By Tom Robotham
In the woods…a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The older I get, the more I appreciate the approach of springtime. It is heartening, as I sit here on a cold winter’s day and look at the bare branches of the sweet gum trees outside my living room window, to remind myself that in a month or so they will begin to sprout leaves again. Pleasing as that lush greenery will be, however, I want more. Increasingly, I find myself longing to return to the Blue Ridge Mountains—and come spring, I plan on doing so.
My first encounter with the range was in 1991, a few months after I moved to Norfolk. I’d always loved mountains. I was blessed to attend college in Plattsburgh, NY, just north of the Adirondacks high peaks region, and for years after I’d graduated I ventured there—or to the Green Mountains of Vermont—every chance I got. Knowing that the Blue Ridge was just a three-hour drive from Norfolk made moving here more palatable.
Throughout the ‘90s, when my children were still very young, their mom and I would drive out at least once a year and stay at Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park. During this period, I also went on a few hiking trips with my friend John. And on several occasions, I went up there by myself, to wander in blissful solitude.
During one of those early visits, I purchased in Skyland’s gift shop a guide to the park by a knowledgeable native named Henry Heatwole. It remains one of my most cherished books, not only because of the clear and informative trail guides, but because it is filled with notes documenting my extensive hikes through the park. Thanks to those notes, I know, for example, that on October 29, 1994, John and I completed a 10-mile circuit hike through White Oak Canyon, passing six waterfalls along the way. In addition to the spectacular scenery, one image stands out in my mind: After hiking about 3 miles, John and I sat down for a break, and I opened some canned peaches that I’d stashed in my day-pack. I’d never much cared for canned peaches, but at that moment I thought they were the most refreshing and delicious things I’d ever tasted. Such is the value of hiking a strenuous trail: it deepens your appreciation for the smallest of pleasures—a good flat rock or tree-stump on which to rest, a swig of fresh water or a piece of fruit.
By then I’d discovered the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the Park’s section of the AT, as well as its side trails, and manages six primitive cabins within the Park’s confines. That night, after our White Oak Canyon adventure, John and I stayed at the Rock Spring cabin, which is equipped with a fireplace and wood-burning stove. There’s no running water—except in the nearby spring—and no electricity. The bunks, moreover, are simple plywood platforms. But with good sleeping pads and sleeping bags, we were quite comfortable—the nocturnal scurrying of mice in the cabin notwithstanding.
AFTER MY KIDS WERE GROWN, I continued to go to the Park on my own. One of my most memorable visits was in 2010. On my second morning there, determined to make the most of my solitude, I decided to hike the Corbin Cabin trail, the highlight of which is a structure built in 1909—a reminder of the mountain folk who lived in the area before the land was turned into a national park. I’d first hiked it back in the early ‘90s and knew it to be one of the trails less traveled. Midway through my walk, I heard a rustling from around a bend. “Oh well,” I thought, “another hiker after all.”
It turned out to be a large black bear, directly in my path, about 10 yards away. Both of us froze. I’d read in Heatwole’s book that if you encounter a bear it’s a good idea to talk or sing, since bears are nearsighted. If the bear starts approaching, he adds, step off the trail and give it the right of way. The trouble with the trail I’d chosen is that there was thick underbrush on either side, so there was really no place for me to go but forward or backward. I waited for 30 seconds or so to see if the bear would leave, but it just stood its ground and stared at me. I briefly thought about clapping my hands to see if it would run off, but decided that might be unwise. Finally, I wished the bear a good morning—out loud—and began backing away without averting my gaze. When I made it around the bend, I turned my back and began singing as I walked, though I was careful not to run. I was relieved when I got back to the trail head and realized the bear hadn’t followed me, but for some reason I’d not been terribly frightened. On the contrary, I was glad I’d had the encounter and had acquitted myself well enough.
My desire to get to know these mountains only increased after that, so I decided to join the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains sections off the upper Blue Ridge Parkway. One of the most appealing features of this local chapter of the ATC is the Putnam cabin, which members began building on donated land in 1979. Much as I love the PATC cabins in the Park, this is far nicer than any of them. It’s quite large, for a primitive structure, and made of fieldstone. I also like it because it’s an easy hike from the Parkway, but far enough into the woods to feel remote. And astonishingly, the rental fee is only $5 per night for club members.
The one requirement for renting the cabin on your own is that you first go on a club-organized cabin-orientation trip, which also involves light maintenance work. I went on several, with half a dozen other club members, but the most memorable visit was the first time I rented it by myself, one autumn. After hiking in, stashing my pack and airing out the place, I ventured off for a lovely hike to nearby Sherando Lake, where I enjoyed the peak fall colors that surrounded me.
BACK AT THE CABIN, I cooked up some rice and beans, enjoyed a few beers that I’d packed in, read a little by flashlight, then crawled into my sleeping bag. The total darkness was a little unsettling at first—as extensively as I’ve day-hiked, I never had much camping experience—and felt especially on guard when I heard footsteps on the roof. I got up briefly to make sure the door was latched tight, then crawled back into my bunk. When the noise eventually stopped, I fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning—brisk and sunny—I brewed a cup of coffee, sat on the outdoor picnic table and listened to unseen birds welcoming the new dawn. It was a moment of pure contentment. I felt no hint of desire for anything other than what lay before me.
For some reason, though, I eventually drifted away from the club. In fact, I haven’t been back to the mountains at all in several years. The last time I was there was for a horseback-riding trip at my other favorite mountain getaway—Reba Farm, just outside of Bedford. I’m not entirely sure when my last hiking trip was—and I can’t help wondering why I’ve neglected this great pleasure in recent years. Oh, I can think of a few reasons: among them, a bout of driving anxiety that came over me back in 2018 and still hasn’t entirely abated, and a general malaise (mild to moderate depression, I suppose) that has haunted me for awhile now and sapped my motivation to do much of anything. But at the moment those seem like poor excuses.
Indeed, since early childhood—when my neighborhood in Staten Island was surrounded by woods—I’ve known that walking among the trees, rocks and critters is one of the best cures there is for anxiety and melancholy. It is the perfect antidote to the noise of everyday life, which tends to play to our smallest selves by conditioning us to seek affirmations and, conversely, to take offenses to heart. In the woods, as Emerson put it, “all mean egotism vanishes” and “our inward and outward senses are truly adjusted to each other.” Having spent far too much time in cyberspace over the past year, I’ve come to conclude that this sort of adjustment is precisely what I need.