The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Alone at the Top

By Tim Koppenhaver © 2001

Online: January, 2001

Between Sperryville and Madison along Route 231, you'll find one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. Wonderful views of the eastern slopes of Shenandoah National Park's Blue Ridge Mountains change with each curve along this designated state Scenic By-Way.

A view of Old Rag Mountain.A view of Old Rag Mountain.  Another view of Old Rag Mountain, different lighting.Another view of Old Rag Mountain, different lighting.

Whenever traveling south from my home in Winchester - whether it's to Charlottesville, Lynchburg, or even Richmond - I often go out of my way to fit this 18-mile stretch of secondary highway into my route. Beauty abounds everywhere along this drive, but the crown jewel is the magnificent view from Etlan of the 3,268-foot height of Old Rag Mountain.

Charred trees along the walk.Charred trees along the walk. One of the stray dogs.One of the stray dogs.

For years, the summit of Old Rag has beckoned. Every time I've driven past Etlan, I've nearly run off the road staring up at the exposed granite peaks, imagining myself looking eastward over Virginia's Piedmont or westward to views of Robertson Mountain and White Oak Canyon. The usual excuse of not having enough time had kept me from answering Old Rag's beckoning call until one day last January when temperatures soared to 65 degrees causing the spontaneous use of vacation time for some much deserved self indulgence.

alone 5Trail Sign alone 7Trail Marker

My goal for that precious day away from my office was simple and selfish. I wanted Virginia's most popular summit all to myself - to stand alone at the top. To accomplish this goal called for an early start.

I left Winchester under clear, star-filled skies and reached Route 231 just as the first touches of morning light began coloring the eastern horizon. About 8 miles south of Sperryville, a simple brown sign pointed the way to the Old Rag trailhead at Weakley Hollow. At that early hour, I found the overflow parking area completely empty except for a few stray dogs. Further on, where the trail began, there was another small parking area. This too was empty - just what I was hoping for. To minimize the chance of some other later-arriving summiter cutting into my time alone at the top, I set off at a vigorous pace.

alone 6Another Trail Sign alone 8Ah, alone at the top at last.

As the elevation changed, so did my surroundings. At the trailhead, there was abundant evidence of last fall's fires. Charred tree stumps were everywhere, and in the early dim light had the uncanny resemblance of black bear. Though bears are fairly dormant in winter, I knew that the warm weather may have drawn them out. Deciphering whether the dark stumps were actually bears or not kept me alert as I headed up the trail. As I progressed higher, there were fewer and fewer charred stumps to consider; however, increasing amounts of snow and ice made the placement of my footsteps a cautious endeavor.

Emerging from the woods onto the exposed summit peaks, I was rewarded with surprising calm and warmth. The early morning sun had already been hard at work radiating heat deep into the jumbled granite boulders. For the most part, there was no wind - just calm, quiet solitude. Occasionally though, 60 second blasts of 40 mile an hour wind would rush up and over the peak causing me to widen my stance, hold onto my hat, and wait it out. As soon as the blasts subsided, calm and warmth returned.

For more than an hour, alone at the top, I reveled in the beauty of this wonderful mountain, the astonishing views it afforded, and the entrancing thoughts it inspired. My enjoyment of the summit on this spectacular winter's day far exceeded any of the fantasies I'd had over the years while driving by in the valley below.

When I finally spotted a fellow solo hiker coming up the trail, the spell was broken. It was time for me to leave. I didn't want to share the summit, nor did I want to intrude upon anyone else's experience at the top. I had accomplished my goal. I had answered the call and had my time alone at the top.

During my descent, at one of the lesser summits, I was greeted by two friendly dogs - the same dogs I had seen at the overflow parking lot. Maybe the beauty of the day drew these two dogs to the summit as well... or maybe they had a plan.

One of the two eagerly followed me all the way back down to the parking area where I was parked. As a reward, I gave my traveling companion my uneaten lunch. I suspect the dog had done this before: accompany a hiker down the mountain and then extort whatever food it could with its pitiful eyes. I had had a plentiful morning and was glad to give up my lunch. Besides, this gave me the opportunity to answer another of Route 231's beckoning calls: lunch at the Appetite Repair Shop in Sperryville.