“Do you guys need directions?” a stranger asked from his small, old Ford truck as he left a parking lot in front of us. The truck had rolled into the intersection until it stopped perpendicular in the roadway. Down rolled his passenger window too, which was how we were able to see the driver’s grin as he leaned across the passenger seat. “Do you need help?” he asked again. His smile was so large we assumed he was being friendly but, thinking back, I believe he was laughing at us.
I mean, Andy and I probably did look as if we did need some type of assistance. We were essentially in a ghost town . . .
Beyond this man and us, not a person was in sight and shops, hotels, businesses all had signs with large red font on the doors saying “Closed due to COVID-19”. Not only this, but we were looking at directions then pointing one way before turning and pointing a different way. However, we had been in dire need of help before — Here, we had just left the parking lot so surely, we did not need help . . . yet at least.
“No. Thank you.” My tone was rather dismissive as I yelled to the stranger across the road before sort-of waving him off to ensure he did not misinterpret. At this point in time, COVID was relatively new to Americans — It was March, which meant the first lockdown in Virginia due to the virus was in affect. I assumed everyone was as leary to see others as me and so the fact that this man seemed to linger and want conversation was unnerving.
Andy though cast aside all global-pandemic uncertainty and at the same time I responded “No,” his answer was “Yes, please!” I shot my eyes to him and hoped they showed a feeling of betrayal but Andy had already left our sidewalk, crossed the street, and was standing on the opposite sidewalk. “We are hiking Stairway to Heaven,” I heard him announce.
“Okay, well that mountain in front of you — ” the man told him while pointing to a tall mountain that the appeared behind the tiny town ” — That’s not it. You’re hiking the mountain behind it.”
“Ah,” Andy replied with a gaze stretching to the top of the mountain where we apparently needed to clear. “Okay.”
Meanwhile, the man remained in the middle of the intersection. True there was no traffic but even if there was, I believe he would have remained parked due to the evident concern he had for Andrew and me.
“You are going to walk up this road — Go between the black and blue houses and that will take you straight towards the mountain. But again — You’re hiking the mountain behind this one. The trail is steep right away and you’ll cross two streams — Just keep going up.”
The man seemed very knowledgeable. I felt happy we stopped — Andrew was at a beyond safe distance so there was no threat of COVID-transmission and now that we had this information, there was no threat of us getting lost either.
“Right, got it. Thanks, mate,” Andy called as we waved, preparing to leave.
“But be careful,” the man continued with no desire to be dismissed. “There are no blazes towards the top and last week a guy went up and got lost — Had to call the sheriff to get him down so just remember you need to stay on this side of the mountain.”
“Right, this side,” Andy repeated while the stranger now waved with contentment at his due diligence. Hands on the wheel, the driver prepared to go then the sound of his exhaust rasping and rattling filled the air until the noise disappeared along with his truck.
And so we had our first words of warning before even reaching the trail head, which meant George Washington National Forest’s Stairway to Heaven proved more than advertised:
- Almost seven miles
- 1,820-foot elevation gain
- Level Three of Five difficulty
And at first, these warnings seemed a bit over-the-top as I scooped up a bird’s nest to move it from the middle of the trail and we paused again for a picture together . . .
Then we realized the walk to the North Link Trail and then Ridge Trail was precisely as the man had directed . . . and it was also precisely as the man had described. At the Ridge Trail, the hike immediately started steep and only continued to incline, leaving us to realize exactly why it became named “Stairway to Heaven” — and, for the record, the name was not because you walk to Heaven but because misery is so high that you be in coming all the way from Hell and then walking up. We’re talking a type-of-Mordor to Heaven journey — which is what Andy and I discussed as we continued to hike up and up over jutting, uneven, pointed rocks.
“I now know why Frodo had such a hard time,” I huffed to Andrew.
“Can we just turn around and go back?” he asked. Again. And again. And again.
I ignored him. Every time. “People always praise Sam but Frodo was hiking too and Frodo kept going. From now on, I will never give Frodo a hard time. His job was hard — He even carried a ring — That’s extra pack weight.”
And so we had much to think about as we continued to climb closer to the border of West Virginia.The leaves crunched under our feet and obscured the trail towards The Cross where a, well, giant white cross cross rested. To get there though that meant, of course, our hike became even more steep with turns along the ridgeline. Then, a little over one mile in, we arrived at our first mini-view.The Cross marks the highest views on Spring Mountain . . .but we were in search of higher elevation and so we walked back down the wooden platform towards the North Link trail . . .
Our trail soon switched to the North Mountain Trail, which provided a give-away that we had scaled Spring Mountain and were moving on to Great North Mountain . . . which lay rather imposing in front of us.“I do not see how we can reach the top of that before evening,” I told Andy. “It seems so far and we seem so small.” Thoughts of an incline in grade, time constraints, mileage stretching — They all raced in my mind when Andy interrupted.
“We’ve hiked further and steeper” was all Andy said before refusing to indulge my sorrows and so off he treked.
Our trail turned steeper and rocker still . . .
before unique rock formations jutted from the ground . . .
Then it was time to climb up these rocks at the ridge, and when I mean climb — I mean full on rock climb . . .
Once at the top — the most scenic vista on Great North Mountain and one of the most breathtaking of Shenandoah Valley.
Equally incredible — We had this entire vista to ourselves and so we took in the view for many hours . . .
before deciding we would eat lunch then lean against the rocks to bathe in the sunlight under puffy white clouds . . .In the end though, our car felt extremely far away — the miles unfolding before us to send the parking lot I pointed to further in the distance . . .
“I cannot believe we hiked all this way and on a day hike too,” I told Andy, and this is one reason I am in love with hiking. Despite feeling minuscule while walking, massive amounts of ground can be covered so that when standing back, the reward of physical exertion — of simply having a will and legs to carry that mental power — That reward is all that is needed to keep going.
Climbing down from the rocks, we slowly made our way back until a faintly familiar sound echoed in the trees and until we were within view of the road. Then a truck drove by — the same small, old black Ford. It stopped a way in front of us then inside, the man that had assisted us earlier stretched across his passenger seat and gave us a thumbs up before smiling and disappearing again . . .