Virginia’s Hightop Mountain Hike in Winter

When I began hiking, my first trail was Hightop Mountain in Virginia. I still remember it clearly, too — The thick summer air, the inability to breathe, the fear I would die on the mountainside, the concern that I was born without knee muscles; and all of this somehow overshadowed by the fact that my hiking partner was Athlete Extraordinaire who felt the entire opposite of what I was feeling.

Vinayak was that first hiking partner, and we ventured out together on other hikes (namely ones where he literally pulled me up the mountain) but we sadly seem to have gotten separated on different trails. I still message him or hear from him occasionally — He is, no doubt, thriving as super-athlete — but I blame COVID for missing hikes with him.

Anyway, I loved Hightop Mountain (when I was at least able to get some gasps of air in my lungs) and I’ve wanted to go back, particularly because Andy has never been. Plus, I have this lofty goal of re-hiking all favorite hikes but in different seasons. With these two thoughts in mind, I take you back to January when it was snowing in Virginia — which means the perfect contrast to July’s stifling heat and my first venture up this mountain.

In truth though, when and Andy and I set off for this trail, it was a bit rushed — It was Martin Luther King Day and we heard of snow in the mountains so we packed quickly and set off for a hike that not supposed to be this hike — which is an echo of what I said earlier for our first hike of 2021. This was supposed to be Lewis Peak, a less popular trek with incredible cliff views. In our haste though, we did not pause to wonder if Shenandoah National Park would be closed on holidays and, as it turns out, it is. Without the ability to even drive on the park’s Skyline Drive due to locked metal gates, we pulled over at the entrance to discuss our options — We had already driven about two hours so we could venture to neighboring trails that did not require national park entrances but finding that hike would take time. Our other option was, of course, to turn around. Looking out from our car windows, we were both pretty glum and that’s when I saw a trail marker.

“And, that’s the start to Hightop Mountain. Interested in doing that instead?” and here I told him the facts:

  • A little under six miles total from start to finish
  • There’s an almost 1,500 foot elevation
  • Rated a Level Three of Five difficulty

This seemed to appease him and so we set off on the white blaze Appalachian Trail.

It seemed dozens of other hikers had the same ill-thought-out drive up and then idea to continue the one trail with access because numerous footprints had compacted the snow so much that it was thick ice instead.

“We had to bail,” two hikers heading towards the parking lot admitted to us the moment we got on the trail. “It’s too treacherous to continue with the ice.”

We paused. We talked. We debated — Questioning the whole while if we should continue. The trail was literally an ice rink and I found myself skating in my hiking boots far more than walking. Yet, we had time — There was no rush and if we, too, found it too dangerous then we could simply turn around also.

“Thanks — We will see how far we can get!” Andy said as we continued to skate our way up the path.

The day was cold but not that biting-bitter cold and once we reached the top of our initial incline, the mountain leveled off to clearly place our next ascent in front of us . . .

It was around here we realized the numerous hikers who originally started this trail did end up turning around because the rest of our journey up was secluded. Even better: This meant the snow was no longer heavily walked upon so it turned to a soft powder . . .

Up and up we continued, mostly without speaking and instead listening to the sound of our steps in the snow. All around us was silent and beautiful in the most simplistic way . . .

Soon, we arrived to our summit snow-covered view . . .

I learned there is history to this hike: In 1716, the Virginia Lieutenant Governor lead an expedition here after pressure from the British to expand the colonies. His group — which consisted of fifty other men and seventy-four horses — traveled west over the Rappahannock River and Blue Ridge Mountains. This trek was the first one over the Shenandoah Valley.

For Andy and me though, the whipping wind at the cliff edge did not welcome newcomers for long and so we said goodbye to this beautiful view and continued a little bit further up the Appalachian Trail.

“I’m just happy to be outside away from everything,” Andy told me, and I couldn’t agree more — The snow made the air fresh and pure and even though we had no destination past this, it felt good to simply walk . . .

Yet, the AT heads all the way to Maine and while Andy and I have talked about thru-hiking the white blaze one day, that day has not found a way to arrive and so we stopped at some point to turn back around. By then, the snow had melted and our trail turned to mud.

“Hold on,” I said to Andy and turned to look back at the mountain we had left . . .

It is often hard for me to believe how far we have traveled, and therefore, it is remarkable the distance that can be scaled by simply continuing to walk . . .


We Eloped and Here Is Why It Was Perfect

“We’re here,” Andy exhaled while turning off the car’s engine.  He was looking straight ahead into the forest then at me, smiling the most large and handsome of smiles – the type that causes light wrinkles to form next to his eyes.

“You’re smiling with your eyes,” I always tell him and did then, too, as I ran my fingertip across his wrinkles.

For the most part, it had been a normal trip to the mountains — It was the overlooked day of Wednesday, but it also was July 15 — the exact day we met, which also means the day our lives were altered forever. This drive to Shenandoah National Park was no different than all from the beginning — We giggled then belly-laughed and then smiled; and we held hands then danced and sang while tunes from our created playlist swirled around us; and we fell into deep conversations then took comfort in the silence of not talking.

The day felt a multitude of contradictions because it was the most ordinary day and yet most extraordinary.  Andrew and I were on our way to get married.

Only two people met us our wedding location – our photographer (who was also our florist) and our officiant; and as odd as this sounds to some, it was exactly what we spoke of each time when we hiked in our state all the way to when we envisioned walking the Appalachian Trail.

“What if we just happened upon these two people right now,” we’d say one another as trekked down paths or stood at vistas, “and we asked them to marry us and take pictures of our wedding.”  True, it wasn’t glamorous, but we didn’t aim for glamour – We solely hoped for a spontaneous mountain wedding at a time when we felt most carefree and happy.

“I’m smiling with my eyes because we’re getting married!” Andy’s whisper came as I smoothed my finger over the soft skin at the corner of his eye.  Though his words were hushed, they contained an excitement that made him a blur as he leaned over the car’s console to kiss me and then outside to get ready.

While he got changed, I looked at our bouquet and boutonnière filled with unique and beautiful flowers locally grown then cut and arranged by our florist/photographer.

Then it was my turn to get ready and move to Andy where he tucked small stray blooms in my braid before I pinned on his boutonnière . . .

To some, understanding why we chose to elope has been confusing.  We have been asked why we did not want to wait for a time when family and friends could be there and we have been questioned why we did not want to have a wedding event . . . and, in truth, we have struggled to answer these questions.  Our answer, I suppose, lies in their confusion: We simply couldn’t imagine any of that . . . and so we didn’t.

We chose to elope for a variety of reasons but ultimately because it fit us and, therefore, felt right.  We craved the intimacy of our tiny tucked-away cliff where Andy proposed more than three years earlier.  We longed for that indescribable feeling of being infinitesimal and yet mighty at the same time. We sought a protection found only under tree leaves and a strength only gathered from forests.  

Here, we are whole and at home within one another.

Our walk-down-the-aisle instead was a walk-down-the-trail – our coveted Appalachian Trail that we still hope to backpack. As we passed, wild ferns and flowers stretched forth; and our wedding music came from chirping birds and buzzing insects that whirled by.  Before we parted the brush to our cliff, we hugged, seeking all the support we needed within ourselves. In front of us, the sun cast rays so brilliant that some type of symbolism had to exist, and here our vows were exchanged — our deepest promise to one another.  Moments later, we heard the breaking of twigs under deer hooves before seeing a doe walk confidently from the forest.

It was all beautiful — so beautiful in the most simplistic way.

After Andrew and I exchanged vows, we slipped to the ground to sit on the edge of the cliff and here, time stops. For a few quiet moments, we sat as we had done for one of our first camps when we watched the sunset before leaning against the rocks to stargaze. Despite the summer then, the air was cool and so we had crept back to our tent for our sleeping bags only to wrap them around us so that we could return to the cliff once more. Then, under a starlit sky, we fell asleep outside as the International Space Station drifted overhead . . .

We had talked about camping here again — pitching a tent and starting a fire in our wedding outfits to spend our ‘honeymoon’ night in this bit of refuge — and even though that embodied ‘us,’ we chose instead to continue on so we walked back down the AT hand-in-hand — husband and wife — with the goal of stopping in a field for the sunset . . .

Our wedding gift to one another was matching hiking laces!

As Andy drove, I closed my eyes to flashes of sunlight that played over my face — a dance of kaleidoscope-colors and shapes behind my eyelids.  The flickering light made our wedding seem more surreal and seem sudden . . . yet at the same time, our wedding was years in planning because in truth Andy and I had more often decided when not to get married . . .

We most recently threw our wedding fund into an online auction for our rare fifty-five-year-old motorhome that we are currently restoring, modernizing, and customizing.

Before that, our international trips — particularly Canada — held promise for eloping abroad; however, cancelled flights, missed connections, and late starts continued to plague us by preventing spare time to slip away. 

Still, the closest we came to getting married was when we began to arrange one with an Italian wedding planner who helped select an officiant, translator, and photographer for our Dolomite dream wedding.  We even had the venue chosen for our wedding night and had detailed mapped routes and full itineraries for traveling the country in an extended honeymoon.

Then a global pandemic struck.

COVID singlehandedly brought our deepest worry back to the forefront of our minds because the virus threatened our relationship — From the start, we had been in a tug-of-war with the American government — a push-and-pull to fight simply for a ‘today’ relationship. However, the further the virus spread and the longer it continued, the more businesses suffered and Andy’s company was not exempt.  Because of this, the reality was his job was at high risk and I would be lying if I said we did not live many days to months holding our breaths with elevated heartrates when his phone rang.  Simply put, Andy could be let go at any time and if he was, he no longer had a valid visa to stay in America.  This meant the American government would force him to pack his bags and immediately move back to England.  The answer to be together then relied on me moving to his country, and while I still look forward to this, the timing was problematic. The virus closed borders so there was no guarantee that I could even start a new life in England with him.  However, even if I could go, the move was risky on multiple fronts: travel increased our chance of contracting COVID and with my weakened immune system, that scared me. Also, leaving would mean casting aside the only guaranteed job either of us had and further that meant me searching for new employment at a time when companies were cutting employees.  Our answer was clear, though one we did not want: We could not risk me moving with Andy so if he had to leave America, he had to leave alone.  That also meant our goodbye would have no known reunion date.

 In the end, we were willing to risk much but we refused to chance our relationship any longer and so we opened the gift of a future together by getting married.

As the car swirled around bends in the mountain road, Andy flashed a smile my way. The mountains now brought promise and security.

“I can’t believe we just got married,” he exclaimed, echoing my thoughts because it had taken a mere one month from making our wedding a priority to exchanging our vows.

As the sun descended in the sky, we raced across the road where land opened before us. Instead of choosing one path, we picked both before collapsing in the tall grass. There was an innocence and lightness in the air — A cricket greeted us by jumping onto my green skirt and the plants seemed to lean in as if providing congratulatory hugs.

The day was ours and I so desperately wanted it to stretch without end, but the day was also coming to a close . . .

Our photographer/florist/friend had stayed past time and had a long journey home in the dark so we threw numerous waves and thank yous her way as she left . . . and then it was only us.

The wind blew. The crickets played melodies of their own. Other than that though — silence. We sank once more to the grass — to listen, to breathe.

“I’m so happy we eloped,” one of us said — It doesn’t matter who because we both felt that way. Eloping meant this — him and me, intertwined fingers, talking and truly seeing one another.

While I know people saw our wedding as unorthodox and I know we envisioned our marriage differently, in the end our elopement was perfect and beautiful and right. There were no people and voices and party and motion and . . . distraction. It was us — only us.

We took pictures to send to our families as they shouted best wishes and praise, and then we stood together and let the silence sink into our bodies.

By this time, the sun had set the sky ablaze and so we watched the colors melt from orange to the deepest of blues.

“Are you ready?” Andy asked.

“I think so,” I told him but in truth I could have stood there for another day — for weeks, months, unlimited time — and so I let him lead me to the car.

Off we winded down back roads, slowing only for herds of deer. Our suitcases shifted their weights in the backseat and I felt as if we were gliding in the black starless sky. We were heading deeper into the mountains to a tiny, private inn for our so-called mini-moon . . .

“Andrew?” I said. I could not see him but could only feel him next to me.

“Yeah,” I heard him respond.

“I love you. I absolutely love you.”

* * * * *

To Andrew,
Today is January 15 — our six-month anniversary.  Six months — a tiny blip in time and yet the start to our lives together.  I could not be more grateful.

* * * * *

To Ash with Ash Carr Photography and Hazel Witch Farm,
Thank you for these pictures. We cherish them and are honored you are our photographer, florist, and friend.

A thank you to our other incredible vendors:
Kim with Dream a Little Dream Weddings, our officiant who has a welcomed vivacious personality
Helen with Bridal Parlour, who allowed me to order my skirt online and try it on at home before she spoke with the designer to rush make-and-deliver it
Sweet Caroline Styles, who accepted the challenge of making my skirt and getting it to me in time
Catherine Deane, another company that rushed to deliver my wedding top

* * * * *

For more on our wedding . . .


Virginia’s Dark Hollow Falls Hike

Sometimes hikes can be short and sweet such as the one at Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park:

  • Around seven miles, if starting with the Rose River Falls (which, why would you not?)
  • 564-foot elevation gain
  • Level Three of Five difficulty

Andy and I found ourselves venturing to another waterfall due to my desire to increase my photography skills.  Because of this though I did not want to take on a new trail.  Fact about me: I can put up quite a fuss when it comes to re-hiking trails.  I don’t know why either because I’ll admit — It is absurd not to venture back to such beautiful places.  However, in the four years since I’ve started hiking, I’ve only re-hiked six trails:

  • Franklin Cliffs and Hawksbill Mountain because this is where Andrew sneakily wanted to get me so that he could propose.
  • Crabtree Falls simply because we amped up our hike to include a camp on our venture up to Spy Rock.
  • Humpback Rocks, which I don’t necessarily count because the first time I did this trail it was so long ago that I do not actually remember.
  • James River and Belle Isle hikes because they are a great occassional change from treacherous mountain climbs.
  • Jones River/Doyles Run to test video-ing (Is that even a word?) our hikes for our YouTube channel, which we are still unsure if we want to incorporate our wilderness escapades there so leave a comment and tell us your thoughts!
  • And now the sixth re-hike trail goes back to Three Falls where at maximum Andrew and I were almost killed earlier . . . but at minimum Andrew got in trouble with the law earlier.
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Anyway, I suppose knowing I feel I have only scratched the surface on Virginia hikes is pretty impressive and boasts of the state’s amazing trails.  However, instead of searching for a new one to conquer, this day Andrew and I set off for Dark Hollow Falls’ seventy-foot waterfall.Here, a series of waterfalls drop onto greenstone that is supposedly from a long-ago lava flow.  True to summer, the area was packed with people when we went — which this picture does not show because Andrew was patient with me as I was patient with everyone else so that I could get this one long exposure snap.

Short story even shorter: If you are wandering which of the three waterfalls is best in Three Falls hike, I vote Dark Hollow every time for its height and beauty.

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Oh and speaking of beautiful, when we were leaving, this little deer was right beside our car so I was able to snap a few pictures of her as we slowly slid out of the park!


Virginia’s Rose River Falls Hike

I was in search of waterfalls — only waterfalls.  Not the trail, not the journey — just the falls.

For this, Andrew and I took to Shenandoah National Park and decided to tackle two of the three falls from our Three Falls hike and camp.  You remember that hike, right?  That was where we had a mother bear with her cubs run us out of our campsite when it was completely dark.  And where our second campsite was haunted with ghosts who continously shook our tent while we were inside.  And where Andy got a ticket for illegal camping, despite the fact that we were in trouble and literally waiting for any park ranger to find us and help us.  Yeah.  That one.

So let’s just say we were not ready quite yet to repeat that entire hike.  However, we were feeling brave enough to tackle one of the three cascades, Rose River Falls where both a twenty-five foot and thirty-foot waterfall awaited:

  • 3.8-mile loop
  • 853-foot elevation gain
  • Level Three of Five difficulty

Despite my promise of only taking pictures of waterfalls, I could not resist when we spotted a flock of wild turkey in the ferns.

IMG_9816IMG_9817IMG_9818IMG_9820I had never found wild turkeys before so seeing two fully grown ones with several little chicks scattered next to them was incredible.  Also amazing, a short time later we reached the first Rose River Falls where butterflies flew around us and landed on our arms and hands . . .
IMG_9829IMG_9845It was a hot, humid summer’s day so people flocked to the pools below the falls.  These pictures were taken quickly as they jumped out for bites to eat or as they scrambled on the rocks.

Following the water, we slipped off trail where more cascades greeted us.  The further we ventured, the less people we found so I would highly suggest doing this if you happen into the area . . .IMG_9857IMG_9868IMG_9870IMG_9893IMG_9898IMG_9921People often talk of Rose River Falls — It is one of Shenandoah National Parks most popular cascades; however, few venture below that fall where a more majestic, noticeably taller waterfall awaits.  It goes to show sometimes there are rewards for wandering off path and exploring your own trail.

 


Virginia’s Cedar Run Falls Hike

Since this winter, we have been on hunt for cascades, which brought us back to Shenandoah National Park to hike Cedar Run Falls. This hike can be combined with White Oak Canyon; however, because temperatures were dropping then, we chose to do both separately, returning the following weekend for this second nature trek and here is that information:

  • Cedar Run Falls is a short three-point-four mile hike, making it perfect for cold-weather months
  • It has a 1,510-foot elevation gain
  • It is a nice Level Three of Five difficulty

IMG_6969When we arrived, the day was cold but we came prepared — I had many layers on again, including my crazy patterned cozy leg warmers, which I had excitedly just re-found stuffed in the back of my sock drawer.IMG_6983IMG_6977The good news though is nature doesn’t judge attire so off we set into the forest, walking in boots still slopped with mud from our last hike.
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And and I walked beside one another until the trail became too narrow, until I had to fall back and follow him as he lead the way into the forest.
IMG_7060A little less than two miles in, we approached bubbling, clear water and fluffy moss.
20190316_143902 copyIMG_7020.jpgIMG_7091IMG_7058Crossing the water, we then climbed the bank on the opposite side leading us up Halfmile Cliff.  There, we met a beauty we haven’t seen yet during hikes: a natural waterslide.
IMG_7142IMG_7126IMG_7149IMG_7156.jpgBecause of its gradual slope and the continuous waterflow, I read “The Slide” commonly has people slipping down it and into the pool below in warm months.   It also is found at the top of the main Cedar Fall waterfall — which passes through a narrow gorge — where sixty yards below a larger, clear green pool can be found.IMG_7166.jpegIMG_7171IMG_7191

At the falls, we let the hours slip by as we followed the flowing water down the mountain. Hopping over the rocks, we smiled and laughed, challenging each other to stone skipping contests in this little piece of forest we had to ourselves.
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Before long though, we had to leave, understanding these magic moments are not forever. I darted to say goodbye to the waterfall one last time before we retraced our way back.IMG_7246-2.jpg

By the time we were in sight of the parking lot, the sun was shining so brightly we had to squint our eyes against it. “Hey,” I called to And, grabbing him by the hand. “Let’s get one more picture” and so we did, full of smiles, full of life, full of happiness.20190316_134949-copy.jpgLife seems easy when we are in forests — innocent and light — and I admit openly, I’m addicted to that feeling. So forests, our home, we will be back soon. Until next time . . .


Virginia’s White Oak Canyon Hike

This trail story will be primarily through pictures instead of words because, to be honest, it was almost six months ago. When we did this hike, it was a frigid winter day. Water that once dripped out of sight between rocks now showed off in the most unexpected places and, because of this, we slowed our drive up the mountain. Icicles, layered one upon the other until it became a thick frozen mass, glinted in the sun.
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That ice greeted us on the trail too, so thick that even our footsteps did not shatter it.

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Our destination: White Oak Canyon, one of the most famous Shenandoah National Park waterfalls due to it having many small cascades and a total of six waterfalls ranging from thirty-five to eighty-six feet. Here are more details:

  • Four-point-eight mile
  • 1,200-foot elevation gain
  • Level Three of Five difficulty

Ironically its popularity had never driven us here, possibly due to its short distance. Today though, the hike sat waiting — perfect for cold weather due to the short distance — and we were ready for it. I had bundled up and was snug in my warmest layers: wool base layer, heavyweight flannel shirt, thickest wool sweater, and flannel-lined down vest.IMG_6669IMG_6663

I followed Andrew through the thinning green canopy, noticing how the sun no longer had to battle its way through the trees.IMG_6677IMG_6755In the winter, the forest felt more a graveyard with the dead scattered above the ground in the form of numerous fallen trees. As we walked by each, I looked at their rings of life, now faded.
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Unusual rock formations protruded from the ground so I, curious, went to investigate them before we moved closer to a creek.
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Once we crossed the creek, large boulders appeared, reminding me again — in the best possible way — that I am so infinitely small in forests.
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Water that once dripped down rocks now froze in beautiful hanging crystals.
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We followed the creek as it flung itself over the rocks and lead us to a beautiful waterfall . . .IMG_6775IMG_6776IMG_6809IMG_6816IMG_6817IMG_6788
Once there, we perched on the edge of this cliff, absorbing the view, absorbing nature and appreciating the time we had in solitude with each other.
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Virginia’s Bearfence Mountain/Bear Church Rock Hike

It was November as Andrew and I drove to the Shenandoah Mountains and watched as the bare brown trunks of trees blurred past our car windows.  Leaves that had once been bursting with color were now drying on limbs before slipping to the ground.
IMG_5610IMG_5628It was cold, too — a frigid day for a hike but the sky was blue, clear.  And that is the reason we came: We were seeking a sunset.

The Blue Ridge’s Bearfence Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in the area due to its incredible 360-degree views at Bear Church Rock.  Plus, it packs this easy trail:

  • One-mile loop
  • 242-foot elevation gain
  • Level Two of Five difficulty

It’s not often we come across hikes we feel would be simple — We often irrationally push ourselves and our will to survive outdoors.  However, with the drastic drop in temperatures, we were more than happy to set off late for a short-distance hike and be rewarded with this mountain’s fabled sunsets.

It was the afternoon when we arrived and the sun cast burning yellow and orange rays on our steep blue-blaze Bearfence Trail.
IMG_5630IMG_5635.jpgThe naked trees allowed us to peer past and see the neighboring sun-kissed mountains.IMG_5632
After a short while, our hike turned into a rock scramble as we raced to climb the summit of Bearfence Mountain, chasing the colors in the sky.  The higher our elevation became, the more air grew cold around us.  Bundled snuggly in layers, we moved our gloved hands towards our faces to tuck our buffs under our hats for more warmth.  Only a sliver of skin showed as my eyes peeked through to ensure Andrew was okay and continuing to follow me.
IMG_5639IMG_5645IMG_5647Blue blazes were painted on the rocks, encouraging us to continue to climb higher . . .IMG_5653IMG_5657IMG_5679until all too soon, we stood at the top of the summit where golden sunlight welcomed us by warming our bodies.  There, we dipped to sit on the rocks and look out at the view.
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This is reportedly only one of three summits that has a 360-degree view, and words will never be able to describe how breathtaking the sunset was — The darkening mountains appeared to cast off a yellow glow that faded into the blue sky and the forest around us took on a vibrant crimson and burnt-orange color.
IMG_5695IMG_5696IMG_5698IMG_5699IMG_5704The distant mountains began to turn from blue to purple to pink while the sun continued to sink still, burning, burning, then exploding.
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Above our heads, planes glided in the evening sky as shooting stars.  One, two, then three zipped and zoomed as I closed my eyes, imaging a simple world where wishes could come true based off of the puffs of jet vapor trails.
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We watched for what felt like hours but was mere minutes — a blip in time — until the sun disappeared behind the peaks, illuminating all in one final fit of glory.  And then it was time to go — to find our trail again and leave.

“Com’on,” Andrew called ahead of me, encouraging me to continue dipping down the mountain too but I couldn’t stop turning back to look at the colors.
IMG_5746IMG_5747The sky was on fire and I was addicted to watching it burn.
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By the time we got to the car, night had settled in and a sliver of the moon beamed against the midnight sky.
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“Pull over,” I begged again and again of Andrew as we raced, twisting and turning through the dark Shenandoah Mountains.  “I just want one more shot” and I’d lean my body out the window into the freezing night air for one more picture then one more still.
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Andrew laughed the whole way.  “One more?” he said, but he didn’t mind.

This is our home.  This is where we feel most comfortable — where the sun and moon shine together and where colors are at their prime.  This is where the world stands still but also blurs by and we grasp — keep trying to grasp — that moment where we, too, can freeze in time.IMG_5759



Virginia’s Franklin Cliffs Hike and Camp

It’s April Fool’s Day — a time for jokes and pranks and hoaxes.  A time to instill doubt, second-guesses, concern, dare I say a smidge bit of worry.  A time when trusting individuals are turned to fools, and loyal individuals become tricksters.  April Fool’s Day — a time when . . . let’s be honest . . . a time when Andrew proposed to me.

That’s right.  On this day — exactly one year ago — Andrew knelt down on a windy, freezing rocky cliff in the mountains to ask me to marry him.

You see the videos, hear the stories where the female gasps, “Are you joking?!  Tell me truly if you are serious!” and truth be told I have found them ridiculous.  Of course he is serious — Look at him!  He is on his knee!  He is tearing up!  He gave you a sentimental speech!  He even has a ring!  Yep, I once found those females frustrating, annoying, silly . . . that is until my boyfriend chose April Fool’s Day to pop the question.  Now I understand there are circumstances that can warrant such behavior.

So this post is a look-back at this zany proposal and this equally quirky and untraditional guy I said, “Yes” to because my life hasn’t been the same since meeting him and somehow, he finds a way to keep me on my toes every day, just like April Fool’s Day.

* * * * *

At the time, Andrew’s six-month stint in America was over.  He was living again in his home country of England.  Previously, he had been in the US for work — His English job had given him an opportunity to stay in America to help a company improve their research capabilities.  It was during this blip in time — this itty-bitty moment when monumental meant-to-be events just align — that I met him and him, me.  Magic and, without knowing it, we needed each other.

In England, he had come out of a ten-year relationship that ended with his girlfriend leaving him for someone else.  At the same time, I had locked myself in my apartment following my divorce.  Our lives were parallel — countries away — so that several months had passed for both of us where our lives were stagnant and, around the same time, we chose to begin to branch out.  He came to America, moved into my apartment complex, and was keen to make friends, explore.  I was eager to get away; I yearned to walk — walk as far as I could, walk until I couldn’t walk anymore.  That’s when I determined I would become a hiker.  The only problem was I had no idea what I was doing so I made a post on our apartment website, asking if anyone wanted to hike with me.  Several people answered, including Andrew: “Hi, I did [hike] when I was home.  I’m from the U.K., here for six months.”

I remember telling my family how this was the first time I could recall feeling happy since my life fell downhill and off-course.  I wanted to meet this Brit — I knew conversation would be easy because I could ask him about the UK and about hiking there.

I began planning the hike, inviting those that said they could go the following weekend —
two people from India and one from Spain (my dear Usua), and we all trekked our merry way to the mountains for our hike at Crabtree Falls, which was beautiful by the way.  It was also where — when I was standing at the highest point on that trail — I realized I forgot the Brit.

He likes to joke that he had waited for my message on hiking plans but as the days slid by, he said he had given up: “I thought you’d either changed your mind about wanting to hike or you didn’t want to hike with me.”  A week slid by and, depending on the day you ask him what he did next, his answer changes from either his tale of woe: “I just assumed you wouldn’t get back in touch — and I was too shy to message you — so I went to drown my sorrows in beer” to this top-notch attitude: “I just assumed you wouldn’t get back in touch so I said, ‘Well fuck it.  I’m going for beers.”

That was Friday night.  The next day — the day of my hike — I sent a private message of apology his way: “Hi Andrew! I am the worst — I forgot to post a public follow-up message for the hike.  I remembered today when we were there so I wanted to apologize.  I don’t know how often you hike, but I want to go often. Would you still be interested in one? Let me know!”

He kept me waiting.  Then responded days later.  We messaged back and forth, and those messages ended with him casually inviting me to join him Friday night for his regular burger and beers to “chat about the different hikes and places to go.”  He ended with “When do you fancy?” and I smiled, finding it was amusing that there are people in the world that actually use the word ‘fancy’ in every day speech.  That’s when I heard myself laugh, which was startling; I had forgotten that sound.  I remember feeling scared to embark solo, to socialize — I hadn’t done this in years — but I felt a strange drive that I should go: Something really amazing could happen, a voice kept telling me.  So I figured what the heck.  If he is crazy, I’ll leave — in the middle of eating or drinking.  I have no connection to him, he is not even a friend; he is a stranger that may become a potential hiking partner.  Plus, he has to leave in six months so there is zero chance for strings to be attached, which is absolutely perfect.  And, without fully realizing it, I found my fingers typing a time to meet, typing words that I would go.

So we met at a small dive-of-a-bar, which I blogged about before in my “I Pushed Him Out of a Plane” post.  We stayed until the bar closed and then we walked around the city until 3:30 a.m. talking and laughing — both of us were laughing.

From that moment on, we were inseparable.

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Our first picture together a couple months after we met

Four months into knowing him, we were dating and spent practically every weekend in the mountains, hiking and camping.
20160917_133635We went skydiving.  He took me to England and I met his parents, his friends.
20161123_150817We cherished every day because we knew there was a limit, a deadline, a point where he would have to go.

And that time came . . . one month after we had started dating . . . five months after we first met.  We didn’t have a plan.  We simply took each day at a time.

The good news is he did come back — In March, he was sent by his English company to return to America for work, which meant we had a chance to see one another again.  And it also meant a weekend in the mountains, which felt our home, a place we could escape the world and pretend — even if for an afternoon or a couple days — that we could be together, time could be uninterrupted.

That weekend of April Fool’s Day arrived.  Our packs were ready for our first camp of the year.  We set off to one of our favorite hikes thus far: Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park.  Here, we aimed to see Franklin Cliffs again.  We fell in love with this trail and this particular spot on the trail for more reasons than I can name but one can be seen in this stunning sunset . . .
20160917_190613This hike though would be the second time we walked the trail, making this still the only place we have re-hiked and re-camped thus far.

In only one picture before we began walking, Andrew’s facial expression gives away that he has something planned, and I remember being amused when I glanced at my camera to find his eyes wide.  Giggling, I questioned why he had done that and he told me it was because he hoped we wouldn’t get into our regular mishaps — you know, bears, getting lost, no water.  At the time, I supposed he was right — This was the place where we saw our first bear after all — so, in an effort to calm his heart, I kissed him: “We’re going to be great this year,” I remember telling him, and he smiled back.  This smile stayed with him the entire time, but then again so did mine.  We were together.  We were home.IMG_0354IMG_0313

The day was beautiful but extremely cold, which summarizes a Virginia April well.
IMG_0324This month is a mixed bag — often it feels more like winter and can bring snow, but there are occasions where April represents spring well.  On this hike, there were glimpses of spring — moss was the most vibrant green, red buds were noticeable on the tips of trees, and little plants were stretching towards the sky.IMG_0339IMG_0321IMG_0350 2.jpgIMG_0330.JPGIMG_0371.JPGHowever, signs of colder temperatures were more visible with heaps of acorns and pine cones and layers of leaves on the ground.IMG_0325.JPGIMG_0345IMG_0338IMG_0323.JPGThere was also a sense of sadness — Fallen trees were everywhere, yard after yard and stacked on top of one another.
IMG_0368IMG_0363.JPGIMG_0336 2IMG_0334.JPGIMG_0358Whenever I see this many fallen trees, I often think of what author Bill Bryson wrote in his memoir A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail:
“The Appalachians are the home of one of the the world’s greatest hardwood forests — the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world — and that forest is in trouble.  If the global temperature rises by 4° C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna.  Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”
This is precisely why we love the mountains — We want to see it, celebrate its beauty, breath in its life so that every time we are out, we silently pray to Mother Nature that she has the strength to endure.  This is also why we crave to hike the Appalachian Trail — This fabled trail is one we found ourselves talking of the first day we met, and the truth is it may not be around always — It has already changed, drastically, from when it was first created and if we miss one more moment to walk it — that is a travesty.

Passing the same white blaze-marked tree where we stopped for a picture only the year before, we stopped again in an effort to re-create that moment, that hike.

Then onward we continued towards Franklin Cliffs where we would set up camp again.
IMG_0341The year before, we came in the summer so all around was lush and green.  It was interesting to come back and see how different the trail looked and felt.  For instance, we never saw cliffs behind us — The leaves were too dense; they blocked our view.  Here though, the cliffs stood out and seemed naked without the protection of the trees.
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After setting up camp, Andy and I ventured to the overlook.
IMG_0375IMG_0383IMG_0382IMG_0380IMG_0381This was the place we saw our first mountain sunset, the one where we leaned back to rest in a rocky nook, watching with captivation as the sun burst into colors then hid behind those blue mountains we know.  This was the place we waited, patient, as the town’s lights twinkled on like fireflies in the night.  The sky was darkening then so we gazed up at stars which shined in different colors too.  This was where the International Space Station zoomed above in the slick blackness and we felt so tiny yet essential.  It was here that we nestled into one another, tucked under Andy’s sleeping bag, and fell asleep at the cliff’s edge; we woke with aching muscles that felt bruised, and that is how we predicted how long we had slept because in the mountains, there is no way to know how much time has passed — The only measurement is sunrise, sunset, and the space between each.

At the cliffs, the wind picked up — icy strong gusts that made it hard to stand in one spot.  We began to shake.

“Let’s go back — It’s freezing and you’re shaking,” I told Andrew and turned to head towards the tent.

“No, we need to stay out here a bit longer,” he told me shaking so severely it appeared he was convulsing.

“Why?” I asked so he told pointed towards the mountains.

“Look,” he said and I remember thinking, The view is beautiful but it is way too cold to enjoy this right now.  Still, I turned back and breathed in, staring at the Blue Ridge.  Meanwhile, Andrew was behind me and pulling a ring from his pocket . . .

“I was very stealthy and ninja-esque, I would say.”  That’s how he describes his actions now.  “And you thought I was kidding.  I had to say, ‘It is April 1st, but it’s not an April Fool’s joke.”

What he is alluding to is how deeply I thought he was joking.  This is because four months into meeting me, he bought an engagement ring and had been torturing me with the fact that he was thinking about proposing.

“Are you going to marry me?” and “Will you marry me?” he would ask each day.

“Are you asking me now?” I would respond.

“No,” he would say laughing so I would laugh too and tell him that there was no reason for me to answer then.

You can now understand why it was hard to believe he was proposing — He had dangled the words before me often and it was April Fool’s.  Once I realized he was serious though, my answer is as it is now: “Of course.”20170401_193801

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The next morning, the sun streamed in just right — the way it does to make you feel light, calm, happy.  We watched as it slowly rose higher in the sky.
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When we left, we stopped by the visitor’s center, as we sometimes do to look at the sightings log.  “I want to record your proposal, our engagement,” I told him but he was nervous, saying it should be a record of nature.  However, when we looked at what others wrote — “Love nature” and “We don’t see that every day” —  it seemed more comments.  Plus, what I wanted to write was a sighting after all — me, seeing my boyfriend propose — so I chose to do it.
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So that is our story and this is us — We met a little less than a year and a half ago, he purchased an engagement ring four months into knowing me, and he proposed — on April Fool’s Day — five months later.

To look back to the time before we met — him in England and me, here — To say we would have any idea our lives would turn out this way . . . impossible.  There are no words to write how surprising life can be, how magical, how meaningful, how important.

This man — this zany, quirky, untraditional, hilarious, loyal, caring man — This is the man I am engaged to.  “A lad from a small village in England,” as he likes to say.  A man I almost forgot.  A man that challenges me in the best ways possible.  A man that has changed my life for the better, changed it in a way I could only begin to dream of before.

So yeah.  This is is our story.  This is us.20170402_125640

Happy one year engagement, Andrew.  How I so deeply love you . . .


Virginia’s Moormans River and Big Branch Falls Hike

Hints of spring are here — the pear and dogwood trees, forsythia, daffodils are blooming.  Baby leaves seem to glow a bright green as they grow, slow and shy, and the sun rises and sets at different times now.

I’m ready for spring.  So is Andy.  It seems each day he asks, “When will it turn green again?”  Trust me, if a change of seasons could happen through his sheer willpower, it would have been spring at the start of November.  That’s because we are ready: ready for more trails, ready to start camping, ready to get lost in a green forest surrounded by only plants, wild animals, and each other.

February managed to find us out on below-freezing trails every weekend.  We hope that will be the same for March, though that does mean our hikes would be decided suddenly.

“Do you want to go hiking tomorrow?” I’d whisper to Andy as we were seconds from sleep late on a Saturday night.

“Sure,” he’d say, drifting into dreams, so I’d rise to set my alarm clock before sleep overtook me too.

We try to be great planners — we do — but ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time when we are out adventuring, there are at least three different moments we turn to one another and say, “Why in the hell didn’t we plan this more?  How does this keep happening to us?”  I guess we know the answer to those questions: Spontaneity seems to have seized my life since I met Andy, and while it’s so gosh darn exciting and rewarding and we have crazy stories to tell, there are times when we laugh about how we’d like to have that point-one percent of calm, serenity, peace.  Amazingly, this hike was that point-one percent.  It was unruffled, tranquil so that in the end, this hike turned out to be one of our favorites thus far.

Here’s more on Shenandoah National Park’s Moormans River:

  • Five-point-seven miles
  • 460-foot elevation
  • Rated Level Two of Five difficulty

Our drive was a shorter distance than most, and immediately we were rewarded with those deep blue mountains that have formed the base of who Andy and I are together.Andy Camera1
Winding around the Blue Ridge Mountains, we paralleled Moormans River until it greeted the Sugar Hollow Dam.IMG_1665.JPGIMG_1666IMG_1667The dam was supposedly used in the opening scene of the movie Evan Almighty.  On the other side was Charlottesville’s foggy Sugar Hollow Reservoir.
IMG_1670.JPGAnd that word, foggy, is the perfect way to describe this hike.  It had rained for days here and the sun was still covered by clouds so fog drifted above the saturated ground while water drops dangled from limbs, making each droplet appear illuminated like white Christmas lights.
IMG_1688IMG_1858.JPGIMG_1692It was a beautiful day though because ‘beautiful’ does not have to be synonymous for ‘sunny.’  The temperature was warm, welcoming us into the forest.IMG_1757.JPG20180225_103235.jpgIMG_1673

We began by walking beside Moormans River, heading north, to the yellow-blazed Moormans River Trail.  These waters were once prime places to catch trout native to the area.  However, that changed in June 1995 when eleven-point-five inches of rain fell, which triggered many landslides.  The landslides dramatically altered the land.  For instance, canopies over the river that once provided needed-shade in the summer were now gone, and that set forth another reaction: Two thirds of the water’s trout habitat was destroyed.  The picture below shows how most of the land looks — The roots of trees are dangling after the ground below was washed away.

Recovery was evident though — The area had an energy all its own as spots of green seemed to explode, casting their vibrant hues beside the steely blues of the river and muddy browns of the land.  Life is continuing here, and it was colorful and loud.IMG_1681.JPGIMG_1683Even the puddles seemed magical.  Their glossy tans and greys made me feel as if I’d stepped into a watercolor painting — The reflection of bare, spindly trees merely brushstrokes so that my gaze darted down and up, down and up to confirm what was real.  I was seeing the forest anew.IMG_1690
Soon, large puddles caught Andrew’s eye too: “Frog spawn!” and he pointed.  Sure enough, the puddle was filled with frog eggs.
IMG_1714IMG_1696.JPGIMG_1698.JPGThe glassy orbs clung to one another in bulk, allowing them to be easily picked up and analyzed.  I imagined baby tadpole eyes looking up at me in wonder as I looked down at them with identical amazement.20180225_143957_2The eggs have anywhere from six to twenty-one days until they will be broken by little hatching tadpoles.  Then, depending on the frog, tadpoles remain in that stage anywhere from six weeks to eight months before growing legs, losing the tail, and hopping away.  Placing the eggs back into the puddle delicately, I hoped to myself that the water would remain high enough for the cycle to take place.IMG_1718.JPGIMG_1719.JPG
Walking again, we would pause more to dart back and forth to the foggy river bank where the water flowed strong and cold.
IMG_1721And that is how the rest of our hike went — zig-zagging back and forth from trail to water.IMG_1777.JPG
Soon, our path took us over Moormans River where our boots were dipped into the water.  This would be one of six times total we forge the river, which essentially means by the end we became pros at hustling across.