Every few months, I’ll walk into Great Outdoor Provision Company, prompted by the occasional thought that I should become an outdoorsy person, that I should become someone who enjoys woolen socks and long hikes and eating freeze-dried food out of a foil pouch. I’ll slowly walk across the wooden floors, clicking the display headlamps on and off and wondering whether I’m allowed to test the firestarters in the store.
“No, I’m just looking,” I’ll tell an earnest looking employee wearing ripstop clothing. “I’m just getting some ideas for later.”
And that’s all it ever is: an idea. I’m not good at being outdoors and know little to nothing about nature other than what I learned from movies, like the one where Liam Neeson punches a wolf, the one where James Franco had to saw off his own forearm or The Blair Witch Project. I get lost regularly, even when using Google Maps, and the only survival skill I have is the ability to use a public bathroom without allowing my skin to touch a single solid surface. So obviously I was surprised when some friends asked if I wanted to go on an 11-mile hike last weekend — and obviously I was all in.
(I’m not exaggerating about my worthlessness. On a drive back from the coast several years ago, I made a comment about the especially vivid sunset that night. “That’s not the sun,” my then-boyfriend said. “That’s a Golden Corral sign.”)
ANYWAY, I decided that this hike was my chance to become the backpacker I knew I could be and that, by Sunday night, I would either be in a print ad for REI or on a stretcher, explaining to a paramedic why I thought it would be a good idea to try to face-swap with a copperhead.
I spent an hour the night before trying to pull some gear together, dragging a pair of boots and my daypack out of the very back of the closet. In my other job, I’d just written about a guy who had to be rescued from a 9,301-foot mountain in Arizona after getting caught in a sudden late-spring snowstorm. He was in shorts and a tank top, completely unprepared for the conditions and told authorities that he was only doing the hike because of a local pizza restaurant’s free pie promotion. (That part I can respect. I’d drink the water out of a koi pond if there was free food involved.) But, with that in mind, I rolled up a parka and crammed it into my backpack, too.
We were on the road early on Sunday because it was almost a two-hour drive to the Rocky Knob trailhead, just south of Floyd, Va. We pulled into a gravel parking lot near a well-maintained campground, parking across from a sign that somewhat ominously reminded us that we were in Bear Country. We double-knotted our boots, took pictures of the trail map and started into the woods.
The first three miles of the Rock Castle Gorge Trail are a steady, steep downhill, dropping almost 1,000 feet in elevation. When I wasn’t staring at the toes of my boots, trying not to trip over the sharp rocks that looked like one of Kevin McCallister’s booby traps, it was easy to get lost in the stillness of everything. We were completely enveloped by the forest and the only sounds were the occasional trickle of a waterfall, the bubbling of the Rock Castle Creek and the satisfying crunch of our boots on the trail.
After reaching the bottom of the gorge, we had to climb back up, which meant several hours of exhaustion (due to the terrain, we averaged about two miles per hour), but we were rewarded with some unbelievable views of the gorge and the countryside beyond it. The trail ran parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway in places and, at one point, we stumbled out of the woods and onto an overlook that was accessible from the road. We mumbled our excuse me’s as we walked through everyone’s outstretched almost-Instagrams, passing a bored looking man in shower shoes who balanced a cigarette on his bottom lip while he framed the treetops on his Samsung screen.
For the last mile, we walked from wooden trail marker to trail marker as we passed through an impossibly green pasture, weaving between sad-eyed dairy cows that mostly ignored us. Between the low-hanging clouds, the vivid greens of the fields and those screensaver-worthy views, it would’ve been believable to think that we’d hiked to some remote Swiss village (except you don’t pass concrete pigs painted with Confederate flags on a drive through rural Switzerland).
After more than five hours on the trail, we finally stumbled back into the parking lot, immediately swapped our boots for flip-flops and chugged hot bottles of water that we’d left in the floorboards. It was only one day, so I’m still not that backpacker I picture in my head, but I do have some ideas, for later.