little devils stairs

For weeks now, I’ve been hankering after a hike. There’s nothing like a lengthy, sweaty walk in the woods to break my routine and get me out of my head. (Plus, my older daughter’s been sending photos of all her incredible hikes in Ireland and I was beginning to feel an unhealthy amount of jealousy.) But taking off for a whole day is complicated, what with work and cheesemaking and such, and weekends are precious for around-the-house stuff and social events, and so it went: week after hikeless week grinding by. 

And then on Sunday, my husband said, “Want to go hiking tomorrow?” A Monday hike? That had never occurred to me!

I requested a 7-9 mile hike and my husband found one about an hour and a half away. My first thought was, So far? Is it worth it? Can we justify the drive? But then I was like, Be cool, Jennifer. People drive places all the time. Take the whole freaking day. WHO CARES.

On the drive there, we passed swaths of blackened forests from this spring’s fires. The scorched trees, the bare forest floor — it was a little eerie. And then as we got closer to our destination, we noticed a whole mountain ridge that were entirely black, and we started giggling. What were the odds we’d picked a hike in a burnt forest? Oh well, I said. At least it’ll be a new experience. 

Then we arrived and the woods, our woods for the day, were not burned.

The woods was bursting with new green, flowers, birdsong, and merry breezes. The sky was blue, the day warm, and we only saw three other humans the entire time. There weren’t any views but we had running water for about half of the hike, and who needs views when you have a lush forest to occupy the senses? 

We did the steep part of the hike first: about a mile, maybe more, of slowly going down the devil’s stairs and crisscrossing the stream about a dozen times. 

drying off after fording

During the more intense parts, my brain played what-if scenarios on a loop: 

  • What if I step wrong on a rock and tear my Achilles tendon? Take Ibuprofen immediately, that’s the first thing. And then my husband would probably have to go back to make calls and get help. Would he leave a sign attached to me in case I passed out from pain? He better, ’cause that way anyone who happened upon my body would know I was still alive and that help was on the way. 
  • Or what if I slip and my head snaps back and I crack my head on a rock? That’d be bad.
  • Oh! What if I get bitten by a snake? Sucking out the venom isn’t proper procedure anymore. We didn’t have any extra material for a tourniquet, so we’d have to resort to a t-shirt. And without a t-shirt, there’d be sunburn to contend with…

These are the thoughts that occupy my mind when I hike. Now you know. 

The rest of the hike was easier, though there were some steep ascents and descents, and lots of slow burns in either direction. 

We came upon a family cemetery.

When the Shenandoah Skyline Drive was built, mountain folk were forced out, their homes burned, so “finding” the cemetery in the middle of “nowhere” felt sacred. There was a plaque with a poem by Wayne Baldwin. The last line read: The blue of the mountains is not due to the atmosphere, It’s because there’s a sadness which lingers here.

For much of the hike I thought about those people, and the people before them, too. What had life been like back then? How in the world did they live

The bugs were bad so we ate our sandwiches while walking, and when we found ourselves once again walking alongside a stream, I spotted a nice pool of water and dared my husband to strip and dip. 

Hello, Garden of Eden.

We even had apples.

No snakes, though, thank goodness. 

Three-quarters of the way through, I was whupped. My feet hurt, our water was running out, and I was sweaty and tired, but I only walked faster. All I could think about was a shower, enormous jars of cool water, and my whole body stretching out on the couch in a giant exhale.

Five hours after we started, we arrived back at the trailhead.

We yanked off our hiking shoes, peeled off our socks, and pulled out the cheesecake brownies and lukewarm iced coffees. And then we drove home, all the while luxuriating in the AC and the simple act of sitting. The end.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (5.1.23), the quotidian (5.2.22), a few good things, an under-the-stairs office nook, PUERTO RICO, coffee crumb cake.


  • Alta L. Brubaker

    Because we live right across from Massanutten and the hiking trails I loved wandering through the woods over there. But I am a gardening person, not a cooking person like you. Over here we have to wear hats, etc because of gnats. I love nature, but not camping! Are you only a worrier when it comes to health?

  • K.

    What a terrific post! (Especially for this reader who luxuriates so often in the simple act of sitting). I’ll be dwelling on that family graveyard for quite a while. As well as the thought of you two being the only two people on earth. Freaky thought, no? snakes or no snakes.

  • Becky R.

    Sounds heavenly! I would love a hike like that. Since the first section of the Shenandoah drive was started in 1934, those people were probably farmers, poor farmers. I come from a family of very rural farmers who subsisted on what they could grow or barter for at a very small country store. The only difference between them and most of current homeless population is that that they had a shack with a wood stove to sleep in. And believe it or not, they were pretty happy folks.

    • Jennifer Jo

      I’ve read books about the people living back in the hills, but walking that land and seeing just how far back in it is and how rough the terrain and thinking about FARMING that land… It’s just hard to wrap my head around.

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