That’s it. That’s the only way I know how to start this post — with a massive period at the end of those two words because this hike had no clear beginning and it definitely had no end. In fact, when I close my eyes, I still see myself on this trail and wonder, “Oh God! When will it be over?!”
That tiny paragraph gives the smallest bit of a preview . . .
Have I hooked you yet?
See, there is nothing I can tell you (though I will try) that will fully explain how exhausting and rough and sheer madness-at-times this hike was . . . except maybe this simple picture. Our directions . . . barely alive, hardly holding onto hope, wiped out and beaten down, and that was us. That was us as two pieces of paper.
Alright but before we roam all over the daggon place, like we did on our hike, let’s begin at the beginning — where spirits were high and we were happy and this was going to be a delightful trip to a gorgeous green jewel-like pond. Also at the beginning, we knew this about our Emerald Pond trail:
- Eight miles total from start to finish
- There’s a little less than a 1,700 foot elevation
- Rated a Level Three of Five difficulty
This was supposed to be what I call a “bonding time” hike which, to me, means an easy hike that would have a lot of rewards. It was advertised as one that was not too long, not too elevated, had two great vistas. Oh, and there was even this: “Emerald Pond is a beautiful spring fed swimming hole nestled in a small hollow . . . The water has exceptional clarity, and in the summer months is surprisingly warm for a mountain pond.” I’m sorry, HikingUpward.com — Did you just use the word ‘nestled’? And ‘spring-fed’ and ‘exceptional clarity’? Then throw in the words ‘surprisingly warm’? I wanted to check this one off my Hiking List as soon as possible but I desired to go with the right people or person. Lucky for me, I somehow convinced a hiker from England to go. I was beyond-myself excited at the prospect of hiking with him too because we set up a quick meeting earlier, and he seemed like the most incredible hiking partner — He was hilarious and nice and (let’s be honest the most important part) has a heart that is made of maps of the world he craves to see. Any person that has a passion for traveling as much as I do and can keep up with my conversation is someone I’m thrilled to go hiking with. Not only this, but it gets better — Usua wanted to come! You’ll remember Usua, the female from Spain that I met for our hike at Crabtree Falls. I knew I liked her right away — She was sweet and funny and we had great conversations too. Not to mention, she’s a badass hiker (about to hike Machu Picchu for goodness sake!) so seriously?! Could I get more lucky? The answer: Hell no.
Let’s not hesitate any more. Let me start at what should have been a recipe for a perfect hike . . .
We drove to George Washington National Park around 8:00 a.m. and got there pretty easily. We did hit two small snags — like when we turned right at a gas station only to realize five minutes later, as we believe we are heading closer to our hike, that we were at the exact same gas station and had made a gigantic loop around it (Wrong Trail Number One). Then there was the bit where we had trouble tracking down the closed visitor’s center where it was recommended to park (Wrong Trail Number Two), but those were two tiny blips of “lostness.” We were well on our way and ready for the day for the most part, talking about how close the Luray Caverns were (ten miles) and how other hikers suggested going to Pack’s Custard Stand down the road for “some of the best frozen custard around.” We had plans and hopes and dreams and they were all ahead, nothin’ holdin’ us back.
So we park and there’s a trail right away. Easy, I like that. We venture down it for a bit until I think I remember the beginning bullet on our hike directions . . . something about don’t take the easily-seen first trail and I’m agitated with myself because I know I have to stop Andy and Usua to tell them we may be on the wrong trail already, but stopping them as soon as possible is definitely more embarrassing than pretending I didn’t know so I do — I stop them and pull out my directions. Sure enough, even in capital letters: “DO NOT go down the paved Nature Trail at the end of the parking area” (Wrong Trail Number Three). I groan and apologize and they joke and smile, saying things like, “As long as it doesn’t keep happening!” and “It’s right in the beginning, it’s really no problem!” and I felt happy. We sorted that out fast and now just needed to find the white blaze Wildflower Trail, which we located relatively quickly after . . . only to come to another problem . . . zero-point-three miles from our entrance.
Our next step was supposed to be to “Turn right uphill on the orange blazed trail.” Here, we were supposed to have “the steepest section of the hike” where we would have to “climb through a bolder field” that would lead to “two great vistas.” The only problem was to the left was the orange blaze trail, to the right was somewhat uphill, and nowhere in sight were boulders to climb through. Usua and I are the stick-to-our-blaze-color types so we vote to go left on orange and Andy was okay with that. From this point on, we began to form a type of silent agreement: When making any trail decision, we needed 100% approval from each other. There would be no two-against-ones; it was 100%, each vote, all the way. So off we set — orange blaze. We hike about a mile and a half with this unnerving feeling that something is just not right and maybe that’s because we are definitely hiking . . . downhill. Then we reach a rocky area, and when I say rocky, don’t get ahead of yourself — It is just a trail with some rocks on and beside it and that’s it. We all laugh and question if just maybe these are considered boulders by a pitiful writer and direction-giver. But the timing was accurate. We should have or should be coming to boulders within 1.7 miles so we decide to continue. Until it really starts to feel more strange and Usua ever-so politely says, “This doesn’t feel right . . . ” so we pause to discuss word usage again. “‘Climb’ absolutely means going up, are we in agreement?” Yes, we all agree. “And ‘through’ means, what, going between and not passing, correct?” Yes again. “And a vista is just not going to happen when we are definitely continuing down?” Right, total agreement. So Andy says in his British accent very direct, like he knows exactly what to do, “Let’s go fifteen minutes and check and see” which sounded like a great plan.
Fifteen minutes later, we remained on a downward trail to no boulders, no vistas so we stop and vote — 100% agreement — to turn back to our crossroads (Wrong Trail Number Four). Our spirits were still high though and we were still happy to be outdoors, enjoying the sunshine with a shaded canopy over our heads; it was still rainbows and butterflies. In fact, we are pointing out granddaddy long-leg spiders in the path and frogs that are jumping by our feet and pomegranate-colored mushrooms — we are really getting into all of it by bending down, looking at each of these things, taking them in. It was a good day.
Soon, we reach our orange and pink blaze junction and that’s when it sets in — our directions said orange trail, not pink. There are no other orange trails. “But you know, maybe this pink could be interpreted as orange?” It couldn’t. “And maybe they ran out of orange paint?” They didn’t. “And why would there be two colors so similar side-by-side?” Horrible planning. “And where the heck is the orange blaze trail mentioned because that one was definitely orange blaze and it wasn’t accurate so maybe it is pink blaze and again, this is the world’s crappiest hike-directions giver?” Yes, that last one got 100% agreement so we decide to go down the pink blaze. I mean, why not? It was the only other trail after all.
Off we go again, hiking . . . still downhill . . . until a little less than a mile into it, we question what we should do until Andy says, “Let’s go fifteen minutes and check and see.” Great option again, good planning again, and off we keep trekking, never able to avoid this unnerving feeling that has returned. Fifteen minutes later, about a mile out, we realize this is going nowhere and ‘nowhere’ simply having a definition of ‘no boulders,’ ‘no vistas,’ dead-end, open field.
So we turn b-a-c-k around (Wrong Trail Number Five).
And “Back around to what exactly?” was the question we wanted so badly to answer because there was nothing left to turn to, no other trail to explore, not even another option to get lost on. This may be about when we started to lose it.
This was also around when Andy pulled out his phone which (in his absolute brilliance, no joke) had opened an app at the beginning that tracked where we were going. So we get an opportunity to see how lost and blind and pitiful we really were because our map looked nothing like the map we were supposed to be following and instead looked like the start to a spiderweb creation of sorts.
We laugh and laugh and tears are rolling down my cheeks and I’m hugging my entire self to keep from getting ab cramps because we are just that ridiculous to have gone almost six miles . . . off course . . . when our entire hike was supposed to be eight total . . . and the worst part? Each one of us was 100% convinced what we did had been the right way. “But you know what?” we say, “To hell with it! Let’s take a quick water break and start our entire hike o-v-e-r again!” Positivity! Optimism! Hope! Fun! Let’s go!
We break, drink water, rejuvenate ourselves, have a 100% agreement, then walk back towards the car . . . when we finally see this:
Right near the friggin’ two trails we just walked: WILDFLOWER TRAIL with an orange and white blaze color. WILDFLOWER TRAIL, an uphill path set out just for us. I don’t know if they heard angels singing and harps playing, but I did. And it was glorious. Again, we belly laugh about how absurd and sightless we were to have missed the mostly clearly marked trail of the day but assure ourselves, “At least this is at the beginning of our hike! We would look like fools later, but this — naw! This was the beginning!” Off we go again! Happiness singing in our minds, up the uphill trail!
. . . And this uphill trail is steep. We are slightly winded because hell, we just walked almost six miles only to start our actual hike now so I say, “Guys! Good news! It says, ‘This is the steepest section of the hike’ and most hikers dip out after this!” which raises everyone’s spirits because it wasn’t too crazy steep; we could definitely do this. And they ask, “How long is this?” so I tell them honestly, “Only zero-point-three miles — I mean maybe a half a mile at most” and I can see their shoulders tilt up, their backs straighten some, their eyes glint with glee, and I’m happy because I helped.
Until it gets steeper . . . and steeper still . . . and we are questioning — once again — where the danged boulders are, praying, wishing, wanting nothing more in life than for some boulders to appear . . . when suddenly we get our stupid, stupid, stupid wish. In front of us: Boulders.
Okay, let me pause here so you get the full effect when I say the world ‘boulders.’ I said just a second ago “stupid, stupid, stupid wish” because who in their right minds would wish to hike through boulders after going about six miles and have eight more to go? So while you see these particular boulders that look sweet and innocent, as if they were asking for a photographic moment, their boulder-brothers are up the trail a few seconds away and they were the utterly worst type of unpleasant, nasty boulders. I mean picture The Princess Bride when we are getting our first view into The Pit of Despair — It was that dun-dun-dunnnn music, deep and ominous and all the birds stopped chirping and every insect froze, not moving a muscle — silence, except the dreaded, ominous, dark music for The Boulders of Despair. That’s how I felt, that’s how we all felt climbing these terror boulders.
Alright, back to our scene: Regardless of the dread that filled my body, I tried to remain hopeful and happy and like the ray-of-sunshine any hiker friend needs so I tell them again, “Guys! I think I got it wrong before . . . but good news! This is the steepest section of the hike!” and they start to laugh at how stupid I am because we’d already gone some way on what we thought was steepest section when it reality, it was not steep at all. In fact, steep now had a different definition and that appeared to be a seventy-degree incline ahead of us . . . through boulders. So they ask again, “How long do we hike through the boulders?” and I respond, joyful because I know the answer, “Only zero-point-three miles — maybe a half a mile at the most” and they again straightened their stance and that gleam of light returns to their eyes. Yes, I was happy because I helped them for sure, again.
Let’s pause a second time because we need to. I’m out of breath just thinking about what we did, to be truthful. We ended up hiking the f’n boulders for about one-point-seven miles. That’s well over my crap estimate of zero-point-three to zero-point-five miles. That’s almost two miles of absolute boulder country. And the boulders kept getting steeper and steeper and steeper. I’m talking what felt like ninety degrees and I’m hanging off the things, thinking why the hell do I not have rock climbing shoes on as I grasp the damned rocks with my hands and monkey climb up the friggin’ things. We are all gasping for breath and sweating like no-sweat-has-ever-existed-before because we were sweating in places we didn’t even know could sweat — like the tops of thighs, which somehow become the world’s most sweaty body part when it is a do-or-die situation. I know, thighs? It’s absolutely true though. And Andy says basically “F* building prisons for prisoners. This — THIS — is what those guilty of horrible crimes need to do” and we are in 100% agreement, lost in our own thoughts as to why we would want the same torture as the world’s worst criminals.
Our hike slows, obviously, and we are releasing sounds-of-death moans along with cuss words, lots and lots of cuss words. Usua was cussing in Spanish (which I didn’t understand), Andy was cussing in English (which I did understand), and I just wanted to be left alone and allowed to die on or next to or even under a stupid boulder. But we were gluttons for punishment, criminals in a different sense so up the ninety-degree boulders we go. And bless Andy’s heart — I forgot to tell you he is new to the States, never been to Virginia, and therefore hasn’t hiked here . . . so these boulders made him clearly realize how crazy I was for going hiking in the middle of summer when even serious hikers choose AC over wilderness . . . and how Virginia weather can really heat up with the worst type of wool-blanket humidity . . . and how absurd this particular trail was. All of this is making him say the most hilarious comments which cause Usua and me to almost pass out with laughter. I have to focus on returning to a hiking-mind so I work to determine (with strong intent) whose fault it was that we were here at this point in time. I was growing angrier as we continued to incline and I needed someone to blame, a person to finger-point at, a way to release the pent up frustrations and madness and sadness and utter loss of hope and sheer I’m-losing-my-f’n-mind. But my options were slim: It was my fault because I chose this damned trail. Or Andy’s fault because he kept making jokes which made me stop to catch my breath. Or Usua’s because she was the one after all leading us up the damn boulders and pausing ever now and again to say, “Ouuu!” in this delightful light and airy Spanish way that made Andy and I think light and airy things were coming . . . until we looked over her shoulder and saw that the trail was inclining at least ten degrees more. So my decision was finalized then: Usua. It was all Usua’s fault and as I’m hiking behind her, I’m cussing and yelling at her in my mind; I’m just livid. I begin to form this steady stomping pattern, hoping she hears and will want to discuss my anger because I sure-as-hell want to discuss it but she doesn’t once turn around. My stomps then form a pattern of me saying, “F*** this trail. F*** this trail. F*** this trail” — which may have been out loud or silent, I was delirious at this point and didn’t even care.
But Andy is unaware of how close I am to tackling Usua and forcing her to apologize so he keeps cussing and joking and cussing and joking . . . which does distract me from my near murder-experience. In fact, it gets to a point where I’m unable to do a combo of walking and laughing and feel I need an ambulance without an inhaler to catch my breath so I tell him — nicely at first, “Listen. Stop talking. Just stop. Do not dare say one more word because I cannot breathe and I have to stop to catch my breath but when that happens, I don’t have enough energy to keep going up the boulders again.” He kind-of sort-of agrees and is quiet for a second before I point out a granddaddy long-legs spider, saying, “Be careful, Andy! Don’t step on him!” and he groans and shoves my pack saying, “F*** THE SPIDERS!!!” Then I see the largest mass of wild ferns by boulders and he grunts louder, “DO N-O-T STOP! I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE SPIDERS! I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE PLANTS! I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WILDLIFE! GO!” and I couldn’t do it. I c-o-u-l-d n-o-t do it. I keeled over in laughter . . . so much so that I almost fell off the f’n mountain. Not even joking. I got way too close to the edge because my eyes were closed and I couldn’t breathe while gasping with laughter and my foot slips down the side of the mountain! The look on Andy and Usua’s face was one that said, “<Enter a string of cuss words> Why do I suddenly feel liable for you?!” as Andy grabs my slipping, clumsy-self from tumbling down the boulder-mountain. Definition of a true English gentleman. However, after that near-death experience, I wasn’t having it. In my most blunt, serious manner, looking him straight in the eyes, I say, “I’m s-e-r-i-o-u-s. You cannot say a-n-o-t-h-e-r word,” and I’m pointing my finger at him viciously, “N-o-t-h-i-n-g. Not a single word. I don’t want to hear it. I cannot hear it. Stop it, shhhhush, just s-t-o-p” and I hike past him with purpose and authority and a sudden desire to live and survive The Boulders of Despair.
By this time, it is a little over halfway into our one-point-seven miles of boulder climbing — which actually felt like the end of our boulder climb because we had been climbing the damned things for what felt like hours — and I hear Usua give her light airy, “OW!” again and Andy and exhale (clearly we didn’t learn anything before), thinking it is finally over. This hellacious torture trail, the pain, the agony, finally coming to an end . . . so I look around Usua’s shoulder to see the reward and Andy looks around mine . . . and we see the boulder monsters i-n-c-l-i-n-i-n-g even m-o-r-e. The look on Andy and Usua’s face mirrored mine and it was priceless so I got out my camera (which, keep in mind, had been tucked away in my pack because when you and your hiking buddies are about to die, it is illegal to take pictures of them. No one wants to see gore and suffering and death. . . . Except for now. There are always exceptions and we do want to see it right now.)
But I was too exhausted to take off my pack and put my camera back so I asked Andy, who was behind me, if he could help put my camera away and he snaps this pleasant picture of me contemplating suicide instead of this uphill trail.
After he put it back in my pack, I think it was around here I looked at Usua and gave a facial expression that said, “Either you have a gun in your bag that you need to use now to put me out of my misery . . . or I need to rest and not look at another friggin’ boulder for a minute” so without words, she reads my mind, just sits down on one of the rocks to rest. I could have kissed her. Honestly. My anger at her for leading us up the boulders completely vanished and I fell in love with her and I could have kissed her. My heart felt light and there was this breeze and I breathed in and thought, “Maybe I’ll re-evaulate my desire to ask her to kill me after this break.” So we pause. But Andy isn’t having it. He’s reaming us out about how “You JUST told me NOT to stop and what is this?! You two are having a break on the rocks?!” and “Once you sit down, you’ll never be able to get back up!” and “There was no three-way agreement to this pause!” and “This is just absurd! I thought you said something about out-hiking me! You look like death and you cannot out-hike a slug!” Okay, maybe he didn’t quite say that last part but everything he was saying equaled all I wrote, just different word choices. But Usua and I look at him, not saying a word, and I am telling him with my dagger-glare, “LISTEN. If you plan to carry both of us up The Boulders of Despair, I’ll stand. Until then, Andy — UNTIL THEN! I’m. Sitting. My. Butt. On. This. Rock. Period” and I think I give a firm little head nod like, “Done deal. Discussion finished!” so he hikes on. Yep. Just leaves Usua and I on the rocks, abandons us there. (It’s here I’ll add a note to myself to take back that earlier comment of “English gentleman.”) Usua and I exchange looks as Andy gets smaller and smaller in the distance and we simply shrug our shoulders and keep drinking water, coming to our own agreement that we will find him dead between boulders because he was trying to be a badass. I mean, doesn’t everyone know the story of The Tortoise and the Hare?! We did, for sure, and we were taking our time. It was just about getting nice and calm and I could feel my color returning to normal, my thoughts were becoming less mental when a British yell breaks the peace: “ADLKFJAD;SLFIJA;SDLFKMADLKFMA;LDSFJZLVKCM!” Usua and I look at each other. Then another: “ALDKFJALDFJ;LSKDMFALDSF!!!!LDKMFALDSKFJ!!!” So I say to her, “Did Andy just say, ‘Come on!’?” and she says, “Did Andy just say, ‘It gets steeper?'” and we exchange a look of plotting murder on the Brit that is threatening us through a trail. So I yell back, all cares gone about disturbing the peaceful calm of the wilderness, “WWWWWHHHHHHHAAAAATTTT?!?!?!?!?!” . . . and he says nothing. Usua and I grunt, agitated that he would either rush us or worry us, but we determine we have to go up eventually so we might as well go now.
There are times during this section of the hike Usua and I trek upward in a calm state . . . and then there are times Andy is screaming incoherent words at us which make us yell back, asking what he said, but no one can understand anyone so we agree on the off-chance that he is prepping us for what is coming to holler back, “DO NOT TELL US THE TRAIL IS STEEPER! WE DO NOT WANT TO HEAR! LIE TO US!” and from there on out, “LIE TO US” “LIE TO US!” LIE TO US!!!!”s are echoing off the boulders of the mountain . . .
when . . .
finally . . .
the boulders . . .
end . . .
and there’s Andy, alive and hopeful once more, waiting for us.
Andy says, “We reached the top!” and I confess there was nothing more in me than the words, “Lieslieslies” which I was saying to myself as he tells us he found the beautiful vista, promising this amazing view and he walks away, guiding us there. Usua and I, grumbling that we don’t care about any vista, follow him because we were just happy to not see boulders . . . when we reach it . . . and Andy’s right. The view was beautiful.
It was gorgeous at the top and there was so many places to sit and rest, which is exactly what we did.
We saw massive hawks flying overhead . . .
and felt a calm come over us as we looked out.
And I cannot tell you how long we stayed. I could have slept on the rocks, I could have built a forever-home there. But we knew at some point, our trail-purpose was that magical, mystical, legend Emerald Pond and we needed to move forward find it. So I began taking the last of the pictures and we began to consult in our directions again.
Meanwhile, I must point out what he probably does not want to be pointed out, but I am going back to that bit about how we sweated like no-one-has-sweated-before: Here is proof.
I happened to glance at Usua who was happy and relaxed, and then to Andy who is in complete focus and absolutely disgusted at what just happened when I realize he rung out a piece of material (used to wipe sweat from his face) oh five to six times, and this was the last shot of that. Imagine how much sweat the photographs would have showed if I had my camera out earlier! I don’t think I have ever (warp-ly) felt so prideful in that moment because it was a mix of thank-goodness-I’m-not-the-only-one-leaking-sweat and proof that this really was the most impossible trail.
Back to the story: Sweat aside, everything good must come to an end sooner or later so we pack up and head out on the trail again. This time, it was quite pleasant. We were on a straight path on the top of a flat mountain, covered canopy still so with each step our life and happiness and dreams slowly started to build back up. We trek one-point-five miles to the white blaze Bird Knob trail which was easily seen and easily marked, but just in case, we determine we will “Go fifteen minutes and check and see.” Turns out, we missed the part that says take a left instead of a right so down the right trail we go (Wrong Trail Number Six). But it’s okay because we don’t notice and we are happy in our oblivion . . . until the knowledge that some type of green pond should have appeared by now because we’ve gone over three-point-five miles. So we stop, reconvene, look at our map only to determine we went slightly wrong. Once you past the vistas, you take a big loop: left gets you to the pond quicker so you have a longer hike home. We simply had a longer hike to the pond (no surprise, again we were gluttons for punishment) but we brought back that ‘ole positivity and said, “This only means we have a shorter hike back!” so we cheer, high-five, find frogs, and smile as the granddaddy long-legs spiders come back out. And life was grand again, truly it was. Until . . . we couldn’t go further on our trail.
I was following Usua when she suddenly stopped and reversed her walk, backing into me . . . so I stopped and walked backwards faster into Andy who pushes my pack forward, questioning, “What is going on?! What are you doing?!” which was exactly what we wanted to know — What were we doing and what was going on?! Because there, in the middle of our path, was a snake.
And this sucker covered the width of our trail, resting, full-looking belly, short tail with no desire to move.
So we all pace individual little paces, lost in our own thoughts at how this is possible, thinking “Where the heck do we go?!” and “What the heck are we supposed to do?!” and “Oh crap! I almost stepped on a snake!” and “We have the worst luck!” until we grouped up again. “What do we do?!” I ask. “How do we get across?!” Usua wants to know. “If a SNAKE stops us from going to the pond after ALL WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH –” fumes Andy, not finishing his threat. So we all look back at the snake, giving it our strongest laser-eyed glare to move it along. It stays though . . . and our magical ways drain, along with visions of ever getting in a cool pond. Around this time my sheer brilliant hiking partners broke the first rule of our Group of Three: Get everyone’s 100% agreement before making decisions and that’s because Usua walks up cautiously and sweetly to the snake and says, “Let’s throw a rock at it.”
And honestly, I didn’t even hear her say this because who — IN THEIR RIGHT MINDS — says, “LET’S THROW A ROCK AT A SNAKE” as a positive idea to move a snake. This is why I truly believe I just ignored her. Surely she was joking and that needed no response. I say, “Guys. Let’s think this through logically” and I’m talking as fast as I can because I know they aren’t paying attention; they are exchanging glances, hatching their own plan in a smaller me-not-included huddle. “We can create our own trail — here on the side! A big loop AROUND the snake!” and I start to go through the brush that is so thick I cannot even get a freaking foot off the trail to which they smirk and laugh and go back to talking about the planned rock-throw. I try harder. “Hey! LOOK! I can get through this!” I say as branches are cutting my legs and face and I appear to be battling a massive monster instead of tree limbs. “We just need to try together! See?! Let’s just all try together!” and I practically throw myself into the impenetrable brush. Andy: “Oh that’s just brilliant! Why not go through the area where you CANNOT see snakes instead of moving the ONE we can see!” and Usua kind-of does a head nod in agreement. I stop. I felt lost and doomed and worried and on the verge of a panic attack.
Let’s evaluate the situation — Surely no one would be stupid enough to actually find a massive rock . . . and bend to pick it up . . . and lift it above his shoulder . . . preparing to throw — when WAIT — HIS SHOULDER?!?!?!?! And that’s when I screamed like I had never screamed before, “ARE YOU F’N KIDDING ME?!” and I didn’t stop screaming until Andy’s arm dropped (rock still in hand, folks) so that he looks at me like I — like *I* — had lost my mind. “It was Usua’s idea . . . ” he says, pointing to Usua, who is still looking at the snake, leaning over it as if she had it confused for a pretty flower she was about to smell. I’m freaking out. I see visions of poisonous snakes, and poisonous snakes racing towards our ankles, and poisonous snake bites, and me narrowly escaping but my two idiot-acting friends lying on the ground crying because the venom is working its way through their systems, and me forced to decide which person I’ll suck the venom from then having to go all the way back down The Boulders of Despair alone to get help. So I respond to Andy, sweetly, because sweet voices help in tragic times. “Andy. You know you cannot really throw a rock at the snake, right?” Then I give him a little eyelash batting and kind smile. I have this theory that if you repeat the utter nonsense people say back to them, they realize how absurd it sounds and they change their minds, so this is what I am aiming for. He just looks at me, Usua keeps leaning to smell what she thinks is a snake-flower, and say again — a little more firmly, “Andy. Hey. Listen.” It was like talking someone out of suicide. “You KNOW you CANNOT t-h-r-o-w a ROCK at a SNAKE. . . . Right.” This didn’t end with a question mark because this time, I didn’t want him to mistake that he had any type of authority to answer. But he says, “Huh?” and I begin to feel my heartbeat really pick up. I was in “HOLY S***” mode because he lacked the ability to see reality from horrible, horrible, horrible idea and so I just start walking backward as quickly as possible from Usua the Snake Whisperer and Andy the “I am Going to Fight Off This Snake to Protect You Pitiful Females With This Rock” and I just keep going backward until I feel I am barely able to see if he still has a rock in his hands or not . . . when . . . he chucks the rock at the snake . . .
and the rock . . .
BOUNCES OFF ITS BODY. The snake DOES NOT MOVE. Like at all. No movement.
We all look at each other heartbroken. Then I think, “Okay, okay. If they are crazy enough to chuck a rock at a snake, maybe I can get them to do other things” so I start running around searching for the longest limb I can find “To poke it along, you know? GENTLY,” I say to them. “Who will do the pokin’?!” Andy asks and Usua (FINALLY) comes back on my side so that we both just look at him. I pick up a limb. “Well, it’s got to be a hell of a lot longer that THAT if it’s me doin’ the pokin’!” he replies and the two of us begin searching for a tree-sized poker while Usua is STILL WHISPERING TO THE SNAKE! We search for a few minutes until Usua’s light, airy voice says, “OW! She’s moving! She’s slowly moving!” and by the time we walk back, the snake had cleared the trail.
“What now?!” I ask and Usua gets this really scary fire in her eyes and says, “LET’S RUN! ON A COUNT OF THREE!” then she bounce/hops and so I feel reinvigorated so I bounce/hop, turning to Andy to make sure he is bounce/hopping with us, and he seems to be but also looks confused but we need to do this before the snake returns so our conversation went as followed:
Usua: “On THREE!”
Usua: “Ready . . . !”
Usua: “Onnnnne . . . !”
Usua: “TWOOOO . . . !!”
Usua: “THREE!!!” and she screams and runs full-speed down the trail, water bottle erupting out of her pack straight into the air so I race after her and under the water bottle, clearly losing my mind too and we run and run and run until we feel somewhat safe to stop and we turn to look at each other, congratulate one another on making it, then turn to congratulate Andy . . . and . . . ??? . . . well, he is nowhere to be seen . . . except up the trail where we all stood moments before . . . he, frozen in either fear-of-the-snake or worried-for-our-sanity, not moving.
Andy: ” . . . Yea . . . ”
Usua: “Why didn’t you run?!”
Me: “We all agreed we would run! What are you doing?!”
Andy: “I, eh, didn’t . . . didn’t hear you say run . . . ”
Me: “HOW did you not hear us say RUN!? We looked at you! We counted down!”
Usua: “What are you going to do?!”
Andy: “Well this is convenient — I’m last so she can bite me . . . ” to which Usua and I just start our count over again and scream “RUUUUUUNNNNN!!!” when three hits. This time he runs, faster than us, even soccer-kicking Usua’s water bottle perfectly in our direction, and if I’m honest, I think he caught it in midair before handing it to her. *Whew* Crisis averted, allowing us to continue our journey to the Emerald Pond . . .
Okay, another pause. So, snake experts, what are your snake thoughts? Leave a comment and help us figure out what type of snake this was because we’ve been working to determine it. We’ve asked hiker friends to rangers and gotten a variety of answers from rattlesnake to more specifically a timber rattlesnake (top) to pine snake (bottom left) to a copperhead (bottom right).
The three of us want to lean towards a timber rattler, but we never heard a rattle — even when our courageous hero chucked a rock and hit it. The ranger was certain it was a copperhead, but the coloring seem to be slightly different. Either way we look at it, these three snakes are definitely venomous, and Usua and I should be so lucky the male with us battled to save our lives so fearlessly . . .
Back to story: We finally — finally — get out of the thick wilderness and reach a wide trail which was a nice surprise. Up until then, we had been hiking in a single-file line on a really narrow trail. Now, we could walk beside each other and even have tons of room to spare. This was the logging truck dirt road, our directions stated, and the one we had tried to find earlier when we missed our turn closer to the pond. So we keep hiking, and I’m telling them I feel it in my bones that water is close. “I can smell water,” I tell them and they think I’m crazy, but Usua and Andy (yes, I’m talking directly to both of you now) — Did I not say I smelt water and given what happened, you have to admit, I may be sheer genius-psychic. Anyway, while I was smelling water somewhere nearby, we were just not finding any until suddenly the path cut back behind us in a twisting snake-body-like fashion and offered another option to continue straight. By this point, any option or deviation or reason to give us anything more than a straight path with no cut-off trails made us groan simultaneously with frustration. This, after all, meant we had to figure out — once again — where to go. We huddled up, getting much better, more quick at these votes by now. (Hell, when you’ve explored the entire area, you don’t dread getting lost anymore.) Soon, 100% vote to stay straight with the same motto of “Let’s go fifteen minutes and check and see.”
Fifteen minutes later, we pass two men with towels over their bare chests and beers in their hands (that screamed “pond” to us), and can I note: They drove there in a truck. “WHAT THE HELL?!” we thought with tears streaming down our eyes, “You can DRIVE here?!” By this point, we had completely forgotten that we had set off wanting to hike and were convinced if we knew there was a road to the pond, we would have driven over two hours just to walk a few yards to it. Anyway, we were clearly walking in the other direction of the men so my group votes me to ask for pond-directions, which I did without hesitation, and the men point to the location behind us, saying “This way” . . . meaning we had passed the pond . . . meaning we were going the damned wrong way again . . . meaning we were almost lost once more (Wrong Trail Number Seven).
Hum, let’s see here . . . to be completely open, I’m going to omit a bit. Maybe I’m biased but it’s just not that exciting. In summary: I keep walking in the opposite direction, cheerily saying over my shoulder, “THANK YOU!” while ignoring what they said. I guess, at this point, I figured since my group wanted directions, they could interpret the answer because my interpreting skills had faded long ago with the second batch of hope (that batch, stuck under The Boulders of Despair). I think I also was so accustomed to being lost that by now it didn’t even dawn on me there was living breathing help to direct us properly. I suppose, in more honesty, I just didn’t trust those men because I couldn’t trust myself with directions or Usua or Andy and so people saying, “Go this way” meant the same as saying, “I just saw a T-rex this way” while pointing behind me. I was delirious and exhausted and near-death and I think all I was focused on was finding the end of the trail, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. This part of the story ends when I realize I don’t hear Usua and Andy’s footsteps anymore behind me and they are a few yards away looking at me like I lost my damned mind and “Where the hell are you hiking to?!” they yell at me. The answer I told them was the same as what I will tell you: “I do not know or care or have any idea where I am going — clearly” as I truck right on back in the direction I came.
Thankfully, these angel-men lead us to the pond, maybe not intentionally, maybe more like we were stalking them and following them closely at their heels.
The Emerald Pond! The green jewel of our journey! The treasure we had waited for! The water we desired to slip into since we stepped out of the car . . .
So we sit down on a rock and just sit and look at the water.
By this point, we had hiked something insane like ten miles when our entire hike was, again, supposed to be eight. And it’s not even that ten miles is that long, it was just a day full of what-we-didn’t-expects. So we are sitting on a rock, just looking at the pond like it is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen or imagined seeing and we are mystified that we made it, we were alive. Now it was time to enjoy our reward and get into the water . . . except the only part of that was that that required us to take off our packs . . . and have on only swimwear . . . and actually walk into the water . . . then swim and float . . . and basically exert a lot more energy than we had in our bodies so in that moment in time — after about a six hour hike, we made our last 100% decision to not get in the water. Admitting this to you makes me feel that you think we were cop-outs but excuse me for just one minute! Have you read my entire post about our seven lost trail-treks, our deaths on the boulders (maybe all that followed was merely a barely-hanging-on fever dream?), and our near poisonous snake bite?! We. had. no. energy. And that’s it. It wasn’t a cop-out; we simply were too exhausted to enjoy our reward and for some reason that equals more badass than anything else.
On a rock, squeezed side-by-side, we sit, staring at the pond and watching all these people that have driven there jumping in and eating over a fire and joking and laughing with beers . . . which makes us determine, heck — we might as well actually eat the lunches we packed.
We all take out our sandwiches and Usua opens her chips that she’s been waiting patiently to eat and I am pulling the fresh cherries from my pack that I’ve been coveting . . . when . . . it starts to rain.
Yep. Rain. Because the possibility of having sunlight for any moment when we were not under a covered canopy of trees is apparently waaay too much to ask for. So it rains and rains and rains harder. In fact, it rained so hard we all swallowed our sandwiches whole, Usua put away the chips without having any, and I never tasted my fruit. Pack rain covers went on and we left the pond that we literally worked all day for after seeing it for less than five minutes.
To say that this trip was doomed, cursed, planned to go the opposite of what we had expected or hoped was, by this time, a drastic understatement. So before the long hike home, we decided to hell with it — Truly dripping rain water from every orifice, it was time for another selfie.
Without another word, we begin the long journey back and on the way, we saw a few deer . . . but I confess, when Andy and Usua pointed them out, I was wiping my face with my bandana so I couldn’t see, which caused me to squeal so loudly in delight . . . that they, well, ran away.
And to be quite honest with you, all I wanted to do was run away too. I was tired and soaked and miserable and getting cold which was making me grumpy. “This was not me!” I kept telling myself. I’m the type of girl that runs outside when she hears thunder. I’m the type that sits in the grass and waits for the rain to pour on me. I’m the type that doesn’t come in until the rain is done because the harder the rain, the more I feel alive. But here and now, I hated the rain and I hated the trail. “Guys, I’m really nervous about the boulders,” I said. Earlier, I had slipped on a rock and fell all the way to the ground after we reached the top flat part of the mountain so all I could picture was my limbs bent at the most awkward angles with bone protruding from skin. I knew my hiking boots would slip on the boulders with this much rain. I knew I would kill myself on the boulders. I knew there was no way in hell — even if I really tried — I was going to make it past this trail alive. “It’s okay. We will go slow,” they said as I huffed and puffed silently at their optimism. Clearly, they had forgotten how my earlier slip. Clearly, they had forgotten when I almost plummeted off the side of the mountain. Clearly, they did not know how clumsy I was. And clearly, they did not know me.
While I’m now growling, they kept hiking on, back through the wide logging path, back through the flat-mountain-narrow path, back towards The Boulders of Despair. Meanwhile, the rain was pouring. It was what Andy and Usua would refer to as a “torrential downpour” and even under the trees, we were drenched. Plus, no sooner had we gotten under the canopy that the storm truly began — The rain was harder, deep and angry thunder thundering, along with a dense fog and darkness that (as the last one in the single-file line), I honestly had trouble keeping track of Andy who was leading. The more we walked and the darker it got, the more worried I became until suddenly we bumped into a man headed the opposite way on the trail.
Man: “Where you guys from?”
Man: “Oh, cool!”
Man: “Ohhhh, that’s awesome!”
Me: ” . . . Virginia . . . ”
To which he didn’t really say anything before switching the topic, asking if there was anything great behind us worth seeing.
All of us: “Oh yeah! There are two really great vistas — Beautiful view, though I don’t know how well you’ll be able to see now.”
The man promptly decided to check while we reassured him to “Go fifteen minutes and check and see” — actually just joking, we told him it was about a mile or so back. He wished us luck (which we needed) and we wished him a good day. As we continue hiking away from him though (about a three miles away to be exact), we come to the vistas. The realization that we had just given this man directions . . . the completely opposite way . . . in a horrible storm was daunting. What — and I mean what — the hell were we thinking?! WHY at ANY point in time did we determine we were suddenly qualified to give anyone directions?! I mean, seriously! What. was. wrong. with. us?! This qualifies as a Wrong Trail Number Eight because if we had elected to show him, we would have absolutely gone that way . . . into oblivion and stupidity.
So as we pass the vistas, I’m growing angrier — angry that we actually thought we knew for a half-a-second where we were going, angry that it was so dark because the vistas were absolutely unseen now and I had promised myself to get a second-vista shot. When we had first arrived, we desired the Emerald Pond and didn’t want to spend all day at the look-outs, but on the way back, I knew I could get my shots. That hope went out the window (as all other this-hike-hopes did) when I couldn’t even see where the vista because of the dark night and fog . . . but Andy led on and rarely did we pause to talk. In fact, the only times we did pause to reassure me I wasn’t going to murder myself with a boulder slip and to have an honest discussion (again and again and again) about whether it would be safer to sleep in the fallen leaves and pine needles . . . without a tent . . . without food . . . without protection. And just stay there. Maybe for the night. Maybe forever. Which may seem crazy, but if you only knew how dark, foggy, and wet it was, looking back, this was probably the smartest option compared to hiking almost two miles down the boulders.
“BUT NEVER IN HERE DID WE QUIT!” We kept telling ourselves silently until we finally, finally reached the slick, death-trap rocks. These rocks took at least an hour to navigate down, and I was going sooo slooow. If there was an opportunity for me to get my hands and feet on rocks, I did. If there was an opportunity to crawl, I crawled. And slowly, we navigated the boulders.
I should enter here that we did pause once as we went down. Now several miles from the pond, the rain was creating larger puddles we had to walk through. All of this meant I could literally feel water (not even absorbing but) sloshing inside of my boots — back and forth as my feet moved. This made me really sad because my boots were supposed to be waterproof and my feet were supposed to be dry. I thought about this for awhile as we hiked back — how I would need to take back my boots, how I would have to go through all the hassle of finding another pair, how I didn’t like the other boot options anyway. I began to think about it so much that I felt it important to tell my hiker friends: “Guys — Know what?” They both stopped to turn and look at me. “My boots are just now wet! Can you believe it?! They are just now wet!” I meant it as in, “Geez, I cannot believe they are not waterproof! Let’s talk about non-waterproof boots . . .” but the looks that Andy and Usua gave me could have killed me dead right there. They both did this grinding of their teeth thing and narrowing of their eyes thing before staring me down and — in unison — yelling at me, “Your feet are JUST NOW wet?! JUST NOW?! My feet have BEEN wet since the start of the rain!” Then they turned, just left me and my newly wet boots standing on slippery boulders. I thought about screaming an apology after them but . . . well, I guess I’m sorry. I thought sharing was caring.
After this, we kept silent the rest of the boulder way . . . until . . . the end of the boulders were in sight . . . and we had the loudest cheer! We may have even high-fived and chest-bumped and butt-slapped (okay, the second part did not happened) but it was a genuine celebration. We had made it. WE. HAD. MADE. IT.
It was true that by this time, it was around 7:00 p.m., we had gone about thirteen miles, and hopes of the Luray Caverns beside the best frozen custard had long since vanished. We wanted my car and we wanted my car immediately. The only way to get there: Go the exact way back . . . and about half a mile later, we finally see the opening . . . we finally see pavement . . . we finally . . . see . . . and here we just stopped. What. the. f***?!
That last question deserves a fermata, it requires a long pause.
We were looking at a gated entrance . . . that was not our entrance . . . and a road that was not our road . . . and our car was not here because we had gone the wrong way a-g-a-i-n. “Holy *!*!*!*!*!*!*! “How does this happen!?” we asked each other at the same time. “How is this possible?!” “How can this be happening?!” And of course we had no answers because all three of us had elected to go the way we did, 100% the entire time, and we were so freaking sure of ourselves each and every way . . . until right now — this very location — had reared up and slapped us in the face with an enormous Wrong Trail Number Nine.
“Do we hike the highway?” we asked. Getting hit by a car, a better option than going back on the trail. “Could we even get through at the top of the mountain by the highway?” With our luck, the answer was no. “Do we even know for sure our car is up there?!” Let’s be honest, we knew nothing for sure and clearly had no friggin’ idea what we were doing. Our only choice: Get back on the dreaded trail.
Andy pulls out his map again (life saver) and he shows us we have about a m-i-l-e to go to the car. A m-i-l-e. The looks Usua and I exchanged with a quick, “Ohhhhh no, no, no, Andy. Ohhhhh no, no, no” with rapid head shakes and wide eyes was another way of saying not even “Do not lie to us” but “No. We aren’t doing it. No.” He may have even apologized, but all Usua and I could keep doing was shaking our heads with a “Nonono, Andy, nonono.” The aspect that this trail s-t-i-l-l had us, that this trail would not let us go was unfathomable.
But, in the end, what can you do? Andy walked away and left Usua, me, and our “Nonono”s again . . . until we were forced to follow him . . . another almost mile away . . . so that about fourteen long, winded, pissed off, unbelievable miles later . . . we saw my car.
This caused another worn-out, barely active celebration . . .
Yep. That’s what they left me with . . . after all the guts and glory, pain and blood, lies and honesty . . . this is what they left me with. So I yelled at them. I yelled at them and made them re-do it because damned if this was how we would go out! Damned if they would allow the trail, that mountain, this trip to take the wind out of us! DAMNED IF WE WOULD NOT HAVE A FINALLY PICTURE TO DOCUMENT OUR SURVIVAL! And so, we did.
I’ll end this overly long post because it was an overly long trip on this: When we got — finally — into the car, we all just sat there, silent, dead. A few minutes go by and we are just barely breathing and alive when I turned around, look at Usua and Andy and say, “So. Do you want to go on a hike with me again next weekend?” And here is the absolutely most amazing part, the heartwarming portion of the entire trip, what we had worked our entire almost fourteen miles and about eight hours for: Their laughter. Their laughter and their agreement that while this was definitely a hike they would never forget, they would — they actually would go right back out with me again. Love. That to me, in that moment, that was love.
So I know I promised you the end there, but I want to add more — Usua and I talked the entire ride there about our desire to see a bear on the trail and right when we pulled onto the highway, there — a small baby black bear ran right in front of my car . . . so much so that I had to slam on breaks and narrowly missed hitting the sucker . . . but there, we all saw our first bear.
And on the way home, it rained and poured more, but in between bits of pauses, we saw the end of two massive colorful rainbows.
So I guess by the end of this hike, I had downed practically three-liters of water, was convinced I needed to man up and pull my right pinkie toenail off, sure I had blisters that resembled water balloons on the back of my right heel, and positive both of my hip bones had permanent black bruises . . . but by the end of this hike — this epic cuss-word-stridden, too-many-lost-points-to-count (though I tried), high-hopes, and the-lowest-of-lows type of hike to ever be had — by the end of it, I made some seriously incredible kickass best hiking friends anyone could ever ask for. (To Andy and Usua: Massive respect to you both. You amaze me.)