November 26, 2018
I missed Vickie’s Death March, the 26-mile trail run in Shenandoah National Park put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club the day after Thanksgiving. The course weaves old Shenandoah trails with the Appalachian Trail, or AT, mixing deep-woods running with steep rock climbs bordered by thundering waterfalls. The Death March was beyond me this year, as I look forward to three medical appointments this week—maybe four. But last night’s rain stopped, the skies cleared, and Sandy and I drove out to the mountains. The point was to be there, to see those peaks, to breathe the air of Virginia’s wild country.
We took U.S. 211 past Sperryville, a rough-edged little place that leads you into the park. I pointed out the trailheads, Buck Ridge and Pass Mountain, from which I started long slogs over the past five or so years, leading to the AT, Hazel Mountain, White Rocks, Hazel River, Sam’s Ridge, and other mountain trails. Some are popular with hikers. Others are too steep for most, or too technical, too suggestive of dangers of exhaustion, injury, or disorientation in the deep forest. Along some of them you recognize the ruins of stone structures erected by the people of the Shenandoahs before they were expelled in the early 1930s through eminent domain, condemnation, and eviction, as the federal government created the park.
Sandy nodded politely. As we crawled up 211 in the van, I wondered whether anyone was slogging those trails on this warm November day.
We drove through the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive then headed south. Sandy doesn’t like heights, and at some points the road brings you awfully close to the edge of the cliff. She stared straight ahead. Looking east, the Shenandoahs fade into the mesmerizing blueness that prompts the name “Blue Ridge.” Today the mountains are in their winter brown, tinged by sunlight. I could not look away.
The Death March crosses Skyline at Hawksbill Mountain, at over 4,000 feet the highest peak in the park. From Hawksbill runners jump on the AT to a commercial spot called Skyland, once a popular resort, now a welcome resting point, where until this past Friday you could get lunch. Today: closed for the season.
We turned around at Skyland, which looks west towards West Virginia, 20 or so miles farther on. Skyline Drive northbound leads to the Stony Man overlook, that points to an eerie human profile gashed from the mountain. We paused to gawk at overlooks as the road swings from the east to the west cliffs of the Blue Ridge.
I slowed down at the point where the AT meets the Nicholson Hollow trail, which takes you the final six miles back to the Death March finish. The trail passes the Corbin Cabin, a solid log structure in the thick of the forest that conveys (for me) an irrational sense of foreboding.
Skyline Drive levels out a bit beyond Thornton Gap and Sandy relaxed and took in the sights. On this less-forbidding stretch we saw more traffic, cyclists, and hikers. We passed another intersection with the AT, which takes you a tough eight miles to Elkwallow, a popular picnic spot. The Skyline continues to follow the AT, descending gently. Your nerves relax. The overlooks slide by: Hogback, Gimlet Ridge, Hogwallow Flats, Jenkins Gap, closing on the entrance just south of Front Royal.
Then you see it—Signal Knob overlook, but also the name of the dark peak that rises between Front Royal and Strasburg, ten miles west. That Signal Knob, the first (or final) stop on the Massanutten Trail, can be reached by a four-mile trail of knife-sharp prongs of pure granite. Don’t look up or away while attempting it.
Coming down from the Drive is an abrupt, jarring return from the grim beauty of that hundred-mile stretch of countless ancient peaks, gently rounded by millennia, that still promise to deliver men and women momentarily from the drudgery of the city, the suburb, the interstate, the cubicle, the doctor’s waiting room.
We go back to the Shenandoahs to discover in that misty blueness the resolve to overcome, or at least endure, what we face as our time races by: fear, pain, doubt. The peaks speak to us of challenges faced and others still to come. We feel the strength offered by those close to us. And then we feel the pure rush of joy that will come, that God gives us for a short time in the mountains.