At this time of the year, as people flock to parties, shops, and parades, it can be easier than ever to find solitude in the woods. The weather is cold, the days are short, and the trees are barren–it is understandable that people turn away from the outdoors to warm, brightly lit interiors. However, the wilderness is still there and its secrets are only speaking a slightly different language–you simply have to listen very carefully. The world can be a challenging place to comprehend, and events of the last year have been particularly saddening and bewildering. Sometimes the best way to begin to make sense of something is to turn away from it completely for a while–even just for a day.
We drove almost to the West Virginia border to climb Beards Mountain, which straddles Douthat State Park and the George Washington National Forest. At 7 miles and 1400′ of elevation gain it is not a terribly difficult hike–but it is an exquisite meditation. The trails that make up the circuit twist up and down through deep, dark ravines and then march brightly across ridges with panoramic views. In the ravines we plowed through knee-deep piles of enormous oak leaves and stumbled over the rocks that lay hidden below. Though it was a sunny day, the hollows stayed dark and cold.
The hillside into which the trail was cut was often steep, and the trail was so eroded for lengthy segments that a slippery leaf pile could easily have sent us to the bottom of the ravine. We gingerly persevered (and though I had initially hoped to see some snow I was very happy to leave my crampons tucked safely at the bottom of my pack). At the top of the ridge the views opened up, and as we circled round the mountain we were treated to gorgeous views of Lake Douthat.
Along the way we saw evidence of animals making their ways through the wintertime woods. Though they remained still and silent as we passed through on this Solstice Day, we saw deer tracks moving steeply up the mountainside, and small piles of acorns that had been cracked and eaten. (In one section we also saw repeated evidence that some poor creature had eaten something that clearly did not agree with it.)
The entire circuit has many switchbacks, some gentle and loping, some steep and treacherous. There are spots where you can see people have made shortcuts instead of taking the switchbacks, and this is where the trails have become most dangerously eroded. Despite such observations, however, we saw not a single soul for hours on the trail. Instead we meandered in silence, winding through the chilly ravines and basking in the sunlight at the top of the ridge. We switchbacked all the way, moving steadily from darkness to light, and then back again.
Eventually our descent took us back to the small dark valley in which we’d begun, but even here there was a bit of cheer to send us on our way: bright red and purple berries standing ready to nourish birds and other wildlife at the coldest and darkest time of the year. We are never without hope, and we are never without the light of love. Sometimes it’s harder than others to keep the faith, but the seasons always change, and spring is always coming.