Andrew and I were eager to camp, which normally means I’m accused of being irrational due to the fact that I try to convince him to tackle the longest and most difficult trail in a short timespan; however, for this hike, we determined we would try something new: We aimed to scale back on our ambition, hold down our desire for reckless behavior, and keep in check our will to test life’s limits. Here, we decided to hike leisurely. I know, the shock. Maybe logic can prevail (sometimes).
Our chosen hike: Devil’s Marbleyard, which has been at the top of my wilderness-trek list since I first bought a pair of hiking boots in 2016. Located in Jefferson National Forest, the hike gets its name from monstrous white boulders that cover the mountain’s side. Along with this rare geological feature, a portion of our hike was on the Appalachian Trail. Overall, Devil’s Marbleyard held good stats, too:
- An eleven-point-three mile loop (which meant Andrew and I would be hiking less than six miles each day, an easy different compared to the ten miles and up we normally push ourselves for in camps)
- 1,510-foot elevation gain
- A Level Four of Five difficulty
Andrew set out, crossing over Elk Creek. It was a beautiful day — The sun was shining and the water glittered as it traveled under the bridge.A short distance from our starting point, we passed stone foundations or what remained of Camp Powhatan, the first Boy Scout camp in the area. Set up in 1921, the camp lasted until 1949 before it was moved to Pulaski County.
A sign went on to say, “If you are quiet you may still hear the laughter from long ago in the sound of the wind or the water.”
“We should camp here!” I exclaimed. The area felt eerie and I wanted a good trail story.
“Wot?!” he questioned, jerking around with pressed lips and furrowed brow. His stare was piercing. “Tha’ sounds creepy as shit — no! No, we are not campin’ ‘ere!”
“And — ”
“We’re goin’. Now.”
Clearly my excitement for life did not matter to him as he marched on, our decision made. No ghosts. No fun.
I followed him along the blue-blaze Belfast Trail, a bit aggravated that he had lost his spirit of adventure. That feeling though disappeared as we happened upon these wildflowers. Little insects clung to the white and yellow flowers before zipping merrily to another.
Onward we walked, below some of the most massive trees we have yet to see on a hike. Their trunks held little blue-necked Eastern Fence lizards that attempted to hide from our sight . . .
while above, sunlight cast its rays onto us as it streamed through the small spaces between the leaves. This is where nature connects me to my own religion.
After less than two miles, a glimpse of the boulder field came into view on the left.
Here, the shaded forest opened to the sun which illuminated a jumble of boulders so white it blinded me and I had to squint my eyes to see. Andrew didn’t hesitate though, jumping and climbing the rocks — most the size of large vehicles — while I struggled to take pictures from below. The boulders were such a bright white that I had to fiddle with my camera’s settings to make the contrast successful.
Soon, he was by me again and encouraging me to climb, to enjoy myself with him.
Stealing my camera, Andrew snapped pictures while I clambered my way up too. It is in some of these shots, like this one below, where you can get an idea of how white and bright the boulders were.
I felt free and alive, as I normally do in the forest. We climbed up and down the boulders, calling to one another and laughing in the hot sun.
Common Five-Lined Skinks, or otherwise called Broad-Headed Skinks, darted with blue tails glowing against white before stopping on the rocks to sunbathe.With a final jump of happiness, we said goodbye to the boulders and continued on.
Stepping inside the forest’s shade again, we passed beneath nature’s old giants once more until our path began to incline.
At our feet were large millipedes stripped with red and snails with brown tie-dyed shells.
Autumn colors burst forth on shiny leaves still wet with dew as we reached the Gunters Ridge Trail.And soon, we were at our familiar Appalachian Trail.
The white blaze brought with it a deviation off of the main trail to a clearing, nicknamed the Helicopter Pad, which supposedly has “some of the most spectacular 360-degree views in the state of Virginia.” In order to get to that point though, we had to trek an additional three miles out. For a gorgeous summit view though, this was well-worth it.
The unfortunate news is that those mountaintop views didn’t pan out to be what we had imaged.
There was a tiny clearing but it had mostly overgrown so much that we chose to walk further on the AT, hoping our mileage calculations were wrong and that the view was in fact ahead and not behind us. Up and down we wandered on the trail until finally deciding we were right the first time.
It wasn’t that the view was a letdown because it was still beautiful. It simply was the fact that we had seen more striking summits in Virginia. I bent to pick the skeleton of a leave and thought about all the trails we would venture to and importantly, all that we had and for that, we filled ourselves with gratitude.
Turning back towards the Gunter Ridge Trail, we stopped at our path’s middle location where we had determined we would camp.
“Do you want to camp?” I asked Andrew. The sun was still bright in the sky and we still had a few hours until the evening.
“Not really. You?” And it was then we agreed to continue on our trail. With a little less than six miles, we knew it would be an easy feat home. True, we bumped into a bit of a snag when our loop was so overgrown that we could not see the trail — or any semblance of an area where a trail would be. This caused us to turn around and head back the way we came, adding additional miles again and additional time lost.
But in the end, it all turned out worth it because of this: As we approached the top of Devil’s Marbleyard again, the sun was just beginning to set.
“Hey,” I whispered to Andrew. “We have a short distance to the car. Mind if we stop — just stop — and sit for awhile to watch the sunset?”
That’s what we did.
Here, the white boulders were streamed with hints of pastels — yellows, oranges, and pinks — as we alone watched the sun until it faded behind the Blue Ridge Mountains that hold our hearts.