on Hogback Mountain
The back country beckons us. It smirks and laughs at us—at our hubris; at our belief that we conquer it and all within it. The forest, for all of our technologies and capabilities, remains a mystery to us, an enigma of our own making.
This story isn’t told to or shared with many, and won’t be again. It seemed real enough, but it challenges any apparent conclusion.
The Green Tunnel
1990 is a long while back, even if it doesn’t seem so. It was July and I was on vacation, backpacking north through the Park from Rockfish Gap. One hundred and five miles to go, eighteen miles between huts, before I’d arrive at Chester Gap to be picked up. All in a week. No sweat. Actually, there was plenty of sweat. It was July, and I carried my own 230-pound frame plus the 45 pounds in my backpack.
The miles hadn’t flown by, but I wasn’t after speed; I was on vacation. I deliberately tempered my pace to soak in views from Little Calf Mountain, Black Rock, Hightop Mountain, and Stoney Man Point. I sat and gabbed with others at Blackrock, Hightop, and Pass Mountain huts, chowed down at park Waysides, and kept ambling.
By mid-week, the grade up past Elkwallow Wayside was easier than expected, despite the blackberry milk shake I’d inhaled. The trail leveled off as I walked below and around the Ranger station and past the short trail down to Range View cabin. No time to stop there—the view, while okay, wasn’t remarkable enough to cause a detour. The humidity was very much up there, along with the temperature; captured and held by the forest: it was like walking in a sauna. I emerged from the forest below Rattlesnake Point overlook.
Why not? I wondered. So, I strode to the overlook, set down my pack, and looked out over the western range. It was another break, another chance for the sweat dry off, and to smoke another cigarette. Another chance to answer, “Yes”, to a tourist who stopped on the Drive to ask him if I was backpacking. Other tourists didn’t ask anything. They returned to their cars—if they had stepped out of them—and drove off, one after another. “Guess I need a shower”, I thought.
Right about then, the sky darkened. A storm blew in from the west. You ask, God answers. I laughed, threw my pack on my shoulders, and hurried across the Drive for the trail and into the forest’s embrace.
The trail debauches off of the ridge by Piney River onto Hogback Mountain, just below the Fourth Peak of the mountain. It’s no climb at all to gain that summit, but I didn’t make it before the storm opened. I had some seconds to stop, drop the pack, throw the rain cover over it, and don my rain jacket and gaiters. The trail became a river, so I set the pack upright (it stood on its own “legs”) and stood there, under the waterfall and the trees, smoking and waiting it out.
I was 38 years old, alone on this trek, and single. So, it wasn’t surprising that, in those moments when I had nothing else to do, my thoughts wandered to…women.
In my mind, I had a vision of a woman—one whom I’d never, ever met. In my mind, she was about 5'9" tall, slim, with short-cut dark blond or light brown hair. She wore black Lycra biking pants to her knees and a white t-shirt. She was reasonably attractive—at my age, what woman wouldn’t be? Most striking was her face.
I pulled a cigarette from inside the rain jacket and lit it carefully, using the rain hood to keep it alight. “I’m dreaming”, I thought. But, I’d never, ever had such a vivid, intense personal dream. and I was fully awake. I couldn’t shake the Vision, though. It was so strong, I didn’t notice the storm had passed. I shook off the rain cover over my pack and struck out again on the trail. In less than a half mile, I passed the junction with the Overall Run/Big Blue trail but didn’t stop but noted the marker. Just beyond, however, something caught my I and I looked to to my right.
Off the trail, by some outcropped rocks, standing five-foot, nine-inches tall, was the Vision, wearing a white t-shirt and black Lycra biking pants that came to the top of her knees. I turned and walked toward her. She looked over and said “Hi!”
She was backpacking, all right; her pack was by her boots. She brushed her short-cut, dirty-blond hair away from her eyes as she bent to pick it up. “That was some storm, wasn’t it,” she said as she shouldered her pack.
I didn’t notice—until later— the fact that she, and her pack, were dry.
“Yeah”, I dumbly replied as I set my pack down. She complimented mys pack; I explained that it was an Alpenlite, and had no drawstrings, only zippered compartments. I kept talking because I thought, “If I shut up, she’ll disappear.” But, when I did shut up, she was still there. She talked a little about her kit and said she was out just for a couple of days to get away before leaving for Connecticut to visit her mother. Her parents were, she pointed out, unnecessarily, divorced. Her father, who worked for a contractor or the government, lived in Reston. She mostly lived on her own…
“Where’re you headed?” “Gravel Spring hut,” she answered. That hut was my overnight destination, too. “Well, let’s get to it,” she said, and started out. At the trail, though, she turned south. “Thought you’re headed to Gravel Spring”. “Sorry, oh. Guess I got turned around,” she said. And, off we went. Together.
The sky was clear blue as we hiked the forest tunnel. We crossed the Drive twice as we went over or by the remaining three peaks of Hogback mountain. We talked and pointed out things to each other. Then we waded through the ocean of stinging nettle past Little Hogback and another Drive crossing before we reached the trail down to Gravel Spring Hut. We were lucky, for the spring was flowing strongly and no other hikers were there.
After eating, we sat as dusk turned to night. Their luck continued: the gnats weren’t bad. In fact, I don’t recall being bothered by gnats, although I remember the bear that shook the bear pole by the hut later that night.
We lit candles for light at the table in front of the hut.We talked with each other about stuff…the weather, the trail, our gear, where we lived and where we had lived, stuff. We found we shared a connection in our backgrounds: I'd lived, very briefly, in the same Connecticut town where she was raised (I was a new-born and my Dad had been sent there in 1952 by his company for training). It wasn’t much of a connection, of course, but it was a connection. The small talk died slowly died down.
Then, she asked if I knew of The Book of Questions? “No”, I replied. “Aren’t there enough questions as things are?” She snorted, shook her head, and pulled a very used, very dog-eared book from her pack. “If you’ve got the guts for it,” she explained as she sat down, “you let someone pick pick and read a question—any question—and you answer it with whatever comes to your mind…and heart.” “Without regard for the situation or the others, if there are others?” I asked. “Exactly,” she replied. “You have to accept what each other says. You talk about it, but you can’t get angry or anything like that.”
“Want to try it?” I nodded. She opened the book to a random page and read a random question. I could’ve answered Yes, No, or with condescendingly arrogant smart-ass blather, but I played it straight and went deeper. I don’t remember either the question or the answer.
We talked about my answer for a while before I picked up the book, opened it, and read the first question I saw. She sat back, thinking before responding. We kept this up as our candles slowly burned down.
That was a most intense, exhilarating and exhausting experience. As I got into it, I felt emotionally naked, my soul laid out without hesitation or regret; vulnerable. And, I felt she was as emotionally vulnerable in her answers. The apparent trust and acceptance between us, two strangers, was exhilarating, scary, and wonderful.
The only question I remember her asking was: Do you want to be touched? I looked into her wide eyes and whispered, “Yes”. She set the book down, and…we took turns gently massaging each other’s shoulders and neck. After these years, I remember the touch of her fingers, lightly tracing my clavicle.
After we broke our fast in the morning and were ready to go our separate paths, wee looked into each other and hugged. “I won’t forget you,” she whispered. I leaned to her ear and breathed, “I can’t forget you!”
I have never forgotten Her.
However, I’ve forgotten her first name.
I think she’s a Susan
I remember her last name—Clarke.
I forgot to ask her phone number or mailing address; She did not ask for his.
She shouldered her pack and headed back up the hut trail, to go to her car, which she had said was at an overlook or parking area somewhere south on the Drive. She had to go back to Reston to pack for the train to Connecticut.
I watched as she disappeared beyond a bend before I started off up the old Harris Hollow roadbed heading north. But, I already ached from missing her. I pushed my pace over South Marshall in, for me, record time. At the trail crossing below North Marshall, I sat on a boulder, watching cars passing, particularly those heading north. I knew she could drive south and leave the Park at Thornton Gap, but it made more sense, I thought, that she'd go north to Front Royal to pick up the Interstate heading to Reston. So, I waited and watched. Fog thickly descended on the ridge…and I watched and waited…
I never saw her again. I know she was real; I remember her touch and her words. And, yet, she also seems unreal.
They say mountains hold their secrets dear. Maybe Hogback mountain will keep this to itself, forever.
I know, though, that if we ever meet again, no matter the circumstances, I’ll accept her just as eagerly and completely as on that July day so long ago.
I hope and pray that the years have treated her well, that she’s prospered and is happy.
As for me, I still hope and pray to meet her — someday.