Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take a Hike!

Old Rag is something of a legend around here: it’s an 8-mile hike (10 if you count the mile-long walk from the parking lot to the trailhead) up the side of a mountain, right to its rocky bald top, and back down again in a winding loop. I’d heard about it many times from friends and colleagues here, but after living only an hour’s drive away from it for more than five years, I had never hiked it. Until last Sunday.
A dear friend of mine was able to take some time out of her busy schedule to visit town on her way from Florida to DC, and since Old Rag was on her “bucket list” as well as mine, we teamed up and made the hike together. It was perfect weather for it, and the trees were just turning colors. (When I was younger, I always thought it looked like someone had spilled a giant box of Trix cereal all over the hills in the fall. The impression hasn’t changed, though the comparison is a little less apt since Trix went from being round to being fruit-shaped.)

When we checked in with the Park Service folks, they gave us a map and said, “Now, you know about the rock scramble, right?” We did—it’s part of the legend, though I must admit that I had only the vaguest notion of what a rock scramble actually was. The rangers said no more and pointed us on our way.
The first part of the hike was leisurely, through cool, shady woods on a nice, gently sloping path. Then it started to get a little rocky, to the point that we were crawling on our hands and knees up steep stretches of smooth stone. Having gotten past that hurdle with only a bruised knee or so, we said to each other, “Was that the rock scramble?”
It wasn’t. When you hit the rock scramble, you know it. The trail disappears into a mass of Mordor-like standing stones marked only by laconic blue paint swatches (some of which helpfully have an arrow, most of which do not). It really is rightly called a scramble, since one traverses it by slipping and sliding down narrow crevices, scooting on one’s backside down boulders with no footholds, and scrabbling up rock walls like clumsy cat burglars trying to reach the second story. At one point, the steady stream of hikers bottlenecked to a standstill as, one at a time, we all had to find some way of getting ourselves up a six-foot wedge in the rock to where the trail picked up and continued climbing.

I am not six feet tall. Nor is my friend. There was supposed to be a rope anchored into the rock to assist the vertically challenged, but it was broken, and only a frayed stub of purple cord gives witness to the Park Service’s efforts at accommodation. Neither of us would have made it if it hadn’t been for a couple of taller, burlier hikers who were willing to climb up ahead of us and drag us bodily by the arm up to the top of the crevice. Even the tall folks had trouble: one fellow managed by taking something of a running start, pushing off one rock, and catching himself, splay-legged, between the two boulders at a height where he could hoist himself up the rest of the way with his arms. This feat of acrobatics was even more impressive given the fact that he was toting an infant in a papoose on his chest.

It was quite the adventure, really—a harder hike than Mount Esja in Iceland (though we had the distinct advantage this time of not hiking in a gale) and an honest-to-goodness full-body workout. Other folks who are more outdoorsy than me will laugh at how shocked I was to find boulders so inconveniently positioned as to necessitate crawling, jumping, and being boosted by strangers, but for a born-and-bred suburbanite, I think I can claim some credit just for making it to the top! And the view was worth it, let me tell you.

I’d even do the hike again, in fact (as soon as I can once again forget about all those muscles that are currently crying, “Abuse!” every time I move). I enjoyed every minute of the ungainly scrabbling and slipping and gasping for breath—honestly, I did! But next time I’ll bring shoes with better traction, a backpack that’s less likely to get wedged into the narrow places, and a spare camera battery. Oh, and somebody really tall.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And I’d Never Been to Boston in the Fall

I was happily able to take advantage of a timely Fall Break to spend this past weekend in Bean-Town with my sister, who moved there in August to study book-binding! (I know, right? Where did she find this program and how do I get into it?) Homage to Veggie Tales aside, I actually never had been to Boston in the fall before this weekend, and I’m very happy to say that it more than exceeding my expectations.

Let me first say, however, that I don’t very much like trains. My dislike began on an overnight Eurail trip in college, when I was separated from my friends and had to spend a night bunked with three surly 30-somethings, two of whom were men and none of whom spoke English. (Keep in mind this was not only my first time in Europe, it was also my first train ride ever.) They didn’t announce the stations and I was petrified I would miss my stop in Paris and end up in Belgium or Finland.

I figured things had to be better on a train from Virginia to Massachusetts, even though I knew that eleven hours was going to be no picnic. Yet once again, on the ride north they did not announce the stops, and for whatever reason, train stations on the East Coast have little or no (most often no) signage. I only knew when to get off the train because I kept asking other people who looked like they knew what they were doing. No conductors to be seen, of course. By way of being fair to Amtrak, the way back was much better, both because that engineer deigned to announce stops as we pulled up and because I located the Quiet Car: no noisy undergrads drunk at 10 a.m., and no kicking, biting banshees whose poor beleaguered mothers thought were human children.

Boston, on the other hand, was lovely in every way. Perfect, unseasonably warm weather, a commuter-friendly public transportation system, and (best selling point of all) my little sister as hostess and tour guide. We did some of the classic tourist things—lunch in Quincey Market, afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts, an accidental detour through a movie set (oops!), ice cream at J.P. Licks—but we did some less-classic tourist things too.
We spent Sunday at “The King’s Renaissance Faire” (the extra “e” is obligatory, so that you know it’s authentic), which wasn’t quite as good as the one in Maryland but did have the distinct advantage of having a tiger show. (Not a whip-cracking, big cats jumping through flaming hoops sort of show, but a “look at the pretty tiger: reduce, reuse, recycle, and don’t buy furniture made from illegally harvested timber in Southeast Asia” sort of show. How it ended up at a Ren Fest is beyond me, but the spokesman was wearing satyr horns, so that clearly signalled his belonging.) By the way, the joust was completely fixed (a bit of a disappointment after being to jousts where the winner was not determined beforehand to suit a hero/villain storyline), but it ended with a staged beheading, complete with spurting arteries, which was quite exciting.

We also spent Columbus Day at the Arboretum near Jamaica Plain: it has a wonderful view of downtown Boston from the top of one of its hills, and all its plants are labeled: I now know what ash and plane trees look like. That pleases the linguist in me, not the botanist; I don’t care where the ash trees grow or what their life cycle is, but I, like our ancestor the first Gardener, am still in the business of knowing things' names. And besides all the dozens of dogs being walked on the trails (most of whom my sister stopped to pet), the Arboretum offers some lovely shady spots under oak trees just perfect for sitting and reading aloud. We started on The Pickwick Papers and, despite the fact that Dickens can run a sentence to the full length of a paragraph, he makes for excellent recitation. Just try A Christmas Carol this December and you’ll see. It was a perfect way for two bibliophiles to spend an afternoon.
I wish I could have stayed in Boston longer, but duty called, and they haven’t yet invented voicemail for that sort of thing. If they ever do, I’ll be first in line to let duty leave a message: I’ll be in the park reading Dickens with my sister!