View of the ancient, rolling Shenandoah from Old Rag, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of the wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.”- Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things
Old Rag Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
“Hope isn’t naively denying the problem. It’s just relentlessly believing in the existence of the solution.” – R. J. Dawson
So many things are wrapped up in the challenge of hiking a difficult mountain or terrain. The accent itself is challenging, requiring physical stamina, endurance, and the grit to push through despite one’s fear of falling or encountering wild life. There is also the mental fortitude and persistence required, to refuse to think negatively while encountering heat, humidity, rain, cold, insects, etc. Instead, pushing through discomfort to problem solve and look for solutions has become a sort of encouragement to me.
I remember well the Kal-Haven trail biking fundraiser my school used to put on when I was in high school, and thinking about cheeseburgers and fries toward the last 20 miles of the 64 mile trip with my friend, Tim, just to get myself to cross the finish line. It was interesting thinking back on this while I was hiking yesterday, because I have always noted that I shut negative thoughts out when I encounter difficulty rather well, and I distract myself with anything that keeps me from feeling discomfort to get through the hardest circumstances. But I’m also learning that this trait can make me numb my brain more frequently than I should. I look for ways to not dwell on what is difficult, even to the point of denying it is as hard as it is, as I am ever the optimist.
“There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can’t quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already tethering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards.”- Katherine May
I’ve been thinking over the above quote, and others which I will post about later this week, but on my hike I put in action what was a combination of two parallel things that I am trying to cultivate in myself: acceptance of the way things are without suppressing anger or becoming bitter, for one, and secondly, always keeping faith, hope, and love as my compass, my true north. I can hike in difficult conditions, switch my brain to off on the physical discomfort and on for the next step–the next ten steps–the listening for water or birds, and I can overcome. I can accept difficulty, but remain grateful for the lessons they teach, the gift they are to me. They exist in tandem. So when I was told in my twenties, for example, that I am naive or ignore what is negative to my detriment, and appear aloof, this profoundly struck me. I’ve had to ask myself over the years, is this true of me? And I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t quite a fair assessment. I am hopeful, I am optimistic, but I’ve learned to reflect upon my responses through difficulty, and yes, I am hopeful, my faith strengthens, my gratefulness for all things grows.
Rock scramble section of Old Rag, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
Rock scramble portion of Old Rag, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
Old Rag Mountain is named after the Old Rag Granite, a course-grained alkali feldspar granite, that is famously on the surface of the summit. Photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
I was nervous about how short I am and that some of the jumps from boulder to boulder were far, and my fear of heights is something I have to fight to conquer. In certain places, I had to remove my pack to squeeze through narrow slices of rock. At the top of Old Rag, the hashes marking the trail are painted on the rocks, because there isn’t a consistent dirt path. We lost the hashes at one point and came to a cliff overhang and had to backtrack to find the familiar blue hash again on the granite surface. The hike wasn’t fully linear, and part of the challenge was diagnosing, slowing down, and vacillating between looking right in front of one’s boots for the immediate next move, to looking up and catching a breath to refocus on the larger goal of reaching the summit. This type of work has also been something I’ve cultivated in my MMA training the last 2.5 months, where some days feel like little progress is being made, or I get frustrated because I can’t quite figure out a combination and no amount of gumption can give it to me. However, all the small, consistent steps are turning into larger leaps and gains, and for that lesson of slow and steady progress to accomplish big things, I am beholden, indebted.
View of Old Rag Mountain’s summit from the middle of rock scrambling, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
B in front, I’m behind her, following the light blue hash marks (to the left of my head!) Photo by N, Old Rag Mountain, 2021
Shimmying through this portion of the rock scramble. Some sections require hoisting up by the arms. (The pushups I’ve been working on came in handy for getting through this hike.) Old Rag, 2021
Tight fit with N, Old Rag Mountain, photo by B, 2021
Old Rag Mountain Summit, Shenandoah National Park, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
Elevation gain: 2,683′
View from Old Rag Mountain summit of the Shenandoah, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
Old Rag Mountain Summit, Shenandoah National Park, photo of E. H. Uminn, 2021
Perfect view, Old Rag Mountain Summit, Shenandoah National Park, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
Old Rag Mountain Summit, Shenandoah National Park, photo by E. H. Uminn, 2021
When reaching the summit, taking it all in and enjoying the view after the fight to get there is my favorite. And the hike back down is peaceful and enjoyable, even if it’s humid and 90 degrees in the Virginia summer. I was also reflecting on the past several years, how I’ve started mentally categorizing them with a word to remind myself what they were like or what events they held. For example, 2013 was Loss (we lost two grandpas, had a miscarriage, lost a childhood friend to cancer), but 2014 was Newness (we had our son, settled into our house, started teaching). I was thinking on the fact that 2020, for me, was a year of Letting Go: of things I thought I wanted or needed but found I didn’t, stepping away from distractions like social media and commitments claiming my time, in order to be outside more, read more, slow down, to reflect. So 2021 is becoming the year of Focus. I have been able to hone in on what it is I most need to accomplish or reflect on, and leave all the other distractions to the side that either don’t serve me at all or to take up at a later time, just like my physical hike was yesterday.
So many birds singing to each other, two snakes (eek!), 3 discarded tshirts from previous hikers, lots of bees/flies/knats, tall, tall trees, creeks along the fire road.
All of this with good friends who push themselves with me! We celebrated afterwards at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton. Cheers!
UPDATED: Essentials I carry for a day hike.
There are two things you should know about me (if you don’t already). 1) I am usually the most under-prepared person in the room. I’m a procrastinator by nature; I wing it. I’ve been this way since I was young. I’ve had to learn over time to work against this tendency once I entered college, became a parent, and started my career, because while it affords a good bit of flexibility and adaptability, I usually regret not taking more time to think through possibilities and situations that may arise. 2) I am not a brand snob, but I’ll invest in whatever will do the job right, name brand or no. And along with that, I am a minimalist and I like products that serve multiple functions and are compact. So hiking and packing a day pack is completely my jam and I felt wildly over-prepared for maybe the first time ever in my life.
This has become my staple layer system for hiking. I’ve read hundreds (yes, hundreds) of articles about what to pack and wear for day hikes versus overnight backpacking trips ad nauseum, and I’ve learned that there is definitely a code, if you will, of hiking attire and necessities. It’s about lightweight, packability, and comfort; pretty simple once you get the hang of it. (This was also kind of key when hiking Old Rag and needing to propel forward and not fall backward due to pack weight.) I’ll include brands for those interested in affordable, good performance products. There are certainly more expensive, lighter, or higher performing gear out there, but these are a great middle ground.
My base layer consists of a short sleeve, 100% merino wool t shirt by Sheep Run (lightweight, moisture wicking, and odor resistant), and hiking shorts with zip and Velcro pockets by Baleaf. The shorts material is snag proof, which is helpful on rock and dirt surfaces or for shimmying through tight spaces and against trees. I also have a mid-layer, which is a long sleeve, 100% New Zealand merino wool by Merino 365 and hiking pants, also by Baleaf. It’s the same idea here as the base layer, which is moisture wicking and odor resistant but warm, and the pants have really convenient pockets for my phone, chapstick, etc. Since there was a chance of rain (and some say there is always a chance of rain in the Shenandoah), I carried a lightweight, pack-able, waterproof rain shell by Little Donkey Andy and an extra pair of merino wool hiking socks. I did a ton of research on the rain shell, because I didn’t want to spend an exorbitant amount of money, but it definitely needed to be waterproof and not “water resistant”. The socks are Darn Tough brand, which seem to be a hiker favorite. My hiking boots are Columbia Women’s Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof, which I purchased in 2020, and I believe have an updated version now.
I finally splurged on a day pack this year. I held off on it and just used what I had until I was sure of what I wanted to buy. Again, I researched dozens of packs and decided to go with Osprey’s Women’s Day Lite Plus in Cosmic Red, which is a 20L hiking pack that has a sleeve to hold a water bladder if needed (the next wish list item I have). It is a more expensive brand, but from everything I read is worth the price in quality and durability. The Day Lite Plus holds a lot of gear in its several pockets, and I have everything pictured above except my water and food: (Clockwise from top) rain shell and extra layers, Biofreeze roll on for muscle soreness, multi-tool, water purification tabs, sun screen, bug spray, pepper spray, hand sanitizer, headlamp, tissue, compass, paracord bracelet, knife, first aid kit, emergency blankets, emergency fire starter and whistle, and fire starter fiber in the Altoids tin. I know much of this is overkill and I would have laughed at this a year ago for a day hike, but I keep reading about hikers who go in for just a couple hours and come up against injury or bad weather, and I’ve learned from minor experiences that I would rather be over prepared in the backwoods.
Note: I picked red because it reminded me of my old, red GAP backpack that I had in highschool and took with me to Gatlinburg/Smoky Mountain National Park. Call me sentimental, but I always loved that red backpack. 🙂