The threat of thunderstorms had already cancelled a backpacking excursion this month, so I was resolved to at least squeeze in a day hike on the first weekend of fall. As the weekend approached, though, the weather outlook grew ever gloomier and it appeared most of Virginia would be under a blanket of rain. That wasn’t going to stop me (darn it, when it’s time to hike, it’s time to hike), but then I noticed that heading north would likely keep us clear of the rain. And so it did.
We hiked an out and back stretch on the section of the Appalachian Trail known as the “Roller Coaster”, which goes up and down repeatedly as the trail exits Virginia and snakes toward Harper’s Ferry, WV. The elevation profile can appear pretty dramatic, but if you are used to mountain hiking it’s not particularly challenging.
The rain kept its distance but the day remained mostly overcast. Plenty of other hikers were out, including a large boy scout troop on an overnight trip, and the trail was festive despite the drear.
This is perhaps one of the rockiest stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, which is saying something. In some places there is no dirt to be seen at all, and the trail becomes a river of rocks:
A bit of sun peeked through as we reached Raven Rocks, and we rested a while for lunch and a good long visit with the views of the Shenandoah Valley, touched only by the barest hints of early fall foliage changes:
While the topography of the Roller Coaster may resemble an amusement park ride, the similarity largely ends there. On a real roller coaster you completely give up control. You may be frightened, thrilled, or nauseated as you give yourself over to the will of the ride, buckled into a seat and holding on as tightly as you can. On a hike, the availability of choice becomes abundantly clear.
It is, first, a deliberate and committed choice to pack up your gear, drive away from your everyday reality into the woods, and step onto the trail. It’s not a roller coaster ride, it’s a highly conscious journey. You don’t know exactly what will happen, but you can go as fast or as slow as you want, linger wherever you choose, explore the serendipitous side trail, or even turn around to leave anytime it suits you. That doesn’t necessarily make hiking any better a metaphor for life than a roller coaster. It does make it a deeply healing and nurturing experience that builds mindfulness and judicious autonomy–a far cry from just hanging on for dear life.