Monday, February 21, 2011

Off-Season Hiking

One of the wonderful things about living in a valley is that I am surrounded by mountains. Mountains, and hence, a large assortment of trails to hike. Sadly, I was only able to get two hikes in during the fall season before moving (Version 3.0) and cold weather no longer made it possible.

This week was unseasonably warm, and my sister came to visit for President's Day weekend. Due to the 60-70 degrees we were enjoying, I figured we'd explore a new trail. I had heard Peaks of Otter was a fantastic hike, so off we went on a spectacularly sunny Saturday.

The parking area was closed off, so we followed suit of the two other cars and parked by some rocks. The trail we choose was, I thought, moderately simple. It was approximately two miles up to the summit, but what I missed was the choice word up. I felt like I was rock climbing rather than hiking, an unpleasant realization for someone who has barely exercised in the past five or six months. Also, one must ALWAYS remember to factor in the wind chill when you find yourself on the top of a mountain in the middle of February with no foliage. It's also embarrassing when old men pass you, and then sporty looking high-school/college age girls give you false encouragement when they see you struggling.

My family likes to tell ourselves we're outdoorsy. I really don't think we are.

Upon (almost) reaching the summit, after being blown around by strong winds and humiliated by all those we encountered, we saw the piece de resistance; we saw a man in the middle of the trail, napping in his hammock strung up between two trees (see right). My mind immediately raced to the headlines: "Two Hikers Found Dead on Flat Top Trail - Interrupted Angry Murder's Nap." My sister, the elder and thus the braver, forged ahead, trying to be quiet as leaves crunched around this guy's camelback while we creeped on by. On our trip down from the summit, we noticed he was now cuddling with someone in his hammock. Both hammock-dwellers even said hello. At least Angry Murder was pleasant.

Fast forward to Day Two of Sister's visit. I'm itching to see Foamhenge something fierce, and by my awesome powers of persuasion, I convince both her and OfficeMate that this is a fabulous idea. Let's drive 45 minutes to see Stonehenge made of Styrofoam! There was a caveat, though, and that was that we had to do another hike while out there. Now, I was still pretty sore from my rock climbing/wind beating/creeping around potential Angry Murders from the day before, but one must compromise in life, especially to see Foamhenge.

Foamhenge was just as epic, if not more, than I thought it would be. Sadly, some people have defaced this dorky work of art, and it could go for a second spray of paint. Sister and OfficeMate were perhaps amused, but not nearly as enamored as I, with Foamhenge.

Once in the car, we researched nearby trails. One option was a hike I had done back in October, and another was by a lake. Similar to Smith Mountain Lake, Cave Mountain Lake claimed to be man-made, but on a much smaller scale. Wanting to diversify my hiking experiences, this is where we headed.

Similar to the day before, the entrance was locked with a sign that said, "Closed for the Season." Nature doesn't close for seasons, so we refused to acknowledge this suggestion. Again, we parked outside the gate, and walked in. Turns out, we were at a national park with campgrounds and everything. Just, no people, because it was closed for the season. We walked around, looking desperately for a trail to hike, to no avail. Finally we encountered something titled the "Panther Trail," and there was much rejoicing. This trail, because it is the off-season, was unkempt. At one point, I used my Hulk-like strength to hurl a tree (small branch) out of our way. Sister has photographic evidence. And then... and then we saw the lake.
Except, it was just sand. And mud. There was no lake. Nature, it seems, can close for the season. Especially when nature is man-made and drained when the park is closed to the public. This, I suppose, was our punishment for trespassing? It made for a most amusing hike, though.

We ventured past the dam which was stopping nonexistent water from nothing, and began to trailblaze. This was a mistake. Venturing off the beaten path while trespassing at a closed national park is generally frowned upon, I would assume. We crossed a stream via fallen log, and found ourselves in the forest, next to a gravel road. Handy iPhone helped find our location, but we soon noticed some rather shady houses with angry looking dogs locked in cages in their front yards. We retreated into the forest, towards the faux-lake, beyond the unnecessary dam, and back to the car.

Don't hike in the off-season. It's cold, humiliating, and potentially illegal.

It is, however, amazing. And I mean, really, this weather is begging for it.

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