Like a hedgehog shaking off a long winter’s nap, I finally made it back onto the trail yesterday–with the winter doldrums nipping at my heels. It had been almost 2 months since my last hike, as a particularly rough winter made traveling to the mountains a challenge. After every winter break from the trail there is a period of readjustment, mostly for my psyche and my quads, which initially protest, “Why? why would you do this to us–why??” Despite the fact that I try hard to stay in shape all winter in preparation for this very day, there is no way the gym or the mostly flat Richmond streets can simulate a mountain trek. For this reason many people who are in very good shape feel surprisingly challenged on their first mountain hike: there is a very particular psychological experience that occurs when you walk steeply uphill for hours on end.
My psyche settled in quickly, as there is a meditative component to a mountain walk that it can access easily and comfortably. However, my quads remained outraged for an hour or so. While they may be quietly pleased with their ability to hold Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana I and II for an extended period of time in yoga class, they tend to complain quite a bit on their first real hike after a break from the trail. After a while they relax and say, “OK, I remember this–got it–I’m in.”
Our hibernation-breaking hike was a trip up to Big Schloss and back down, then up to Tibbett Knob across from it. Big Schloss is not a difficult hike but affords tremendous views. As the less difficult of the two ascents it is more crowded, and there were plenty of people out yesterday soaking up the early signs of springtime in the mountains. In March, such signs are quite subtle. There was still enough snow alongside the trail to support a snowball fight, but little springs fed by snowmelt flooded the trail at the lower elevations. Higher up, the ground was slightly softer underfoot than it was two months ago, and the sounds of birdsong floated above. Perhaps most telling was the angle of the sun, which illuminated the glossy leaves of the mountain laurel to a bright shine, whereas just two months ago they’d appeared dull and tired.
The defining feature of the day, however, was the mighty March wind. The tree branches scraped and moaned overhead, as if the woods themselves, jealous of the stirring toads and ferns, were about to come to life. A hungry vortex howled up and down the mountainside, and threatened to blow my treasured Icelandic hat down into the valley. As we approached the summit of Big Schloss, I tucked the hat away for safekeeping and gave my hair over to the will of the wind. It is impossible to feel anything short of fully alive in such a gale.
The Tibbett Knob hike, while slightly shorter, is much steeper and has two enjoyable rock scrambles just before the summit (one of them was still half-covered in ice, for that added bit of ‘je ne sais quois’). At Tibbett Knob the wind roared unceasingly, so that any words spoken were instantly swept miles away, unheard. I could barely take a focused photo as it was difficult to steady my hand against the blast. Perhaps for this reason more than half the photos I took yesterday did not “take”, but I did manage this one at Tibbett Knob:
Aside from the hardy moss and evergreen trees there is little green to be seen, but you can feel it pulsing everywhere, just below the surface. Life is stirring, the sap is rising. So in honor of St. Paddy’s day, dear reader, may your trail be lined with flowers, and when it becomes stony may you always have strong shoes. May the rain fall lightly on your brow, may the moonbeams light your way by night, and of course–may the wind be always at your back.