There are two surviving photos, from two iPhones ago, of the most important hike of my life. One is a landscape shot of the bright green, leafy trees that carpet and wallpaper everything you can see from a comfortable—yet slightly precarious—perch atop Old Rag Mountain. The second is a very similar image with one important difference: My feet are in the shot, dangling over the edge of the rock, the forest probably at least a few hundred feet below. I’m here, the photo says. I climbed this. I did this on my own.My reasons for attempting what Shenandoah National Park calls its “most popular and most dangerous hike” were simple, if not entirely pure. First, I really wanted to do the Shenandoah Valley’s most iconic hike before I eventually moved out West from the small Virginia town, Harrisonburg, where I had taken a newspaper job after college. I felt an intense need to conquer something labeled as exceptional in its difficulty. Second, I needed a reason to get out of driving two hours each way for a date. “I’ve got to go spontaneously climb this Big And Dangerous Mountain,” in my book, was a pretty decent excuse.
I had been thinking about it for weeks, maybe even months. Years earlier, I heard of Old Rag for the first time while barreling down I-95 somewhere between North Carolina and Rhode Island, listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants audiobook play on a scratched CD. She recounted a harrowing tale of hiking the mountain for the first time in the dark, desperate to impress a guy she wanted to date. (Funny how opposite our goals were.)
“Difficult” has no true definition. It is relative to so much.
I made the official decision to go during the closing shift at the pizza restaurant where I worked part-time when I wasn’t writing about school board controversies (“Leggings: No Good! Banned!”) or small-town skirmishes (“Thou Shalt Not Sell Thy Farm to Walmart”). I talked a big game about it with the college kids I worked with, wavering back and forth on whether I actually would go through with the excuse I’d given for canceling my date. None of them could come with me, or maybe none of them wanted to. I got off late, rose early the next morning, and drove my little orange car north toward New Market, Virginia, alone.
Here’s the thing about Old Rag—or maybe about the National Park Service (NPS) in general: “Difficult” has no true definition. It is relative to so much. In Virginia, where the highest peak barely tops ground level in the Mile High City, “dangerous” means you need to scramble, that you’re walking more than just a couple of miles, uphill, and that you need to be responsible enough to know that lightning means it’s time to get the hell off the trail. But you don’t fully understand that when all you have to go on is the excessive warnings on the NPS website, or when you don’t have an experienced local hiker to go with you. I asked my yoga instructor, who knew the area well and had hiked Old Rag half a dozen times, if he thought it was a safe hike to do without a partner.
“Is it as dangerous as it says on all these blogs I’m reading?” I wrote in a Facebook message. “I’m thinking about going tomorrow, but I really have no interest in dying.”
“Pah,” he said. “Not at all. I’ve done it in the dark, twice. Bring lots of water and snacks. You’ll be fine.”
And so I did. I packed Target fruit leather and a Clif bar or two into one of those tiny CamelBak packs that’s meant for biking. I had either a notebook or a pen, but I know I didn’t have both. I wore my only pair of hiking boots and a pair of leggings I’ve since patched up more than once.
I drove through parts of the state I had never visited. I took in the leafy branches that made a canopy near the entrance to the Old Rag parking lot, and I marveled at the dozens of cars that had arrived hours before I had. An older ranger was checking for parking stubs, and I proudly displayed the $80 Parks Pass I bought a few months earlier instead of paying $5 to get into Great Falls. I knew I’d be back, that there were many adventures to be had.
Solitude, I realized, was not the same as loneliness.
Just beyond the trailhead, I trudged up the switchbacks, moving at what I thought was an impressive pace for how out of shape I always assumed I was. When I read that there were nine switchbacks, I expected I would count them down, huffing and puffing, regretting what I had gotten myself into. But I enjoyed them. I watched the families and groups of teens as I passed them and as they passed me. At first, I felt like I was failing if too many people passed me. But I quickly grew to love my own pace. I reveled in the freedom to stop for a snack or a breather whenever I felt like it, feeling the need to impress no one but myself.
Even without a hiking buddy to talk to, I was far from bored. My own company, like my own pace, was perfectly sufficient. Solitude, I realized, was not the same as loneliness.
I want to say that it clicked immediately. That conquering Old Rag opened a big and obvious door for me to hike and travel alone because I wanted to hike and travel alone, not just because I couldn’t find someone to go with. But the realization was much more gradual. I soon got my chance to move out West and played Tetris with my car until all of the bare necessities I needed to start anew would fit in a few cubic feet. I couldn’t see out of any of the windows, the bumper was nearly dragging on the ground, and the passenger seat was pushed all the way up to the dashboard, holding little more than a small trashcan filled with odds and ends. I drove to Indianapolis and stayed in a hostel for the first time. I went out with one of the employees to see a band that was staying there, too. In the morning, we all got breakfast together before I visited the art museum alone, another first.
I wasn’t afraid. This was an adventure I had been wanting for a long time.
“What’s your zip code?” a woman at the front desk asked me. I paused, unsure how to answer where I was from.
“Well,” I said. “Do you want to know where I’m coming from, where I’m moving to, or where I grew up?”
She paused, too. “How about the furthest place from here?”
She asked if I was scared, moving so far away by myself. She would be, she said. I was brave.
I remembered what my parents had told me, after I packed the car so full that it was clearly impossible to fit a passenger: Don’t tell anyone you’re traveling alone. Don’t talk to anyone who asks.
But I was proud of it. I told the staffer at the art museum that I wasn’t afraid. This was an adventure I had been wanting for a long time. And it was the truth.
I stared at art in that museum like I had never before seen art, and not once did someone ask me if I was ready to move on to the next exhibit. I played a burned First Aid Kit CD over and over and over again as I drove all the way through South Dakota to camp by myself for the first time, with a mind-blowing sunset at the Badlands to keep me company.
At the end of the ninth switchback of Old Rag, I sat on a rock to drink in the view as I nibbled on fruit leather. I talked for a little while with a woman who seemed to be about my age. I don’t remember anything that we said, but I remember being fulfilled by it. We would never see each other again, but the kind pleasantries we exchanged mid-gruel were enough.
We each, on our own, were enough.