What Toads Remember

The Furnace Mountain and Austin Mountain trails in Shenandoah National Park can be connected for a gorgeous spring hike. At 12.7 miles and with 3269 feet of elevation gain, this hike is also a more than reasonable workout that earns the ambitious hiker some baked ziti, a homemade pineapple-coconut popsicle, and a very good night’s sleep (insert your own favorite post-hike treats, of course).

This is some of our most-traversed hiking territory, which is significant for us because we typically choose new hiking destinations every time. Over and over though, we have been drawn to these particular mountains, as well as the Doyles River and Jones Run falls that are located nearby. No trail is ever the same twice, and we truly do find new reasons for delight every time, but there is also comfort in the shared memories of these familiar trails as we go along–“ooh, here’s where we saw those bears eating blackberries,” or, “ooh, here’s the clearing where we came upon those deer.” Every hike has a bit of magic in it, but days later it starts to seem almost imaginary. Sometimes we can summon brief, vivid memories of the trail, but more often just the feel of it (which is always good enough). However, revisiting the actual places can reanimate the moments we’ve codified into memory, and then coat them with a new layer, rather like an oil painting, so they become more beautiful each time.

We chose this hike yesterday because the Furnace Mountain portion of the circuit puts on a beautiful mountain laurel display in late May, and it did not disappoint. On the trail at 7 am, we sighted our first Kalmia latifolia about half an hour later, and the magnificent clusters of white and pale pink flowers began to line the trail after that.


I love the star-shaped buds, tight and dark pink, that burst open to little teacup-shaped flowers. The sparkly contrast between the flowers and the not-yet-opened buds creates a sense of dynamism and determination:


As the forest canopy closed back over us, the sun-loving mountain laurel gradually receded. We took a side trail up to the Furnace Mountain overlook, then trekked back down to continue over to Trayfoot Mountain. Skipping the Trayfoot overlook, we continued to the Blackrock Summit, which can sometimes be crowded but yesterday afforded remarkable solitude (and beautiful views):


From Blackrock we connected to the Austin Mountain trail using the Appalachian Trail, the Madison Run fire road, and the Rockytop Trail. The Austin Mountain ridge gives views of Furnace Mountain, where we had been that morning, and gazing over to contemplate from whence we had come made me start to feel tired:


The Austin Mountain trail is no place to allow one’s fatigue to take hold, though: first there are multiple rockslides to navigate, then a very steep descent that is not for the faint of knees.ImageNear one of the rockslides we heard a scrambling in the woods beside us, much like a medium-sized mammal trying to get away from us as quickly as possible. Too large for a fox and too graceless for a deer, we decided it sounded j-u-s-t right to have been a juvenile bear–and during our final leg down the fire road back to the car we spotted a black bear peering down at us from above. Aside from that our only wildlife spotting of the day was this little toad, hanging out next to his doppelgänger leaf:


I spent years learning about human cognition and memory, so that I could easily explain the nuances of distributed processing and semantic networks. Useful in the classroom and even in the therapy room, conscious awareness of those concepts can seem so unromantic out on the trail. Instead, I’d much rather just pretend that this little toad remembers us, in whatever way toads remember things, and that yesterday we became part of his oil painting-memory, too.




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