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 — faint yellows, oranges, and pinks — as we alone watched the sun until it faded behind the Blue Ridge Mountains that hold our hearts.
A sunset hike without a place to camp though means walking back in the dark so we had to get our head-torches out and turn them on before taking the return trail slow. I enjoy walking in the dark, as long as my mind doesn’t get the best of me. The moment of time before the moon is high in the sky, it is so dark in the forest — so dark — and I have visions of bears or mountain lions stalking us as we pass.
“I’ve seen a bear about fifty times by now,” Andrew told me and it was true — every shadowy-figure looked to be a large black bear hungry for our bodies.
Twigs cracked and I would jump a bit but it wasn’t until we started to hear thudding that we both realized we were in trouble.
“What’s that — ” I started to ask while the sounds of heavy footsteps raced towards us as Andrew and I moved our heads and bodies in every direction — flashes of our head-torches zoomed around us.
BOOM-BOOM BOOM-BOOM BOOM! The sound continued, the noise growing stronger as whatever-it-was moved closer and closer. Twigs were snapping, rocks were being moved underfoot and something was moving in on us just as we turned to look up-trail as tall shadowy-figure thudded our way. Reader, I want to be honest with you because there is no shame in admitting it: We both screamed in horror. I mean, let out a scream as if we were about to die or were being skinned alive, and the forest fell silent.
“Sorry, sorry,” a man — trial running at night — huffed, stopping next to us to be sure we were okay. I was too much in shock to get over the fact that this man was the cause of the sound; Andrew, on the other hand, was — as he would say — right pissed off.
“FUCK! WOT ARE YOU DOIN?!” he yelled at the runner followed by a steady stream of cuss words — some, so impressive and ones I had never heard that I had to remind myself that we speak the same language.
“Sorry — I was trail running,” the stranger said back, as if Andrew was some authority figure and the stranger had to give Andrew a reason for being in the forest after dark.
“AND NOT CARRYIN’ A TORCH OR ANYTHING! WE COULD HAVE KILLED YOU! FUCK!” He was cussing again — In fact, I don’t think he actually stopped — so while he continued to yell at the man, I questioned how we would have killed him — maybe with Andrew’s knife . . . or mine . . . or maybe we could have jointly attacked him and hit him with a large tree branch or rock . . . or —
“I said I’m sorry! Are you both okay?” the stranger said again, getting his breath a bit more and finding enough air to faintly laugh at our fear.
“WE COULD HAVE KILLED YOU!” Andy said, huffing now harder than the man when he first came running towards us. “Alright, alright,” he told himself more as a way to calm down, “we are going to be fine” and here he essentially dismissed the runner: “Thank you.” A very curt dismissal that the runner understood and off he raced until both his shadow and thuds were not seen or heard.
“He’s lucky we didn’t bloody kill him!” Andrew ranted at me now because I was the only person he could take his anger out on. “I could have pulled me knife and bloody killed him! What a cheeky sod too — ‘I’m trail running'” and here he imitated the runner as if trail running was the least cool activity to do, something similar to creating an invisible flea circus or something. “WITHOUT A TORCH? WITHOUT REFLECTIVE CLOTHING?!!” He shouted as if to gather the attention of the runner. “WHO RUNS WITHOUT A TORCH OR REFLECTIVE CLOTHING?!?!” and on I had to listen to his dismay and anger at what an idiotic idea it was to run without a light or without informing other hikers of your arrival earlier.
I didn’t want to tell him, but to be honest with you, I was merely happy we were alive.
And so alive is how we made it to our car with the bright white moon casting light upon the last few feet of our trail.
Andrew had calmed by the time we arrived . . . that is until he found the trail runner standing beside his car. “Get in our car now. We aren’t taking our boots off or taking things out of our pack. Just get in the car,” he demand-whispered of me as we approached our vehicle.” I understood his point though — The trail runner would have finished at least a good half-hour before us and he seemed to make no effort to get into his vehicle. Instead, he simply stood by his car, staring at the trail, as if waiting for us to return. It was creepy to say the least.
Regardless, we didn’t wait around to determine why the runner had waited and so into the car we threw our packs and ourselves as Andrew started the engine and zipped down the mountain backroads while the trail runner watched us leave, never making at movement still to get into his car.