I heard about this mountain before I even took to my first trail. My university professor, people at REI, my dentist, dental hygienist, friends, and more all described Old Rag as “a different type of mountain.” Vinayak even mentioned it to me when we first hiked together at Hightop Mountain. Fortunately, I got the chance to not only see Vinayak again but to hike his favorite Virginia mountain with him. First, here’s some information on Shenandoah National Park’s Old Rag:
- Little over nine miles total
- There’s a 2,415 foot elevation
- Rated a Level Four of Five difficulty
- Side note: This hike gets rated a big red Zero on solitude because hikers and rock climbers alike are drawn to the place. In fact, I’ve heard horror stories of hikers in long lines on Old Rag trails. Unable to pass others because of the slender trail or rock climbs, they were left waiting, moving inch by tiny inch as if in lines at a Virginia grocery store after the word “snow” was heard. This was the top reason why I had stayed away from the mountain until now when it was the middle of winter and I figured there would be practically no one there (which I was right, but for Old Rag “practically no one” meant seeing at least five other hikers throughout at all times).
Let’s backtrack a bit though. Before I left, I called Andy. You know, in case I was my usual clumsy self and accidentally propelled myself off the side of a cliff or got lost in the wilderness forever; I just wanted him to know we had a good run, amazing adventures, that I love him. Well, that and I also wanted to clear my conscious . . .
Me: To be honest, I’m kinda scared about this hike.
Andy, dropping his head: Oh no. L. Whyyy?
Me: Well, there are two things I sorta didn’t tell you . . . because . . . well, just because . . .
Andy: L . . . Tell me . . .
Me: Alright. Don’t be mad. The first one is that . . . I didn’t print any directions.
Andy: Okay, no problem. Print them now. What’s the other thing you didn’t tell me?
Me: See, no. What I meant to say was ‘I am not printing any directions’ . . .
Andy: WOT?! L! WHY?! Why would you do that?! W-h-y?!
Me: I guess . . . I figure since Vinayak had been before, well, surely he must know . . .
Andy: “Print off directions. Print them off now, L. Print. off. directions.” I shrugged my shoulders which meant, let’s be honest, that I was not printing off directions. “Okay.” He made a large inhale. “Tell me the other confession.”
Me: “Well, I’m scared because . . . um, Vinayak’s exact words were something about there being ice on the mountain . . . and to be extra careful . . . and bring good hiking shoes . . . He kinda scared me.”
Andy didn’t say anything for a few minutes. I think what I said was setting in because the next thing I heard was him yelling “Bloody hell, L. Wot do you mean i-c-e?!”
Me: “I mean, do you think I’m ready for this? Vinayak is a much better hiker than me. I don’t know — I almost killed myself slipping on damp rocks at Emerald Pond when it rained. Can I really handle ice? I’m starting to get scared. Like really scared. Maybe I should cancel?”
Andy’s only replay came in the form of an even larger exhale and “Be careful, L. Please. Just be careful” which really could be translated into something like “Jesus, L. Try to come back alive. Seriously. Put forth all your effort to truly try. Please.”
With that type of farewell, I felt doomed from the start . . . which is why I messaged Vinayak mere minutes before our meeting. “Do I need to print off directions?” I asked, despite the fact that I was no where near a computer or printer and instead was waiting for him in a parking lot near the interstate. “Nope,” he quickly responded which immediately put aside my fear of being kidnapped by the trees and left to wander aimlessly until I had no food or drink and shriveled into myself, starved to death and left to die. True, his answer did relieve that concern, but it still didn’t remove the image of me slipping on ice and cracking my skull open with bits of brain and blood leaking onto the rock like a broken egg yoke. I needed to think positive though: At least I was at a fifty percent improvement rate. And that’s what I chose to focus on as I waited in the parking lot, visualizing my doom and death, until Vinayak pulled up.
Athlete-extraordinaire is putting it lightly when it comes to Vinayak. On the way, he told me he had been hiking more, taking to Old Rag and that trail at least ten times. In fact, he confessed he tries to go at least once a month which made me feel better. I mean, what could happen when I was with someone that knew the trail so well he could hike it with his eyes closed? . . . Then I tried not to think of how that question alone challenged fate and lead me to foreshadowed my own destruction.
Anyway, we arrive and I quickly see why Old Rag is a different type of mountain, one that will remind me of this fact our entire hike. Dense fog set in as we kept getting closer and once we got there, the word ‘dense’ hardly describes the thickest fog I had ever seen. It was hard to see trees even two yards away and if I paused to take pictures long enough without telling Vinayak, he was suddenly swallowed up by this hungry engulfing-everything white cloud.
This fog though made me want to keep pushing forward, see what was around the bend because all seemed mystical, otherworldly. True, it was another trail with trees, another forest but it felt different, surreal and I found I could have stayed put for minutes examining the area.
I should note here, this hike wasn’t as easily accessible as others I had been on. The parking lot was about a mile from the start of the trail so off we went down a paved road towards Old Rag. Finally, we arrived and began our trek on the blue blazed Ridge Trail.
Hiking fact: The double blaze color means a trail switchback or point where two trails meet. The picture above is a perfect example of a switchback or a sharp bend in the trail!
Talking more about this trail, there was no gradual introduction — It became steep and rocky immediately. In fact, here’s a look at our trail within the first mile. Let me repeat: First mile.
This lack of gradual introduction meant the climb up didn’t have a ‘honeymoon period.’ There is no promise of relaxation or easy travels on Old Rag. It’s a shame too, thinking about it, because speaking of honeymoon periods, you do become closer to your hiking buddies. At least I did — I became much closer to Vinayak and I’m sure more than he would have liked. Up until this moment, I had been following Vinayak . . . or more like trudging after and trying to smile when he occasionally turned around to see if I was still alive after steep sections. And so it was around here when we were hiking up and up on our trail when a massive boulder appeared in our way — a huge, perfectly circular type of boulder that seemed to have this aura about it, a menacing voice that bellowed, “You SHALL NOT pass!” Moving it would be a feat of God — equivalent to moving a small hippo or elephant alone — and apparently everyone agrees with me because the rock had an arrow pointing up, meaning this hunk of mineral was an essential part of the trail.
Vinayak paused in front of it. “I think you should go first,” he said politely, which I took for him being a gentleman. Now though I’m realizing he knew earlier that I wouldn’t have made it if I went after him so it was our only hope to actually complete this hike and move past the first, well, two miles. “Oh thank you!” I told him excitedly (and naively) then rushed towards the rock. Let me tell you, I tried to grip it, I hugged it, I tried to wrap my legs around the sides of it, I threw my body onto it, and all efforts had the same result: I slowly slid down the side only to land in the e.x.a.c.t same place. I kept trying. On the trail you cannot quit, you know! (Plus, if I did, our only option was to turn back around to the parking lot. “Not an option!” I told myself and rubbed my body against the rock in a new untried way.) In the end, I did all but sexually molest the rock and being honest, those watching would probably say otherwise as the way I was moving my body against it and onto it, well, let’s just say there are no other words to describe my actions other than “sexually molesting a rock.” I should have admitted defeat but for embarrassment, I didn’t want to. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I should have been embarrassed by my actions.
Meanwhile, bless it, the entire time I was attacking, provoking, or loving this rock, Vinayak was just watching, yep — standing right behind me, watching. Occasionally, he let out a little suggestions such as, “Try putting your hand there” or “Place your foot here” or “Don’t do that to the rock — It’s unholy.” Okay, that last part I’m joking and he obviously didn’t say that but truly should have. For the most part, I’m positive he didn’t know what to say . . . or think . . . or how to act. Actions I did with the rock had never been done before. And definitely not in public. I apparently had no fear or concern. Finally, I hear this from behind me: “Would you like a little help?” “Um hum,” and I tried to nod to him but my cheek was smooched against the rock as I had developed a new method of attack with my behind absolutely protruding straight from it in an effort to hug-and-walk the side up. Except I couldn’t move up and I couldn’t move down. I had gotten my legs so tightly placed under my stomach that I was stuck in position. Which is probably why Vinayak finally asked if I wanted help because, besides by bottom swaying back and forth in the fog, I hadn’t moved for minutes. “Here!” he announced and shoved my butt — a huge two-handed push — that allowed me to skyrocket all the way to the top of the rock. Success! I felt success as if I had made it to the top, as if I had climbed the sucker, as if I was a real hiker! . . . And then I remembered I hadn’t done anything but wave my butt in people’s faces and it was Vinayak that was the unsung hero so I turned to offer him help. “Surely,” I think, “no way a human could scale a rock this size by himself. Definitely no person can climb over this rock without help. Absolutely no one would be able to pass this section of trail without assistance” and so I bend forward to offer him my hand and he — I kid not — literally jumps from the ground to the top of the rock and hoists himself up in one singularly fluid movement that by the time I had stood from simply bending over to give him help, he was ahead of me on the trail and walking on. After this, I determined with ninety-eight percent certainty that Vinayak was indeed a superhero.
And so we moved on . . .
to more merciless rocks and a trail that became a twisted maze requiring you to lean, duck, slide under, claw up to climb over, and generally hurtle yourself onto massive boulders in order to keep going. I believe this is where I had only two thoughts running through my head: One, I need to invest in a pair of hiking gloves due to the fact that my hands were becoming scraped bits of flesh and two, Vinayak definitely tricked me — Instead of going hiking, we were without a doubt rock climbing because damned were my feet on the ground. Later I found the trip was as advertised though: “A rock scramble with narrow passages and several spots requiring hand over hand climbing.”
There were many extraordinary tight spots, including a twelve foot deep bitty crack in a rock that drops to cliff, small caves, narrow footpaths, and false trails with more suck-in-and-hold-your-breath-through squeezes.
By this time, I realized the full amount of concentration and exertion this mountain requires so much so that following rock climb after rock climb, rock scramble after rock scramble, it got to a point where I just couldn’t do it. I had all the drive and energy and willpower in my heart but no physical strength to mount and conquer these rocks. Mainly compared to Vinayak, who I’m pretty sure was slipping into caves to take some muscle-enhancing drug because he wasn’t even breathing hard or pausing, and maybe it was my eyesight in the fog but he even appeared to be leap-frogging over the boulders! Simply put: I wasn’t a superhero or demigod like Vinayak; I was just me, a regular hiker who was eager but exhausted and confused, disoriented at times about which way was up and down due to the fog.
This is why by around mile three, bless his heart, Vinayak saved me . . . time and time again . . . from being left abandoned on Old Rag, calling the mountain home. I was still trailing him, hopeless like a little puppy, as he flew over rocks so that when I approached the boulders, I just stopped and looked up. I think that’s when he saw the desperation in my eyes because without a word, he would bend and grab my hand to hoist — no, let’s pick a better word — literally lift me off the ground and on top of the rocks. One swift and smooth movement, folks, and there I was standing next to him. At first I felt sheepish then humbled then celebratory so much so that I was rejoicing inwardly. “Got ya, sucker!” I mentally taunted the rocks I passed, pointing at them and laughing while Vinayak wasn’t looking. “I scaled you, nooo problem! And ya thought I couldn’t do it! HA! I did — I passed ya, you fool!” and this type of mental boosting of my self-conscious helped for awhile . . . until it was about the fifth rock that Vinayak heaved me over when it hit me: I wasn’t actually doing anything and that’s when I felt guilty . . . until, in another half-second lift, my mood changed to overjoyed. “This is great!” I thought to myself, hair blowing in the breeze, teeth-showing smile on my face, no sweat now as I was hoisted onto another rock, reaping the benefits of no physical exertion while still climbing higher and higher. I was essentially on a trip with miracle workings equivalent to a ski lift over a mountain. Except my lift was Vinayak, poor poor Vinayak. I probably should have felt bad but for the interrupted grunts and gasps that I heard now and then from other hikers, I knew many more were doing the same. So I just smiled and thanked him each time.
Finally, after I plodded — no, let’s be truthful — was carried up the mountain, we reached the visa. Here we stood at the summit with legendary 360 degree views, the summit that drives people here in droves, the summit from the only mountain that people don’t mind waiting in line to see. And our view, at the end, was this: more thick white fog.
To be honest, I didn’t mind. It added to the unique qualities of Old Rag and made this mountain stand out in my mind as one to rival for a “different type of hike.”
We ended up having lunch on top of the mountain we had conquered . . . which poor Vinayak had to help me again. He was searching for a bit of reprieve for us from the strong ice-cold wind and was walking quickly in front of me when he got to a rock surface that — for a few yards — leaned to the edge of the cliff at about forty-five degrees. He didn’t pause and just kept going at such an extreme tilt I squinted my eyes to determine if gravity no longer existed on Old Rag. Then he disappeared, just vanished around the mountain corner in the fog. I stood looking at the forty-five degree death ground. “There’s nooo way,” I said to myself, “Nooo f’n way I can walk that. One slip or misstep and I’ll slide right off the mountain” so I waited for Vinayak to return. But he didn’t come back. “Okay,” I tried to encourage myself, “you can do this! You’re a hiker! You just scaled rocks the size of safari animals! You can do this!” and I tried to take a step but was scared back into place with the image of Andy shaking his head and saying, “Oh bloody hell, L! WOT are you THINKING?!” So I just stood. And waited. And waited more. And waited more. Then looked around at the view that wasn’t really a view. Then tried to see if there was a different way to Vinayak. But all the while, he never returned. So I came back and waited some more. “Surely, he will see I’m gone and come back,” I thought. But with each minute passing, there was no Vinayak. “Listen. He is just on the other side of that mountain, no doubt waiting for you to simply walk over so that he can eat his sandwich. Cross the ground!” and I’d try again . . . but be scared back. The incline was too much. “What do I do?!?!” my mental voice became more high pitched with worry. “What if he abandoned you?! What if he was angry he had to carry you this far! What if he disappeared to leave you here to make it on your own!” and that’s when I was about to start screaming his name in a bloodcurdling-type of way . . . when . . . suddenly, he appeared. “It’s just this way,” he said in a calm, pleasant voice that didn’t give away how idiotic he must have found me to be standing there like a lost kid in the middle of a grocery store aisle. I cannot remember if I explained I was scared or if I pretended I was enjoying the fog-soaked view or if I just pranced right along next to him but eventually we made it to our sandwich-eating area.
After that, we had no more problems . . . or uh, I had no more problems. Clearly, Vinayak never had a problem except having me as a hiking partner. Have I said “Bless his heart yet”? Bless it, a million times over.
In the end, I climbed Old Rag . . . or uh, Vinayak climbed Old Rag for the both of us. But I learned a few good things about this hike:
- First, hiking gloves — I need to remember to have a pair just in case as a back-up. Ensuring I still have skin on the palms of my hands seems a worthwhile investment.
- Second, I have incredible friends like Vinayak who, if I hadn’t have gotten into hiking, I would probably have never met. To be honest, before we went, I was a little down because it was around the time Andy left to move back to England for the foreseeable future so I thought the fresh mountain air would do me good. What I got in return though was more than gulps of forest air. What I saw was a true friend, one that didn’t hesitate to help me on the hike, one that didn’t judge me, one that — just like my very first hike with him — encouraged me to keep going. And so I left this hike feeling high-spirited and happy. No matter what happens in life, we all just need to keep going. Sometimes you’re given boosts and sometimes people can grab your hand. And sometimes, you have to make it on your own. But in the end, the journey — oh, that journey — is absolutely worth it because, like me, you’ll eventually have a moment when you realize all the heartache, all the pain, all the darkness, it was worth it to get to where you are today. So for me, it was all worth it to grow, to learn, to love again, to become who I am and where I am today. And for this, my thanks go out to Vinayak — the superhero, the god, the miraculous mountain climber, the athlete-extraordinaire — and more importantly, my friend.
And PS–when I got back, my poor camera looked like this . . . which just about sums up how tough this hike was.
As I told Andy, “It was do or die. Me or the camera. I thought I made a good decision.” And I know, most definitely, this camera shows that great decision.