The Wanderbirds Hiking Club was on the move - 45 transplanted urbanities traipsing through the three-inch snow of Shenandoah National Park, fresh and vibrant in the morning sun with only a half-mile under their belts.
Suddenly women started peeling off the line and collecting in a covey off to the side of the trial. As the men streamed by, keeping up the pace one stepped to ask why the delay.
"We are stopping," replied a woman named Irmgard in a commanding voice, "because you need a rest."
The men ground to a halt around the bend and some of the men made quickly for trees and bushes. The march was resumed.
The Wanderbirds had thus completed one day's ration of frivolity. They at full speed, seven miles minimum over mountains and streams, with several doing two or three miles more. It was to be the last time anyone would enjoy an unscheduled stop.
"We're into hiking as a sport," explained Betsy Humphrey; "A lot of newcomers are surprised that we don't spend more time on nature or just admiring the scenery. But we're not here for that."
Indeed they're not. And they not into singing or joking, story-telling, or pondering the mysteries of time and the weather, air and sky, or the graceful loops and bends of the ageless Shenandoah far below.
The Wanderbirds Hiking Club is into mileage, period. Group discussions over the hurried trailside lunch are more likely to revolve around how many feet per hour are being lost to backslip on the powderly snow than how pretty the sky is.
Not all Wanderbirds agree with the system, but they almost all adhere to it. Said Priscilla Friedersdorfer, plodding through the drifts around mile five last weekend," I would have been delighted to call it suits an hour ago."
But Friedersdorfer is a veteran, having joined Wanderbirds last fall and endured a number of nightmare high-speed treks. She knows what's expected and she keeps coming back. Why?
"It feels so good when you stop." The Wanderbirds hike every weekend, all year long, "weather or not," as it says in their brochere. They mean it. Bob Wilkinson, a photographer/hiker, has pictures of a trip last winter through a blizzard. It shows Wanderbirds clustered around the back of their chartered bus, pushing.
"We had to spin it around in the parking lot like a record on a turntable," said Wilkinson. "They closed the (Skyline) Drive but we got through."
And if they hadn't some enterprising Wanderbird would have figured out a route to talk whererver they get stuck. Don't be surprised to see line of 45 Wanderbirds stomping along K Street some Sunday morning if the weather 's bad enough.
You'll recognize them by the posture - heads down, arms swinging, eyes glued to the trail.
All of which is bad news. The good news is that Friedersdorfer wasn't kidding - it really is sublime when you stop. The ragtag band, by now stretched over a mile or more of trail, slowly reconvenes at trail's end, and the last half-mile back the bus is a celebration of achievement.
Suddenly the once-silent crew is chatting about the brilliant azure sky and someone from the back of the line conducts that he looked up long enough to see a startled doe race off through the barren woods.
On the bus there are 35-cent bottles of beer; the windows steam up as the hikers strip off soggy socks and sodden leggings. There is heat. Eyes droop and heads nod as the miles sweep by outside.
Halfway home a club officer makes the rounds, asking who will be be along next week.
And almost everybody signs up.