Summer is upon us, which means it has been too long since this winter hike. That’s a shame too because it was awesome — full of laughter, great friends, and a payoff view.
Let’s talk more about these friends: Usua was by my side again, and can I say for a moment how much I love her? She’s wonderful and is one of my go-to hiking partners. Besides us, we each brought someone — her friend Leo and my friend Nikki; both had never been hiking before. Usua met Leo at work — Leo (like Usua) is a scientist and each work with animals; however, Usua works with zebra fish, studying a rare disease in humans. Leo works with mice in an effort to understand breast cancer. Impressive, right? Anyway, Leo is Argentinian and my friend Nikki is American, which is crazy because she is only the second American to go hiking with me. Nikki and I met in college though — We lived in the same dorm, even on the same floor, had the same major and minor, and strangely enough only found each other the last year of college. I remember the first moment we became friends too: She was sitting behind me in an English class and tapped me on the shoulder so I turned around. “I like your hair,” she said and smiled this beautiful smile, dimples showing. Meanwhile, I had the front seat in the middle of the classroom and felt a little out of place after chopping my waist-long hair off and into the shortest possibly bob. “Thanks,” I told her. “I like your hair too.” And so it began — Girls in college, complimenting one another’s hair, cliche but immediate friends. Since then, time with Nikki has morphed from talks of books and studies and professors to listing recipes we want to try, grocery shopping for ingredients, then making as many tasty dishes as time allows. Meeting up in comfy clothes, talking with mouths full of food, drinking way too much wine way too early, stuffing ourselves until we are almost in food-induced commas, and discussing . . . well, let’s just not say here (or ever) what we’ve discussed — that’s time with Nikki. You can see how this type of person becomes a best friend. So when she told me she wanted to try something different, head down an opposite-friendship path and get into hiking . . . I quickly contacted Usua and set something up. Our destination? Raven Rocks:
- A short five-point-five mile hike (which makes this a perfect winter hike!)
- A 1,530 foot elevation
- Rated a Level Three of Five difficulty
Let’s revisit how Usua and I were the only ones that had hiked before. I was nervous about this. I’m no expert, despite the fact that Andy and I often remind each other how we were mistakenly labeled that once. We had just stumbled from the forest, coming to the end of our two-day hiking/camping trip in Shenandoah National Park. We were beaten and tired and had one hell-of-a barely-survived journey when we heard this behind us: “Excuse me, excuse me! Can we ask you questions about hiking?” We stopped and turned. Surely people were not speaking to us — Us, the couple that gets lost on practically every hike; us, the guy and girl that run (literally) into bears regularly; the ‘us’ that if-it’s-going-to-happen happens. Maybe they were asking to avoid us, which, smart move if so . . . “You’re experts, right? Hikers?” We stood dumbfounded. “At least,” hesitation grew in their voices, “you look like experts with those packs.” Ah, those packs that weighed between forty to forty-five pounds each, the ones that gave away our off-time dreamy occupations of Wanna Be Hikers, the packs we were laboriously and gruelingly hauling, stuffed so full they dwarfed our bodies which could barely move under the weight. Those “expert” packs. That made us laugh and not just a chuckle but a belly-laugh, blatantly in front of them as their poor puzzled faces gained more forehead wrinkles, which made us laugh more. “I’m sorry,” I said through tears, “but you’re the first person that has ever said we look like we know what we’re doing — ” “The first people to call us experts!” Andy interjected between my snort-laughter, “It’s just — Mainly after what we went through!” and here we told them about our trip, which was the Three Falls bear-running haunted Hike. Their eyes grew so wide I was concerned their eyelids wouldn’t slide over their eyeballs and that’s when they stopped blinking. We apologized again. “What questions did you say you want to ask?” They were quiet, visibly shaking after our story. Either that or contemplating their identification mistake. “Uh . . . we wanted, we wanted to know about . . . ” “Hiking,” the man finished in a squeak as the woman went to hide behind him. I felt bad. In one fell swoop, we seem to have killed this couple’s desire to venture into nature. “What question did — ” and before I could finish, he interrupted with another shriek, “Is that NORMAL — to see BEARS?! To have bears WATCH you?” Damned if we hadn’t assisted them in completely losing sight of their goal. “Noh, noooh,” Andy chuckled, “Nawht normol ah oll.” And the couple relaxed a bit, whether credited to what he said or due to his accent. “Well, you two at least know more than we do. This was gonna be our first hike,” they admitted sheepishly. From there we talked to the couple for a good half-hour, sharing all we had learned thus far, and let’s be honest — Our errors-we-learned-from could have allowed us to stay for days. “Oh and hey — ” I said turning back as we were leaving, “don’t be scared to get lost. That’s the bit of advice we should have lead with — That’s when we have had our best memories, that’s when the real adventure happens.” Fast-forward to now, I was lacing the boots I’ve put over 145 miles on in six months while Usua and I were about to lead two novice hikers into an extremely cold forest.
At this time, it was the end of January and temperatures felt in the single digits, which is why Usua and I said Hike Suggestion Number One: Wear tons of layers. This came after Leo messaged Usua before we left, asking, “What is hiking dress?” Keep in mind he hasn’t been in the States long and is learning English, which was a hoot on the way up because he was trying to tell us how rough his English skills were. “I cannot write sentences,” he proudly stated, sitting up straighter then smiling. Everything with Leo ends in a great smile, which is why I didn’t want to correct him and say, in fact, that was a sentence I’m positive he could have written. “Nikki, do you . . . ?” he asked, nodding towards her as they sat in the back seat of my car. We all waited in silence. He started again, chuckling softly. Clearly I missed the joke. “Nikki! Do you . . . ?” It was her turn to nod now, encouraging him. I glanced in my rearview miorr — surely there was some gesture I couldn’t see that explained the ending of his sentence fragment. “You DO?!” Leo asked when she nodded. “Wait — What?” she shook her head. “Nikki.” He breathed in, a big deep breath. This was clearly a simple question. “Nikki. Do. You . . . ?” “Yea . . . ” she said, waiting for more. His chuckle grew louder, a gulping-breath type. “You DO!!!” and he laughed more. “Wait, wait. Leo, I don’t — ” “You DON’T?!” he seemed appalled and laughed harder. Obviously she should have said she did. “No. Or maybe. Or yes. Leo — I don’t know! Do I what?! I don’t know what I do! Or I do but you don’t know what I do — or better yet, I don’t know what you are asking that I do!” “Ohhh, Niiiikkiiiii,” he exhaled as all four of us were laughing so hard we were crying. “I cannot write sentences,” he explained again and this time I was beginning to think he may be right.
And that’s how our trip up went — Laughter so hard my abs hurt until, soon enough, we were there and this is where my second Hike Suggestion Number Two falls for those thinking of going: Arrive early. This will be the only negative words I say of this hike: The parking is irksome to say the least. The lot is tiny (read “nonexistent”) and smothered with “No parking signs” around the perimeter warning any place you could even think of questioning increases your risk of being towed. Needless to say, by the time we got there around 10:30 a.m., the “lot” was full, minus one super tight hanging-off space at the front . . . which I probably shouldn’t have claimed due to the fact that it, well, wasn’t a space.
“AmIcussingtoomuch?” Nikki whispered to me after we parked and got out of the car. “BecauseIamreallyexcitedtocome,butsometimeswhenIgetnervousIcussmore.” She was barely breathing between words as I shook my head. “Ididn’tknowyouhiked.Imean,howoftendoyougo?Andhowlongdoyouhike?AndyoupromiseI’mnotcussingtoomuchbecauseIreallyamnervous.” Truthfully, I felt she deserved an award because I had never heard that many sentences smooched together without cussing. Heck, she and Leo seemed on opposite ends of the English spectrum.
Speaking of Leo . . . In the meantime, he was thinking of life beyond this trail. Determined and proud once more, he told Usua he wanted to improve his English. “I will speak English. Only English. Starting now. Will you do this with me, Usua?” he asked her. “Yes, yes, of course Leo,” she responded instantly. What I was beginning to see is that Usua takes on a motherly role towards Leo — She reprimands him when he throws himself into his work, volunteering to stay past 5:00 p.m. until around an insane 11:00 at night because (she lectures) he will burn out; she encouraging but also quick to correct his English and quibble over his Spanish (due to the fact that they have different Spanish words for the same thing [for instance, “to take” is a common verb for Usua’s area but a cuss word for Leo’s, something that caused a large amount of confusion the first time they spoke]). But mostly, she puts Leo in his place. “I will help but you need to speak to people that are not me! You are the wooorst, Leo — Speak to people that speak English naturally! That live here! That is how you will learn, Leo!” Usua is convinced her English is not great too; however, I’m here to tell you it is perfect. “Yes, yes — I have been speaking with Nikki! But from now on, Usua, English — only English.” . . . That is until about five minutes later, I heard a male voice saying, “Dkjffiwn ekensls ndkciw wpndsk” and a female voice answering, “Wnwlkadi ,amsd iuyy guysknxck,” which is my code of their Spanish conversation. Bless his heart. He did try, and maybe that’s what Usua was saying to him. Then again, they could have been talking about unicorns typing sci-fi stories or my crappy parking job — That’s undetermined. However, it doesn’t matter — Our hiking boots were laced and off we went!
Usua lead our pack, followed by Leo, Nikki, and then me.
The trail varied from large rocks to significant roots . . .
and gradually our order changed with Usua and Nikki so much farther ahead that I began to lose sight of them altogether. While I clung back primarily to take pictures, I also felt it was necessary because Leo, bless him, was very . . . we will say careful and meticulous of where he stepped. And let me say this: It wasn’t necessarily because Leo was struggling. True, he was concerned about his footing and heck — being over six feet tall, I cannot blame him! One twist or break of an ankle would lead to long fall with a nasty fate. However, he moved slow for a different reason — He was excited, often times stopping in the middle of the trail to devote his entire attention to conversation. That’s the type of person Leo seemed to be. Usua though wasn’t buying his careful steps and her laughter echoed in the forest as she pointed from some high, barely visible spot far ahead. “What is this! Leo?!” she asked when we caught up, imitating his long, light strides with knees raised high each step, his graceful leaps and lands over rocks. This caused Leo to imitate Usua’s rough, thunderous stomps up the mountain. His impression made me think I had never seen Usua lack so much grace . . . and yet, compared to Leo, he was right.
Taking up each other’s hiking strides, we continued up the mountain laughing . . . with relatively little space between us.
Downward and over springs, we kept moving forward . . . until our order became wider once more. It was here that it was probably not one of Usua’s finest moments — She had climbed and climbed to the top of the mountain, finally made it and turned, expecting to see Leo and me close behind because Nikki sure was, but when she faced us, there Leo and I were . . . just approaching the base of the mountain . . . slowly . . . and boy, do I do mean slowly. This is when all I could hear was Usua’s gasp before many Spanish words, which I think meant something about Leo’s leisurely hike because she was pointing at us and repeating, “We must hurry because it will be dark! We cannot hike back in the dark, Leo!!!” Keep in mind, it was around noon but yes, I felt her concern as the last person in the line.
Finally at the top, we were dramatically warmer so people began stripping clothes. First Nikki took off her gloves. Then hat. Then jacket. And somewhere around here, it seemed two sweatshirts along with a shirt. And did she shed a second pair of pants too? I truly think so. It was around this point — the two sweatshirts and second pants — that I realized when I told her earlier, “Dress in layers,” I maybe should have explained what I meant a bit more. Lesson learned the hard way because with all that shedding, she appeared to be having trouble cramming her clothing into her pack . . . and that was when she turned to me, asking the ultimate hiking question — the one that shows how much you truly love a person, the one that shows where you allegiances lie, the question that displays precisely how far you are willing to go for someone. “Hey,” her voice was muffled with her efforts to heave her clothing inside. “Can you carry this for me? I don’t have any room in my pack,” and here she held out what appeared to be the thickest item. I confess, I hesitated. I did. Then I began analyzing exactly how hard she was trying to get that sweatshirt in her pack. It appeared a more half-hardheartedly petting, which made me a ba-jillion percent certain I could have used my heathen-istic skills of punching and shoving until all items were crepe thin . . . but . . . bless it. This was my mistake. This was her first hike. She, after all, didn’t know the hiking weight rule — I hadn’t yet taught her that a mere few ounces adds to pounds and those pounds are on your back as your slog up mountains, considering to quick-gulp all water and devour every morsel of food for the sole purpose of having less weight to carry. She did not know yet that Andy and I were the type of hikers that weighed each item in our packs before placing it inside, that we have left out crucial items such as sunscreen (more on that in a coming post) simply because liquid weight is the heaviest or that we had been pondering whether to snap toothbrush handles, carry a sheet instead of a sleeping bags or pay an absurd (and I do mean absurd) amount for an almost one-pound tent — all for purposes of having to haul less weight as we walked. So, as she turned to look at me, holding out her sweatshirt and a grin, I knew I hadn’t told her yet . . . and that’s why I took it. I took her sweatshirt and squished it into my itty-bitty bladder-only sized bag and smiled back. It wasn’t her fault; it was mine, I rationalized, and started when I told her to dress in layers. This was my punishment. And dedication to being a great friend because in the Hiking World, carrying additional weight really means “I love you” in the largest and most pure form.
In the end though, it didn’t matter because once we reached the top and jumped state lines . . . .
we stood together in the opening among trees where blue sky burst forth to our vista, which was worth it, which was incredible.
In the end, this hike was amazing. It came at a time that Andy left to go back to England to live, a time where we had no idea when we would see each other again or know what our future as a couple would hold. We felt on the edge of something larger but precariously balanced, one step might lend us to fall so we did the only thing we could and that was hold on. I chose to hold onto nature, breathing in the only cure a forest can bring — calm, patience, reward, love. And I found love in many different forms: Being able to bond with my best friend in a different way, standing next to Usua on another mountain we tackled together, and making a new awesome friend in Leo. This hike had more than a pay-off view. My true reward was leaving feeling full and happy, grateful and loved.