The town was “between mountains so steep and irrational, they must have blocked most of the sun most of the day.” – Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain
I know exactly the types of places Covington means. In our explorations of the Appalachians, my husband and I have been in those steep mountains that obliterate the horizon. You’re stuck down low, in a narrow crack between peaks, where you can’t see over, you can’s see around, and you feel penned in and claustrophobic. The sun seems to set at 2 in the afternoon because the horizon is so high.
The place we hiked this weekend was decidedly not like that.
The views we saw on our hike to Mt. Rogers were not from the top of the mountain, they were from all but the top of the mountain. About 7 miles of the 9 mile round trip hike, from the trailhead at Massie Gap to the summit of Mt. Rogers, the trail climbs gently through wide, open meadows, offering spectacular vistas of mountaintop grasslands, marshmallow cloudscapes, stark rock outcrops, and panoramic views of the Appalachians. I felt like we were on the western frontier, that life was full of possibility.
We originally thought the hike was going to be 11 miles round trip. Though our kids (7 and 9) had hiked Old Rag, a 9 mile hike with lots of technical bouldering, we thought 11 miles might be a little much. We bought them real hiking shoes, just in case, but I was prepared to turn back early with either or both of them so that their Dad could climb to the top of Mt. Rogers. At 5729 feet, it is the highest natural point in the state of Virginia, and I knew he wanted to see it.
When we realized the hike was only 9 miles, I got excited that maybe I’d be able to see it, too. “Hey guys, it’s actually only 9 miles, not 11,” my husband told the kids. “Do you think you’ll want to go to the top, to climb the highest mountain in Virginia?”
“I do!” our son said. Our daughter was less enthusiastic.
“There are ponies along the way…” my husband told her. “And the top is in a forest. A forest filled with Christmas trees…”
That got her. Within ten minutes, his first promise paid off. And continued to pay off. For nearly three miles, we shared the trail and the mountainsides with wild highland ponies.
We stopped so much along the way to take in the views from rocky tops, and to hang out with the ponies, that we made slow progress. The day was perfect – partly cloudy and only 73 degrees – but the sun was hot on our necks, and our son wanted forest. We were surprised when we got to a mile marker and saw we had only hiked 2 miles, so we picked up the pace to get to the top. We passed through Rhododendron gap, a tunnel of rhododendrons that had just bloomed and dropped their petals, and that provided brief shelter in cool, damp shade. Then we were out in the meadows again before turning off onto the Mt. Rogers spur trail to finish the final half mile of climbing.
We ascended in dense forest as we neared the summit, where it was dark and wet and felt like rain forest. The air chilled our skin, and every rotting log, every mound of earth, every tree trunk was covered in emerald moss and peridot ferns. Our arms brushed red spruces and Fraser firs and released the scent of Christmas trees. Our daughter sang Jingle Bells.
Nobody turned back, and before we knew it, we were at the top of Virginia. We had hiked a trail unlike any we had ever traveled – wide open to the sky, above the world, sharing the trail with wild ponies – and we all made it. All four of us, hiking companions til the end.
This is my entry for the WordPress weekly photo challenge: Companionable.