Virginia’s Hightop Mountain Hike in Summer

In my last post (Let’s Talk About What We Don’t Want to Talk About), I mentioned that I was getting involved in new activities and here’s what I meant: hiking.

On Saturday, I went hiking with Vinayak, a guy I had never met.  He’s an expert hiker and marathon runner and athlete in general, which should have scared me (because I am not even a smidgen as fit as him) but that thought didn’t dawn on me.  Yet.  Before I continue, let me put it out there that this is the first hike I’ve done since college when I hiked the Cascades and Humpback Rocks with a boyfriend.  The first was rated a Level Three of Five difficulty and I mistakenly did it in flipflops.  Oh, and I ended up stopping halfway on the about eight-mile hike up to sit literally on the trail and cry about how I didn’t have enough energy to go up or enough energy to go down.  Turns out, I didn’t end up overcoming the mountain that day. I sat there, crying, while my boyfriend decided he would leave me in a sobbing heap so that he could continue the hike. That was one hike.  The other was a Level Four of Five difficulty and that two-mile trek because so steep that I literally crawled up the mountain on hands and feet.  It was bad.  So.  There was that.  My first real hikes.  Over ten years ago.  Which I may have neglected to tell Vinayak about, except saying, “I’ve been hiking awhile ago.”  Mistake Number One.  Anyway, now you can better picture this in-shape guy from Mumbai and me on a hike.

Off we went anyway to Shenandoah National Park to hike Hightop Mountain in Stanardsville, Virginia!  Here’s the important information about this hike:

  • A little under six miles total from start to finish
  • There’s an almost 1,500 foot elevation
  • Rated a Level Three of Five difficulty

We get there, and I’m stoked, right?  I have my new boots and socks and backpack and I’m ready for this hike!  I keep talking to myself in my head (which I do often . . . and admit often . . . even though that could mean something is wrong with me) saying things like, “You’re a hiker!  You’re a real person now!  You’re a real hiker!” because I had my waist-belt clipped (do they call it ‘clipped’?) around my waist and the other clip-thing clipped where the other clip-things are supposed to be clipped.  Yep, clearly a real hiker!  So we get started and go to the first trail marker where there’s a trail right next to it which I start walking because that’s what you do on hikes.  But Vinayak pauses and looks at the marker and analyzes the map.
MapI keep going a few steps, he isn’t following, I keep going more while quietly motioning him to continue by almost turning my back on him and facing where the trail leads.  Still though, he’s looking at the marker, and I’m thinking, “This is going to be an interesting hike,” but I go back and politely inquire what’s going on as a way of showing my enthusiasm and, “Com’on!  Let’s go!”  Here’s where I learned the problem: Our trail wasn’t on the trail marker.  I would have blindly  picked a trail and hiked it without knowledge of what it was or where it was going which would have been Mistake Number Two.  That’s when I realized I need to listen to Vinayak because I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.  Soon, he directs us to a different trail marker across Skyline Drive and that has the correct label.
Off we go into the wildness and there are birds chirping and it is shaded with this beautiful canopy of trees and I’m thinking, “I’m a hiker!  I’m a real hiker!  This is so much fun!”  And then — no joke — maybe two yards away from our starting place, the trail starts to incline.  I’m breathing a little more deeply but still excited that this is what hikers do when, now ten yards ahead, I’m out of breath.  I mean completely out of breath.  I’m gasping for air and thinking, “Oh my gosh — How can a trail get so serious so soon?  Isn’t there a honeymoon period where the trail at least tricks you that life is going to be perfect?” and “Where is my honeymoon period?  Why didn’t I get my honeymoon period?” and I’m thinking all of this while my new hiker friend is just prancing calmly ahead.  By this time, he’s getting a little farther up the trail . . . then a little more . . . and a little more . . . and I’m trying to keep up so I’m running to stay at his heels and gasping for air.  This was Mistake Number Three: I should have slowed my hike — for obvious reasons, of course — but me walking at his heels made him think he should go faster, which he did.  I learned this on the way back (thankfully).

Anyway, we are hiking up and up, and he turns around to make sure I’m okay so I smile, trying to look like, “Oh, I’m just looking at the trees and nature and the beauty of this area!” so he smiles and keeps going which allows me to go back to open-mouth panting again.  This is when it dawned on me I should have told Vinayak I am not an expert hiker or even a hiker.  I was and probably still am just a girl that purchased new hiking boots and socks and a pack.  Mistake Number Four: I should have been honest.  I wanted to look cool though!  I wanted to look like a hiker!  I wanted to look like this wasn’t hard and I was in shape and I didn’t have MS — I wanted to be a normal, regular person so damned if I was gonna tell him to slow down and stop!  Plus, I’m a feminist — I could keep up with this guy . . . from India . . . who runs at least ten miles daily . . . ten miles in an hour . . .

Alright, so let’s set the picture again — Me open-mouth gulp-panting air and he at this point (and all daggon points throughout our hike) did not even drop a bead of sweat.  No exaggeration.  He tells me over his shoulder if I want to stop for water sometime, just let him know (probably because he hears me open-mouth gasping) but I think, “He’s not stopping for water so I am not stopping for water!  I can be a hiker!”  Soon though, I’m starting to be concerned for my health and become fixated on this-water-that-he-mentioned and I envision exactly where it is on my pack, hear the ice cubes hitting the side of the bottle more than I hear the birds chirping or my feet hitting the ground or even my panting.  But I keep going . . . a few more yards until I’m thinking in this deep guttural voice, “VIN!!!  VINAYAK!!!!  VINNNNNNAYAK!!!!  WAIT!!!  I CANNOT MAKE IT!!!  I’M GOING DOWN!!!  MAN DOWN–MAN DOWN!!!  I CAN’T DO IT!!!” but instead I gasp, “Maybe . . . water . . . now?” and he smiles and waits while I rapidly undo the water bottle top.  Not even had the water hit my tongue and he turns to start back up the trail.  In my head, I’m freaking out: “Oh my gosh — I just wet my tongue!  I haven’t even swallowed!” so I throw as much water down my throat as possible, it gushes out of the sides of my mouth and down my shirt, and I’m drinking as much as possible until I have about half a liter left in that water bottle.  He luckily didn’t see that but did turn to say we had gone point-seven miles.  Holy **** (enter cuss words that my mom says I use too often on my posts but here I definitely would not be able to defend myself because yes, yes mom, there were a lot of cuss words in my head right now.)  But I continue.  I’m a fighter.  I can do this.  I can be a hiker!

Then the trail gets steeper.  We are passing some boulders in the middle of the woods and I’m trying to enjoy it, reminding myself I had a camera and I should take pretty pictures but at this point it is life or death situation, and I wasn’t about to die on the trail with a new hiking friend slash hiking expert.  I’m thinking of ways to survive while he keeps getting farther and farther away, which I’m happy about because I can pant louder.

My fearless leader on our steep trail which doesn’t look so steep but it was definitely steep . . .

He turns often to make sure I’m okay (or still alive) and then slows down to touch a leaf casually like he is really interested in a fern or a sapling when in reality, we both know he was being nice and letting me catch up.  That’s when it dawns on me — in my last moments of life — the way I can slow him down so that I can breathe is to pretend like I need to take pictures and that’s when my camera came out.

A massive tree that was completely hollowed out

The unfortunate news is when you cannot breathe (and contemplating if you need to be prescribed another sports-induced inhaler or if you are just out of shape), the last thing you want to do is take pictures.  Oh, and it was around here that he turns to me and says we’ve only gone a mile.  That means we had over a mile and a half left.  This caused me to begin to form a chant in my head where with every right-foot step, I would think, “This will be over” and every left-foot step, I add the word “soon” so it because numerous “This will be over soon!”  “This will be over soon.”  “Thiswillbeoversoon”s smooched together and that brought me a large amount of comfort actually.

Another thing that brought me comfort was when the trail leveled out at times.  I could have kissed the ground — I even thought about doing that; I did.  It would level out before inclining, before leveling out again, and it was here I was able to catch my breath.  It was also here I realized I will return home again and not rot next to the rotting tree on this trail!  Then finally — finally — the view we hiked for.

IMG_0059The view was incredible because the weather was incredible.  You could see for miles and miles, past the mountains where the land got really flat and  kept going until it blended with the sky.
I was really really happy right then because I just hiked a freakin’ mountain!  I AM a hiker, gosh darn it!  But I didn’t know what hikers were supposed to do at the top so I say to Vinayak, “What do you do when you get to the top?” and he looks at me, calm and peaceful and not sweaty and says, “I like to dangle my feet over the edge.”
IMG_0061I mean, that sounded like a lot of fun but I’m also clumsy as hell so as he bounds like a gazelle over these rocks at the end of a mountain cliff, I am crawling like some nasty serpent to get kinda-sorta near the edge . . . not enough so that I’m in danger when I trip but enough so that I still looked like I was cool and knew what I was doing.
IMG_0063We ended up staying here for awhile and talked about a lot of different things.  I knew I liked Vinayak as a new hiking buddy (well, I want him to be a hiking buddy . . . he probably doesn’t want me to be a hiking buddy), but he was someone really awesome to talk to, too.  Very laid-back, nonjudgmental, open, friendly.  It was the time up here that I forgot about all the pain and lack of breath moments before.

We ate our lunch and talked some more and looked at the view and then went back down.  I’m carefree and light-feeling, thinking, “Thank goodness we are going down!  This is going to be awesome!” when — as we are descending — my knees start to hurt a little.  Then a lot.  Then they are on fire and cussing me out in this fire-breathing voice in my body so I say, calmly, to Vinayak, “Is it true?  People say going down is the easy part and it’s going up that’s hard!” and he looks at me as if he didn’t understand what I said and then, equally calm, responds, “No.  That’s not true” before turning to continue down.  I’m hearing alarm bells around this time.  I’m wondering if there’s something else I should be looking out for or if he is talking about the pain in knees being natural because the pain I was feeling was definitely not natural so I actually stop him and say, “Does it hurt your knees when you hike down?” and I give him look like, “Just tell me it does hurt you so that I don’t collapse in pitiful tears right now” which means of course he is going to say, “Oh yeah, it hurts your knees, mainly if you haven’t worked out those muscles.”  Then, he looks at my knees which makes my knees feel like they are blushing from embarrassment of not ever being worked out.  Let’s be honest here, do you even have muscles in knees?!  Geez, let’s consider this Mistake Number Five because I thought it was just bone and a weird cartilagish-material.

I cannot tell you how wrong I was though.  My knees felt like they were burning — and not just burning in the since of embers then ashes but burning as in fire-blazing glory of heat.  In my head, I’m scream-wailing, “YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO CARRY ME!!!  OR MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN!!!  SAVE YOURSELF!!!  TELL THE PARK RANGERS I’M HERE — TELL SOMEONE — BUT THERE’S HOPE FOR YOU STILL!!!”  Instead, what I tell him is, “Do you mind if we pause a moment?  My knees are really feeling it!”  He turns, alarmed, and asks if my knees hurt and I say, “I mean, just a little.  Is it better to keep going or better to stretch them and stop?” and he says, “It’s better to keep going, but if they are really hurting, I don’t want you to keep hiking” and I’m at this moment of happiness at the thought that that can be an option combined with a moment of worry because what does it mean for me if that is an option?  There we wait though, wait long enough for my fire-knees to return to normal and I say, peppy-like, “Okay!  I’m ready again!”  He looks at me like he’s not so sure, but I move forward and he moves ahead and the moment I step down, right away — bam! heat.  It was here I learned if I walk slower (instead of on Vinayak’s heels), he will also slow his hike and bless his heart, he had to analyze a lot of leaves on the way back.

But finally!  We made it!  I was wobbling like a penguin slash person-with-absolutely-straight-legs-and-no-knees but we made it!  So in celebration, we asked another hiker if he could take our picture . . . and we get this . . . for our celebration for me being alive:

Cannot see it?  Neither can we.  I forgot to set the auto setting for him.  *Grumble, grumble*

As we are hiking back, Vinayak asks me, “So when was the last time you hiked?” and I tried ever so casually to say, ” . . . Over ten years ago.”  He looked shocked then worried then impressed then a mixture of all and said, “You did really good then!”  I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not.  I guess you can decide.

In the end, the hike was awesome.  Seriously, awesome.  I truly did enjoy it.   . . . And really did contemplate how I can get out of every single activity I have planned this week (including another hike this very weekend which I idiotly booked myself on) to rest my absolutely sore body.  BUT I do want to keep hiking.  I learned a lot about myself.  Obviously, to keep pushing forward.  And I need to exercise.  And I need a bladder (or water pouch thing to go in my pack) so that I don’t have to stop for water and can hike and drink.  And I need knee braces on the way down.  BUT what I really learned was that I can do this.  I am tough.  After everything I have gone through, I  really am tough.  And I’m proud of myself.  This hike made me feel happy, truly actually happy.  I haven’t felt that in awhile.

PS-I saw Vinayak ran over ten miles today — the day after our hike.  I told him, “Oh my goodness, of course you ran over ten miles in about an hour after a hike while I’m over here wondering if I need crutches for my knee pain!”  His response?  “Don’t worry, you will be fine by tomorrow” with a smile-face.  And that’s my new hiking friend.  And my first hike.  *Whew!*

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

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