At the end of an earth day, when the intensity of light and heat fades, just above the western horizon an observant human is allowed to see the softer shades of our Sun’s radiation. Rust, orange, rose, and pink are by heavy atmospheric refraction gradually separated from the day’s hot white. And just after The Great Light has revealed the softest, most gentle side of itself, darkness falls. There is sleep.
I love the way the October and November fall of the Richmond forest performs its best sunset impersonation. In autumn, when the magic potion of chlorophyl is siphoned away from the leaves of our trees, that same observant human is allowed a six week or so study of what our forest is truly made of. Maples show their orange and red origins. Hickorys and poplars herald the yellow of their maker. Rust, orange, rose, and pink gently blush the forest canopy before cascading to the ground in awkward, tumbling flakes. One day not long ago, the forest impersonation of sunset was so convincing that when the prototype cast its warm glow of dusk over us, one and the other were almost indiscernible. I tried to take pictures, but was unable capture the double, soft glow of sky and forest. Pictures of nature often suffer this fate. There is always something extra there, a wild and free fullness that refuses capture. On the screen of my phone I could see the color, but not the glow, so I put it back in my pocket and savored the fullness first hand. Yes, I love the color and softness of autumn’s sunset impersonation, but in the end, both sunsets fall to earth. When the fall has fallen, our deciduous trees are left standing dark and bare. There is forest sleep.
As Richmonders we are lucky. We have an opportunity afforded only to people who can rapidly change altitudes. If a Richmonder so desires, even while our home forest is at the peak of its sunset, he and his family can enjoy a glimpse ahead into winter. Here’s how you do it.
Each fall my family and our best family friends take advantage of the opportunity. We wake up before dawn on a Sunday to meet at a gas station before I-64-ing our way west to the mountains. We don’t do this much, or as much as I’d like, but it’s pretty darn nice to know that when I need the high places, they are not far away. A mere two-hour ride from my driveway, and I am at one of the most ancient places on earth – the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. We start our little day trip just above sea level, and climb gradually away from the rouge and yellow of Richmond’s fall towards the grey and brown of winter 4000 feet above.
This year we drive to the Skyland Resort north of Big Meadows along the Skyline Drive. After our dark and early start from Richmond, we arrive at the dining room of the resort just as those who saw the sky grow bright before getting out of bed step their way over from quaint lodgings to join us for a breakfast buffet. I’m mildly jealous of them. Mostly of the younger couples. Why didn’t I ever bring my significant other to this place overlooking the Shenandoah valley for a true piece of earth perspective by day, and the warmth of love by night? I feel like I can almost tell which of the pairings most recently separated from close embraces by the look of happy contentment on their faces. Good living for the young ones at Skyland Resort. I’m mildly jealous, but mostly just happy for them.
Then I turn to the simple, old fashioned breakfast buffet. The bacon is OK. And the sausage, the scrambled eggs, and the fruit and the grits. But the crown jewel of the meal for me is the biscuits and gravy. I eat and scrape, reload. I eat and scrape again, and then I reload and eat one more time but cannot complete the scrape. That means I’m done.
After breakfast, a short drive south from the resort brings us to the Hawksbill Summit Loop trailhead. My older daughter, a junior in high school, feigns disinterest in the prospect of a hike. She says that hiking is nothing more than dangerous walking. Anna is very tall, and finds herself unable to cultivate the same working relationship with the earth below her as most of us have. For her it can be an awkward, long distance relationship with frequent ups and downs. But I know her complaint about hiking is a feign. I know that, like me, she gets something important from the high places. Don’t we all?
It’s a short hike to the peak of Hawksbill Mountain, which at 4049 feet, is the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Forest. The loop is 2.7 miles long. Not too harsh, not too steep. But on the way to the peak each step separates us farther from the drone of cars and civilization, and with each step, we gain altitude and move farther into winter.
The view itself isn’t particularly noteworthy. We could enjoy a similar view from any number of vehicle pull-offs. It’s the position of the view that’s noteworthy, and makes the hike worthwhile. It’s a position only reached by foot, and only reached with a climbing effort. Those two requirements alone make it a much less frequented or popular position for perspective than most positions in modern culture. Sure, their are others humans up there, but these others are different from the normal or work-day others in my life. These others are also in a state of peace and revery after the exertion of the hike, and the reward of the 250-degree-or-so view. There is a healthy human atmosphere at the peak of Hawksbill mountain. An atmosphere of respect and admiration for the creation below. An atmosphere and perspective that is worth a dangerous walk. I look at Anna sitting quietly to herself and experiencing a moment of respect and admiration, and I experience one of those rare moments when a parent knows they are doing just the right thing for their child. I look thoughtfully at Anna. My 16 year-old daughter looks thoughtfully into the grey and brown winter of the Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-November. No tweets, twitters, instas, or snaps. Quiet reverence.
It’s always a peaceful ride home from our fall hike. I should be taking scientific data to prove this fact rather than just talking good sense, but a child or youth, or an adult for that matter, who has eaten a wholesome breakfast and hiked to a special high place on earth is just more likely to find themselves in a peaceful state of mind in the aftermath. My daughters rarely tread together on common ground, but on the way home they leave off tormenting each other to quietly scan the passing country and farmland on either side of the car. We drive our way down from winter and backwards in seasonal time.
We’re back in Richmond at 3:30 p.m., and after our glimpse into winter, every warm, soft shade of the forest is even more beautiful. In Richmond I get back to properly enjoying a forest sunset. I have seen our near future with my own eyes. Winter is close above us.