One minute we were sitting in our car parked in a turnout off Route 340 in West Virginia, marveling at the spring-like winter morning, lacing up hiking boots, slipping knapsacks over our shoulders. The next we were making a direct assault on the sky, heading straight up a mountain courtesy of the Appalachian Trail, Sandy Hooks to Keys Gap divisions.
The trailblazers eventually showed mercy and routed us up a series of switchbacks. Everytime the trail switched back toward the edge of the cliffs, our exertions were rewarded: first, with a view of the Potomac and its muddy waters surging toward a bridge. Then, further up, we saw where the Shenandoah meets the Potomac, their waters rushing to rapids then settling down and flowing towards the bridge. And finally, on a mountainside overlooking the rivers, there was Harpers Ferry, where the morning sun whitened the fronts of the quaint-looking buildings.
With the snow turning to mush in the mountains, a friend and I, anxious to escape the city for a day, decided there was only one way other than skiing to exert ourselves in the mountains and that was to walk around on them. We chose the Blue Ridge mountains near Harpers Ferry: If the hiking were too sloggy or the weather turned mean, we could come down from the mountain and poke around from the mountain and poke around the town, then toddle off to a country inn and fill up on country food.
Our exertions were making us warm in the balmy weather. Checking our maps at our first rest stop, we found we'd climbed from 300 feet above sea level to 1,000 feet in less than half a mile. Once atop the ridge that marched steadily south, we were surrounded by the desolation of winter. In eight weeks or so the trillium would be in bloom, the dogwood in bud, and many hikers out on the trail. But now, there wasn't another soul in sight, and tree branches stood stark and bare. The leaves that had fallen with such rapturous color in the fall were decayed, brown and slippery underfoot.
There were compensations. With the foliage down, we could see through the forest and across the countryside. Whenever the trail skirted the cliffs that hung over the river, we saw farmland and tiny towns in the distance. At one point we heard the hoot of a train and saw it come around the mountain, cling to tracks on a mountain, cling to tracks on a mountain ledge then blast into tunnel cut into the rocky face.
This portion of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia, is clearly marked with white blazes -- one blaze on a tree leads the way; two blazes warn of a change in direction. We crossed from one side of the ridge to the other, walking across fairly flat terrain. We spotted Civil War embattlements where Union soldiers camped, where Confederate troops marched in the valleys on either side. When we reached Loudoun Heights, about 2 1/2 miles from our starting point, we found a sign pointing the way to Keys Gap, about four miles due south, and to Harpers Ferry, about two miles west and straight down.
We were debating whether to turn back or keep going when another person appeared in the woods. He wasn't a hiker, but a Civil War buff hunting for relics. He filled us in on some Civil War battle history then offered advice: "There's not much to see on the way to Keys Gap, but if you take the blue-blazed trail towards Harpers Ferry, you'll hook up with an orange-blazed trail that will take you back where you started." Our map showed no orange trail, but the day was still young and we decided to try it. Down the blue-blazed trail we went till we found the orange makers, all freshly painted and bright.
Down and down we went, following what appeared to be an old creek bed. The wind picked up, the sky clouded over, temperatures fell. "Aren't you glad," my friend observed, "that we're going down this trail and not up it?" We were also glad we had on heavy hiking boots -- sneakers would be useless on the muddy trail -- and that we had dressed in layers. We rolled down our shirtsleeves, pulled on sweaters and parkas and followed the trail to a cliff's edge. The view was sensational.
Out came the cameras. Out came a picnic lunch of sandwiches, a thermos of hot coffee, apples and grapes. What a spot! What a day in the mountains! And what a change in weather. We were ready to head home. iBut what was this? No more orange markers. We peered down one side of the cliff and up the other but the only orange makers we saw headed back the way we came.
It was not easy -- not only was the trail steep and the ground soft, but this was winter and we were not in hiking shape. Eventually we hooked up with the blue trail and hiked down Harpers Ferry where the National Park Service Rangers are headquartered.We asked the ranger on duty why the orange trail led nowhere. "It leads to an overlook," he told us pulling out a mimeographed map. The map also showed another overlook with a trail leading back to the Appalachian Trail.
"Someday we'll cut a trail between the two overlooks, but we haven't done it yet," he said. His map, by the way, was free and an adequate guide to the trails on the mountain. (Official Appalachian Trail maps and guide books, which are sold in the book store in Harpers Ferry, are $1.50 to $12.90, and are more detailed.)
Our hike, lunch and detour had only taken four hours. We freshened up at the hearteningly clean restrooms maintained by the Park Service in Harpers Ferry and wandered around town. Though the buildings and wax museum were interesting and fun to explore, we didn't find a quaint inn offering dinner country-style. So we drove the Shepherdstown, a few miles away where, in a large, ornate, green and white building, John Brown, who made Harpers Ferry famous, was tried and convicted.
Shepherdstown also had a corner bank that looked like a setup for Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever the bank's history, it was no longer in the banking business: it was now a restaurant called the Yellow Brick Bank. Inside, the big vault, complete with iron bars and big combination lock, stood exposed. Where tellers once stood and counted out cash, there were dining tables and hanging plants. Yellow Brick Banks didn't serve the country-style food we had in mind, but the salads were remarkably crisp and the menu a pleasant surprise: fresh steamed clams from Main, London Broil delicately laced with ginger, a thick cut of prime rib, wonderfull creamy rutabaga and, for dessert, vanilla ice cream with homemade hot fudge sauce. Lots of it, too, served in a separate little pitcher. After our forced march up the orange trail and a hike of at least six miles, we deserved it.