It has been several months since I’ve written an update on my hiking challenge. My goal is pretty straightforward – hike a major trail in each state (typically the high point) over the next five years. There hasn’t been much progress to report because of the weather and schedule availability. Since January, I’ve been itching to get back at it. Unfortunately, winter has become that uninvited guest who overstayed his welcome two months ago.
Saturday was supposed to be the spring relaunch in pursuit of this lofty and somewhat insane goal. The plan involved driving over from my home in Virgina Beach to the western part of the state to tackle the 5,729 foot Mount Rogers. In fact, my mom grew up in the shadow of Virginia’s high point, and she still owns farmland in the area. It makes for a perfect weekend mountain retreat and launching pad for a hike to Mt. Rogers.
The weather forecast called for sunny skies and temperatures hovering in the low 60’s. Factoring in the elevation change, I figured we were in for a pleasant hike in the 50’s. By mid-morning, my Dad and I headed up twisting and turning Whitetop Road toward Grayson Highlands State Park. As we continued our ascent, I glanced over at the temperature gauge on Dad’s SUV. 45…42…40…38. White fog slowly blanketed the landscape and eventually overtook it completely. What was once an overcast day was gone, as we were unable to see the road ten feet ahead.
“Hopefully this will clear out,” as I allowed my optimism to overtake my rationale. I didn’t want to get this close, only to turn around empty-handed. I thought, “We can handle this.”
Upon arrival at the Grayson Highlands Park Office, the “Closed for the season” sign provided a foreboding signal that we had attempted our hike a bit too early this spring. Never one to give up, we had to give it a shot. At least I still had gloves in my backpack. Hopping out of the car, I knew we were unprepared for the near 30-degree wind chill and the constant whipping wind that sent chills down my spine and sprayed a slight mist into my frozen face, like we were vegetables on display in the produce section. Surely I would warm up as I walked uphill, even if I was only wearing a t-shirt and thin fleece. (Note to self: always pack a heavy coat and something to keep my head warm in upper elevations, no matter the season or weather forecast.)
As we trekked up the Rhododendron Trail, the wind at our backs, I didn’t want to turn back, but I also didn’t want to hike all the way the Virginia’s pinnacle in misery. For me, hiking is about the journey, not just the destination. And this journey had been a sheer 1/2 mile of misery, as we stared at another 3.4 wind-burnt miles to the top (plus 3.9 back). Upon reaching the intersection with the Appalachian Trail, we made the decision to live to fight another day and turn around.
Maybe some people would have pressed on, but that’s not the point of my hiking challenge. It’s more about the story…the journey…than getting frostbite.
Yet, I didn’t want the trip to be in vain, and so we developed plan B. Coming down about 1,500 feet in elevation made all the difference in the world. The fog gave way to a mix of sun and clouds, and the temperature rose into the mid 50’s.
After two visitor center stops, we headed over to Hungry Mother State Park and settled on climbing Molly’s Knob. It wasn’t an overly strenuous hike until the final 0.4 miles. As we reached the summit, it’s like the clouds lifted and the heavens opened. Two benches were perfectly positioned in front of the vast expanse of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. It was the clearest of clear views, stretching for miles and miles.
I even came across a Geocache box, filled with random objects, such as an empty water bottle, rubber frogs, and a plaid shirt. I took the notebook out and scribbled a quick message: “Tried to hike Mount Rogers today, but the wind was howling and the wind chill was near 30 degrees. This spectacular view made up for it.”
No matter what journey we take or what goals we set, there will always be times when things don’t go as planned. I’ve planned a few hikes this summer, and I know that not all of them will go according to my plan. But the key is to take the unexpected journey. Sometimes, it will lead you to spectacular and unexpected places, just like my trip to Molly’s Knob. Mount Rogers is still waiting for me, and I will return.