There is a great deal of company in the mountains, especially in the early-morning hours when few people go there. Every fern frond swells with anticipation of the creeping first light; the birds cheer on the sun with great joy; and paths practically tumble forward to welcome you (though they will be cautious about sharing all their secrets until they know you well).
We recently found exquisite solitude and not a whit of loneliness on one of Virginia’s most beloved and well-trafficked peaks: Old Rag Mountain, where on a weekend day there are often lines of people waiting to pass through the more challenging passages of its well-known rock scramble. Determined to have the mountain to ourselves, we succeeded by choosing a Wednesday for our hike, and by donning headlamps for a pre-dawn start up the trail.
The first few miles are a steady rise through the forest. On this May day, the abundant recent rains had left a glowing green carpet of ferns and moss. As you ascend, larger and larger boulders dot the trail, until all of a sudden you are scrambling up a bit of rock face into a labyrinth of exposed rock that goes on for a mile and a half on the approach to the summit. Here you will shimmy, squeeze, and crawl through fantastic rock formations worn slippery by legions of hikers before you (and if like me you are somewhat challenged for height, you’ll need an occasional assist).
As you draw near the summit, the hike becomes more of a boulder-hopping adventure. We had a bright, sunny day with strong, cold breezes powering us to the top, and across crevices that looked just ever-so-slightly impossible to traverse. At the summit, 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are a stunning reward for an expedition already thrilling in its own right. There is a significant amount of elevation gain on this hike, but the journey is so fun you barely notice it.
After seeing nary a soul through the entire scramble, we savored half an hour alone at the summit, exploring its multiple viewpoints. On this particular day I was mourning the death of a friend who had passed the day before, and there was much comfort to be found in the cool, smooth rock against my hands, and the soaring, miles-long distance into which the winds delivered my thoughts.
We then descended the back of the mountain, looping to our starting point and, as we neared the trailhead, greeting several fellow hikers starting their treks. This gentle transition back to society served to underscore the value of the treasure we’d been gifted. Few Virginia hikers would think of Old Rag when restorative solitude is the goal; yet it is there in full, glorious measure if you know when to go looking for it.
“For my panacea, instead of one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the Dead Sea, which come out of those long shallow black-schooner looking wagons which we sometimes see made to carry bottles, let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.” ~ Henry David Thoreau