“Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” That’s my Spanish impression of Usua who was perfectly summarizing our winter hike, except she didn’t know she was summarizing it at that time. What she was talking about was the Number One Rule we created when hiking together and that is “Every decision is a joint decision,” meaning if we are lost, it was a joint decision that took us there and if we died because of that decision, well, we could go in peace knowing it wasn’t one person’s fault. So there we were . . . in below-frigid seven-degree Fahrenheit temperatures . . . on a mountain . . . on a trail we had never walked before. And, in the moment of last hope, the moment that I needed a pick-me-up, Usua turns to me red-nosed, hat icing over, and says, “Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” Reassuring.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again so before we were at this almost-frozen-death situation, let’s go back to the beginning, when Andy, Usua, and I decided to go hiking this past weekend.
“Usua,” I told my athletic friend. “Listen, I’m sorry but I cannot do a serious hike. Andy and I are just getting back into it after our last really rough hike over the summer, you know — the one that left me questioning if I wanted to sell my pack and other hiking gear. I need a starter-trail, something not hard but something that allows me to find my love for hiking again, something that is short because it will be cold.”
“Perfect,” she agreed. “It will be good to get out regardless.”
So we settled on Shenandoah National Park’s Stony Man Mountain:
- There are two trails: One is a one-point-five short circuit; the other, a three-point-seven circuit.
- It is an 860-foot elevation
- Rated a Level One of Five difficulty
I was being smart this time, going easy and aiming for a trail the three of us were eager to walk. The only thing was the three of us quickly turned to two due to the fact that Andy came down with whatever it was I had a couple weeks earlier.
“My sinuses are bunged up — I’m sorry but I cannot go,” he told me, shoulders slouching because he wanted to get out on his first trail in awhile too. “Please,” he said, then hesitated — a strong, dramatic type-pause — before repeating himself with much more emphasis, “PLEASE be safe. Take care of each other. PLEASE. Be safe.”
“Yes, yes,” I brushed aside his words as I always do whenever someone tells me to be safe. It is as if people believe I choose to walk into danger. Hell, people — I try to be safe all the time . . . it’s just . . . life happens.
“L,” Andy said again, knowing I wasn’t listening. Bless his heart, he had fear in his eyes. “I’m serious.”
“I know,” and I gave him a quick kiss on his cheek. “Now quick — Say goodbye to me too in case it’s our last one.”
That lead him into a cussing fit where the word “bloody” was featured many times as in(“bloody hell,” “a bloody decision,” that I “wasn’t bloody funny,” and so forth. “If you don’t come back and die out there, I’ll feel right bad about not going.”
But I was late so, giggling, I placed another peck on his cheek then our babies’ cheeks before running out the door. Let’s make note here that I have a bad habit of rushing towards the next minute, always the next minute. I struggle with staying still enough to enjoy the moments I’m in. But I was excited! It was an Usua-and-me solo hike, our first to be had, after we have talked endlessly of going on winter hikes together before. So I dashed to see her and then we dashed to the mountains where we seemed to have stepped through a secret, magical door that left the world covered in a glittering white frost. (This frost, by the way, is called hoar frost. It is when frozen water vapor forms a white crystals on nature).
This hike was incredible, truly the most remarkable one I’ve ever been on. The forest seemed delicate, sleeping, balancing between this line of frailty and strength, where I knew there was something more, tucked inside the hearts of trees. It was a force I could feel, one that made me know the woods were alive, ready, stronger soon.
Little patches of moving water were halted by frost, which appeared to grow beside our feet until our trail was frozen in ice, forcing us to maneuver off-path, slow, to ensure we wouldn’t slide or fall.
The path sparkled, coaxing us on with its false sense of security.
Soon the wind whipped through the forest, blowing the bits of ice from limbs, sending it glittering into the air and trickling onto our shoulders, hats, arms like snow.
Onward we walked, choosing the shorter one-point-five mile hike due to the bitter temperatures . . .
and before we knew it, we were rewarded with some of the best views in the park.
I don’t even want to think of how cold it actually was at the vista — we will just say it was cold enough to not allow us to stay long so, taking cover among the trees, we said goodbye to our view and continued on our frosty journey . . .
Our path became icier, the frost thicker as we wove deeper into the forest . . .
Ferns were frozen, mid-grow, with leaves lying heavy on the forest floor.
We only had about a mile to walk back to our car but our trail, which started looking like this . . .
became more frozen . . .
until it was un-walkable and I feared we would have to turn back.
Gigantic icicles hung from the rocks turning into strong ice columns . . .
and it was around here I became worried.
“We are supposed to be on blue,” I heard Usua say my thoughts aloud, “but I have not seen blue — Have you?”
I hadn’t either. “To be honest with you, the last one I remember was at the vista,” I told her and heard her agree. It wasn’t that our trail was hard — It was a short hike with essentially one path so we felt confident we were going in the right direction. However, there were a couple parts where the path forked three possible ways and the trail did cross from yellow to blue to white back to white and blue and yellow, so there was an element of needing self-assurance in the form of a blaze. Without a trail color though, I began to wonder how far we would go before deciding to turn back . . . but by this time, we had climbed over downed trees, wound our way off-trail and up the mountain in iced-over areas so I was dreading turning back.
I think Usua felt the same because we continued to hike . . . and hike farther . . . still without a blaze.
With each step, the sound of ice breaking ricocheted through the woods, making me feel all was glass — the trees, the frozen ferns, the rocks — and it was shattering around us. It can be strange hiking, mainly in a forest you know but will never fully know. Doubt seeps into thoughts at the slightest hint of a crack in self-confidence, and my crack continued to widen with each breaking-echo. Hiking a new trail in the middle of winter in negative temperatures seemed an ill-fated decision. I started a mental list of what was my daypack — my sandwich, my hydration bladder, I looked at my phone —- dead. I kept listing: My knife, eye drops, Chapstick, my emergency sack! That made me feel better — I remembered my headlamp was there and ah, my fire starter beside bits of carbon and twine to help a fire begin faster. I even had my first set of hiking boots due to the fact that I was testing my new ones and didn’t want to be in a predicament if my new boots gave me blisters. I’ll burn my old boots, I began thinking. To save Usua and me, I’ll burn my old boots. I was entering a moment of desiring hope, a moment of needing a pick-me-up, and that’s when Usua turned to me — red-nosed, hat icing over, hands stuffed deep into her pockets, scarf wound four times around her neck — and she looked right at me and said, “Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether.” Reassuring. Then she turned and continued walking so I continued following.
A few moments later, I heard her say the word I know by now means the opposite of its light and airy sound: “Ouuu!” and sure enough, several Spanish phrases followed, which — without knowing Spanish — I’m positive was something about how we could die with or without a fire if we couldn’t determine what trail we were on. But — good news — she still had some determination. “Fifteen minutes, check and see,” Usua turned to me. This was our other hiking rule, formed when Andy and the two of us hiked Emerald Pond, and we are still alive despite getting lost for miles, I thought.
“Right,” I told her and we kept going . . . and going, no blaze.
Fifteen minutes later, Usua turned back around to looked at me with the same concern I felt earlier.
“Fifteen minutes,” I told her. “Just ’til we get around that curve up there.”
“Right,” she said to me, and we seemed to switch places, back-and-forth, playing the unspoken game of worry.
Similar to stories of people before death, I began to think of those most important to me, like Andrew . . . and that made me think of our last goodbye . . . and how shitty it had been due to my rush to leave. Was that our last kiss — A peck on the cheek? I began asking myself silently, feeling my eyes start to tear while also feeling my eyelashes ice over. And the babies — our babies, my babies! I didn’t even give my puppy and kitten a proper goodbye. I was feeling low, really low and followed Usua for the simple fact of not wanting to lose her too . . . when . . . suddenly . . . glorious moments of trail magic appeared before us.
First, we spotted this bad-boy-blue blaze, which had us screaming in joy and jumping up and down.
Then the forest opened to warmer temperatures, the sun beaming down, so that what-was-once frost-covered trees, now a winter-green.
And lastly, we spotted a young couple.
“Excuse me,” Usua said, “how far to the parking lot?”
“Oh, it’s just right there,” they told us, smiling. “You’re really close to it.”
“Wonderful!” we cried, bumping into each other and giggling about how moments-before-seeing people and sun, we had thought we were perpetually lost and were about to curl up into frozen corpses.
“Whhhhaot!!!” Usua said to me when I confessed I was going to burn my boots for her. “We wouldn’t have made it if we had to stay there!!!” And we laughed about how absurd we had been, how horrible we were for doubting ourselves, and how we were now on our way home . . . that is . . . until what should have been the parking lot turned into about another fifteen-minute walk to — the best way I can put it is — civilization that wasn’t civilization.
We had somehow ended up at places that bared names like “Massanutten Lodge” and “Skyland” and “Lodge 341” near “Lodges 340-360.” There was a dining hall and office, a conference hall and theater, restaurant and even bar, and all were closed because hell, why not. There wasn’t anyone around.
“WWWHHHAOT!!!!” Usua said, spinning around to face me. “We are THE WOOORST!!! WHERE ARRRRRE WE?!” And my answer: I had no idea.
“Massanutten Lodge . . . ?” I said, as if that cleared all up.
“How did this happen?! I don’t know what went wrong — and THAT’S my problem. In my head — perfection. Reality — wrong. HOOOW did this HAPPPPEN!!!” She was talking really loudly (okay, shouting), and it made me nervous that there was some hoodlum lurking behind the closed lodges ready to attack two females who were clearly yelling about how lost they were. “We need to get OUT of here! We need to find someone and ask to take us baccck!” and with that she began marching off in search for these said hoodlums I wanted to run from.
Luckily, a park ranger’s marked vehicle appeared — right as she said this — and we waved in a frantic-but-try-not-to-appear-crazy-frantic way . . . only to have him drive closer to us and — I kid you not — stop, look at us, then take the sharpest full turn back the exact way he had come!
“WHHHHAT is HAPPPPPENING!!!” Usua shouted again, and again I had no answer.
“Well, we are at least on pavement and not lost in the forest,” I told her. “Let’s walk towards Skyline Drive” and I pointed ahead to where I thought there should be a road . . . except we couldn’t see a road. At this point, I was solely going on a feeling that there should have been a road. And as far as the name Skyline Drive — no idea, it just came to me. I knew that roadway was in the area for we had driven up on it, but as to its proximity or exactly location — no idea again. I think Usua knew I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was talking about, but we walked on regardless towards my imaginary road. It was our only hope after all.
“At least we know we are parked between forty-one and forty-two,” she said. This, we had definitely determined because we had gotten lost on the way up to the parking lot. Well, not exactly lost-lost but we thought the parking lot was a lot closer than it actually was so we were in the search-and-look-everywhere mode then remember-mile-marker-forty-one-and-forty-two mode.
On and on we walked the asphalt trail to — what? Who knew? But it didn’t seem to matter to Usua because, at this point, she had a goal, a plan of her own: to hitchhike with hoodlums.
“BUUUT HOW did this HAPPEN?!” she kept asking me while searching for scary criminals to take us to our car. Then suddenly she stopped, as if realizing something, and shrieked in her realization: “III am the WEAK link!” It is NOT Andy! It is MEEEE! I had the directions the whooole time!!!”
“Usua! That’s not true,” I began but, bless her heart, as much as I tried to comfort her, she refused more, not believing every decision was a joint decision.
We debated and she yelled while I had eyes darted around for hoodlums and we kept going . . . until — finally — we did reach Skyline Drive. My proudest moment thus far. Skyline Drive, just as I imagined it.
“Now which way?!” we asked at the same time — except well, I obviously don’t have this Spanish accent. We decided left was north (because, obviously) and off we trekked where we had a repeat of our earlier tale — we waved to two park rangers, only to have them fly by us and we approached five people asking what mile marker we had come out on, only for them — to Usua’s dismay and my relief — never offer a ride in their car.
“They are supposed to be NIIICE!!! Hikers are supposed to be NICE!!!” she kept saying and it made me worry she had given up hope in all of humanity. I didn’t want to tell her that if they actually offered a ride, there was no way in hell I would let her get inside of the vehicle due to my paranoid fear of ruffians looking to take advantage of or kill females like us. But I listened to her and acted as if I was sorely let down, too, that the people were not more friendly.
“Are you okay?” she asked me after a few moments of silence once she regained herself.
“Yes, just really thirsty” and I reached for my hydration bladder bite valve where I sucked and slurped and sucked more but no water came out. “What the — ” and I looked only to find this: my water frozen in the hose.
That was the last-straw-type-of-deal. From then on, I tried not to be surprised or show hope for anything. Good thing too because I think between us, Usua and I were opposites.
“There are PEOPLE!” Usua beamed in happiness, hope, pointing ahead. “LOOK!!! PEOPLE!!!” and her pace quickened to the young couple standing, enjoying the view at an overlook.
“Excuse me!” I called to them.
“What mile marker are we at?” The people looked at Usua strangely, in a way that said, “You walked here. You tell us what mile marker you’re at” but they answered none-the-less by running to their car to get a map to show us how far from the Stony Man parking lot we were.
“We are right here — at the Timber Hollow Overlook. And you need to go . . . ” his finger moved up and up, further north still “here — to Stony Man.”
“dklafjd ladjflkdsf,” the teen girl whispered in his ear a language I couldn’t understand. The teen boy turned and looked into the backseat of their car. They exchanged glances. I felt Usua’s faith, merriment, love in humanity bubble, brim forth . . . until the teen held out his map to us.
“Would you like to take this with you?”
I’ll end that part of the story saying simply I have never seen Usua abrupt except in this very direct moment where, declined his map and confirming what direction to go, she set her gaze ahead then walked away from everyone.
“Thank you,” I called, leaving them with their hand and map held out for us as I raced to catch up with her, hearing her exclaiming in Spanish that they were not real hikers because they were not nice and clearly we needed a ride and how dare them not offer. (Well, at least I think that is what she was exclaiming.)
So we hiked again on our paved trail . . . passing the area we came out . . . and finally — our last finally — approaching mile marker forty-four . . . then forty-three . . . and then forty-two.
About five miles later, we began to see a parking lot. It appeared more a mirage hidden behind tree trunks.
“USUA!!! That’s my CAR!!!” I screamed, grabbing her shoulders and arms, shaking her.
She whipped her head about to face me. “Do NOT joke.” Her eyes were wild, seemed a warning, making me second guess myself. I looked again.
“It ISSS!!! USUA!!! That’s my CAR!!!” and I shook her once more, jumping up and down around her.
“IT IS?! IT ISSS!!!” and she began to jump too so that, I swear, we both ran-jumped, holding hands all the way to the car.
“What a wonderful hike!” we said. “So beautiful!” we called. “Truly the most beautiful one,” we said again, forgetting or ignoring the lost-for-miles bit, frozen-water situation, I’ll-burn-my-hiking-boots-to-save-you part, oh and the we-may-die-frozen-on-this-mountain moment. We looked around before getting into my car — one final goodbye for the day, one final silhouette of appreciation for the forest . . . and that’s when we saw — again, I couldn’t make it up if I tried — the same young couple at the overlook!
“NOOOOO!” Usua gasped, pointing. “THEY could have DRIVEN us HEEEEERE! They were going HEEERE!!!” She was inhaling so sharply I was worried she wouldn’t be able to catch her breath. As if on cue, knowing they were in trouble, the couple darted to their car before speeding away.
“I cannot BELIEVE it! All I wanted — all I HOPED — was for them to drive us here! It is what?! Two miles down the road — to where they were already going?!” she cried.
And the truth was, I couldn’t believe it either. But that’s the strange thing about hiking — Hiking equates to hope. Hope of escaping the world, hope of getting lost, hope of finding your path again, hope — so that no matter what happens, that’s what drives you the whole time.
We rode out of Shenandoah baffled but giggling, thawing with the heat of the car on full blast.
“Vwe get loust to-gether, vwe die to-gether,” Usua said smiling at me and I smiled back. Because it was true — in some crazy, warped, hilarious world, it was true.
“Every decision is a joint decision,” I told her as we rode on, in agreement, full of love.
Later that night, I messaged Usua, thanking her again for being brave enough to go with me. “Just wanted you to know I had the best best time with you!” I wrote.
“Yes! It was great!” she messaged back as I read it aloud to Andy. “It is always an adventure to hike with you!”
“You do know that means, ‘You almost kill me every time,’ right?” he told me. “That is basically Usua telling you — in as nice a way possible — that you are a dangerous hiking partner.”
“It’s all about perspective,” I retorted back to him. “I like to think I keep life interesting, full of excitement. Plus, remember — every decision is a joint decision.”