“The Old Rag Mountain hike in the Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular hikes in the mid-Atlantic region. With many spectacular panoramic views, and one of the most challenging rock scrambles in the park, this circuit hike is a favorite of many hikers. But be prepared for the crowds. This is the only hike we give a star rating for solitude.” So says http://www.hikingupward.com/SNP/OldRag/ and yes, they were right about the solitude. There is no solitude to be had if you plan your climb later than 7:00 am.
Although we had planned to get in the car by 5:00 am and be at Old Rag by 7:30, ready to climb, we over slept. By the time we arrived at the parking lot, there were quite a few hikers spraying sun tan lotion and readying their hiking sticks. Our journey began quietly. Sahana, being almost sixteen requested to hike alone, without us. She took off from us as soon as we reached the base of the mountain, lugging her back pack on her shoulders where she carried her own snack, a liter of water, her own sandwich and a surprise that I will reveal later. Sean, Ryan and I were left to our own devices. Sean, of course, was the mule of the hiking party, he carried 2 liters of water and our food. I carried my camera. Ryan carried himself.
Old Rag is a very popular hiking destination with a summit elevation of 3291 feet located within the gorgeous Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. From different elevation points one can get breathtakingly beautiful panoramic views of the farming fields of rural Virginia down below and the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains surrounding Old Rag.
This was my second climb, Sean’s fourth and the children’s third. They were professional climbers of Old Rag and they cheered the newbie (me) on with very encouraging endearments like, “you are doing great mountain goat, mama!” “What a mountain goat wife I have!” so on and so forth. I had half a mind to tell them I don’t appreciate being called a mountain goat but I was panting hard so could not talk. We all knew the trail started innocently enough and then slowly increased in grade. Personally, the walk through the woods does not excite me much unless I spot a gorgeous yellow butterfly, or an interesting worm on the trail, or perhaps a nameless flower growing on the side. The view is hidden by foliage and the only sound you hear are the bird songs, if you pay attention, or the voices of fellow hikers or the soft rustling of the stream at the bottom of the mountain. The gurgling of water fades away as you ascend towards the top. I stay focused on my own breathing and the burning of my leg muscles to truly appreciate the quiet beauty of the woods around me. And I get irrationally competitive. If I see a hiker pass me, I scramble up quicker to pass him or her. It is a silly quirk.
After about nine switchbacks and 2 miles of woods we reached the first vista. And from that point the rocky scramble started. My family goes back to Old Rag again and again and endures the 2 miles of walk in the increasingly steep trail in the woods just for that rocky scramble that leads to the summit. And a scramble it is. Some times one has to pass through a tiny crevice within the boulders, sometimes one has to jump from one boulder to another quite a distance below. We scraped our arms, Sean took a tumble, I was on all fours most of the time, yet we had big smiles on our faces every time we crossed or hopped over a particularly challenging boulder.
Sahana had pushed herself to reach the rocks first and waited for us there to catch up. I apologized to her for keeping her waiting: “I am sorry I took so long! I had to rest in between to catch my breath and drink water!”
The ever polite girl replied, “You did great mama! Just climb at your own pace, I did not mind waiting at all!”
And I could see why one would not mind waiting:
We laughed as we hurt, we teased and we got scared together! We bonded over our jumps and encouraged each other on. “You can do it” “Just Jump, don’t think about it!” “Don’t look at the ledge, your legs can easily jump that distance!” And we did not think, we did not look at the ledge, we sometimes gave each other a little push, an extended hand.
And then, all of a sudden, we had reached the top. There was the cerulean sky above us, the huge boulders holding us up and blue mountains surrounding us.
The hikers who were climbing with us, who gave us words of advice, told us where a better foothold was, took our help too, arrived a little after or before us. People of all ages, shapes, sizes had climbed the mountain. We encountered true solidarity when hikers unknown to each other yet with the same goal gave each other a push, a little help, a hand to overcome a particularly difficult stretch of terrain. Finally we all made it to the top and we all had the euphoric feeling of achievement, we nodded at each other and smiled. Then we competed with each other to find a shady spot beneath the rocks for a picnic lunch. The sun was strong and we all looked for shade. At this point, my daughter brought out a copy of “A Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley to read at the summit of Old Rag Mountain. She had carried the copy in her backpack to read at the mountain top after a hard yet satisfying climb, surrounded by mountains. She thought that was a fitting book to read in that ambiance. I felt a surge of pride at her nerdiness.
We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crunched on some trail mix, almost finished the water leaving just a little for the hike back and simply soaked in the purity of our surroundings. I wish there were fewer people but oh, well! Old Rag belonged to them as much as it belonged to us. After climbing even more boulders at the top and seeing the panoramic view from every which angle we decided to make the long trip back down. There are two ways one can come down – one take the fire trail which did not have any rocks but a simple downward trail or the same rocky trail that we came up. Guess which one we chose?
As we started down we realized that was a popular time for people to hike up. There is one passage in the rocky part of the trail where only one person can pass at time and there was actually a back up. Our option was either to go back to the summit and then go down the fire trail or use an alternate route which was by the edge of the cliff and if one did not make the right jump, could roll down the hill to one’s death. Sean went first. There was a young man who was helping his family navigate this particularly rocky terrain. He took Sean’s back pack and pointed to the dead man’s drop. He said, “Sir, you don’t want to get down on your right, you better move towards your left!” Sean crab crawled all the way down the rock and then slid down at least 6 feet since the drop was deep. The children were hesitating so I went next. I did not think and I did not look at the drop. With adrenaline pumping I did not even feel any fear, I was focused on my crab crawl till Sean caught hold of one of my foot. I gave myself up to the slide and slid quite uneventfully to solid ground. Ryan came next and Sean got him down deftly. Sahana, after she slid down made one comment, “That took twenty years of my life away, guys!” She summed it up for all of us.
The rest of the downward rock scramble was uneventful and then the easy part started – walking down the woods. Sean and Ryan left Sahana and I in the dust as they surged forward. We did not mind to be parted except when we realized they had the precious water with them. But the thought of cooler full of ice water in the car kept us going till my left ankle landed on a twig, gave out from underneath me and I fell hard on my left side – on the easiest part of the trail. There was a young dad who came to my rescue asking if I needed help getting up. I was gritting my teeth waiting for the pain to subside, so I nodded my head and said through gritted teeth, “No thank you, I’ll be fine. Just need a moment!” The family stood nearby as I pulled myself up and tried a few steps gingerly. At this point, my valiant daughter dropped her back pack, stretched a bit and offered to carry me on her back for mile and a half till the end of the trail. I laughed out loud through the pain. She was all serious, “I can do it, mama! I can carry you!”
Sahana and I were having a heart to heart chat as we climbed down, before I fell. After my fall our conversation ended, I slowed down considerably so as not to injure my throbbing ankle any further and we both wished the end was near so we could rest our weary and injured muscles. We strained our ears to hear the gurgling stream which would indicate we were nearing the start of the trail. We heard only silence. As we hobbled down, we came across a middle aged couple sitting by the trail, panting heavily, quite red in the face. We said the customary hello and moved on. But then the gentleman asked me a question which I did not hear. I stopped and turned, “I beg your pardon?”
“I asked is it worth it? The climb?” He asked.
Sahana and I looked at each other. I was hurting and she was tired and achy after the long hike. The entire trip is 5.2 miles and takes 5 hours. It took us over 6. Was it worth it? It is a emphatic yes for me. It was worth it. It was worth all of it – getting up early, driving two and a half miles, getting bug bites, the muscle pain, the lungs protesting, the scraped arms and knees, the fear of failure to cross the ledge and then finally standing at the top and looking at the view. The view was breathtaking, to be sure. The grandeur of mountains have lured hikers and mountaineers throughout the ages to scale the heights, not simply for the view although that is a reward indeed, but also for the sense of achievement and for believing in oneself that one can do it. So yes, every climb is worth it. Every time we push ourselves even when we feel we can not go one more step is worth it.
It made me think of life – the journey, is it worth it? With all the obstacles that is placed in our way, is it truly worth it to overcome them. When in moments of weakness we sit by the trail of life exhausted and question if it is worth it, we need to remind ourselves that it is. The view at the end is a gamble, I know. It could be breathtaking, it could be ordinary, it could be downright ugly. But the view that we see up there depends on our expectation, our wants. We can look at it with the lens that we choose and make it worth it.