. No safety goggles and no fear! I ate dinner on a rock in the middle of a creek. I rose before sunrise to beat the heat and savor the misty Blue Ridge mountains:


I scrambled up some baby dragon’s teeth on the Appalachian Trail:

rock steps

And then I climbed right up onto the Dragon’s Tooth itself:

dragon's tooth

Bell’s palsy roars out of nowhere, there is limited treatment, and you may temporarily feel completely at its mercy. However, the best treasures are found in the lairs of the fiercest dragons. Even if your prognosis is poor, as mine was, keep the faith. There’s healing to be had, in body and soul. The dragon can be taught to take a few steps back, even if it never goes away. Eventually you may walk right up to it, laugh in amazement, and crawl right up onto its tooth. What more can it do to you? Your world is yours alone, and that fact is the treasure the dragon guards.

The Unrepeatable Life

June is a season of joyful exuberance in the mountains of western North Carolina. The waterfalls are giddy and abundant, lit with love by a sun shining high and strong; and the mountainsides suddenly tumble downward with the blossoms of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

Nature absolutely adores the theme of impermanence, and in her expert artistry she layers her interpretations over minutes, days, years, and eons. In the slow, still season of winter we may meditate more on the work of eons, but in June everything is happening all at once. The senses are ablaze with the here and now, and the soul is engulfed by the wordless knowledge of connection to all that has been and will be.

The flowers of the summer mountains are showy and exotic. Once you get into your hiking groove, their brilliant presence infuses you with energy and you barely notice the miles. At the same time, every bush is in a constant state of transition: some buds are still tightly furled, others are at their fulsome peak, while the petals of those that have lived out their few days of existence are being trampled underfoot.

The tunnels of mountain laurel are cool, mysterious portals, particularly on a misty early morning. The individual blossoms sparkle with dynamism, while from a distance the plants have a soothing, quiet presence.



Rhododendrons and native flame azaleas are like tropical birds that unexpectedly stopped for a visit in the mountains. Their neon hues and large blossoms electrify the landscape as they hopscotch out across the highlands.


In waterfalls, though, nature is playing the long game. We can visit the same waterfall year after year–our entire lives even–and never notice much difference, if any. Of course, change is always happening, if far more subtly. The rock wears down; the river changes course; or (less subtly) a landslide or earthquake completely changes the shape of the falls.


Upon casual observation the landscape might look just about the same every June. Your favorite waterfall, framed by bright-pink rhododendrons, is a familiar, anchoring sight. But we know that nothing is ever the same: each petal, each blossom, each bush has a brief and singular life.  Some you will outlive, and some will outlive you. Each waterfall will be what it is right now only for this moment, and you will likely never know what it will become. Even the glistening paths of our little snail friends are here but for a moment, and no two will ever be the same. This is what nature wants us to know (and really she’s not terribly subtle, although she makes up for that in so many other ways): this is it. This is your one, unrepeatable life. How will you live it today?




Morning Time In This World

There is a great deal of company in the mountains, especially in the early-morning hours when few people go there. Every fern frond swells with anticipation of the creeping first light; the birds cheer on the sun with great joy; and paths practically tumble forward to welcome you (though they will be cautious about sharing all their secrets until they know you well).

We recently found exquisite solitude and not a whit of loneliness on one of Virginia’s most beloved and well-trafficked peaks: Old Rag Mountain, where on a weekend day there are often lines of people waiting to pass through the more challenging passages of its well-known rock scramble. Determined to have the mountain to ourselves, we succeeded by choosing a Wednesday for our hike, and by donning headlamps for a pre-dawn start up the trail.

The first few miles are a steady rise through the forest. On this May day, the abundant recent rains had left a glowing green carpet of ferns and moss. As you ascend, larger and larger boulders dot the trail, until all of a sudden you are scrambling up a bit of rock face into a labyrinth of exposed rock that goes on for a mile and a half on the approach to the summit. Here you will shimmy, squeeze, and crawl through fantastic rock formations worn slippery by legions of hikers before you (and if like me you are somewhat challenged for height, you’ll need an occasional assist).

old rag2

old rag 5

old rag 3

As you draw near the summit, the hike becomes more of a boulder-hopping adventure. We had a bright, sunny day with strong, cold breezes powering us to the top, and across crevices that looked just ever-so-slightly impossible to traverse. At the summit, 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are a stunning reward for an expedition already thrilling in its own right. There is a significant amount of elevation gain on this hike, but the journey  is so fun you barely notice it.

old rag 4old rag 5

After seeing nary a soul through the entire scramble, we savored half an hour alone at the summit, exploring its multiple viewpoints. On this particular day I was mourning the death of a friend who had passed the day before, and there was much comfort to be found in the cool, smooth rock against my hands, and the soaring, miles-long distance into which the winds delivered my thoughts.

We then descended the back of the mountain, looping to our starting point and, as we neared the trailhead, greeting several fellow hikers starting their treks. This gentle transition back to society served to underscore the value of the treasure we’d been gifted. Few Virginia hikers would think of Old Rag when restorative solitude is the goal; yet it is there in full, glorious measure if you know when to go looking for it.

“For my panacea, instead of one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the Dead Sea, which come out of those long shallow black-schooner looking wagons which we sometimes see made to carry bottles, let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.” ~ Henry David Thoreau




A Prayer For All Goodness

On the day before the spring equinox we hiked Blackrock Summit, Trayfoot Mountain, and Paine Run in Shenandoah National Park. As we exited the car in the thin early morning light, a cold and brutal wind immediately pounced; a tiny part of me wanted to jump right on the road and back under the covers. But hike day had arrived, and when it arrives, you hike. We layered on the winter gear and hit the trail.

Heading north on the Appalachian Trail the wind was relentless, the sky was gray, and a few snowflakes even whirled through. A mile or so brought us to Blackrock Summit, where the path soars out to sumptuous views of mountains and valley:


The frigid wind was hard at our backs though, so we did not linger. We turned toward Trayfoot Mountain, which offers a viewless summit and a rolling ridge walk before reaching a view of Buzzard Rock:

buzzard rock

Here, at about the halfway point of our route, the wind began to still, the sun was noticeably higher in the sky, and the clouds began to clear. We descended toward Paine Run and spent a couple miles hopping over streams and puddles that sparkled with spring secrets.


Finally, we started our long, steady trek up the Paine Run Trail. Hats, gloves, and extra layers had all been shed long ago and we reveled in the sunshine and a gently cooling breeze. Winter had swept us into the mountains, and spring was dancing us out.

Every season has its beauty, and its time to go. May we perceive the howling wind with the same open spirit that we perceive the fattening buds of the mountain laurel. May we see the gray clouds and foggy valley with the same unjudging eyes that delight in a shimmering creek. May our knees accept both ascents and descents with equanimity and quiet observation. May we embrace the spring that is coming with our whole hearts, and may we simply watch it go when it is time.