Straight Up To The Top, Baby

It was a day so beautiful it practically felt unethical not to go hiking (we all live in our own little microverses, ethically speaking). Humpback Rocks is 90 minutes west of Richmond, just south of route 64 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a popular hike, so an early-morning departure was in order–we briefly considered a sunrise hike, but decided to save that for a camping weekend.

We arrived at the parking area by 7:30 am and several cars already dotted the lot, but we had the trail largely to ourselves. The path up to the rocks goes straight up the side of the mountain, with very few switchbacks. I will admit, I do not love steep climbs. I like that I am getting a good workout, I love the fact that it is on a mountainside rather than in a noisy gym, and I adore the hike payoff (waterfall, view, etc.)–but a steep ascent is not inherently fun for me. Fortunately, the reward in this case is tremendous: a massive rock formation juts out from the mountain, and you can clamber up for a near-360 degree view (image below from Google Earth).


Here is what the rocks look like from behind as you approach them from the trail:


After climbing up, to the west you see the Shenandoah Valley, and to the north is Shenandoah National Park:


For the return trip, we took a circuitous route down the back of the mountain using the Appalachian Trail. Compared to the arduous upward trek, we practically floated down long switchbacks cut at a gentle, knee-friendly grade. This was a woodsy hike, with distant views through the trees, though soon the leaves will emerge fully and this will turn into the familiar green tunnel the trail becomes every summer.


There is something about a wilderness hike that can make the simplest of utterances seem like profound metaphors. Often these statements seem a lot less profound back at home in one’s living room, but on the trail, as we lope down a mountain in a rustling breeze with a percussive woodpecker symphony all around, we can feel downright wise when some offhand comment suddenly seems philosophical.

Today, as we were coming down the mountain, I mused that the return on the Appalachian Trail, though more than twice the distance of the route we took up to the rocks, was so gentle that perhaps it would be an easier way to climb up. Then I said, “But sometimes it’s best just to get the climb over with quickly, even if it’s steeper.” As I type this now it seems nowhere near as deep as it did in the woods–but there is truth to it. If there is something difficult we know must be done, and there is a clear path to making it happen, sometimes it’s best just to hoist our packs and get moving on the straightest line possible.

It also happens that I am a psychologist who practices yoga, so I am quick to embrace the value of a circuitous process when the meaning or path may not be clear at the outset. The journey truly can be its own reward much of the time, and we risk cheating ourselves if we always opt for the shortcut. Nonetheless, there are times when it makes sense to just go straight up that mountain, no matter how hard it is, and get the job done. If you plan your expedition with care, the silver lining can be a gentle, joyous journey all the way down the other side.


2 thoughts on “Straight Up To The Top, Baby

  1. Uncle Paul

    Going straight up is good preparation when other options are not available. So much of difficulty is mental, embracing the difficulty and overcoming is a marvelous experience. My next hike is on and off a Royal Viking Cruise boat on the Rhine. Wish you were coming along.


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