Many hikers are on a mission. I know I often am. You have to have a determined focus to reach the set goal when your legs suggest now would be a great time to take a long break. But when you reach that summit, stand by that waterfall, get your selfie by that marker – then what? When time allows, I like to spend some time just soaking up the scenery, both distant and at my feet.
Such is the case at the end of February, as I climb the short trail past the stone fire tower and out to the overlook on Fort Mountain. It is one of the sentinels of the Blue Ridge Mountains, glaring westward at the low wavelike mountain ridges breaking across the wide valley.
The Fort Mountain overlook is a series of stone outcropping on which the parks department built wooden platforms for people to stand and appreciate the view from some 1800 feet above the valley floor. Near the platform is a boulder resembling a rough chair. I fancy it to be my bardic throne, to perch on and ponder whenever I find myself in that corner of the state. I, who fidgets after ten minutes in front of the television, find new reserves of patience in this place amid the stones lichens and briers at the edge of air.
When the wind stills a moment, I hear the soft rush of water hundreds of feet below. I enjoy the novelty of watching a buzzard soaring beneath me. And shadows lengthen.
There were reminders of humanity, of course. The steady roar of the distant interstate and nearer highway carries on the wind. Much closer visitors to the mountain cough and sneeze, and occasionally thump past on the boardwalk between stairs and platform. But they sweep the vista with their eyes, and after five minutes they take their selfies and return the way they came. The disturbances come less often as the evening progresses and dinnertime nears.
To the northeast, Grassy Mountain spreads low and wide with hollows upon hollows and fractalling folds in the mantle of trees. I am content to watch the shadows form in those folds, like the substance of the incipient evening growing in the crevices where the waning sun can no longer reach.
Time passes and the tide of shadow washes across the valley, not as a line on the shore, but in fits and starts. I watch a level field as the light fades all at once, then follow forest-shaped shadows creeping in a jagged line up a hillside clearing. At length, the sun retreats from my chair and the woods behind me, while still lighting the shoulders and summit of Grassy Mountain.
The final moments of daylight are muted as the sun falls behind a hazy cloud cover. Only the very top of Grassy Mountain shows the faintest traces of sunset’s glow. After a good two hours, the curtain has gone down on this act; I will navigate the rocky trail before the light fails and the stars begin their dance.
Only a few moments are necessary to “claim” a view. But I’ve climbed this trail many times and seen this mountain in various moods over the last three decades. There is much more to see if I devoted my time to it. But if I don’t get up this way for a few years, I can be reasonably sure that the trail, the boulder, and the view will still be waiting should I have an hour or two to spare.
The next time you visit some landmark, set aside time to actually be there, to let it sink into your senses and leave a proper impression. If you don’t get to know the spirit of a place, can you really say you’ve been there?