I am not an avid hiker but have always recognized the therapeutic benefit of a long walk in the woods. I had such an opportunity this week.
I had been to a meeting at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA and decided to use it as an opportunity to explore Bedford County and the Peaks of Otter. These three mountain peaks overlooking the town of Bedford held a certain fascination for Jefferson. He recorded several visits in his lifetime and used both geometry and trigonometry to estimate their height. Jefferson stated his belief that this range of mountains was the highest east of the Mississippi. Well, sadly they don’t even make the top forty on the charts.
That being said, on a beautiful summer’s day, I took on the shortest of the three, and it was all that this 73-yr-old alpine rookie could handle. Harkening Hill is 3,664 feet above sea level and is listed as an 800 foot ascent over a mile and a half, “quite manageable,” “moderate difficulty,” “an easy hike,” depending what guide written by a modern Sir Edmund Hillary you read.
I arrived at the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center filled with expectation and looking forward to a chat with a Park Ranger. Alas, on this beautiful summer’s day, the Visitor Center was as closed as the mind of a monk and my expectation turned to disappointment. I walked over to the kiosk adjacent to the parking lot and examined the trail maps displayed behind the faded glass. It looked like the Harkening Hill Loop Trail was for me. 3.3 miles and “moderate” as I had read online.
The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center near a small amphitheater. I removed my jeans jacket, slathered on some sunscreen, sprayed my legs and my flyfishing fedora with bug spray, adjusted my hiking poles, donned my sunglasses, locked my car, and paused at the trail head at about 10:10am.
Realizing that no one in the family knew where I was, I sent a group text to Hayden in Colorado, Brittany in Raleigh, and Megan in Greensboro with my location and intended route. Solo hiking is fun as long as a snake, a tumble, or a bear don’t interrupt your day. All notified, I was off.
The ascent was gradual at first but grew steeper and hit a long series of switchbacks about 10 minutes in. Switchbacks make mountains more manageable, but when you are on foot, they also slow progress to a crawl. I was about 20 minutes in when I stopped to catch my breath. I remember thinking, wow, this is a lot of exercise after all. I had taken a pleasant walk around Peaks of Otter Lake the night before and was feeling quite noble regarding my activity level. Well, with each footstep higher than the one before, this “walk/climb” was growing more interesting by the minute.
Both the topography and my wishful thinking combined to give me multiple false “summit” moments along the way. When the ground flattened out ahead of me, I would think, surely this is the top. Wrong. Around the bend I would begin another climb and again wonder, “in what universe did they think this was a moderate hike.”
I never considered stopping and turning around. There was a goal in mind, the top, and I needed a picture to prove that I had made it.
And there was something else.
I never saw another soul along the way and as my stops became more frequent, the climate of peace and tranquility became more evident. As I sat on one large mossy rock about 45 minutes into the climb, I began to enjoy the sunshine and realized that I was surrounded by utter silence. Alone, but not at all lonely.
My mind turned to recent Thursday Men’s Bible Study moments and the observation that Jesus would go “up on the mountain to pray.” Mark 6:46. St. Luke records him going “out to the mountain to pray.” And John describes him withdrawing again to the mountain “by himself.”
After feeding the multitude and other high profile moments in his ministry, Jesus needed solitude and the mountain’s solitude was close by.
As I continued to relax on the rock, my huffing and puffing turned to a normal breathing cadence. I then realized that the only sounds were the muted murmur of the breeze through the trees, the buzz of bees commuting from one wildflower to the next, and the chirp of birds claiming their territory. The mountain offered a beautiful silence tinted with gentle reminders of the natural world.
The elevation of a mountain offered Jesus two other things that I associate with prayer: comfort, and a sense of nearness to God.
As the midday temperature increased in the valley below me, the phenomenon called “valley breeze” sent a cooling flow of air up the side of the mountain. With skin covered with perspiration and pores fully open, that breeze hits you like a refreshing shot of air conditioning. Refreshed. Renewed. Enveloped in a new sense of physical comfort.
And that nearness to God thing.
While science, logic, and much modern theology argue against heaven as an actual place, it’s “aboveness” pervades our traditions and the actual words of the Bible. Jesus “ascended into heaven.” He “came down from heaven”. So going up into the mountains theoretically brings you physically closer to God. Moses went up the mountain to speak to God and receive the law. So logically Jesus goes up into the mountains to speak to his Father.
How often have we all referred to the night sky as the heavens?
As I was sitting on that mountainside those thoughts of heavenly proximity came to me as well. While the endorphins had my brain clicking on all cylinders, the quiet peace wrapped me in a blanket of comfort and calm. The sudden rush of cool breeze up the mountainside sang through the branches and refreshed my soul. My thoughts turned to how lucky I was to have my health, my self-awareness, and the countless blessings of this life.
Spontaneously I began to pray for those who had been on my mind this week. For peace and comfort. For courage, strength, and safety. For joy in new places. For calm resolve, comfort, and the right words. I also prayed a little prayer to finish this climb.
And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your heart, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
So, an hour and ten minutes from my start, I came to the real summit of Harkening Hill. An outcrop of giant boulders marked with a modest sign; it was a beautiful sight to this exhilarated traveler. I rested my hat and hiking poles on the sign post, climbed up the highest rock and looked into the valley below. The day was still crystal clear, and the view was breathtaking. A pattern of greens and blues stretched into the distance. I took one picture of the view. It would be my last. Ironically, I used the final burst of battery power with that shot and my phone went dead.
My descent, while less strenuous, had its own challenges. If you’ve had a similar experience, you know that the danger of falling increases dramatically going down the mountain, and the stress on old knees is far greater. After about 10 minutes, I fashioned my hiking poles into crutches of a sort, putting them in front of me in tandem and easing over them to absorb the shock of the next step.
I got to one trail sign pointing the way back to the visitor center that sported an arrow and 6 miles as the distance. 6 miles? It made no sense, but its official park design had me convinced that I was somehow lost. It was only after a few more minutes on the trail that I heard traffic on the Parkway and realized that some clever hiker had painted over the decimal point and turned .6 into 6. Thanks for the unexpected laugh as I neared the end of my adventure.
Hitting the visitor center parking lot and returning to the car, two hours of hiking on an unfamiliar alpine trail felt like an accomplishment for a novice like me. Tired but happy, I stowed my gear, enjoyed a cold Gatorade from my cooler, and started the car to crank up the air-conditioning and charge my phone. When the phone finally flashed back to life, I was relieved to see that I had actually captured that last shot, presented below.
All in all, a lovely day.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. Psalm 121