It was forecast to be a rainy weekend in the mountains . . . again . . . but we were still hopeful. Each morning, we set our alarm clock then checked the weather, waiting with anticipation for there to be news that the clouds would break to let sunshine in. Unfortunately, that never happened.
“What about the weather in Richmond?” I asked Andy after we checked the weather once more early Sunday morning. He investigated. “It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon but for now, it appears to be holding off.” That was it — all we needed to determine we could pack our small packs and head towards the James River in the city.
We had found two river hikes earlier and were holding out for a day, just like this one, where we were prevented from traveling to the mountains to enjoy a trek through the forest. This is where I’d soon learn that sometimes a river hike is just a grand as a walk through the woods. Here’s more on the one we did:
Six-point-three mile circuit
160-foot elevation gain
Two of Five difficulty rating
Since the elevation and difficulty level were low, we decided to increase the distance, doubling the hike’s length to over twelve miles. As you may know by now, normally when we choose to challenge ourselves past what is originally planned, this would mean a troubling story follows: one that details how we were nearly mauled to death by bears or how we were one inch from being perpetually lost in the wilderness or even how we were about to perish due to a lack of water. Fortunately, none of this happened. The good news about choosing city hikes is that there are no bears or expansive forests, and water — along with a variety of other restaurant drinks — is plentiful and just around the corner. Because of this, dear reader, you are left with essentially one of our first tranquil hikes and that means it will be told primarily through pictures.
Our path started on a sidewalk adjacent to raised train tracks.
Paralleling this, a foggy canal, which we followed to the river.From there, we followed the grey under the train tracks towards the heart of the city.Quiet Spring was barely visible, pushing slowly up through the earth and blossoming on limbs.
Soon, the city’s pipeline was in sight. Slipping down the thin metal ladder, we walked on the grate above the pipeline, which slowly began to disappear under the high James River waters.
High waters mean strong rapids. Flashes of bright orange could be seen under the surface as geese and duck feet paddled furiously in the opposite direction. They tried to brave the force but were carried away with the current.
Close to the end, the James River rushed over the pipeline with waters so high and strong that we were forced to turn back and find another route.
Passing an area of murals, we soon made it to Brown’s Island.
As we approached the Tredegar Iron Works — the start of our initial James River Hike — the train approached and slow-chugged past.Walking under the train trestle, we continued towards Richmond’s famous suspension bridge, which hangs underneath the Lee Bridge.
The bridge is half a mile long and links to Belle Isle where our hike ignored the Belle Isle loop and instead headed straight towards the southside pedestrian bridge.
There, we saw a beautiful blue heron that stood with its beak open until it spread its wings and flew towards an abandoned building, landing on the muddy river’s edge.
From there, we headed down the Low Water Trail, only to learn that too was impassable due to high waters. Secretly, I liked that we had to keep backtracking. Because we were on a river hike, I thought there was nothing better than having a river so high and powerful that the water surged over our trail.
Turning back, we took the High Water Trail. Initially it wasn’t quite as scenic due to the fact that it was bordered by this chain-link fence.
However, our path soon opened to a bit of woods with the trees so vibrant, I could have mistaken the season for autumn.As we walked, I cut invasive vines from the trunks of choking trees then took the English ivy, Oriental Bittersweet, Wintercreeper, more and wove them into a wreath. This act reminded me both of my past and future: The past with my Papa on his farm, where my sister and I would stand for what felt like hours, watching him cut woody vines dangling from high tree limbs before twisting them, delicate in his large calloused work-hands, into wreath after wreath. Once he would get them started, he would pass them to my sister and I, cutting more vines and handing them to us; but our little hands, too quick and eager, kept breaking the vines so that our wreaths had more sharp corners than smooth twists.
But my future, I saw that too as my engagement ring sparkled with my moving fingers: Me, making a smaller wreath for our wedding. Those vines, ones we wove together during trails like this, creating a crown that I would wear above my head in lieu of a veil for our bohemian-ish wedding — outside, maybe in the mountains beside a trail leading to a overlook.
Carrying our wreath with us, we darted on cutaway trails toward the river’s edge.
A little over a mile later, our High Water Trail came to an end beneath the Boulevard Bridge.
Crossing railroad tracks, we climbed up to the top of the bridge before strolling down its walkway. There, the milky brown waters of the James stretched around us and small flocks of Canadian geese honked above our heads.
Walking far above railroad tracks, we headed towards the Northbank Trail, which took us out of the woods and into civilization.
Here, we passed the first of three cemeteries before walking through a neighborhood.
Lead by Richmond’s skyscrapers, we walked beside a passing train, cars brimming with coal. Here, we headed towards the city, to the end of our hike.
Many times, I believe the word ‘hiking’ is synonymous for ‘mountains’ — mountain trails, cliffs, rocks, overlooks. Often I forget the true definition of a hike, and that is simply ‘a long walk.’ Over twelve miles later, with sore feet and aching legs, Andy and I came to the end of our quickly-decided hike. As if on cue, the clouds opened and began to release a drizzle of rain. I looked down at our boots splattered with thick clay and brown mud.
It made me realize we don’t have to travel to the mountains for hikes. Some days, it’s okay to take a different path because there is beauty everywhere. You just have to look.
“Alright, Andrew. I’ll set the GPS going but you’ll have to remember it only gets us in the area, not to the area — only in the area. Okay?”
“Right,” he told me, starting the car. “Let’s go.”
Off we headed to George Washington National Forest’s Tibbet Knob, our first hike of the new year together.
This is a four mile hike, though HikingUpward says it is only about three miles, which is incorrect. (Oh, and for those interested, there is a thirteen-point-three mile hike that combines Tibbet with a second trail on nearby Long Mountain, but you need to get the shuttle between the two.)
It is an 830-foot elevation
Rated a Level Two of Five difficulty
On and on we drove, twisting up and down mountains, going as backwoods as backwoods gets. Here’s an example: I needed to go to the bathroom so Andy stopped at some ultra-remote, hidden gas station on the side of a gravel road. The place had one pump.
“I’ll be back,” I told him before literally jumped from his car then sprinting to the door as he parked.
BATHROOMS ARE FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY!!!!! The handwritten sign on the door yelled — all caps with way too many exclamation points.
I ran back to the car, cross-legged and fearful I may have to use my ‘appendage‘ and find a tree soon. “ANDY!” I screamed. “ANDY! I NEED MONEY!”
“Wot?! Are you alright!” He looked alarmed, glancing over my shoulder as if a thief with a gun would show to steal the cash I was begging him for cash.
“I NEED TO PEE! There’s no time to explain — just trust me. PLEASSSE!” His confused look grew but he unlocked the doors regardless, allowing me to rifle through his pack. “Thanks!” I hollered then darted off a second time. “Oh and do you want anything to eat?” I questioned over my shoulder.
“A Snickers!” I barely heard him say as I opened the door.
“Can we help ya find sum’m,” the older hunched woman said to me. I didn’t see anyone else to make there be a “we.” Regardless, her question wasn’t a question. She glared with eyes that followed me around the shop and a scowl that showed she did not trust me. Clearly my appearance screamed “I’m going to steal your toilet paper and waste your water.”
“I am going to buy a Snickers and . . . ” I looked around. I didn’t care what I was going to buy. I would have bought suntan lotion in the middle of winter if I saw it first. ” . . . food — um, crackers and . . . ” I kept looking ” . . . more crackers. Then I’ll go to the bathroom.” I think this was the first greeting I’ve had with a stranger where I announced my toilet-destination less than a minute into meeting.
“Go on t’tha bathroom first then,” she remarked and aggressively pointed towards the direction. Her expression changed but I couldn’t tell if she was angrier or a bit happier now that she knew I would be making a purchase. Let’s be honest — This place did not indicate it got a high volume of traffic. Or any traffic for that matter.
“Thank you!” I squealed as I dashed to the bathroom door.
BATHROOMS ARE FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY!!!!! the sign repeated with the same crazy amount of exclamation points. And this wasn’t the only message — The bathroom door was plastered, graffiti-style, with other hand-scrawled signs that were covered in packing tape in an effort to preserve the words. I could feel the anger increasing, too, hear the train of thought, the conversation. I imagined it went something like this:
“Ya know, Hank. They may have ignored that first there sign.”
“Yea. I reckon.”
“Hank. We need ta do sum’m! Those hooligans com’a inta MA store ‘nd use MA toilet paper ‘nd MA water ‘nd leave ‘out payin’ fa anythin’?! I’m NOT havin’ it! Those damn misfits need ta PAY!”
And that’s where Hank and Scowl made the decision to vandalize their own property with signs. THE TOILET PAPER AND WATER ARE NOT FREE!!!!!! message was adjacent to the WE HAVE TO PAY — SO DO YOU!!!!!” sign and the CAN’T YOU READ — YOU NEED TO PAY!!!!!!!!!! It was the first time I felt scared — as in life threatened — when going to the toilet. I knew they would get my money but their messages made me felt like a criminal, as if I had done something wrong and I began to rethink my desire to go. Running out of time though, I opened the world’s most flimsy door. And the lock didn’t work. I tried again. Still didn’t lock. It must have been Protocol Two (after the messages) in which Hank and Scowl planned to forcefully rip the poor victim off the loo if that person didn’t identify the items he or she was going to buy. I tried the lock again to avail so I dug into my pockets for my phone — Surely I could ask Andy to stand at the door — but I left my phone in the car with him. Suddenly having a body guard at the door no longer mattered — What was critical was having a device to make emergency calls in case I was about to be murdered in the bathroom seemed very important. Panic began to overtake me until I was about to pee myself so I decided to take the risk and use the bathroom. If Hank and Scowl wanted to come in that badly, I determined a lock wouldn’t stop them. To my relief though, I peed alone.
Closing the door behind me, I searched for the Snickers and crackers I mentioned earlier. Scowl moved behind the counter.
I went to grab my card (because who carries cash?) and she smiled a gummy grin as I moved.
“There’s a $5.00 limit.”
“Of course,” I told her, not the “of course” that sounds in agreement but the “of course” that made it known I thought she was odd and her bathroom was odd and her entire daggon store was odd. You know, they say Southerners are nice and welcoming. I am a Southerner; I like to believe this is true. Here and now though, I was sorely let down.
I looked around. There was bug spray coated in a layer of dust next to dog food which was above bread. Grabbing another set of crackers, I walked back to the counter.
“$4.76,” she gummed.
We were on only-essential-words speaking terms so I declined to comment a second time and glanced around again — The bug spray still had dust on it, the dog food was still one of the most peculiar gas station items, and the bread was still — I don’t even want to know. Skittles — I saw a large pack and let them fall in front of her.
“With tax, that brings your total to $7.12,” she smiled.
“Great,” I told her and I meant it — I don’t know if it was more due to relief that I didn’t have to buy the dog food or sarcasm at having to go through all those hoops just to pee but I was finally able to leave.
“L. It’s scary here,” Andy confessed once I was in the car again and we were well on our way again. “Let’s hope something doesn’t happen to my car because if it does, I have no doubt we are going to die a bloody and tortured death like those in horror movies.” I couldn’t agree more. “Can you tell me how much farther we have to go on this road?”
Taking his phone, I began to navigate, following the GPS which lead us down one-lane dirt roads . . . past a closed zoo . . . and into a massive circle, and that’s around when I started feeling carsick so I relinquished the phone and closed my eyes. A few moments later, I was woken up to Andy’s un-amused voice.
“It says we have arrived, L.” I looked around — We were in the middle of nowhere. Not the “Let’s go on a hike in the middle of nowhere”, but actually and truly nowhere.
“We’ve arrived? You mean at the destination? You’ve been listening to the GPS for the exact spot?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yea?!” he questioned, equally incredulously. He has this way of making the simple one-syllable word ‘yea’ carry multiple pitches, sounding something like ye-ah-ag, with each pitch breaking into another syllable so that the middle “ah” almost sounds as if he is clearing his throat for effect. “It is the GPS, L! Why would I NOT follow it?!”
“It’s not God! We don’t have to follow it exactly! Remember when I said, ‘The GPS was only going to get us in the area, not to the area?’ It was only meant to be a guide!”
This didn’t turn out so well and, as I am writing this, I am having a realization that the most used term Andrew says to me is “bloody hell” — used in the sense of “Bloody hell, why would I not follow a GPS?!” and “Bloody hell, I’d expect to at least be on the same road to where we were going!” and “Bloody hell — Then where IS the area?!”
Turns out his solution to the problem was to drift, turning left and right down little mountain roads because surely, the hike would just pop up. Still nothing though — no parking lot, no signs, no trail head. To add to frustrations, we lost all service so were unable to find useful information or directions online.
“What streets are mentioned on the paper you printed?” he asked.
“You mean a cross street?”
“What’s a ‘cross street’?
“Oh Andrew. Not now,” I told him because sometimes it is just too difficult to explain the differences in American speech and British speech. “Okay — Streets I see are VA 675 and . . . Wolf Gap Campground . . . ?”
“Thanks. That helps a tremendous amount.”
Ambling down more roads, we determined it best to backtrack until we got some type of signal and could plug in a better address. About half an hour later, we finally had service so Andy punched in information until a better address showed.
“WOT!!!” Andy’s calm, dejected personality abruptly changed. I didn’t want to ask. There are times when his ‘what’ is a question and there are times when this word is simply an exclamation of disbelief. This one was the second. “It says we are 174 MILES AWAY!!!” He looked at me. I refused to give in and look at him. “It says we are TWO HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES from our destination!” It’s not as if he did not have reason to be astonished; all the same, I’d never heard a person be more astounded. “I thought you said it was in the area!”
“Andy! I said it would get us in the area — not to the area! You remember me saying that when we first set off, don’t you?”
“Bloody hell, L! You are kidding?! In the area?! We are two and a half hours from the area. I’ll have to fill up with petro twice. Two full tanks. That’s not in the area!”
Maybe my stubborness got the best of me. “I mean . . . it is still . . . in the area” and I motioned to the vast nothing-ness of trees and dirt and dead grass.
“We aren’t even near the area! ‘In the area’ is a couple miles away. ‘In the area’ is we are on the same road. In the area?! We might as well be in a different STATE!”
I didn’t know what to tell him except that we were still in Virginia so that must have meant we were technically ‘in the area.’
“And why on earth was I even taking directions from you!? Bloody hell — Something must be wrong with me! To trust you with directions!” I didn’t want to tell him I agreed but I did — That was the question worth answering.
Regardless, after moments on silent contemplation from the both of us, we determined we were ready to go home. A five hour and fifteen minute drive total was not worth it for a short four mile hike. So, just like that, first hike of the new year together — cancelled.
Unfortunately, due to looking at the directions and glancing down at my phone to check for service, I felt carsick again so I apologized and closed my eyes a second time while Andrew re-traced our drive — two hours and thirty minutes — back home.
“Hey, Andy?” I asked after I’d slept for about half an hour. “How far are we now?”
“Close to two hours,” he responded before asking if I felt better.
“I do actually. I really do.” I hesitated. What I was going to say needed to be broached lightly. “So . . . you’re still heading home, right?”
“Yea . . . ”
“And we are still about two hours away, yes?”
“Yea . . . ”
“And the hike is about two hours away, right?”
“Yea . . . ”
“Well. I was just thinking — The reason I called off the hike was because I didn’t feel good. But now I feel much better after that nap. So . . . if it’s the same distance for each direction . . . then maybe we should just go on the hike? I mean, we put all this energy in so far . . . for . . . nothing . . . ?”
It was quiet for several minutes. I waited. I knew he needed those moments.
“Right. So you’re telling me that after you slept and I was driving half an hour home that — now that you’re awake again — you want to go back on the hike?”
“I mean . . . only if we don’t have to go in a different direction?”
“No, we don’t have to go in a different direction,” his voice was even. He wasn’t angry but it was clear he had to focus on remaining calm. “We are almost at the point where we have to make this decision though.”
“Okay. So what do you think?”
“Fine. For the past half hour, I’d been determining what I was going to do when I got home — have some lunch, maybe play video games, go fishing — I was getting excited about that. But you’re sure you want to hike now?” I nodded. “Alright. Fuck it. I wanted to hike. That’s what we came out to do and I’d still like to go so let’s go.” And with that, decision made — We were hiking again.
A long two hours passed until finally we were welcomed to our hiking spot with this sign that seemed to pop from the forest: WELCOME TO WEST VIRGINIA, as if on cue for Andrew. I saw his facial expression out of my peripheral vision.
“In the area . . . ” he puffed quietly.
“Not to the area,” I responded.
“Ohhh, I know, I know. Not to the area. How I know.” Then he paused, turned to me, and smiled. “You’re bloody hard work, you know that, right?”
I did. And do.
Finally though, after our five hour car ride we were on our way! And goodness, it was a gorgeous day. Unlike my earlier hike that had below freezing temperatures, this one was sunny, warmer with a light coaxing breeze. The sky seemed to be celebrating the temperatures too, throwing as many hues of blue above the gnarled limbs.
Following the yellow blaze trail, we set off for the Tibbet Knob overlook.
Other than the crunch on fallen leaves, the forest was quiet, the way we adore on hikes.
Plus, the bare trees allowed the sun to almost guide us as the rays streamed in just right.
More visibility also allowed us to see we were bordering fantastic views of Big Schloss and Mill Mountain.
Because there are two short but steep rock scrambles, this hike is not as family-friendly; therefore, it is more secluded. This left us feeling we had a private tucked away location where nature welcomed us. Even the fuzzy green moss stretched before our feet, illuminating the trail.
Pines fanned their needles beside us and the rhododendrons held delicate buds that waited for spring . . .
We continued to weave around the yellow blaze . . .
and soon came upon this (below) tree, which appeared to have been heavily scratched.The damage did not seem to be from a fallen limb as there were no limbs nearby and there were many wood chips on the ground, scattered at the base of the tree.The damage was also about five or so feet high and seemed to be fresh as the wood was a bright cream and did not have a large amount of dirt or debris covering it. Andy and I think this was done by a black bear. According to park rangers I’ve spoken to before, black bears in Virginia don’t hibernate due to temperatures never getting cold enough so they are actively walking the forests. However, in all of our hikes we have never seen these markings so we are not positive. I did do some research and found similar markings other hikers have posted. For instance, the hikers that had these below pictures all claim it was due to bears.
Anyway, help us out and take a guess to tell us what you think caused these markings! I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Returning to our hike: I will say it seemed a bit more strenuous than it actually is. Phrases like ‘short, steep rock scrambles’ and ‘one of two steep sections’ and ‘may require hand-over-hand climbing’ can be seen when investigating this trail beforehand, but we found it wasn’t that serious (this coming from a guy and girl that haven’t been out hiking in months). Still, it does require a more energy than a casual walk in the woods so an occasional rock-touch was embraced by us as it made this hike different. Anyway, here’s a good example of how it wasn’t a difficult hike — I apparently did not find the first rock scramble astounding enough to photograph as I see no pictures of it now that I am writing.
Anyway, onward we walked pass these tickets to our last rock scramble.
After that though, we were instantly greeted with amazing views of the valley below and mountains ahead.
Dramatic drop offs allowed us to dart from one overlook to the other . . .before coming to sit at the cliff edge.
We stayed on the top of the mountain for awhile, nestled into one another, before trekking back down the trail, an easy and calm hike.
Preparing to go, we got back into the car, started the engine, and headed out. That’s when we came across this massive heron in a river of melting ice.
Life felt stable and good . . . until we got further on our journey when our two and a half hour drive ended up being over five hours as two major roads were closed. Let’s just end here saying the trip back felt as if it were the never-ending drive from hell because every possible turn that could have lead us home was somehow thwarted.
But there was a huge bonus: Circling and turning down numerous roads allowed us to be beside this exploding sunset so that in the end, even though the trip there and back drug at a crawl, we had this to look at and know there’s only more in store for us as our 2018 hikes have just begun.
“Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” That’s my Spanish impression of Usua who was perfectly summarizing our winter hike, except she didn’t know she was summarizing it at that time. What she was talking about was the Number One Rule we created when hiking together and that is “Every decision is a joint decision,” meaning if we are lost, it was a joint decision that took us there and if we died because of that decision, well, we could go in peace knowing it wasn’t one person’s fault. So there we were . . . in below-frigid seven-degree Fahrenheit temperatures . . . on a mountain . . . on a trail we had never walked before. And, in the moment of last hope, the moment that I needed a pick-me-up, Usua turns to me red-nosed, hat icing over, and says, “Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” Reassuring.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again so before we were at this almost-frozen-death situation, let’s go back to the beginning, when Andy, Usua, and I decided to go hiking this past weekend.
“Usua,” I told my athletic friend. “Listen, I’m sorry but I cannot do a serious hike. Andy and I are just getting back into it after our last really rough hike over the summer, you know — the one that left me questioning if I wanted to sell my pack and other hiking gear. I need a starter-trail, something not hard but something that allows me to find my love for hiking again, something that is short because it will be cold.”
“Perfect,” she agreed. “It will be good to get out regardless.”
There are two trails: One is a one-point-five short circuit; the other, a three-point-seven circuit.
It is an 860-foot elevation
Rated a Level One of Five difficulty
I was being smart this time, going easy and aiming for a trail the three of us were eager to walk. The only thing was the three of us quickly turned to two due to the fact that Andy came down with whatever it was I had a couple weeks earlier.
“My sinuses are bunged up — I’m sorry but I cannot go,” he told me, shoulders slouching because he wanted to get out on his first trail in awhile too. “Please,” he said, then hesitated — a strong, dramatic type-pause — before repeating himself with much more emphasis, “PLEASE be safe. Take care of each other. PLEASE. Be safe.”
“Yes, yes,” I brushed aside his words as I always do whenever someone tells me to be safe. It is as if people believe I choose to walk into danger. Hell, people — I try to be safe all the time . . . it’s just . . . life happens.
“L,” Andy said again, knowing I wasn’t listening. Bless his heart, he had fear in his eyes. “I’m serious.”
“I know,” and I gave him a quick kiss on his cheek. “Now quick — Say goodbye to me too in case it’s our last one.”
That lead him into a cussing fit where the word “bloody” was featured many times as in(“bloody hell,” “a bloody decision,” that I “wasn’t bloody funny,” and so forth. “If you don’t come back and die out there, I’ll feel right bad about not going.”
But I was late so, giggling, I placed another peck on his cheek then our babies’ cheeks before running out the door. Let’s make note here that I have a bad habit of rushing towards the next minute, always the next minute. I struggle with staying still enough to enjoy the moments I’m in. But I was excited! It was an Usua-and-me solo hike, our first to be had, after we have talked endlessly of going on winter hikes together before. So I dashed to see her and then we dashed to the mountains where we seemed to have stepped through a secret, magical door that left the world covered in a glittering white frost.
This hike was incredible, truly the most remarkable one I’ve ever been on. The forest seemed delicate, sleeping, balancing between this line of frailty and strength, where I knew there was something more, tucked inside the hearts of trees. It was a force I could feel, one that made me know the woods were alive, ready, stronger soon.
Little patches of moving water were halted by frost, which appeared to grow beside our feet until our trail was frozen in ice, forcing us to maneuver off-path, slow, to ensure we wouldn’t slide or fall.
The path sparkled, coaxing us on with its false sense of security.
Soon the wind whipped through the forest, blowing the bits of ice from limbs, sending it glittering into the air and trickling onto our shoulders, hats, arms like snow.
Onward we walked, choosing the shorter one-point-five mile hike due to the bitter temperatures . . .
and before we knew it, we were rewarded with some of the best views in the park.
I don’t even want to think of how cold it actually was at the vista — we will just say it was cold enough to not allow us to stay long so, taking cover among the trees, we said goodbye to our view and continued on our frosty journey . . .
Our path became icier, the frost thicker as we wove deeper into the forest . . .
Ferns were frozen, mid-grow, with leaves lying heavy on the forest floor.
We only had about a mile to walk back to our car but our trail, which started looking like this . . .
became more frozen . . .
until it was un-walkable and I feared we would have to turn back.
Gigantic icicles hung from the rocks turning into strong ice columns . . .
and it was around here I became worried.
“We are supposed to be on blue,” I heard Usua say my thoughts aloud, “but I have not seen blue — Have you?”
I hadn’t either. “To be honest with you, the last one I remember was at the vista,” I told her and heard her agree. It wasn’t that our trail was hard — It was a short hike with essentially one path so we felt confident we were going in the right direction. However, there were a couple parts where the path forked three possible ways and the trail did cross from yellow to blue to white back to white and blue and yellow, so there was an element of needing self-assurance in the form of a blaze. Without a trail color though, I began to wonder how far we would go before deciding to turn back . . . but by this time, we had climbed over downed trees, wound our way off-trail and up the mountain in iced-over areas so I was dreading turning back.
I think Usua felt the same because we continued to hike . . . and hike farther . . . still without a blaze.
With each step, the sound of ice breaking ricocheted through the woods, making me feel all was glass — the trees, the frozen ferns, the rocks — and it was shattering around us. It can be strange hiking, mainly in a forest you know but will never fully know. Doubt seeps into thoughts at the slightest hint of a crack in self-confidence, and my crack continued to widen with each breaking-echo. Hiking a new trail in the middle of winter in negative temperatures seemed an ill-fated decision. I started a mental list of what was my daypack — my sandwich, my hydration bladder, I looked at my phone —- dead. I kept listing: My knife, eye drops, Chapstick, my emergency sack! That made me feel better — I remembered my headlamp was there and ah, my fire starter beside bits of carbon and twine to help a fire begin faster. I even had my first set of hiking boots due to the fact that I was testing my new ones and didn’t want to be in a predicament if my new boots gave me blisters. I’ll burn my old boots, I began thinking. To save Usua and me, I’ll burn my old boots. I was entering a moment of desiring hope, a moment of needing a pick-me-up, and that’s when Usua turned to me — red-nosed, hat icing over, hands stuffed deep into her pockets, scarf wound four times around her neck — and she looked right at me and said, “Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” Reassuring. Then she turned and continued walking so I continued following.
A few moments later, I heard her say the word I know by now means the opposite of its light and airy sound: “Ouuu!” and sure enough, several Spanish phrases followed, which — without knowing Spanish — I’m positive was something about how we could die with or without a fire if we couldn’t determine what trail we were on. But — good news — she still had some determination. “Fifteen minutes, check and see,” Usua turned to me. This was our other hiking rule, formed when Andy and the two of us hiked Emerald Pond, and we are still alive despite getting lost for miles, I thought.
“Right,” I told her and we kept going . . . and going, no blaze.
Fifteen minutes later, Usua turned back around to looked at me with the same concern I felt earlier.
“Fifteen minutes,” I told her. “Just ’til we get around that curve up there.”
“Right,” she said to me, and we seemed to switch places, back-and-forth, playing the unspoken game of worry.
Similar to stories of people before death, I began to think of those most important to me, like Andrew . . . and that made me think of our last goodbye . . . and how shitty it had been due to my rush to leave. Was that our last kiss — A peck on the cheek? I began asking myself silently, feeling my eyes start to tear while also feeling my eyelashes ice over. And the babies — our babies, my babies! I didn’t even give my puppy and kitten a proper goodbye. I was feeling low, really low and followed Usua for the simple fact of not wanting to lose her too . . . when . . . suddenly . . . glorious moments of trail magic appeared before us.
First, we spotted this bad-boy-blue blaze, which had us screaming in joy and jumping up and down.
Then the forest opened to warmer temperatures, the sun beaming down, so that what-was-once frost-covered trees, now a winter-green.
And lastly, we spotted a young couple.
“Excuse me,” Usua said, “how far to the parking lot?”
“Oh, it’s just right there,” they told us, smiling. “You’re really close to it.”
“Wonderful!” we cried, bumping into each other and giggling about how moments-before-seeing people and sun, we had thought we were perpetually lost and were about to curl up into frozen corpses.
“Whhhhaot!!!” Usua said to me when I confessed I was going to burn my boots for her. “We wouldn’t have made it if we had to stay there!!!” And we laughed about how absurd we had been, how horrible we were for doubting ourselves, and how we were now on our way home . . . that is . . . until what should have been the parking lot turned into about another fifteen-minute walk to — the best way I can put it is — civilization that wasn’t civilization.
We had somehow ended up at places that bared names like “Massanutten Lodge” and “Skyland” and “Lodge 341” near “Lodges 340-360.” There was a dining hall and office, a conference hall and theater, restaurant and even bar, and all were closed because hell, why not. There wasn’t anyone around.
“WWWHHHAOT!!!!” Usua said, spinning around to face me. “We are THE WOOORST!!! WHERE ARRRRRE WE?!” And my answer: I had no idea.
“Massanutten Lodge . . . ?” I said, as if that cleared all up.
“How did this happen?! I don’t know what went wrong — and THAT’S my problem. In my head — perfection. Reality — wrong. HOOOW did this HAPPPPEN!!!” She was talking really loudly (okay, shouting), and it made me nervous that there was some hoodlum lurking behind the closed lodges ready to attack two females who were clearly yelling about how lost they were. “We need to get OUT of here! We need to find someone and ask to take us baccck!” and with that she began marching off in search for these said hoodlums I wanted to run from.
Luckily, a park ranger’s marked vehicle appeared — right as she said this — and we waved in a frantic-but-try-not-to-appear-crazy-frantic way . . . only to have him drive closer to us and — I kid you not — stop, look at us, then take the sharpest full turn back the exact way he had come!
“WHHHHAT is HAPPPPPENING!!!” Usua shouted again, and again I had no answer.
“Well, we are at least on pavement and not lost in the forest,” I told her. “Let’s walk towards Skyline Drive” and I pointed ahead to where I thought there should be a road . . . except we couldn’t see a road. At this point, I was solely going on a feeling that there should have been a road. And as far as the name Skyline Drive — no idea, it just came to me. I knew that roadway was in the area for we had driven up on it, but as to its proximity or exactly location — no idea again. I think Usua knew I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was talking about, but we walked on regardless towards my imaginary road. It was our only hope after all.
“At least we know we are parked between forty-one and forty-two,” she said. This, we had definitely determined because we had gotten lost on the way up to the parking lot. Well, not exactly lost-lost but we thought the parking lot was a lot closer than it actually was so we were in the search-and-look-everywhere mode then remember-mile-marker-forty-one-and-forty-two mode.
On and on we walked the asphalt trail to — what? Who knew? But it didn’t seem to matter to Usua because, at this point, she had a goal, a plan of her own: to hitchhike with hoodlums.
“BUUUT HOW did this HAPPEN?!” she kept asking me while searching for scary criminals to take us to our car. Then suddenly she stopped, as if realizing something, and shrieked in her realization: “III am the WEAK link!” It is NOT Andy! It is MEEEE! I had the directions the whooole time!!!”
“Usua! That’s not true,” I began but, bless her heart, as much as I tried to comfort her, she refused more, not believing every decision was a joint decision.
We debated and she yelled while I had eyes darted around for hoodlums and we kept going . . . until — finally — we did reach Skyline Drive. My proudest moment thus far. Skyline Drive, just as I imagined it.
“Now which way?!” we asked at the same time — except well, I obviously don’t have this Spanish accent. We decided left was north (because, obviously) and off we trekked where we had a repeat of our earlier tale — we waved to two park rangers, only to have them fly by us and we approached five people asking what mile marker we had come out on, only for them — to Usua’s dismay and my relief — never offer a ride in their car.
“They are supposed to be NIIICE!!! Hikers are supposed to be NICE!!!” she kept saying and it made me worry she had given up hope in all of humanity. I didn’t want to tell her that if they actually offered a ride, there was no way in hell I would let her get inside of the vehicle due to my paranoid fear of ruffians looking to take advantage of or kill females like us. But I listened to her and acted as if I was sorely let down, too, that the people were not more friendly.
“Are you okay?” she asked me after a few moments of silence once she regained herself.
“Yes, just really thirsty” and I reached for my hydration bladder bite valve where I sucked and slurped and sucked more but no water came out. “What the — ” and I looked only to find this: my water frozen in the hose.
That was the last-straw-type-of-deal. From then on, I tried not to be surprised or show hope for anything. Good thing too because I think between us, Usua and I were opposites.
“There are PEOPLE!” Usua beamed in happiness, hope, pointing ahead. “LOOK!!! PEOPLE!!!” and her pace quickened to the young couple standing, enjoying the view at an overlook.
“Excuse me!” I called to them.
“What mile marker are we at?” The people looked at Usua strangely, in a way that said, “You walked here. You tell us what mile marker you’re at” but they answered none-the-less by running to their car to get a map to show us how far from the Stony Man parking lot we were.
“We are right here — at the Timber Hollow Overlook. And you need to go . . . ” his finger moved up and up, further north still “here — to Stony Man.”
“dklafjd ladjflkdsf,” the teen girl whispered in his ear a language I couldn’t understand. The teen boy turned and looked into the backseat of their car. They exchanged glances. I felt Usua’s faith, merriment, love in humanity bubble, brim forth . . . until the teen held out his map to us.
“Would you like to take this with you?”
I’ll end that part of the story saying simply I have never seen Usua abrupt except in this very direct moment where, declined his map and confirming what direction to go, she set her gaze ahead then walked away from everyone.
“Thank you,” I called, leaving them with their hand and map held out for us as I raced to catch up with her, hearing her exclaiming in Spanish that they were not real hikers because they were not nice and clearly we needed a ride and how dare them not offer. (Well, at least I think that is what she was exclaiming.)
So we hiked again on our paved trail . . . passing the area we came out . . . and finally — our last finally — approaching mile marker forty-four . . . then forty-three . . . and then forty-two.
About five miles later, we began to see a parking lot. It appeared more a mirage hidden behind tree trunks.
“USUA!!! That’s my CAR!!!” I screamed, grabbing her shoulders and arms, shaking her.
She whipped her head about to face me. “Do NOT joke.” Her eyes were wild, seemed a warning, making me second guess myself. I looked again.
“It ISSS!!! USUA!!! That’s my CAR!!!” and I shook her once more, jumping up and down around her.
“IT IS?! IT ISSS!!!” and she began to jump too so that, I swear, we both ran-jumped, holding hands all the way to the car.
“What a wonderful hike!” we said. “So beautiful!” we called. “Truly the most beautiful one,” we said again, forgetting or ignoring the lost-for-miles bit, frozen-water situation, I’ll-burn-my-hiking-boots-to-save-you part, oh and the we-may-die-frozen-on-this-mountain moment. We looked around before getting into my car — one final goodbye for the day, one final silhouette of appreciation for the forest . . . and that’s when we saw — again, I couldn’t make it up if I tried — the same young couple at the overlook!
“NOOOOO!” Usua gasped, pointing. “THEY could have DRIVEN us HEEEEERE! They were going HEEERE!!!” She was inhaling so sharply I was worried she wouldn’t be able to catch her breath. As if on cue, knowing they were in trouble, the couple darted to their car before speeding away.
“I cannot BELIEVE it! All I wanted — all I HOPED — was for them to drive us here! It is what?! Two miles down the road — to where they were already going?!” she cried.
And the truth was, I couldn’t believe it either. But that’s the strange thing about hiking — Hiking equates to hope. Hope of escaping the world, hope of getting lost, hope of finding your path again, hope — so that no matter what happens, that’s what drives you the whole time.
We rode out of Shenandoah baffled but giggling, thawing with the heat of the car on full blast.
“Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether,” Usua said smiling at me and I smiled back. Because it was true — in some crazy, warped, hilarious world, it was true.
“Every decision is a joint decision,” I told her as we rode on, in agreement, full of love.
Later that night, I messaged Usua, thanking her again for being brave enough to go with me. “Just wanted you to know I had the best best time with you!” I wrote.
“Yes! It was great!” she messaged back as I read it aloud to Andy. “It is always an adventure to hike with you!”
“You do know that means, ‘You almost kill me every time,’ right?” he told me. “That is basically Usua telling you — in as nice a way possible — that you are a dangerous hiking partner.”
“It’s all about perspective,” I retorted back to him. “I like to think I keep life interesting, full of excitement. Plus, remember — every decision is a joint decision.”