Tales of lurking snakes and adventurous weekend throngs could not shake our resolve to challenge "the most spectacular single peak of the Northern Virginia Blue Ridge," as an Appalachian Trail Club booklet proclaimed Old Rag.
With its peak in Nethers, Virginia, a few miles from Sperryville and Syria, Old Raggedy Mountain is the most challenging climb so close (two-hours' drive) to Washington. Although "a fairly rugged" climb, it is not too difficult for "people of normal abilities," the booklet informed us. The surrounding countryside is rich with orchards, cornfields, horses, antique shops, lazy creeks and old-time general stores and inns.
An outdoorsy friend warned that the mountain would be like Interstate 81 on the weekend. But we would not only climb Old Rag on the weekend, we'd make a weekend of it, spending Saturday at the tranquil, rustic Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria.
We swam in the pool, played tennis, took an hour-long horseback ride through fields of mountain flowers and up a ridge mined with old blackberries.
Our rooms at the Lodge were on the crest of a hill covered with peach and apple orchards, the peach trees laden with ripe fruit that was unbelievably sweet and juicy.
Over a hearty, farm-fresh dinner -- Graves Mountain grows its own produce -- we were almost talked out of our mountain venture.
Rattlesnakes and copperheads are abundant in the area, and sure to be on Old Rag, one dining companion, a professorial type, informed us. The currently drought would be driving them down towards the water. They like to wait under bushes to prey on birds: "Don't pick berries from the bushes. The snake can't tell a hand from a birdie."
I grow faint of heart. Compromises must be made: our children will not climb in shorts and sneakers, but in jeans; let the snakes go for the pants rather than the flesh. Other than that, we city folk are at a loss as to what to do with this new found, unwelcome information. We retire with our decision to tackle Old Rag intact.
Breakfast at 8:30: generous portions of scrambled eggs, sausages, scalloped apples, hot biscuits, apple butter and juice.
We set out with bag lunches packed by the lodge and an empty plastic milk bottle to fill with spring water in the mountains and enjoy its purity when we hit the heights. But we also carry a small canteen filled with Lodge ice water.
After a 10-minute drive to Nethers, we park in a lot among trees at the trail's beginning and wriggle into knapsacks and canteens. We're off. Along the first quarter mile of road we find several downed tree branches which we fashion into walking sticks. The Ridge Trail to the top of Old Rag leads off to the left, through the woods. It is cool and quiet beneath the trees.
At first, the trail rises imperceptibly. Our Appalachian Trail book promises a dependable spring half a mile up the trail. The climb becomes steeper but is still wooded and cool. It has been a dry summer. The spring we find is a mud hole. By flattening down the plastic on one side of the milk bottle, we are able to fill the bottle half way. It's by no means clear and pure. But it's cold and the climb is making us thirsty.
Our children are lagging. The beauty of the woods has worn off and the trail has become boring. They bicker about the relative merits of their walking sticks. One has a headache. We stop for a prolonged rest. Nothing is turning out as expected -- not even the crowds. We haven't seen a soul since we set out.
We trudge along, the trail getting steeper and steeper. There are switchbacks and the trees are thinning out. Two backpackers come down the trail towards us. "What an adventure you have in front of you," they call out. "You're about ten minutes from the rocks."
The rocks! The trail becomes a series of rocks. Big rocks and little rocks. Boulders and sheer cliff rocks. We have to crawl over rocks and slither between rocks. There is a tunnel through the rocks. We have to heave ourselves up tall rocks and scamper on smaller rocks. Spirits however have improved. My son's headache is gone. He is all excitement and energy. "I love rocks," he cries and he's off, following the blue blaze of the trail, stopping in awe at some of the vistas, but plunging on for the next challenge. It's not an easy climb, but the adrenalin is flowing. Snakes are forgotten -- we never did see one -- and our milk bottle of water is a job to have along.
We reach the top at noon. We know it's the top because a sign there tells us we're at 3,291 feet, the top of the mountain. We look around for a resting place, a picnic place. There's a couple stretched out along some rocks to the east so we head south to an outcropping of rocks with a superb view of another rocky outcropping and the valley below. Beneath a ledge on this spot we find two more backpackers. They are friendly and don't mind our settling near their space. We laugh and tell them how unpeopled it is up here and how we were told it would be like I-81.
"It usually is," says one, a veteran of the Old Rag trail. "Everyone loves to climb Old Rag because of the view. But I guess everyone's gone to the beach today."
We spend an hour in the sun, watching a hawk circling, diving and cavorting in the sky. Our lunch is a little the worse for having been stuffed into our knapsacks but the fresh peaches it includes are ambrosia. The exertions of the hike catch up with us. Stretching out on rocks, we bask in the sun.
What goes up, must come down. Our plan is to take the circuit hike. We will not double back over the rocks of the Ridge Trail that goes by the Byrd and the Old Rag shelters, then wander down the other side of the mountain till it connects with the Weakley Hollow Fire Road which will take us back to our car. It is a longer route -- at least four miles -- but easier. Barely ready for it.
Starting up is the worst. Our backpacking lunch mates advise us to take leaning rather than sitting rest stops on the way down. "It's not as hard to get started again if you don't sit down."
The blue trail blazes have stopped and we have some trouble finding the Saddle Trail. Once on it, though, the path is clear. Singing to amuse ourselves, we are climbing down at a leisurely pace when our trailblazers -- father and son -- stop dead in their tracks. Men of stone.
Not 20 yards from them a doe is munching on the choicest greens in the forest. She sees us. She eyes us, but goes on eating. It is as exhilarating as the rocks. Our children creep towards the doe. She doesn't run until something beyond the hills attracts her attention. Two hops, half a second, and she has disappeared.
It's a long way down. I would like a new pair of feet. My daughter would like two people to demonstrate how human arms can make a chair. She would like that chair to carry her. Our trail book tells us that we have a 2.8 mile walk along Weakley Hollow Fire Road. Our milk bottle has long been empty, the canteen water is warm and the road, boring. We hear the rushing waters of a creek, check our maps and detour to the left where we find the water's edge.We wash our faces in the rushing water, slake our thirst, take a leaning rest stop and find the energy to walk off the mountain. We have walked 7 3/4 miles by the time we get back to our car at 4:30.
Old Rag is not Mount Everest, but it is there, and we did it.