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