Old Bag on Old Rag

I started hiking last year to do some weight bearing exercise. I’d only done one hike before. It was when I was in college. We hiked several peaks in a day in the Adirondacks. I had a blast but then dropped hiking in favor of running, then bicycling.

When I started running I had to goal of working up to a marathon. I didn’t tell anybody but I ended up running seven over the course of four or five years. I set a more modest goal with hiking, to do Old Rag.

Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in the eastern United States. It has a reputation for being challenging, for having tremedous 360 degree views at the summit, and for being incredibly crowded.

I left home at 5:30 and was hoofing it by 7:45. The first 0.8 miles is a walk along a narrow country lane from the parking lot to the trailhead. Along the way I passed a temporary shelter that had Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the edges of its canvas roof. I also passed a dilapidated shack and some hunting and fishing clubs.

The last bit of the road goes steadily uphill and the uphill continues on the trail. It took a while for me to get warmed up. I had ridden over 260 miles in the previous week and my legs were not exactly springy.

Lucky for me, the trail was deserted for the first half hour. There was plenty of room between all the small rocks for me to make decent walking speed. Soon I was hitting switchback after switchback. A couple came down the trail from above. Once they were gone, more desolation in the woods. I looked over to the right and saw a man puttering around his tent. His tent was on a giant rock reachable by walking along a huge felled tree. Very cool.

Soon I heard loud voices from below. Five kids went by me. I thought I was making a fast pace but these teenagers made me feel my age.

A young man and woman passed me. Then another group of teenagers. Among the teenagers were what appeared to be a husband and wife and a single woman. I later learned that one of the three was a high school cross country coach and these kids were the team doing a training exercise.

Soon they were far ahead.

Up and up. Switchback after switchback on the densely wooded mountain. This was reasonably hard work but after about an hour I was cruising along just fine. Every so often I would get a view of the nearby mountains then it was back into the tree cover.

Then a big boulder. This must be the rock scramble I’ve heard so much about. So I scrambled. A few more of these and then it was back to the trail as usual. I thought, “That rock scramble was much easier than I expected.”

Wrong.

The real rock scramble was just ahead. Boulder after boulder. Many requiring me to use my arms to yank myself to a foot hold. Some gave no option but for a good old fashioned butt slide. At one point the trail came to the meeting of two immense boulders with a two foot gap between. How the hell was I going to get past this? A hiker in front of me showed me two narrow footholds, one on the rock I was on, the other below on the other rock. Miss the footholds and it would be a very bad day. I dropped my right foot onto the first one, then dropped my left on to the second. Not fun.

It was just a warm up. In several parts of the rock scramble (which seemed to go on for an hour) there was nowhere to put your feet. I figured out that the way up involved propping my back against a boulder and pushing my feet onto an opposing boulder. Then I would push my back up the one boulder and walk my feet up the other. I the middle of this one of my water bottles paid the ultimate price, bursting open and soaking me and the rocks. Oh, joy.

A father in a Navy t-shirt came down through one of these scrambles with his teenage daughters in tow. Message to the boys at their schools. These girls are badass. Don’t go messing with them.

There were two or20501084569_edba35c98f_z three of these shimmy scrambles. All I could think of was my friend who used to rock climb impossibly high rock faces. She looked like a spider dressed in black and with a rope dangling near her. She liked this?

More scrambling. Some of the big boulders gave beautiful views of the mountains and valleys neighby. Of course, if you looked to long you might go right over the edge and die. Eek. Did I mention that I have a fear of heights? Did I also mention that I have balancing issues?

More and more scrambling. I noticed that assertive moves were much less likely to lead to slipping or falling so I copied some of the hikers around me. Hop across the gaps in the boulders. Use your hands to pull on the crags in the rocks. Turn around and move backwards if you can’t make progress walking. Get creative.

Had I not been soaked in sweat and water from my broken bottle I’d have been having a blast. Now all I wanted to do was get to the top. Soon a few of the cross country runners and I had made it. Look at the views!!! Then we heard voices down below. “You’re off the trail. The summit is over there.” We looked in the direction of the pointing hands and saw more of the runners standing on a much higher bunch of rocks.

We heard the roar of an engine and a red World War I era biplane flew past. Just somebody with a super cool hobby out for a spin, I suppose.

So we had to climb down and make a few more boulder crossings before we were at the summit. The entire mountain is strewn with huge boulders, many perched precariously on each other. This is what the top looks like. On top of the toppermost of the boulders were the cross country kids seemingly oblivious to the certain doom one false step would make.

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Oh, and they were swatting at the bugs. The peak, and only the peak, was aswarm with some really annoying bugs. I took a pass on the glory of the top of the rock and walked around admiring the magnificent views all around.

Unfortunately the skies were cloudy. And, more importantly, I could see rain scattered about. I decided not to reverse course for about three miles and go back down the rock scramble. The other option was a six mile hike down a steep-ish trail. This trail had steps made from logs. The steps were arranged for the comfort of Andre the Giant.

Thud. Thud. Thud. My quads were not having a whole lot of fun. The dense forest was beautiful though. Every so often my solutude would be interrupted by a cluster of indefatigable cross country kids. Boing. Boing. Boing.

Then I heard what I first thought was a stream. No. The wind was blowing the leaves in the trees? No. Rain. Gentle,cooling rain. The trees were letting just the right amount through to keep me comfortable. Very nicely done, Old Rag.

Switchbacks and steps and switchbacks and steps finally gave way to an unpaved road. Then next four miles were steady downhill on this road to the trailhead. At a turning point four of the cross country kids were sitting waiting for the others. They told me that they were carrying 20 pounds in their knapsacks and would run the final three or so miles to the parking lot.

As for me, my quadriceps were toast. I was just going to plod away. After about five minutes of plodding, the cross country kids came bounding past. Among them were the adults. I was alone trudging along when suddenly I had company. Two tiger swallowtails flitted about me as I plodded along. They were joined by a pipevine swallowtail. My companions stayed with me for about a mile, letting me to forget that my quads felt like bricks.

About an hour later I was approaching the car on the country lane. I noticed that one house had a separate garage with a PUB sign hanging from the side. I’ll bet these folks make a nice buck selling cold beer to hot, tired hikers. Too bad it was closed.

And so I spent my 60th birthday with a bunch of high school cross country runners on a mountain. Their energy was inspiring but I have to admit the bounce in their step made me an Old Bag on Old Rag.

I took a bunch of pictures. They are on my Flickr page.

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