Despair and dehydration are usually what I remember about my trips to Big Schloss Mountain in West Virginia. Lost in a car, lost on a trail, or needling thirsty dogs to continue. On my third summit of the mountain’s beautiful 360 degree rocky overlook, I realized how these experiences have shaped my hiking knowledge. Over the course of three treks, I’ve morphed from a know-nothing adventurer to one with realistic credentials.
The Great North Mountain, Big Schloss’s foundation, provides some of the best day hiking within driving distance of Washington D.C. Sadly, I had lived in the nation’s capital for more than two years before I reached its muddy trails. Instead, I gained my footing by literally following my uncle’s brightly blazed footsteps around George Washington National Forest.
Edwin Demoney, my grandmother’s brother and Arlington resident, started one of the premier ultra-marathons in America, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100. As a result, he knows every nook and cranny of the section of the national forest that hosts the event, and created a good chunk of the namesake trail. Since he is largely responsible for my interest in hiking, I broke my boots in by hiking Massanutten.
After two years, I broke out of Ed’s tutelage by tackling Big Schloss, the highest point on Great North Mountain. As if to exemplify my amateurism, I used a Falcon’s Guide to hiking Virginia to plan my first overnight hike. Responding to interest from three friends who wanted to do a trip, I grabbed the book, and we set off on a weekend adventure. For the first time, I was attempting a hike that wasn’t spelled out by an uncle or park ranger. Thankfully, the book’s detailed directions made it hard to get lost.
The Falcon Guide’s directions placed the summit of Big Schloss, named by German immigrants, at 8 miles into the 20 mile hike. That setup fit our expedition perfectly, since we got such a late start. The four of us hiked for 6 miles on clear Saturday afternoon, crossing an ambling stream eight times, before setting up our makeshift camp near a smaller creek. Iowa was the uniting factor bringing Joe, Fish, James, and I together on the mountain. Joe, James, and I worked for Iowa congressmen, and Fish had played soccer with Joe in Iowa before attending grad school at Georgetown.
Our first day of the hike proved uneventful – just a group of guys enjoying a beautiful day in the woods. Joe and Fish slept outside under the stars, while James and I retired to a tent. Uneventful except for our attempts to anchor our bear bag. Despite our softball prowess, our aim proved an apt metaphor for our team’s record that year. Thirty minutes later, we finally looped our Nalgene-anchored bear rope around a tree.
We reached the beautiful summit of Big Schloss just an hour into our hike the next morning before descending the tough 1200 vertical feet of switchbacks over 3.8 miles to reach a forest service road. Following it for a half mile, we reached a river along which the trail shot up back into the woods. This is where the trouble started.
After cooling our feet in the mountain stream, we marched back up the trail and reached our 14th mile. With just six easy miles remaining to the car, James confronted the reality of his physique. He wasn’t able to finish the hike. Let me pause here to climb atop my soapbox.
<Soapbox> Only attempt hikes that everyone in you group can finish </Soapbox>
Now, I’ll climb back down and say simply, I did not heed this obvious advice. While Joe and Fish played in D.C.’s top amateur soccer league and I was an avid biker, James didn’t work out much. After 14 miles and a night in the woods, he was done. We decided to split up; Fish and I would get the car and pick up Joe and James at the forest service road.
We reached the car in a little over two hours, and were on schedule to pick up the others less than four hours after we parted. In the end, we were off by a similar amount. Without the benefit of a map or smartphone, we followed the only route we knew, driving back to the interstate and driving south until we reached a road that led to the mountains. Instead of a 25 mile rescue, we took a 50 mile unscenic detour. After wandering the Virginia borderlands for several hours without any idea of how to find the guys, we resorted to asking for directions.
Despondent, we came upon what I took to be a middle aged daughter and her elderly mother. I believe the reason they were driving their golf cart in circles around their yard was to entertain themselves and their tiny white dog, but I could be wrong. Despite my condescension, the younger of the duo gave us the best directions I have ever received. Her directions went something like this:
“Go to the end of this road, and turn right at the church. Go down the hill and turn right before you cross the stream. Then drive along that road for a few miles and then turn right at a giant mirror.” Despite my reticence, we followed the mirror to the rendezvous. As dark settled in, we found the parking lot where Joe and James were preparing to hitchhike back to D.C. They hopped in the car, and we sped away trying to forget our disappointing end to a promising hike.
That trip I learned the obvious lesson about choosing companions, but I also learned about my desire to hike alone.
Leading a hike can is stressful, and planning one is time consuming. For my second trip to Big Schloss, I outsourced these tasks to my friend Amanda. The lesson from this trip is pretty obvious.
On a warm July morning, my roommate and Amanda’s Friend, Jamie, their high school friend Lainie, and Amanda’s Australian Shepherds, Izzie and Cooper, and me all piled into our friend’s Subaru to head back to Big Schloss. I had sent Amanda, a veterinary student, Hiking Upward’s directions for the Mill Mountain version of Big Schloss. Touting my own self-importance, I copped out to being too busy at work to plan the hike, and trusted her with our itinerary. Promising she had recorded all of the important directions, I pushed apprehension from my mind and let her direct.
Hiking Upward placed the beginning of the hike where Fish and I had picked up Joe and James, so I knew exactly how to get to the trailhead. With the three ladies and two dogs in tow, I headed up the steep switchbacks that lead straight to Big Schloss. After those same 3.8 miles and that same 1200 feet, we were standing atop the mountain once again – this time crossing over a new bridge, paid for by President Obama’s stimulus funds.
Though Australian Shepherds are great hiking buddies, they can drink a lot of water to compensate for their long fur. We had brought a lot of clean water, but to keep the dogs moving, we had to relinquish our supply. Shortly after descending from the peak, the trouble started. Instead of printing out Hiking Upwards’ directions, Amanda had written down some of the pertinent information, I guess thinking hiking directions can be followed a la carte. According to her randomized notes, we needed to take a left turn after coming off the summit. Trying to force a left turn, we found an abandoned trail leading to an old air beacon and took it. After a couple of miles, we reached a gravel road, and, despite the ominous feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, picked up the pace looking for our car.
We didn’t’ find it. The road led to a dead end, and the other end a major highway. After contemplating our mistake and suppressing my anger, we decided to hitchhike back to the car. As surprising as it may sound, the third car to drive past us on the highway was a forest ranger. After several confusing minutes, I finally explained where we had parked the car. When I had the chance to look at a map and realized how far we had come, I understood his incredulity. Fighting back his dedication to rules, he asked us about our water situation, and answered for us explaining we were out of water and that he better take me back to the car because we wouldn’t be able to hike back before dark. I nodded in agreement. (And we actually were out of water.)
Rule breaker and orator, the ranger talked my ear off explaining the agency’s procedures and recounting how the Forest Service used a helicopter to lower the Big Schloss bridge into place.
e had to pass another forest service employee who was handing out information to visitors. My driver didn’t say it, but I think he was worried about getting ratted out, so h back to the car, w
e stopped to schmooze before he continued scolding me on the final leg to the car.
I quickly drove back to pick up the girls, and Cooper, and we returned home, embarrassed by our mistake. Now, I plan every hike and commit the map to memory preventing future disasters.
This last Saturday, I went back to Big Schloss along with my buddies Neil and Scott, and Neil’s Friend, Sarah. We again did the Mill Mountain hike, but we did it backwards so we would arrive at Big Schloss over halfway into the hike with only the quick 3.4 mile, 1200 feet descent back to the car. Since I was leading the way and knew the area so well, it went off as planned. Neil runs marathons, Sarah ran track in college, and Scott installs security systems for a living. Needless to say, everyone could handle the hike, and I found myself laboring to keep up.
One advantage of Ed’s long experience with hiking around D.C. is that he has a library of maps and books. After one tale of woe, he gave me a heaping pile of books and maps so that I would never get lost again. On my latest trip, I didn’t have any prescribed online guide but instead a whole map of the the region. I consulted it once to comfort my anxious mind, but we were never in danger of losing our way.
The lesson I learned on this last trip is more philosophical– my mind comes alive in woods. Different people focus their minds differently, and
have their own ways of exploring deep questions. Some consult their higher power, or some talk to their friends. For me, I go to the woods. Conversation during the drive out that day had been decent enough, but once
we left the car and hit the trail, my mind came alive. At that point I lit on conversation with the others and my normally wandering brainpower was put at ease.
During the course of normal living, I can’t focus on answering any deep questions. When I need to concentrate, I head to the mountains. On this occasion, I wasn’t wrestling with anything major, so instead my mind just focused on the people around me. For years, I’ve known about my innate need for nature, but this was the first time I used that peace of mind to improve my connection to others. I doubt my companions even noticed.
Though the first two attempts of Big Schloss are better stories and more memorable, the third one was much more enjoyable in the moment. That discrepancy presents an interesting dichotomy – why do we do things – for the moment or for the lasting memory? Hopefully both can be wrapped into one, and we don’t have to choose, and that’s the sweet spot I’ll be looking for now that I’ve learned my lessons.