After spending 19 years in Maryland, with easy access to the northern Shenandoahs, my wife and I recently moved to Wisconsin. It’s a big change. For those of you accustomed to easy access to the Cascades or the Rockies this might not sound like much of a loss – the northern Shenandoahs top out at 3,000 ft or so, compared to the unlimited 14ers in Colorado or the chain of Cascade volcanoes from California to Washington State. But, as Albert has said, it is all relative. I’ve now moved back to the midwest where communities provide downhill sledding opportunities for their children by piling dirt on landfills and creating Mt. Trashmores. I lived in Chicago for many years where 15 or 18 speed bikes seemed a ludicrous extravagance – I used just a single gear on my bike while living there. This is not an exaggeration and it is also to what I just now returned.
But all of this is a long winded prelude to saying that I felt the need to say goodbye to my favorite hikes before heading (mid)west. At the top of that list was Old Rag. I’ve been hiking Old Rag 2 or 3 times a year for at least the last decade. It is a wonderful hike – the first half is just a slog up a series of switch backs but then you reach granite slabs and you scramble the rest of the way to the top – through natural tunnels carved in the rock, up and down rock crevices, throw in a few short class 3 maneuvers for good measure and you have a gem. The park service, in the interest of not having to constantly peel people off the mountain, have made this something of a paint by number exercise (literally) – you follow blue, numbered blazes as you go from one piece of granite to the next until you get to the top. It is great fun and a very decent workout as well.
The problem of course is that it is fun and beautiful and pretty close to the DC metropolitan area which is teeming with humanity. This means that on weekends the trail head parking lot fills up (and it is a really large parking lot) pretty quickly and you end up waiting in line on the rock as folks wearing sneakers with no idea what they are doing, try to get themselves in trouble despite the best efforts of the NPS. I’ve had to deal with this for years, because, like the rest of the working world, I had something else to do Mondays through Fridays. So, on the weekends I’d annoy my wife by getting up at the same damn time (5:30 AM) as I would during the work week and drive for an hour and 45 minutes so that I could get to the trail head before most everyone else.
This spring a wonderful thing happened – I retired. And so, one Friday before we moved I decided to say goodbye to Old Rag on a weekday – no need to get there at 7:30 in the morning to beat the rest of the weekend warriors, right? This was a weekday – the place should be empty. So, I got there mid morning and starting my slog up the switchbacks, looking forward to the granite. I’m pretty much a hermit when it comes to the outdoors – I do this to escape the crowds, or perhaps I should say, to just get away from people in general. So, it was with some consternation that my solitary hike on Old Rag came to a grinding halt in the early stages of the granite when I came upon a group of 10 women making their way at an excruciatingly slow pace up the rock. It was clear that for most of them this was a new experience and they were pretty intimidated. They also didn’t have a sense of hiking etiquette. When my own pace is slow compared to folks behind me, I step aside to let them pass. In this case I came to the realization that I was stuck. This wasn’t by any means an intentional snub – they just weren’t thinking about whether they needed to step aside and let me pass. Nevertheless, I started to get annoyed.
But why did I get annoyed anyway? Where was I going that required me to race up the mountain, monk like, observing my order’s vow of silence, only to race down and back to the parking lot, and drive the hour and 45 minutes back to Maryland? After all, I was frickin’ retired. This has always been one of my problems – always in a hurry, never taking the time to really and completely enjoy my time out in the wilderness. And, to bring this point home, that it really was my problem, and not the problem of these women, they started chatting me up, disarmingly and charmingly admitting their inexperience and asking for my help in guiding them on the climb. All of a sudden, I found myself enjoying the moment, as I waited with them at one section of rock after another. I starting engaging in the use of the English language (with them, not just muttering to myself). I found out that they were out on a yoga/hiking/wine tasting weekend (I didn’t ask them what phase of the weekend they were in at the moment). I stopped complaining to myself and looking at my watch and just stayed in the moment, and then the next moment after that. In short, I started to chill out and maybe get more out of the hike than I had on any of my previous Old Rag trips. Bark less, wag more. I’d seen and done all the different pieces that make the top half of Old Rag so notable many times but had I ever enjoyed the individual moments strung together in this way? I think not. Eventually, we all made it to the top. I congratulated them on completing what I consider to be the most rigorous hike in the northern Shenandoahs and then we parted ways to slog down the switchbacks and fire road on the other side of Old Rag that leads back to the parking lot.
Without doubt, it was my slowest hike on Old Rag, ever (it should not surprise you to know that I do record total time on trail for my hikes). But is that an important metric? Perhaps I had helped them on the way up, but I know that they had taught me a lesson. The trick of course is to carry that forward on my future hikes. I’m thinking of course of my AT thru-hike, planned for next year. I sure hope I find a way to savor all 2100 miles and don’t spend 6 months racing from one shelter to the next.
In short, I need to remember to bark less and wag more.