Old Rag

Last weekend, in keeping with our tradition of trying to complete a dangerous hike each summer, Shar and I headed south to Virginia to climb Old Rag. Considered one of the more strenuous hikes in the area, it also boasts some unrivaled views and sweet rock scrambles.

Though the hike did not include a slippery precipice wide enough for one toe, Shar deemed it acceptable, so we met on Thursday to find accommodation. This we did, in the form of the Belle Mead Bed & Breakfast, which turned out to be an adorable farm surrounded by tree-covered mountains, Old Rag poking up just over the peaks.

The drive down was joyful, with music, homemade vegan cookies (courtesy of Shar), and a few hours of the Confronting podcast, featuring Kim Goldman’s journey confronting OJ Simpson 25 years after the murder of her brother.

We cruised down a ribbon of country road as the sun was dappling the farm all gold and green, the podcast so riveting that we nearly passed the sign for the bed and breakfast. We were greeted by the friendly couple/owners who showed us to our cottage: a large bed, two porches, and a bathroom. We couldn’t have asked for more, except maybe locks on the door.

“We moved in here 20 years ago, never needed locks,” they said. When they left us, we shuffled some chairs against the doors to barricade against any wayward intruders.

There was no WiFi at the farm, so we drove into “town” and settled in at a brewery called  Hopkins Ordinary, where an underground tavern gave us the perfect opportunity to sip beers and use the WiFi to find a vegan restaurant nearby.

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Shar checks out the brewery

We ended up at Blue Wing Frog, which boasted an amazing veggie burger.

After a few bites, Shar looked upset and said, “I think this burger is made out of Play-Doh.”

All I will say is this: I spent most of the night in the bathroom, stomach cramping, sick, wondering how on earth I was going to hike 9 miles in the morning.

Somehow, we woke up at 5am and trudged around the cottage gathering things to pack into the car for the hike. I carried Gatorade chews, a roll of toilet paper, some Clif bars, and 3 liters of water. Shar carried vegan coconut bars, 2 liters of water, and a much smaller backpack.

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Up with the sun – always a treat : )

Sidenote to appreciate how, at 33, Shar and I have finally realized the importance of staying hydrated on a hike. Well done us.

The first mile or so uphill was strenuous. I have never had to stop so often, apart from on the 14er, but then there was elevation. Here, it was gut-wrenching cramps. I would take a few steps, then pause and debate running into a bush to be sick. I do not know how I made it up. Probably Shar’s patience and persistent repetition of “Drink water.”

If you aren’t familiar with Old Rag, it’s a .8-mile walk from the parking lot to the trailhead, then a few miles up a steep but wooded hill before you reach a boulder-heavy stretch to the summit that requires lots of upper body strength. The way down is a long, winding Saddle Trail, that eventually becomes paved.

I tried my best not to die, which was easy when we hit the rock scramble. I hadn’t been sure what to expect (Shar had gone ahead and watched a video, while I had done nothing), but Shar assured me it was not a precarious boulder scramble like Katahdin had been.

She was right. The boulders were huge, but you were moving through them mostly and never were you clambering over a boulder that was balanced on a cliff side. It was actually fun.

They say it’s best to hike with a small backpack (like Shar has in the left photo), and I concur. Mine stored more things, but it made scrambling over rocks and between crevices a lot more difficult.

The most challenging part of it was trying to follow the trail. Marked with blue blazes, the boulders were painted with arrows pointing in various directions, and sometimes when you followed one, you’d end up at a dead end. I can imagine the park rangers and officials chuckling to themselves as hikers have to backtrack over boulders and restart.

Some of the boulders were marked with numbers: R26, R32.

“Someone counted them,” I said. “Rock 26.”

The reality is that the numbers serve as guidance for rescue teams, should you become unwell and unable to continue the hike, which was not too unlikely for me.

Shar and I reached the summit in pretty awesome time, and enjoyed our bars while sitting with our backs to a boulder. The Shenandoah Valley is a stunning vista, and from up on Old Rag, the mountains stack against the horizons in layers of blue.

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Stopping to take in a view

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Shar contemplates where the summit might be

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View from the summit of Old Rag. Doesn’t do it justice.

Carl and Alicia told me that Shenandoah means “daughter of the stars”. It’s a beautiful image. I would love to spend more time there someday.

You would think that the descent, a crumbly path that slowly looped down the mountain, would be the easiest part, but you’d be wrong. For some reason, it felt longer than the uphill.

Of course, that was partly due to the fact that, about halfway into our descent, Shar and I both realized that we were not feeling very well. Not very well at all. When we checked the map and found the parking lot a solid 2 miles away, it became very tempting to go dart behind a boulder and, you know. But how would we dig a hole deep enough to cover our tracks? We hadn’t brought a shovel.

Shar assured me that there were port-a-potties at the parking lot, so it was a lot of bending over and groaning and speed walking.

With a mile to go, we passed a woman walking her dog.

“It was a while ago, and a bit further back, but a bear crossed our path back there,” she said without stopping.

“What does that even mean, a bear “crossed our path”? It just walked across?” Shar wondered. “I do not want to see a bear.”

Shar had brought two small keychains with pepper spray on them and a knife. She prepared herself with those – minus one keychain that I’d left on my night stand – and I loudly and laboriously told her the entire plot of Roadhouse, which I had experienced a few days before for the first time.

“You know, I would really like to see a bear,” I said. “From afar.”

“I don’t,” Shar countered.

At one point, as we neared the end of the hike, I sighed. “I think you can put the weapons away. We aren’t seeing any bears.”

“You’re just self-disappointing so you don’t get your hopes up,” she said.

We did not see any bears, much to my disappointment, though you might’ve thought otherwise, walking with Shar. Every so often, she’d leap behind me. I’d excitedly look to the woods to see if a bear was on its way out to say hello, but she’d point at the path to a scurrying daddy-long-leg or, more amusingly, a beautiful butterfly.

“They were coming right for me,” she told me the next day.

“Of course. Wildlife ignores me but goes after you. Maybe you’ll see the bear.”

We finished the hike in record time. At around a 6:30am start, we wound up back at the car around noon. We’d both expected it to take until at least 2pm.

This meant we could return to our cottage, shower, and read/nap. (Having not slept the night before, I passed out pretty quickly.)

Another unexpected highlight of the trip: lying in bed, listening to Virginia in the afternoon, quietly reading books. Shar’s book was more entertaining, and she broke the silence once in a while to read me a particularly crappy line.

It took a lot of effort to drive to town for some pizza dinner. The bed was big and hard to leave, and easy to come back to.

The drive back to New Jersey was surprisingly easy, given it was 95 on a Sunday afternoon.

Before we left, our host said, “You got lucky with the weather. Good planning! It was scorching all last week.”

This is the occasional extra surprise on a last-minute trip: the fact that you didn’t even check the weather when you planned the day before, and somehow did just fine.

Until next year.

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Our front porch

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