Sunday, January 13, 2008

Serendipity is an Angel Flying High Above, or How we Escaped Disaster and Landed in the Lap of Luxury

My friend Judy and I went hiking yesterday, Sat Jan 12. It was a beautiful day, even perhaps too warm for January, but with a clear blue sky and gentle winds.

We drove out to the Virginia-West Virginia state line to a wonderful, hidden corner of wilderness owned and managed by a Quaker organization. I had downloaded maps of the trail system, I had studied my 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Washington, and figured out that we could do a shorter hike than recommended in the book because, of course, we were starting late and probably couldn't do the full circuit.

Maps in hand, we strode confidently off into the woods. Judy is my hiking companion and we both love to hike. Particularly now that we have trekking poles, but more on that in a later post. It was truly beautiful: the winter trees spread in every direction allowing the eye to sink deep into the woods, the ground covered with wonderful green plants, blue sky and sun glistening through the naked branches. Clear, wonderful air.

We found the right trail, right off the bat. An easy wide one, following a small power line. We climbed, stopped and extolled the beauty, climbed again, stopped to take off outer layers, climbed again. And kept climbing and climbing. The path got rockier and rockier. We were looking for a trail that went off to the left. We continued climbing. No trail from the left. I took out my Bruntun do everything but whip up an expresso coffee that told me our altitude. Two hundred feet below the cut off. So, resumed climbing. After a while we decided that if we never found the cut off, we'd be OK because we would turn around and go back in time to beat the sunset. So, we continued climbing. Beautiful, beautiful day and hike.

Finally, dripping sweat and trudging ever upward, I saw a clear white blaze to the left. Perfect, here was our trail. The map showed a continued climb of about another 200-300 feet up to an outlook point. So, we scrambled up what by now had become a field of boulders. Deer peering at us, seeming to ask, what are they doing, working so hard at this. We can leap up in a flash. Finally we got to what looked like the outlook point. Wow! Half way home and right on time! The trees obscured the view, but that was fine. we could see the outlines of mountain ranges to the west and valleys to the right. The trail was beautifully marked with white blazes just as far as the eye could see, and some thoughtful person had even put chalk arrows on the rocks in both directions.

So, we pushed on, happy and confident that we'd get back just in time. The rocky trail was still a challenge, but we were on the home stretch. And we kept on going, and going, and going, and going. The trail that was supposed to come in from the left again wasn't just right around the corner. We were hiking along the back side of a ridge that was both beautiful and endless. Trees and rocks and flat stretches. Glorious. Wonderful hike. Soon the turn off would come. Right around the corner. We kept on going, happy and carefree. Except the sun was going down and the light dimming. Only a bit. The trail would be right up ahead.

Finally, it became clear that the trail wasn't going to materialize any time soon. Still guided by those clear white blazes, we pushed on. At some point, out of the back of my mind, I asked Judy, "aren't the blazes on the Appalachian Trail white? Isn't this trail a bit wide and well established for that upgraded deer trail we were looking for?" "Well, yeah, the AT blazed ARE white."

My map showed the same trail we needed to get back home on the left, intersecting the AT as well. So, confidently we plunged forward, picking up the pace a smidge because we would have to do the circuit that I had thought too long to do during the daylight we would have available. And we continued on. Judy said what I was thinking too, "If I were alone right now I would be terrified, but because we are together, I feel fine." Yes. Company dissipates fear.

And so, we pressed on. Finally, we realized that the trail from the left wasn't going to materialize either. So, there was no choice but to continue forward. At some point, the Trail would come to an end at Harper's Ferry. I had a light that I was loath to use because of the boulders and the trees and the distance between white blazes. I had a flashlight but it would be hard to use while both hands were handling the poles. And so we continued on. Not so fast any more, because as wise Judy pointed out, in the dark, we would go more slowly.

We were both imagining how and where we would sleep. We both agreed that we were having a wonderful time, that it wasn't the end of the world, that we would find a cave and spend the night out, if necessary.

At some miraculous point, we came to an intersection of signs and a choice. Back was 9 miles, forward was 13 miles, but, down to the right 0.2 miles was a shelter. Judy thought we should go check it out. It was only a few feet away. 0.2 miles. Easy. So, we started down a steep, zigzag trail as it got really darker, really fast. I kept thinking about the hike back up. But, no problem. plus, there were some lights fairly near, up ahead. The glow of incandescent lights. Hmmmm. As we jumped and leapt the last few feet in what was by now pitch black, it was a house! There were people in the kitchen! It was clearly an Appalachian Trail hostel house for groups. We knocked on the door, seeing about 25 small boys, all in green T-shirts and baseball caps, sitting at a long table, eating dinner. Some men were wandering around a huge kitchen with plates heaped with food.

Was this amazing or what? We were surrounded with offers of food and drink and chips. Judy and I kept saying, "we are lost." Someone brought out a map. Yes, indeed, we were way away from where we had wanted to be. But no matter right now. Dinner! One of the men plonked huge helpings of rice and chile on plates, cleared off counter space, brought up two stools and started asking more and more questions. I was so grateful I was stunned. How could we have gone from being utterly lost and facing a night in the woods to sitting in the midst of 30 Boy Scouts from Troop 994 from Fairfax Station eating dinner in a raucous din?

Finally, a couple of the men said they would drive us back to where our car was. We figured out the way on a map, some surely 15 miles to simply go, what by the crow flies, or even a well guided human walks would be, about 1 mile.

Dinner down, we hopped in a car and off we went. Our driver had worked his whole life in satellites, so we got a bird's eye view of the myriad satellites, some geo-synchronous, at 12,000 plus miles in orbit, the GPS ones, square boxes 15' by 15'. Weather ones, TV ones, military ones, older ones with only one signal, new ones with 4 different frequencies. Some with antennas of 100 feet hanging out in space. Some with more or less propellant that would allow the earthlings to adjust their position.

After several false starts up impossible roads, we made it to where Red Outback was patiently waiting. And the woman behind the glass door was on the phone. She came out. She ran back in to tell the Sheriff that we had just shown up.

We bid goodbye to our kind Scout troop leaders and jumped into Sheila's warm house. We spent an hour chatting about a million things, warmed by her wood stove.

Rested, refreshed, thanking our lucky stars, we jumped in the car and drove home!

What a day.


Judith Shapiro said...

So, what hike is in store for this weekend? How ya gonna top this?