Thursday, June 20. I’ve been backpacking for forty years. But I’ve never gone on a solo trip. That changes tomorrow. I am packed and ready to head out in the morning to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
During the last forty years I’ve hiked hundreds (thousands?) of miles, mostly with my husband. I’ve always said that I wasn’t interested in hiking alone, that it wouldn’t be any fun without someone to share it with.
Last weekend I looked at the calendar and realized three things: next Friday is the summer solstice, I have a three-day weekend, and I have a weekend alone. Four things–and I want to go to Mount Rogers for an overnight hike. All by myself.
My planned route is a loop, about 10-12 miles total. I’ll take the main trail up from the parking lot, head south on the AT to Rhododendron Gap, take the Pine Mountain Trail back to the AT, continue southbound to Scales, over Stone Mountain, down to the bottom, then camp somewhere along one of the creeks for the night. The next morning I’ll walk past the Wise Shelter, and then up and over to head back to the car, taking the trail back down to the backpacker parking lot.
Friday, June 21. When I drove up to the entrance station at Grayson Highlands State Park, the ranger had two questions: you know about the bear warnings, right? And, you know about the weather forecast? Yes to both. This could be an interesting hike.
Since last summer the Mount Rogers area has had intermittent bear problems at the shelters and along Wilburn Ridge. They’ve installed bear boxes at these locations. Hikers are encouraged to use them or bear canisters for food storage.
There had been severe thunderstorms Thursday night and the forecast was the same for Friday night. The weather up there is always volatile and can change from warm sunshine to cold, windy rain in minutes. You’ve got to be prepared for all of it.
I left the car at 9:30 AM with a 22.5 pound pack. We’ve done this hike so many times that it felt completely familiar, but also completely new and exciting, all at the same time. As I crossed the parking lot, I saw my first bird of the hike, an indigo bunting singing in the top of a small shadbush tree. An excellent omen.
It was really windy as I climbed, sometimes sunny, sometimes ominously cloudy. A bit chilly in the wind without sun. Absolutely gorgeous. Summer meadow grasses and wildflowers, blackberries and mountain laurel in bloom, the Christmas tree fragrance of the Fraser firs. It was so much fun to be out there! Life’s been a bit busy lately and I haven’t had enough trail time in the last year or so. Just breathing the air up there was good for my soul in a way I’d almost forgotten.
I stopped for lunch on Pine Mountain in a little grove of evergreen trees, trying to get out of the wind. There was a jumble of rocks inside, so it seemed like an ideal spot. I was clearly not the first to think it so–there was also a lot of evidence that the horses had spent a lot of time there…
The trade-off for being out of the wind was also being out of the sun, so I didn’t stop for long. By the time I got to Scales the wind had died down a bit and the sun was out for good. I took a break just to sit and be there. And watch the cows.
On the way down Stone Mountain I stopped at a spring along the trail for water. While I was there I met a northbound thru hiker from Germany. For the second time that day. She stopped to talk because she recognized that we’d passed each other earlier in the day as well and found that a bit puzzling, until I explained that I was hiking a loop.
As I continued down the trail, I started thinking about my camping spot for the night. We’ve camped before at a spot that we call the old homesite. There’s a small clearing, a spring, and some overgrown household junk on the other side of trail. When I got there I decided that it was too early in the day to stop and that would leave me a longer hike in the morning than I wanted (since I had to hike out, drive home, then pick up my husband at the airport the next afternoon).
My next two stops were along the creeks at the bottom. At the first spot there’s a nice campsite under a tree. Unfortunately the only flat spot to pitch a tent had a gigantic pile of horse manure. Sigh. I looked around a bit in the more open grassy areas, but every flattish spot was either soggy or full of blackberry brambles. The next spot a little further down the trail was just too soggy. So on I went.
Finally, like Goldilocks, I found a spot that was just right. Out of sight of the trail, close–but not too close–to the creek, flat enough to pitch a tent, and high enough to be dry.
I had everything set up by 5 PM, so I had the rest of the afternoon and evening to just enjoy being out. I had brought my knitting, of course, so I worked on knitting a hat and just watched the world go by. There were lots of birds, a few deer, but no hikers anywhere nearby. I walked around a bit, exploring the area and looking for a place to secure my food bag overnight. I made dinner and just relaxed, enjoying being out on the longest day of the year.
Saturday, June 21. I was up early, as soon as it began to get light. I retrieved my food, made coffee and breakfast, and watched the morning. My company was a chestnut-sided warbler in the maple nearby. I sat for a few minutes meditating, and realized that this entire trip is an exercise in mindfulness and presence.
It had been an interesting evening. I first heard thunder at about 10:30. When I looked outside, the sky was full of stars to the east. Not so much in the west. I had a few showers at about 11:30, then things were quiet until about 3:30, when the thunder and lightning woke me up. The rain started coming down hard after the first thunderclap. All was dry inside–so far so good.
I started counting the time between lightning and thunder. Ten seconds. Then eight. Four. Two. Then four again and I resumed breathing. The storm moved off and the rest of the night was quiet.
I took my time breaking camp and I was on the trail before 8 AM. Within ten minutes I had crossed the last creek and passed the Wise Shelter and the 20 or more tents and hammocks pitched nearby. I guess the bear warnings have concentrated the hikers near the bear box locations.
It took about an hour to get to the top of the ridgeline and the trail back to the backpacker parking area. I stopped fairly frequently, mostly because I wanted to prolong my time out and enjoy the glorious morning. I saw deer and turkeys, and heard a hermit thrush, a wood thrush, and plenty of chestnut-sided warblers.
Would I do this again? Absolutely. I discovered that hiking alone allows me to focus entirely on the experience, on the world around me, on how I feel and what I need–when to stop, eat, or drink. I also saw and heard more birds and other animals, perhaps because I was quieter alone or maybe because I was paying more attention. I returned home restored and energized, ready to check my calendar for another opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry.