Nearly every year I miss fall foliage season in the mountains, because of schedule issues/weather/life events, etc. This year was no exception, and after moving to a new home in early October I was unable to get away for a day of hiking until almost mid-November. By then the trees in the mountainous areas of Virginia are largely barren of leaves, though the colors in Richmond are often still vibrant. We headed for Cole Mountain (also known locally as Cold Mountain) near Buena Vista, Virginia.
My last visit to Cole Mountain was a little over a year ago for a one-night backpacking trip with a group of amazing women. It was the height of foliage season, and though we hiked in under a thick blanket of fog we walked out amidst a blaze of endlessly sunny color. This year, instead of trekking below a kaleidoscope of a canopy, my hiking partner and I marched through several inches of dry, crunchy leaves that largely obscured the trail.
The sensory experience is, of course, completely different after the leaves have fallen. The woods are hushed, initially making the crunch of leaves underfoot seem even louder. After a while, the rhythm of your footsteps takes on a percussive quality, and its minimalism fades into your unconscious till you barely hear it anymore. This is when the hike becomes a truly meditative experience. With a companion who also enjoys solitude and quiet, the mind clears and it is easy to simply observe and let go, observe and let go–all the way up the mountain.
We started up the Old Hotel Trail, which meanders up and down for a while, first through a gorgeous stand of pines, then through a meadow, then into the deciduous forest. Eventually the trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail, and here the climb begins in earnest up to the high meadows of Cole Mountain. In summer and early fall this section of the trail feels like a pilgrimage of sorts, as it switchbacks up through an endless tunnel of green. In November, though, the bare trees reveal what summer hides:
Up we went till we reached the high meadows of Cole Mountain, which provide 360 degree views all year round. On a weekday well past the leaf-peeping season we had the meadows all to ourselves (the entire hike, actually), except for one passing hiker who was completing the Virginia portion of her Appalachian Trail section hike that day.
After crossing the meadows the Appalachian Trail snakes back down into the woods, and the meditative crunch began anew beneath our boots. Every year, every season, every hike has a uniquely beautiful quality that can never be repeated. Any given hike can magically somehow be perfect, even if it pours/snows/is completely fogged in. The magic is in what we choose to observe and experience. A November hike, for me, allows an acute yet completely comfortable awareness of the fragility and impermanence of existence. I am enjoying my 46th autumn, and there is some longevity in my family so perhaps I will see 46 more. Or perhaps I will never see another. It’s not time to go yet, but almost. It’s always almost time.