Ohhh The Priest . . .
Back in May, I was scanning our massive list of hikes, looking for one that would make a quick backpack and overnight camp. This was after the sad realization that we had not camped for a little over a year.
“And?” I asked while looking through my notes. “What about The Priest? I wrote that it has 360-degree views so you can see a sunrise and sunset.” At the time, this was the selling point for me — I was chasing sunsets, aiming to see and capture as many as I could. The idea of seeing both gave me shivers of excitement.
“Sure,” he told me. He never takes much convincing. “How long and what level?”
Here, I shared the information on George Washington National Forest’s The Priest hike:
- It was an almost nine miles
- 3,117-foot elevation gain, which is supposedly higher than any West Virginia trail
- Due to the large elevation gain in a short distance, it is a Level Five of Five difficulty
“A Level Five?” he asked me.
“A Level Five,” I repeated.
“L, I don’t think that’s a very clever idea. Are you sure it won’t be too difficult?” He had a point. We had only walked seven hikes thus far in the year. This would undoubtedly be a challenge.
“Of course not,” I told him, masking my hestitation. “If we need to stop often on the way up, we can. It’s only nine miles.” Nine miles of torture because here is what the first part of the hike details stated — and I quote:
“Many folks express great fear when thinking about hiking The Priest from VA 56. Although The Priest isn’t found on the list of the 50 highest mountains in Virginia, it rises straight up from the valley floor . . . and can be better characterized as ‘unrelenting’ rather than difficult.”
Great fear? Rises straight up from the valley floor? Characterized as unrelenting? Yep, I told myself. Andrew didn’t need to know that part.
“If it’s what you really want to do then,” Andy paused, ready to take back his decision. Then: “I’m sure we can do it” and so our backpacks were packed and stuffed into the car the next day.
“Right. What do the directions say first?” he asked . . . and here — hours from our home — is where he learned why this hike is rated a Level Five.
“It says,” and I read to him, “and I quote — ‘once the trail starts climbing, it maintains a remarkably constant 13% grade for 3.6 miles before steepening slightly for the last 0.3 mile to the summit.'”
There was a moment he had to process what I told him and during that time, I watched as his facial expressions changed from one of tranquil happiness to questioning concern to defeated misery. “Brilliant,” he then said — sarcasm not lost on me. “Lem, why didn’t you — ” and before he could continue, he cut himself off. “Know what? Fuck it. Doesn’t matter. This sounds fun” and off he walked by me, ready to tackle the monster ahead.
And this hike is a monster — It is honestly and truly was one of the hardest we have yet to do and so our uphill battle began south on the Appalachian Trail. The air was stagnant — as thick as a wool blanket — and for the first time, I felt suffocated on a hike. I yearned for some type of breeze as I walked, each step causing me to imagine my body pushing through the dense air. But no breeze — not even a faint one — slipped by us and the humidity only continued to increase. Up and up we continued, panting and moaning as we slipped in and out of the flashing slivers of sunlight.
Switchback after switchback left us stumbling exhausted over massive tree roots, which stretched in front of us as some type of mystical symbol. Our hike was slow. Arduous. Agonizing.
There were breaks.
There were many breaks.
So many long breaks, in fact, that we even talked about setting up camp . . . only half a mile in.
Then, as if nature heard our pains, we were given a dose of trail magic. Right when our calves were so sore we felt on the verge of collapsing and right when we were panting so loud we sounded more as wild beasts — perfect mountain laurel blooms popped ahead, encouraging us further on the AT.
A little over one mile in, temperatures became the tiniest bit less oppressive as we approached and stepped over a mossy creek . . .
The forest overflowed with green — in every possible hue — and that color stretched high above as if offering us protection.
About two and a half miles in, another reward: massive pink rhododendron blooms lined the trail as if meticulously planted there.
It was only until we lingered here — in this forest garden — that I realized we had arrived at the perfect time. It wasn’t simply that ‘perfect time’ that is almost fabled among hikers — where blooms exploded in perfect color or the sun rises or sets in the most glorious way. No, this was more — It was stronger. It was as if Andy and I were exactly where we were supposed to be at that exact moment and for that reason, it was incredibly hard to keep walking . . .
Beauty surrounded us — It always does in forests — and I moved, slow, stretching my hands out and spreading my fingers wide to absorb as much of nature, life, serenity as I could.
. . . and right when our hike became enjoyable (versus filled with torture), we reached a little vista to the east. Below, we had a great view of Three Ridges to the left and little towns and apple orchards that dotted the valley.
Andy and I walked forward as far as we could on the flat rock then held out our arms — wide — as if welcoming the view with a hug.
. . . and then, of course, we had to celebrate our huge victory of walking 2,000 feet above the trailhead in the hardest three miles in our life . . .
It was around here — in the middle of our excitement — that an Appalachian Trail hiker walked upon the rocks and paused beside us, looking out at the view.
“Wow,” he said.
“Wow,” we said, turning to look out too. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It is. You know, sometimes I forget to take in the views.”
Moments passed and we didn’t say anything but we all stood — in appreciation, in happiness — beside each other.
“You’re hiking the AT?” I asked.
“Yeah. Left two months ago. How long ago did you both leave?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, we’re just hiking for an overnight camp. We want to do the AT someday . . . ” and that last word seemed to be carried on the air out and over the valley. I watched it as it evaporated.
“You absolutely should.”
“I think the only thing keeping us from doing it now is our jobs — We don’t really have jobs we can leave and return to. If we leave, we leave. No one will wait for us.” That was Andy.
“I understand. I got lucky — I’m a bartender. I left and when I return, I’ll go back.”
“You are lucky, mate,” Andy told him and the three of us turned again to look out at the view.
Time passed slowly then. No other hiker passed and the AT hiker seemed to have no where to be. We no longer wished to reach the summit; instead, I craved to talk to him — to hear his stories.
We asked if he had taken sidesteps off the AT and ventured into towns, what his biggest advice was, and what the hardest part about the epic hike was.
“Time,” he said, then shrugged. “You lose sense of time. You wake and you walk. You walk and you sleep. And you do it all over again. Before I was working and had places to be — always places to be. Here, nature waits for you. There is no ‘time.’ I have nowhere to be and that’s been the hardest aspect to wrap my mind around.”
“Interesting,” I said and a comfortable silence filled the gap between my words. “I feel I would struggle most with time too. When we hike — whether a day or a backpack — I constantly feel a sense that I have to hurry. If another hiker approaches, I feel I have to beat him. If another hiker passes me, I tell Andy we need to hurry to pass him. I feel as if I am in a race — and he” — I motion to Andy — “constantly has to remind me that I’m not. There is no other place we have to be and there is no one we have to beat and the time we start and end is what time we determine. I think that would be what I struggle most with — beating that feeling.
“Definitely,” the hiker said and smiled. “I felt that. It’s different for everyone but for me, I started this cocky — arrogant, to be honest. I felt like I was better than any of the other hikers and so I did — I tried to be the first on the trail. I wanted to be the first up, the first to hike farther, the first to pass people.” He hesitated then laughed to himself. “And then you have really rough days — and you fall behind and people pass you, and you know you’ll pass them at some point because they will have hard days too. And so you’re always reminded that it isn’t a race and it isn’t a competition. This hike has definitely humbled me for sure.” I loved his smile. Not in a physical attraction-type of way but a different feeling — a feeling that made me know hiking the AT could be everything I wanted it to be . . . and everything I needed . . . and more. His smile was reassurance.
“Well, I guess I need to keep going. I was hoping to hit a place not far from here” and then he hesitated as he stood and smiled once more. “Not that it matters. I could easily stay here and camp and be content with that. But there’s daylight left so I’m going to go. It was nice talking to you both.”
“You too, mate!” Andy said as I thanked him and we both waved . . . and he was gone.
“L?” Andy said as we let his story hang in the space around us.
“Let’s keep going too, okay?” and up we stood, walking away too, going the opposite direction from our AT hiker, going on our own journey.
Almost two more miles in and we slowly but surely reached the summit of The Priest. To say it was breathtaking was an understatement. In that moment, it felt the most welcomed vista and also one of the most glorious summits we have yet to see.Little flowers were pushing through the cracks between rocks, and everywhere I turned there was beauty.
“Shall we find a place to camp first?” Andy asked interrupted my thoughts. He is the logical one, the one that glimpses at the summits when we first arrive because he maintains our purpose. While the sun was still high in the sky, it was dropping fast and our purpose was the sunset so he already steps ahead, wanting to be sure we weren’t left in the dark without setting up our a tent. I, on the other hand, am the impulsive go-with-the-feeling type so I ignored him as I saw from my peripheral vision him turning to find a place to camp alone. I hadn’t had enough of the view though and before he spoke, I had planned to watch the sun set without moving a muscle. We could set up in the dark. We’ve done it before and the more I pondered the idea of moonlight cast on our backs as we popped our tent, the more I was determined to stay.
“L? What about here?” I heard Andrew a couple yards behind so I followed his voice . . .
to a little cove hidden from sight, and it was here we set up our tent — nestled between puffs of ferns and on top of bright green grass.
“Look!” I called to him, inhaling as I caught a glimpse of the sliver of summit where the sun seemed to be growing brighter as it slowly dropped.
“Let’s finish setting up the tent,” he encouraged, “and then we’ll have dinner there” so that’s what we did. By the time our tent was up, the sunset had just started turning from a white-yellow light to one with oranges, pinks, purples, and blues . . .
Waiting no more, I grabbed Andrew’s hand and walked back to the rocks for a dinner. There, we sat on the edge of the mountain cliff side-by-side until the sun vanished . . .
“I’m going to find firewood,” I heard Andrew whisper before I felt him leave my side and so I stood — wanting to help him searching but feeling a stronger pull to remain in that precise moment longer . . .
Soon he was back again, the sound of twigs and sticks thudding onto the rocks announcing his arrival. With lights from our head torches, we kindled a fire tighter then cuddled next to it, waiting for the moon . . .
Overall, the view was breathtaking — from the summit look-out onto the valley to the colorful sunset and clear-sky moon-rise — and I wanted to stay forever but my body was exhausted from the hard hike and so we moseyed back to our tent where we immediately fell asleep.
Hours later, I woke to a light so bright that I was once more pulled to the mountain edge. The moonlight streamed down and faint sounds whispered from the forest — the rustle of the wind through the leaves, the hoot of an owl. It was peaceful, magical; it felt like home and I stayed for as long as my body could bare until the cold gradually moved me back to the tent where I snuggled closer to Andy before falling asleep again . . . .
Hours passed again until my body’s innate sense of time alerted me to the sunrise. Crawling out of the tent for a final time, I confirmed the pastel colors before trying to wake Andy.
“Andrew?” I cooed in his ear, rustling him slightly. “The sun is rising — Do you want to see it? It’s beautiful . . . ”
A mumble back was his confirmation that he chose his sleeping bag over the vista.
“May I take your phone to get pictures?” I asked him. My camera is great but his seems to pick up on the delicacies of the sky’s colors.
Another mumble then: “Sure but I’m staying in bed.”
“Are you sure?” I wanted to know. This was one of the reasons we were here after all. “The sunrise is really — “
“L. All I want to do is go to sleep and not be woken up again.”
“Okay,” I whispered. “Thank you. I love you. Bye” and, grabbing his camera, I slipped away and wandered to the mountain edge alone but content. Here, I snapped as many shots as both his phone would hold . . .
And it was around here — in the middle of the most breathtaking color-change — that I . . . um . . . Reader, I’ll just be blunt with you: I dropped Andrew’s phone off the mountain cliff.
Yep. Off the daggon edge of the mountain . . .
Don’t believe me? Well, of course you do — It is me after all but here is proof in the snapping of pictures my camera was also doing behind me, which show clearly and sadly the moment I realized his phone slipped from my pajama pocket . . .
So off I went, running to the tent to report to Andrew what happened. In my mind, if I was honest and told him immediately, he would be less angry. Also in my mind, it did not occur to me that he would have been more appreciative for a few minutes of additional sleep because nothing could have been altered in that saved time . . .
” . . . Hey? And?” My heart was racing as I unzipped the tent. I tried to be gentle: “And. You’re going to be mad at me . . . “
There were moments of silence. I waited, patient. Then I heard a muffled “Whyyy?” as his face was buried in his sleeping bag.
My words could no longer be contained. In one gigantic breath and one big blurted run-on stumble, I confessed to a sleeping-Andrew what happened: “I was on the edge of the mountain taking pictures with your phone because — Remember when I asked to use your phone to get pictures of the sunrise? Well, it really is pretty and I wish you could have seen — but I was taking pictures and all of a sudden your phone slipped from my pocket and it fell — It fell down the side of the mountain!”
I hesitated. There was no answer, which only meant I needed to further confession with more detail. I took another large breath: “Andrew? When it happened I immediately came running to tell you because I’m sorry — I’m so so sorry but your phone is gone. I’ll buy you a new one, promise but your phone fell — It fell, Andrew! It fell off the cliff of this mountain!”
I don’t know why but my main thought was on how I would explain this to his parents. We already do not speak to them enough so in that moment of rational thought, Andrew not having a phone suddenly meant we could not speak to them at all, which caused me a massive amount of panic.
Andy seemed the opposite of unnerved. He still hadn’t moved. The silence was overwhelming. Then: “L,” he said. He sounded as if he had been awake for many minutes. “You’re kidding me, right? You’re joking, aren’t you?”
I waited for him to realize the severity of the situation.
When the wait rendered nothing, I then mustered my answered: ” . . . no . . . ” It came in the form of the tiniest-sounding two-letters ever heard.
Another deep sign — more a growl, really. Then there were questions — questions I couldn’t answer, such as “Why didn’t you want to use your fancy camera and instead want my phone?” And “Why did you just have to find a way to wake me up?” And “Why do you have to be so clumsy?” And “Why can’t you just be normal?” . . . And to be honest, all of these were completely valid questions that I had asked myself as I dashed to the tent.
“I — I mean, I don’t know. I — ” was all I could stammer only to realize he didn’t want an answer because he cut in with “Fine. Let’s go.”
As we slowly made our way to the mountain cliff, I heard the Star Wars “Imperial March” in my mind . . .
“Where did you drop it?” Andy asked me, which took me by surprise. Surely it didn’t matter, I thought. It was the cliff — off the cliff edge . . . but of course, I obliged, modeling where I was, where it fell, how I reacted.
“Hold on,” he said and stalked past me, disappearing behind the trees. All was quiet . . . until the sounds of sticks snapping and English cuss words bellowing rang through the air. Then — somewhere below me — Andrew’s voice. “Where are you? Where did you drop it?”
“YOU’RE OVER THE CLIFF?!” I called, a bit too nervous to peer over the curved rock-edge.
“OF COURSE I’M OVER THE FUCKING CLIFF!” he yelled back from who knows where. His voice sounded as if it was floating over the valley.
“ANDREW!” I yelled to the vista. “Andrew!!! I COULD HAVE GONE DOWN THERE!!!”
“For fuck’s sake!” God-with-an-Andrew-voice shouted back. “REALLY?! YOU COME DOWN HERE?! RIIIGHT, L. RIIIGHT.”
“And?!” I hollered, squirming to the very edge on my belly. “ANDREW!?”
“WHAT?!” he screamed back.
“I dropped it right here!” I called to him and I pointed, unaware if he could see me or not. Looking down, I noticed an ever-so-tiny bit of flatness between the crevices of the rocks before the rocks cascaded down the mountain. Then I saw peeks of Andrew dipping in and out from against the rocks to get beneath me. I held my breath as all was quiet . . . until I heard finally heard, “I got it.”
“YOU GOT IT?!” I squealed in delight, jumping up to dance in glee! With Andy, I honestly feel all is defeatable! “You got it?! Did you really?! You found your phone?! You — “
“Of course I got it” was all I heard back as the sound of twigs breaking and limbs moving echoed below then around me. Soon, Andrew stood next to me, displaying his phone — undamaged — in his hand.
Needless to say, the next minutes were filled with apologizes from me and laughter from him. I think he more blamed himself for trusting me . . . to take pictures . . . with his phone . . . on the edge of a mountain cliff. “If you think I’ll be mad at your for dropping a phone — It’s just a phone. Don’t worry about it,” he told me, taking my hand and we moved — to stand together — and watch the sunrise . . .
Minutes slipped by like seconds and before I knew it, the sun was high in the sky again, which meant it was time to pack to go . . .
With one last look at our incredible view, we turned to head back down the mountain . . .and on the way down, we had the most amazing surprise yet: We passed wild lady slipper orchids . . .
Flowers seemed to bloom before our eyes and I felt the mountain pulling, calling me back.
“And,” I hesitated as he walked ahead.
“Yea?” He paused too to turn and look back at me, but I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s just — It’s beautiful here, you know?” was all I could muster.
“It is,” he said, walking towards me and taking my hand, kissing me on the lips. “It is” and so we looked around, inhaled, and absorbed before together, taking our time to slowly walk down the mountain.