Monday, June 3, 2013

Washing Our Spirits Clean

Before setting out.
At a white and red shack just before route 211 winds into Shenandoah National Park, Ebo, Rohan, and I shivered at the wind rapping those weathered walls. A busted up sign reads, “Burgers ‘n Things.” Each time the counter window slid back, an overweight woman with long, stringy hair pushed forward a white, grease-stained lunch bag, containing exactly what the busted sign implied. In a thick southern drawl, she called, “59,” letting that nine drag out. We snatched our bags, brought our shoulders to our ears, and hobbled back to the car. Once inside, we tore into wrappers the way kids tear into presents on Christmas morning. No one said a word. We had come a long way for that lunch.
Seven hours earlier, the car was not so quiet. Rain splattered the windshield, but no one acknowledged it. We drove the opposite direction of the city, of work, of obligations, and cell service. Not even the rain could dampen our spirits. Instead the conversation transformed me back to my days at my all-boys high school sitting around the cafeteria before class.

The car twisted around the steep bends of back roads, exposing new sides of Old Rag’s craggy summit. A thin veil of clouds flowed over the ridge and sent shivers down my spine. We pulled into the gravel parking lot, the rain having stopped just in time, and debated porta-potty or woods.

Each of us shed clothing and Rohan and I cinched our backpacks up and stared at Ebo stretching on a post. “You bringin’ anything?” Rohan asked.
“Nah,” Ebo said, an elbow cocked behind his head.
“I’m good, it’s cool enough today.”

Rohan and I gave one another a sidelong glance, then the three of us clicked our watches and trotted out into the woods.

White Oak Canyon
The day called for somewhere between 20 and 30 miles, no one was exactly sure. What we did know was that we were going to cover two of the Shenandoah’s prized trails in one, err, sitting: the lower and upper falls of White Oak Canyon and Old Rag Mountain.

The first falls crashed ahead of us, somewhere in the distance. The mood and the pace were light and our fresh legs carried us up the trail, over rocks, and around fallen branches.

We paused at the lower falls but only for a moment. In our split shorts and t-shirts, we had underdressed for the chill in that mountain air that was conspicuously absent during a week that reached into the upper 80s. Numbness gripped our hands and we turned back onto the trail to continue our rocky climb out of the canyon.

The wind gathered above us in the trees and we braced for its bluster but the canyon walls mercifully shielded us. The clouds spit cold drizzle as we traded boulders for a carpet of pine needles and continued our ascent.

At long last, we arrived at the Limberlost trail marker and made a right turn onto the Old Rag Fire Road. The wind continued to rush above us and rattle the trees. If we closed our eyes, we could have been standing next to the falls again.

With the cold worrying away our resolve, a sliver of blue sky appeared between the trees. The trail pitched sharply downward as I called out, “Six-and-a-quarter miles of this, boys!” The wind washed the sky blue and we let go of the brake and took off downhill. In the early miles, each of us searched for our footing, as we staggered ourselves across the trail. There was only the steady ratch! ratch! ratch! of our shoes kicking up the crushed gravel.

Somewhere along the way, our hands warmed and the mood and the day brightened. We pulled alongside one another and ran three across on the trail. It was here that we began to reveal the more intimate details of our lives, the sort of things that only seem right around a campfire or in the solitude of the backcountry. Sweat broke out across our brows for the first time as we neared the Old Rag trail head. Our watches marked the 11th mile and we paused to refuel.

Old Rag
With renewed strength, we started up Old Rag, happy to simply give our punished quads a rest. We took the switchbacks with surprising ease, losing our place on the trail in conversation, and sort of unbelieving when we reached the scramble across Old Rag’s rocky ridge. Here, we began to come across other hikers for the first time all day. Many marveled at our swiftness, and asked when we began, which, with a sly smile, one of us would pipe up and say, “Well, we actually started at the base of White Oak…,” which elicited bug eyes and long whistles.

We paused now and again to take in the sweeping views of the verdant Shenandoah Valley and braced ourselves against the wind that had once been too high to affect us. We minced our steps when the trail began to climb and went silent to focus on the task at hand when we came on other hikers.

Old Rag summit.
After a quick photo at the summit, we began an agile descent, hopping from rock to rock and reawakening those tortured quads again. My favorite part arrived none too soon when a brown cabin, appeared through the brown trees, against the now brown clay trail. The cabin marked the end of the rocks where my stride unwinds and smooths out so I can retire my amateur parcours skills and simply run.

We intersected with the fire road once again, and had thankfully chopped 2.25 miles off it, but that downhill that let us fly before now required us to slowly climb. It was here that Ebo outwardly acknowledged his error in not bringing any food or water. We began the arduous hike back up to the Limberlost trail, pausing at frequent intervals for Ebo to steady himself.

Storm clouds began building on the horizon. Rohan and I pulled out the map to find the shortest route back to the car to both get Ebo back and escape any afternoon thunderstorms. The climb was interminable, with another incline around every corner. Still, we pushed on, mostly in silence. Whenever Ebo stopped, Rohan searched around for something for him to eat, be it bark, dirt, or "those berries over there." I narrowed my field of vision to the two feet in front of me so as not to be tortured by the seemingly endless hills.

Finally, we reached the breakoff trail and started heading down into the canyon. Every step had become agony on the front of my quads and it actually felt better to run than walk since my feet weren’t braking as hard.

A quick detour had us retracing our steps from earlier in the morning. The sun came out again and so had the hikers heading in the opposite direction. No one spoke except to offer a brief nod to passersby. We ran the flat sections and dodged a snake slithering across the path until at long last, we arrived back at the car.

Completely wrung out, we made our away to the tailgate and opened up the cooler chilling in the back. We toasted to the effort, to the mountains, to friendship, and the vow to do it again.

Ebo fell into a deep sleep as soon as we rumbled out of the lot and Rohan dutifully took pictures of him. We knew this wouldn’t be our last adventure, but there was a sense of finality to it as Old Rag disappeared behind us. Those were thoughts for another time, though. There was a burger shack waiting.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Fitting Farewell

We hatched our plan where all good plans begin – wait, scratch that – the beer still chilled in the fridge. We hatched our plan where many good plans begin: on a run.

Ebo and me after two trips up and down Old Rag.
My friend Ebo, the faithful Sherpa, trailed just a few meters behind me, pedaling my hydration and snacks. Together, we easily ticked off cold and windy miles along the historic C&O canal tow path. We had just completed the out portion of what would become a 21 mile day. The headwind that swallowed our conversation mercifully pushed at our backs now, and we picked up our conversation and the pace.

Ebo’s time in D.C. was numbered as he planned a move to the West Coast, and we wanted needed an epic physical feat to send him off.

The clouds of our brainstorm converged at once on the place our adventure thoughts always seemed to bloom….

Old Rag’s craggy summit juts out sharply over the Shenandoah’s verdant, rolling hills. It treats the hiker to relentless switchbacks, narrow crawl spaces, and ledges to hoist oneself atop.

It takes the average hiker about four hours and some change to complete the eight-ish mile roundtrip hike up to the summit, down the fire road, and back to the car. Ebo and I, with another friend, have completed two loops in just under four hours, sending unsuspecting hikers diving for the brush as we blazed past them at alarming speeds (the fire road is 2.25 miles of crushed gravel pointing straight down).

If a mountain can be associated with one person, Old Rag belongs to Ebo. We have returned to it often, though he more than I, in all seasons and conditions.

It holds special significance for me as well. It was on a hike up Old Rag with my dad back in 2003 where I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the future Mrs. OTBR.

The sense this time around, however, was that while Old Rag was special to both of us, it wasn’t enough. We needed something bigger.

With the Georgetown Key Bridge disappearing over our shoulders, the answer seemed to reveal itself to us at the same time. Last summer, Ebo and I chalked up another double loop of Old Rag to kick off a weekend of camping, hiking, and running. While traipsing up yet another Shenandoah jewel, the White Oak Canyon Upper and Lower Falls trail, we arrived at an intersection in the trail. We walked around the trail marker curious where all roads from this point led when we came across the final panel: “Old Rag Fire Road.”

A silence settled over us as we raised our eyebrows at one another: “I wonder,” trailing off. Then, “Someday.”

Later, I pulled up a map of the area and sure enough, the trails connected, though the distance for each segment wasn’t clear. Still…

“Someday” is tomorrow.

We’ll rise before the sun and drive toward the jagged horizon. Soon, the mountains will grow larger and the city will melt away behind us. We’ll lace up and set out, unsure of just how high the day’s total mileage will be.

But tomorrow, it’s not really the mileage that matters.
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