By Hugh Rogers
Less heart for long walks, more thoughts of walks taken. Some short quotes at the end of Duncan Minshull’s anthology, Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, have tickled my memory. They might do the same for you.
It is good to collect things, but better to go on walks.
Highlands Conservancy-sponsored outings have combined walks and collecting, in the sense of finding, identifying, photographing (“take only pictures, leave only footprints”). I recall one on the Mylius Trail, the short steep access to Otter Creek Wilderness from the Glady Fork. Our guide was an enthusiastic botanist who found plants to expound on, it seemed, every few feet. Late in the day, his eyes widened at a lush green spot where the trail crossed a trickle. Bringing us all together, he pointed out a globally-rare monkshood. It was a perfect climax, and time to turn around. Did anyone else feel a twinge of disappointment that the day had gone by and we were less than halfway up the mountain?
You don’t have to do anything to teach your child to walk.
–Dr. Benjamin Spock
Babies just want to get on their feet. Those who grow up in the mountains generally want to climb rocks and follow trails.
As our sons were going off to college, we took father-son hikes. Ian wanted someplace foreign, so we went to Quebec. Tom was going to school in New England, so we hiked in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. By Gabriel’s turn, nine years later, I wasn’t much of a backpacker. Our plan was to find spots for base camps and day-hike from there. We headed south, because we had a family errand in North Carolina. Our hikes, though, were in Virginia.
Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness is off US 250 on the east side of Shenandoah Mountain, 20 miles west of Staunton. Like Otter Creek Wilderness, it contains a headwater’s entire watershed—but pressed into one-third the area, with greater elevation changes. Loops from the stream up the mountain and back suited me, though most people haul their packs around the circling ridge.
After the detour to Winston-Salem, we headed northwest to Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak (5729’). Grayson Highlands State Park is the nearest motor access to the mountain and Lewis Fork Wilderness. As Ramsey’s Draft had reminded me of Otter Creek, these highlands, in some respects, reminded me of Dolly Sods. The wide meadows were sprinkled with red spruce; the plentiful blueberries were ripe. The park required reservations and fees for backpackers’ overnight parking, a regulation that may come to the Sods.
The Appalachian Trail passes within half a mile of Mt. Rogers. The rounded peak doesn’t offer views—it’s topped with Fraser fir, which only grows in the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians. I had seen how the woolly adelgid nearly eliminated it on Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. The fir on Mt. Rogers hadn’t suffered those impacts, yet it remained an endangered species. The threat now is climate change.
Most of our walking there, twenty years ago this August, was in open country, on top of the world. Well-worn AT hikers, as they passed, invariably muttered, “Howyadoin’.” We replied, “Blissed out. You?”
She walks in beauty, like the night.
And she walks in beauty in the night. In the final summer of the 70’s, Ruth invited her women friends to a potluck/event that featured a ritual walk through the woods to Moon Run. Quite a few people came. Many hadn’t been here before, and Ruth worried that they would lose their way in the night woods. She recruited me as a guide. I pointed the way and offered encouragement or a helping arm as they came along, one by one. Some, I know, appreciated my role as the only male. Afterwards, what they talked about most, and a couple of them painted, was skinny-dipping under the full moon. I wasn’t invited for that. But I did get dinner.
“Sehnsucht”—the passion for what is ever beyond.
–Robert Louis Stevenson
Google Translate offers different meanings for this German word: nostalgia, longing, yearning. Those versions sound closer to the Portuguese “saudade,” which can imply nostalgia for a specific place. Stevenson’s romantic translation points toward the future, to the place not yet reached. It’s a younger person’s view, and he was a young man when he wrote a wonderful memoir of walking, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Nostalgia, though, is more likely to affect the elderly.
Although I have never set out on a walk with a donkey or other animal, I have gained some on the way. One lost bear-hunting dog stuck to me all along Otter Creek Trail and up to Big Springs Gap, where its owner saw me coming. He thanked me profusely until he noticed I wasn’t so delighted. That was unkind of me. I could have expressed my relief, at least: no more stumbling over a hound who had to be reassured that I wouldn’t abandon him. It wasn’t his fault that he could be sent out year-round to go stupid in the woods.
A walk is always filled with significant phenomena.
It feels like cheating to cite a walk on the upper South Prong Trail and its informal extensions. Significant phenomena? Rocks, moss, and sheltering spruce, arranged for contemplation (see the photo on p. 115 of the Hiking Guide); bogs and views off both sides of the Plains, more compelling the farther you go.
Once, years ago, I went too far, and knew I couldn’t get back to my car before dark. Especially if I couldn’t find the trail. In the brush, every direction I looked, looked the same. Every trail was a phantom. Until, suddenly, I spotted a significant phenomenon: a communication tower.
The tower just off the pipeline had been some distance behind me, but now it was on the wrong side. Somehow, I had turned around. Or had I? I kept puzzling over how it had appeared out of nowhere—I am nearsighted, too closely focused, but still. And I could see it so clearly. Across a gap, where night had settled already. My tired brain suspected that the gap was one significance of this phenomenon, part of why it was where I thought it shouldn’t be. Like most people do when they’re tired and lost, I argued with myself and denied the evidence of the compass. At last, Ah! I was looking at the Green Knob tower, not the one on the Plains. And I was farther south and east than I had realized.
Much later, I saw the lights were on at Jack Teter’s farm, so I stopped to call Ruth. I hadn’t met Jack but I’d served on a civic board with his wife, Dorles. When he came to the door, I introduced myself and told him I’d gotten lost up on the Plains. He said, “Lots of people do.”
I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.
St. Augustine put it this way: Solvitur ambulando, It is solved by walking. Whether the problem is mental, physical, social, philosophical, it’s good to consult these doctors. And remember that limited mobility is not immobility.