When I’m feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah range this weekend.
I’ve done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary’s Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I’m planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for “the scramble”, a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.
New York City has “the ramble” — the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has “the scramble”, and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn’t bear to not complete the rhyme.
A nature walk is always a literary experience, if you just allow it to be. “There Is a Mountain” by Donovan happened to come on my shuffle mode as I drove towards the beginning of the trail, and that felt like a good omen. This upbeat 1960s song finds Donovan at his most Zen:
First there is a mountain,
Then there is no mountain
Then there is.
Indeed, yes — story of my life, in fact. This 3-minute tune from the height of the 1960s hippie era had a second life in 1971: the Allman Brothers loved it so much that they transformed it into “Mountain Jam”, a 34-minute Duane Allman/Dickey Betts masterpiece in which they never bothered to sing the words at all. Now that’s Zen.
The scramble was as exciting as I had hoped, and much of the excitement came from the spirit of community that necessarily occurs as hikers saunter up together to each new obstacle or wedge or overhang or tunnel, sometimes comparing different ideas about the best way to traverse, helping each other by holding backpacks, swapping camera phones for selfies. Many of the passages between and under rocks offered brilliant contrasts of shade and light. This tunnel made me think of Plato’s cave, and of a Leonard Cohen song:
There is a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit,” Edward Abbey once said. Hell yeah, though this is a necessity that many human beings probably get very little of at all. This is one of the narrow passages leading to the peak:
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Old Rag, but nobody had told me I would see a giant overhanging rock that looms like Moby Dick, gliding through the ocean:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, striking a chord also found in the Tao Te Ching, once wrote: “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” He also once said this: “I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.” Rock-hewn staircases tend to suddenly appear on the Old Rag trail at the points where they are most needed.
Nature is often hurtful. At one point I encountered a young woman on the ground worrying over a sprained ankle, surrounded by a large group of friends trying to figure out what the hell to do. I had a feeling she was going to walk it off, and if she couldn’t walk it off she had enough friends to handle the situation, so I knew it’d be okay for me to walk on.
There’s hazard in the hills, and there is melancholy too. Here’s Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, an enjoyable Appalachian Trail travelogue:
And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend with all my heart that this was where I wanted to be.
My favorite mountain novel is probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a romantic Civil War tale in which the North Carolina Smokies blooms with the fresh joyful abundance that echoes the miraculous love between the story’s two heroes. The main traveller in Cold Mountain is a fugitive from the Confederate Army. He spends a lot of time hiding out and running from trouble, and doesn’t have the luxury to sit and enjoy peak vistas like this one:
Old Rag is more exciting than dangerous, really, and I saw many teenagers and families with small kids on the trail. This family enjoyed a picnic on the peak. That’s the way to do it.
So “Mountain Jam” is my favorite mountain song and Cold Mountain is my favorite mountain novel. My favorite single mountain quotation comes from Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. The narrator is following his expert climber friend Japhy Ryder up a forbidding Sierra Nevada trail. When they reach the main peak, the exhausted narrator only wants to bask in pleasure and relief, but is disconcerted to discover that there are now peaks upon the peaks, and that to truly reach the very, very top of this mountain requires the most treacherous final short climb of all.
The narrator of Dharma Bums is exhausted and decides to refrain from the final difficult scramble to the very peak. He watches Japhy Ryder go up without him, and then has an epiphany when Japhy Ryder returns:
Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats … It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”
The slightly ironic corollary to this great scene is that in fact you can fall off a mountain. But, well, you probably won’t. I think that’s what Jack Keroauc was trying to say.
You reach Old Rag’s peak early in the circular hike, and then follow the blazes onward for a long and relaxing downward jaunt.
I learned about blazes when I was a kid and joined my father and stepmother and siblings on Appalachian Trail hikes. These blazes constitute their own language, but the funny thing is that even though I like looking at them, I never bothered to learn what the different variations of stripes mean. Sometimes there are two blazes together, which signifies something. Sometimes there’s a blaze in the shape of an arrow, or a blaze that isn’t blue.
I could easily look up this language’s rules, but I never do. I find it more exciting to hike dumbly along, knowing that the meaning of every blaze on every trail is really something more primal and immediate: “You are on a path. You are following something. You are not nowhere”.
As I figure out where I’m going next, this is all the direction I want, and all the direction I need.