Spy Rock adventure, or, how I learned to solo hike

One of the things I love about fall is that it’s finally cool enough for me to go hiking again. The summer is nice and all, but it’s usually muggy and buggy, and neither are things I handle well. Fall is perfect, particularly after a cold snap or two. The leaves are turning colors, and the sun is a little less brutal.

I tend to lean towards short day hikes, usually in the mountains. Richmond is ideally placed for access to a wide variety of locations, including being only an hour or so from the George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah mountains. And heck, if I wanted to stay in town, I could hike the six or seven miles of trails along the James River.

Last weekend, on my way to drop in on friends in Harrisonburg, I felt the mountains calling to me as I neared Afton, and so, rather than turning right, I turned left and hiked a bit of trail I had visited last winter.

This particular hike is a mile up a forest service road and then a half mile down the Appalachian Trail to a large, mostly bald-faced rock outcropping. The incline is steady, and with plenty of loose rock to trip the feet going up and down. I found myself pausing to calm my breath and heart far more often than I would with companions. Usually, I push myself to keep up a reasonable pace and only stop when I absolutely need to. This time, I stopped whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, and didn’t feel guilty for slowing anyone down. It was during one of these stops that I resolved to do more solo hiking in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I had done this hike last winter (with friends). However, it was so foggy that day that we couldn’t see anything once we reached the summit. And it was cold. And windy. And miserable. Not this time, though.

The weather was perfect. I started off wearing my fleece jacket, but quickly shed it. The effort my body was putting into moving towards the summit was enough to keep me warm and toasty, although I did appreciate the extra layer when the wind picked up at the top and there were no trees to shelter me.

At one point along the service road, where the uphill bank is quite tall, a bit of rock juts out with a fairly level surface. Previous hikers with some skill and humor have piled stones high on it, creating a tower that seems to weather well, or at least is recreated when Mother Nature cleans house.

Some time after I passed that point, I found myself once again pausing to catch my breath. As my breathing calmed, I became quite still, listening to the world around me. That, too, had become quite still. Hardly a thing moved for several moments, and then a roaring came from behind as the wind resumed its symphony among the trees. I’m certain I would not have experienced that moment had I not been alone.

By the time I reached Spy Rock, I was so happy to be there that I hardly thought twice about the scramble required to reach the top. This was the only part of the hike I hadn’t done before, and although I was slightly nervous about getting into a situation where I couldn’t go up or down, I decided to do it anyway. And, despite seeing or hearing no other hiker since shortly after leaving the parking lot, a couple came into view just as I headed around to the easier scramble on the back side of the rock. I took some comfort in knowing that at that point, I was no longer alone.

The scramble challenged both my insecurities with walking across what I consider unstable surfaces and with heights. When I finally reached the top, a large and relatively flat surface of the rock, I sat for a moment and surveyed the terrain. The rock was not perfectly flat, of course, and sloped towards the side I summited. I took a few calming breaths. And took a few more. And then slowly made my way over to a point where I felt I could stand up fully. When I did, I realized I could navigate across the surface of most of the central part of the rock with more ease than I expected.

The view was quite impressive. I wished I had come a week or so earlier, when the leaves were still brilliant and on the trees, but the views from all around were still lovely, albeit slightly muted. At one point, a hawk circled nearby, clearly enjoying the strong currents buffeting the mountain top.

Since this was a last-minute trip, I didn’t have a few essentials with me. Namely, my hand-held GPS receiver loaded with nearby geocaches. I knew there was one up there, since we had tried to locate it on the first visit, but I didn’t know where. My phone, surprisingly, could get enough signal for me to check into Foursquare, but when I tried my geocaching app, it couldn’t keep the connection long enough to pull up anything. I decided that this was a sign I should come back and see if I can do the scramble a second time, knowing what it entails.

I would have stayed up there longer, but the wind drove me back to the shelter of the trees. The return trip, along the same path that I took up, was relatively unremarkable, except that I didn’t need to stop and made it down in a quarter of the time it took to go up.

Lessons learned: I can hike on my own and don’t need to be constrained by finding partners and keeping someone else’s pace. Sometimes being unprepared for the unknown challenges is easier, or at least less worrying. Leave the hand-held GPS (and spare batteries) in the car when the weather turns — it may be the right day to go hiking, no matter what the original plans may have been.

walkin’ at night

I have been geocaching off and on for almost seven years now. To be honest, it’s more off than on over the past few. On Saturday, I found cache number 401, which happened to be a nighttime cache. As in, you can only find it after dark.

My friend and fellow cacher tiabih talked me into going by her enthusiasm alone, so with plans made, we met up early in the evening and set off to the Powhatan Wildlife Management Area to find the Powhatan Witch Project cache, about 30 miles west of Richmond. Flashlights in hand, and thankful for the three-quarter moon, we set off down the path.

Tiabih had found a nighttime cache before, so she had an idea of what to look for. On the other hand, I had only heard of them, so I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. We arrived in a clearing at the first waypoint and began looking for something reflective in the trees. Once we found the marker, it took us a bit to figure out where to go next, as it wasn’t quite what tiabih was expecting. But, soon we headed off in the right direction down the path.

About a half a mile or so of markers led us to a decon box with copies of the instructions for the next stages. Tiabih plugged them into her GPS and off we went. A few turns and coordinates later, we rounded a bend and spotted a tent next to a small fire not 50′ away from the cache location. I think the campers were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Once we established that neither were serial killers, we found the cache, signed the log and headed back to the car.

The fall night air was cool and crisp, and it wasn’t long into our hike that I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around my waist. Although we were under the trees most of the way, we came across a few grassy clearings that opened up a sky full of stars. It was so peaceful and calm in the woods that night – makes me want to get out and do more nighttime hiking!

#1

My review of Open Your Heart With Geocaching by Jeannette Cézanne has been published in Blogcritics Magazine. It’s the first book I have read for 2008, and I’m once again gunning for 50 this year. Since I have about four or five review books on deck, it looks like the year will start with a bang. I’m already half-way through #2, so expect more on that soon. Anyway, here’s a snippet of my review:

Cézanne has poured herself and her world into this book. The language is conversational and flows easily from point to point. She approaches geocaching less from the geeky/techie perspective, and more from the outdoor enthusiast perspective. For her, caching is less about the destination as it is about the journey. I think this is a perspective that is often lost amid the crowing and strutting by those who play for the numbers.

nasig part one

Last year’s planes, trains, and automobiles route to the NASIG conference was a fun experience, but the schedule was such that I arrived right before the beginning and left immediately after the closing session. This meant that I missed the social networking aspect of the conference at the beginning and that I didn’t have time to do a bit of sight-seeing and decompress at the end. This year I decided to arrive a bit early and stay a bit longer, and I’m glad I did.

I landed in Minneapolis on Tuesday evening, and my college friends Becky & Michelle picked me up. We stayed up late catching up on the years gone by, and then I caught some sleep on their rather comfortable couch. The next morning, Michelle and I went out and found a few geocaches hidden in the neighborhood. One more notch on my GPSr for a new geocaching convert. We went to a Panera for lunch, and I was able to make use of the free Wi-Fi to log our finds.

Afterwards, Michelle introduced me to one of her hobbies — Half Price Books. I found a nifty Wonder Woman doll and colorful book on the history of Wonder Woman, as well as several sci-fi novels that I have had on my wish list. I would have shopped for more, but I couldn’t remember the titles and authors of everything I’m looking for. It’s probably good that I didn’t, since my suitcase was busting at the seams by the time I left Minneapolis.

Later in the evening, we met up with other college friends now living in Minneapolis at Psycho Suzie’s Motor Lounge for a dinner filled with good food (beer battered cheese curds