Hiking Always Has its Rewards--May 6
January 1, 1970I’m going to let all of you in on a secret about me: I am not a strong hiker.
Although I have hiked more than 17,000 miles exploring the backcountry areas of the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe, miles do not come easy for me. So far this year, I’ve hiked more than 450 miles on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, so you would think I would be in pretty shape by now, but I’m still slower that just about everybody out here. I huff and puff on the ascents, sometimes trip and stumble on the level stretches, and feel the stress and strain on my knees and ankles on the descents. Yet, with a bit of perseverance, the miles roll by. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and getting encouragement from my dog MacAfee of Knob, who, from farther up the trail, is always looking back at me as if to say, “Come on, it’s not that bad. I did it and so can you.”
So why am I telling you all of this? It’s my way of telling you that no matter what shape you are in you, too, can get out and enjoy the spectacular scenery that the Appalachian Trail offers. Places such as the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA) that Mac and I are currently hiking through.
The MRNRA is one of the thru-hikers most eagerly anticipated sections. Below summits covered with spruce and fir are thousands of acres of open meadows dotted by clusters of rocky outcrops. With such far-off vistas, the entire region reminds me more of walks along the Continental Divide in Montana and Wyoming than of hikes in Virginia. Herds of grazing cattle and wild ponies wandering through the early morning fog in alpine meadows add to the feeling of being in the American West. At 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers is the highest point in the commonwealth. The northern limit of the Fraser fir tree, close to the southern limit of the red spruce, it is an environment unto itself. Rarely seen salamanders hide in the moist areas of its slopes, while the equally elusive sharp-shinned hawk has been seen flying over its grasslands. In addition, bear, deer, fox, bobcat, raccoon, red squirrel, chipmunk, and woodchuck all make their homes here. White wood sorrel blossoms, with their shamrock-shaped leaves, dot the thick mats of green moss that cover trailside boulders.
The wild ponies, for which the highlands area is so well known, tend to graze in the area where the Appalachian Trail crosses Rhododendron Gap, a heath bald that becomes an ocean of evergreen leaves adorned by the purple waves of thousands of Catawba rhododendron blossoms in early June. The ponies resemble the famous small horses of Assateague Island off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and are the descendants of once-domesticated animals that were brought here generations ago. They run free until the fall roundup, when some are auctioned, with a portion of the money raised going toward keeping the herd healthy and running wild.
Leaving Damascus, Virginia, the trail brought us from lowlands covered in the deep shade of hardwood and evergreen coves to ramble over high, open meadows with 360-degree views and cool mountain air blowing across our faces. Hiking just doesn’t get much better than this.
As we dropped from the highlands, the vegetation became more lush, the songbirds more abundant, and the temperatures a bit higher. The scenery remained spectacular. Although Comers Creek Falls is only about a 10-foot cascade, there was much to entice us to linger for a long time—the leathery leaves of the rhododendron, the flat needles of the hemlocks, the feathery fronds of the ferns, and the thick mats of mosses covering the boulders with a soft, cushiony pad. Mac spent many minutes gazing at the swimming schools of minnows and crayfish crawling about in the pool at the base of the falls. There is no doubt I would have taken a dip if had been just a bit later in the year.
Comers Creek Falls and the MRNRA are reminders that you should never underestimate the power of voicing your opinion. In response to statements of opposition during a series of public meetings and hundreds of letters of protest by Virginia residents and other Appalachian Trail supporters, the Virginia Department of Transportation canceled plans in 1966 to build a four-lane highway across the trail and through the recreation area. The road would have split the recreation area in two and turned Comers Creek and Comers Creek Falls into a concrete culvert.
So, for this thru-hike, the wonders of Southwest Virginia are now history. We eagerly anticipate the beauty of the mountains that await us as the trail parallels America’s longest scenic highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and passes through one of the country’s most accessible natural areas, Shenandoah National Park.
Remember, these places are waiting for you to explore them, too. Maybe we’ll see you out there?