What was I thinking when I decided to continue beyond the half-way point? Can I even make it up that step in front of me? Those are the kinds of thoughts that ran through my mind a thousand times as I slowly made my way up the mountainside. Emphasis on slowly.
The Blue Ridge mountains are usually pretty this time of year, depending on how dry the preceding summer was, and this year has been no exception. Driving alongside the base of the mountains, you can see the vibrant reds and oranges casting a sunset-like glow through the trees. Like I said, it’s pretty from the road, and beautiful once you’re inside the park.
It’s still great for the first 30 minutes while you’re photographing every flower and above-ground tree root that line the well-beaten path. The weather is the very definition of fall: Pure blue sky, a crisp breeze, decaying leaves swirling about…. pretty much perfect for hiking.
It’s not so beautiful when all you can focus on is the stone step sitting between you and the rest of the trail. This rock looks the same as the one you are currently gasping for breath on, and it’s fairly likely that it is identical to the rest of the thigh-melting hewn-rock steps looming ahead of you. Why keep moving forward?
Because someone said that the view from the half-way point is amazing. It better be. There was also the promise of lunch to press on for.
Suddenly there is a break in the trees, and the bald rock face of the half-way point comes into view. The rock is south-eastern facing, so that the sun beats down directly on lounging hikers in the early afternoon.
Is it worth it? In a word, yes. I could have sat there for a while before heading back down to the parking lot, but I was promised still a better view – this time from the top. Supposedly the hike is easier once you get beyond the oh-so tempting warmth of the stopping place.
Now, I had always planned on climbing to the top someday – I just didn’t plan on getting to the summit that day. A little battle went on inside my head, and I argued myself as to whether I was actually up to the hike. In the end I decided to go for it; who knew when I’d get back to the mountain?
So that’s how I found myself panting on a stone step with limbs as stable as jello doing their best to hold me up. There is an insane reality to be faced at that point: You know that you cannot possibly go on without taking a break, but you also know that it’s nearly impossible to move again if you rest for too long.
I could have turned back at any time, but the thought of the accomplishment and great pictures found at the top, combined with the patience and encouragement of friends, kept me placing one foot in front of – or rather above – the other.
A couple we passed on their way down told us not to stop until we reached the 3.5 mile marker – over a mile away – or else we’d miss a spectacular view. Oh, so it’s a spectacular view now….
The trail is misleading right around the 3-mile point, as there is a sign proclaiming the summit of 3,124 feet. Whatever the sign says, it is not surrounded by a spectacular view. It isn’t even a nice view. In fact, there isn’t a view of anything at that sign except for some pretty skinny trees on either side.
But the trail goes beyond the summit notation. Follow it a little ways and you get to more exposed rock, stuff that would make you think you’re standing on a volcano. Look around, and no views greet you – this is just a little clearing in the trees. The path continues. For another half-mile it continues. Through trees lining a narrow path with little outlooks that don’t provide spectacular views scattered along the way, even going down in elevation a few times, as if you’ve been on a pleasant stroll for the past few hours instead of a test of endurance.
There was very little conversation for that last stretch, and even fewer photographs taken. It took everything I had just to keep moving forward. And then the trail ended.
You really can’t miss the end of the trail, since you come to about 50 feet of sloping rock that ends in a cliff. With the elevation of around 3,000 feet, there’s a constant breeze that serves to remind you of the cool season – as if the stunning foliage to be seen in all directions isn’t enough.
I could say that it wasn’t about what I found at the top of the mountain but the journey itself, but that wouldn’t be true. In the end I was just thankful that I could sit down in the sun and stare out over the horizon and not have to climb up any more weather-beaten stairs. I could say that the view took my breath away, but the hike had stolen that commodity long before the summit marker.
The view from the top really was wonderful though, and worth the trouble it took to get up there. The trip back down was much better, and I got down the mountain in half the time it took to hike to the spectacular view.
I’ll let the following picture speak for itself: