Monday, July 4, 2011

Visualizing a Hike

Two and a half months into plantar fasciitis, hiking is still out of the question unless I want to make it worse and put up with even more foot pain. So I thought I would visualize a hike on this pretty July day. On Independence Day, I hope that I can soon be independent of foot pain.

My first long hike after surviving lymphoma was to Rip Rap Hollow in Shenandoah National Park. This was in July, 2003, and was my statement that I was strong enough to hike again, even though the long uphill at the end felt like it was going to kill me. I’ve been back every summer since then to celebrate life and survival. This year, it looks like I won’t make it, so I will visualize the hike.

I leave my home early, and so arrive at the trailhead by 8:30. The morning is still cool at over 3,000 feet on the ridge line. I park at the Wildcat Ridge parking lot, lace on my boots, and shoulder my pack. As I step out, I am thankful to be walking without the awful heel pain that has been plaguing me for months. In minutes, I am hiking north along the Appalachian Trail.

I’m too late to catch the blooms of the mountain laurel that are so common here, but the cool green of the forest is soothing to the spirit. I keep my eyes and ears peeled for wildlife, but all I hear right now the is the call of a distant oven bird: “Teacher, teacher, teacher, …” Then, I hear the call of an Eastern wood peewee somewhere out in the green canopy. The trail undulates up and down, but is easy hiking all the way to the Rip Rap Parking lot, where the AT climbs steeply to meet the Rip Rap Hollow trail.

I leave the AT here, climbing some more and passing through a more open forest with some nice views at Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rocks. I pause and eat some GORP, and reflect on life for a few minutes. What a miracle it is to be alive! That this collection of chemicals that is me has emotions, memories, thoughts, feelings, wishes, dreams! We truly take so much for granted each and every day. I think back to my first time at this spot since cancer – how amazing it felt to be hiking, to feel well again, to not feel sick every single day for months and months. I bow my head a bit and give thanks.

I’ve come along a dry and sunny part of the trail as it descends steeply. I once came across a bear here. Staying alert, I am rewarded when a deer crosses the trail just ahead. It melts into the forest, and when I arrive at the spot where it crossed just seconds later, it is as if it the deer is invisible. I wonder how many animals we walk past on any given hike and never have a clue that they are there, yet we probably sound, and smell, like a huge and easily detectable being to them. I move along, the combination of the sun and lower elevation heating things up quite a bit. Then suddenly, I am back in a cool forest as the trail bottoms out.

As I walk along, I suddenly see the first water – a small spring. I’ve reached Cool Spring Hollow. It is so pleasant here, and quite the contrast to the hot and dry area just minutes ago. An old box turtle, some of the colored plates missing from its shell, pulls its head and legs into its shell, and closes up as tight as a drum. I always love seeing these increasingly scarce turtles! I leave the old turtle and move along, walking besides more and more water. There are little cascades from time to time, and it is so beautiful! I pause to admire the view from a little rise, and am startled by a crashing sound just behind me. I whip around just in time to see the black form of a young bear disappearing into the foliage. He had been gorging on berries just feet from the trail, and I never saw him!

My pulse returns to normal as I cross the now-wide stream several times, heading to the hollow that I love so much. I arrive at the deep pool, and because of my early start, I am the only person there. As much as I would like to skinny dip here, it is much too popular a spot, so I move into the woods and change into a swim suit. I come back to the pool and examine it. The moss surrounding it makes it look like it is encrusted with emeralds. Small brook trout swim in its depths as the sun glints off of their bejeweled sides. I slowly step into the pool, glad that I didn’t put on bug repellent that must be washed off first.

Man, is that cold! I move deeper – calf depth, mid-thigh depth. The deepest part is just ahead, and gathering my courage, I take a deep breath and plunge in face first. In seconds, my head breaks the surface and am nearly hyperventilating with the cold, but shortly after, it is more comfortable and I dive down to the bottom to explore it a little bit. The trout have vanished, although now and then, I can see one of them flash by at my eye level in the crystal-clear water.

I climb out of the pool on the other side, and wade up the stream that is feeding the pool. I look under rocks for salamanders and snakes, but find none. I once saw a water snake catch a trout not far from here. Returning downstream, I swim across the pool and climb out, sunning myself on a rock to partially dry. There has not been a soul here other than myself, which is very rare. After a while, I go back in the woods to strip and finish drying, put back on my hiking clothes, and reluctantly, start the hike out. I’ll stop for lunch along the way, because it is still too early to eat due to my early start today.

I hike along the last level stretch of this hike, along the scenic stream. I go slowly, looking for more bear, and making sure not to step on a timber rattler, which I once nearly did along this very trail. Eventually, I cross the stream again – there are several more crossings to go – and start the steep hike out up the Wildcat Ridge Trail. I’d love to see a wildcat, but never have, although I wonder how many times I’ve unknowingly walked near them in my travels. I stop along one of the last stream crossings to rest and eat my sandwich – peanut butter – and apple. With this setting that I am enjoying, a king would not have a finer meal in his palace.

After lunch, I continue the steep hike out of the hollow. It is a climb of about 1,500 feet back to the car. I watch for wildlife, but all I see is a garter snake that rushes away as I inadvertently disturb its siesta. I pause to drink from my canteen several times and take a few short rest breaks, but mostly, I just continue my hike out. It is a far cry from that first post-cancer hike in 2003, when it seemed I had to stop and rest here every 10 minutes. The body knows how to heal itself much of the time, if we do the right things.

All too soon, I cross the AT again, and minutes later, I am back at my car. My lovely virtual hike to Rip Rap Hollow has ended!


  1. So sorry to hear that you are still unable to be taking walks and hiking. I can only imagine how you must feel.
    I enjoyed walking along with you on your "hike."
    Hopefully you will be able to do it again soon for real!!

  2. It is not the worst thing in the world, but definitely will be glad to be back to normal or near normal, what with this 60 mile walk coming up in two months. Art