Author’s Note: After nearly a decade on the east coast, it’s time for Mr. & Mrs. Link to head West. In the last ten years, our lives have changed significantly. We moved in together, got married, bought a house, got promotions at work and earned higher education degrees, hiked, drank, ran, ate and welcomed our son to the world. For a gal from Southern California and a guy from Montana, Maryland took some getting used to – the pollen, bugs, humidity, and distance from home made the change all the more difficult. But as time passed, we began to grudgingly put down roots. We even began to feel at home in our adopted land. What follows is Mr. Link’s favorite (and least favorite) parts about living in Maryland. Other posts here.
Top Ten Things I’ll Miss About Maryland
Number 3 – Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park, comprised of about 100 miles of the Shenandaoh Mountains in western Virginia [a component of the Blue Ridge Mountains which are a component of the Appalachian Mountain Range] isn’t noteworthy for the height or rugged nature of its geography. These peaks aren’t in the same league as the 14,000-footers in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and they’re not even the highest mountains in Appalachia. The mountains themselves are worn smooth by eons of erosion. Nor is the park known for its size – comprised of a single ridge-line road and as much land to either side of that road as the federal government has been able to reclaim from original settlers and their descendants.
What made Shenandoah National Park special was that it was a dependable refuge from the stress and pace of the daily grind. After a few hours in the car, and Mrs. Link and I could shuffle off the professional coil, breath in the fresh air and enjoy some relative solitude. While we found many other places to hike and camp in the DMV region (Harpers Ferry and Catoctin Mountain stand out), it was our regular pilgrimages to western Virginia that tapped into my Montana roots and rekindled my love of the great outdoors.
The discovery of Shenandoah National Park came about in most unlikely way. During our Christmas visit to California in 2006, Mrs. Link’s step-dad introduced us to World of Warcraft. For the next seven months, Mrs. Link and I indulged what can only be called an addiction. I leveled up a prot-specced human warrior named Fyton while she played a restoration-specced night elf druid named Allodynia. As a tank-healer team, we were always welcome in raids.
When I say WoW was an addiction, I mean that in a literal sense. In 2007, when we were playing, more than 8 million people around the world were coughing up a not-insignificant monthly subscription fee. To keep that money coming in, Blizzard (the company that makes WoW) utilizes every psychological trick in the book to keep people engaged. There’s something for everyone – cooking, fighting, fishing, exploring, love stories, points, leveling up, fashion, and the list goes on. Every part of the game is designed to hook you. It’s not directly chemical, but it’s as close to it as I think you can come.
Then, one day, after a software update that changed the rules of the game and significantly hamstrung an in-game skill I had been practicing, I had an epiphany. I was pouring all this time and energy into a game. I was developing skills that had no real-world value, and that would be useless once I stopped paying a monthly subscription fee. More importantly, the things about the game I liked were all based on element of the real world. The Western Plaguelands, for example, looked a lot like parts of the Big Hole Valley where I spent a lot of time growing up. This epiphany wasn’t gradual – it was like a switch being flipped. DING! We abandoned our WoW quests and started questing in real life.
I once again recognized the appeal of the outdoors, something that I had forgotten in the preceding decade. And so, I asked around for hike recommendations. Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park came up again and again. And so on Cinco de Mayo 2007, we climbed Old Rag for the first time. Less than two months later, we did the first Old Rag camping/hiking adventure.
It was this second trip – and first overnight stay – that we “weren’t invited back to Shenandoah” by a National Park Ranger.
At the First Annual Old Rag Adventure (then known only as “Old Rag Ho!”), we stayed at the Big Meadows Campground. Quiet hours, we were told, were strictly enforced after 10 p.m. We were a big group, so we took up three sites, but we assembled at the most remote of our sites, built a campfire and cooked dinner. A Park Ranger stopped by at 9:30 to remind us about quiet hours. 10 p.m. rolled around, and we were wrapping things up. By 10:15, everyone was disbursed. 10:30 we were all in our tents.
At 10:35, Mrs. Link and my tent was illuminated by headlights. A man identifying himself as a police officer instructs us to come out of the tent. I asked if he’s joking. He’s not. We emerged from the tent to see four police cars out of Front Royal The other cops were dragging the rest of the crew out of their tents to join us. Now, Front Royal is a good 45-60 minute drive to the Big Meadows Campsite (which if you do the math, means these guys had been called before quite hours even began), so these cops were looking to write some tickets to justify their drive. Trouble is, they’d have been hard pressed to find a group of more upstanding young people – medical students, responsible professionals and their significant others. We drank some beers – everyone was of age – but no one drank too much. They couldn’t even bust us for littering (they tried) as we’d cleaned up well and put everything in the bear-proof storage. So they ran our IDs for warrants. All of them. They searched our stuff, finding a lighter which, it turns out, can be either drug paraphernalia or camping equipment. They made Mrs. Link crawl around on her hands and knees to pick up a scrap of roasted marshmallow. In loud voices, they told us how violating quiet hours disturbs our neighbors, shining their high-powered flashlights into adjacent campsites for emphasis. And, ultimately, they left without writing a single ticket.
The next morning, a grumpy looking park ranger stopped by the site. I like to imagine she was grumpy because she’d just been chewed out by the Front Royal Police Department for their overzealous call the night before. She hiked up her belt to look tough, and in a clearly rehearsed statement – which belongs in the passive-aggressive hall of fame – said something like this: “We here at the National Park Service would never tell someone not to come back to a National Park. But ordinarily, we would invite people to come back to Shenandoah whenever they want. Notice, I’m not doing that with you.”
Message delivered. The next year, we camped outside the park in Syria, VA. Cheaper camping, more firewood and no quiet hours. Plus the locals offered to take us cow tipping. And despite not being explicitly invited back, we made ourselves at home in Shenandoah National Park.
I bought a book – Hiking Shenandoah National Park – and over the next six years, Mrs. Link and I knocked out just about every long hike marked “strenuous” or “moderate” – leaving the short, easy hikes to the tourists. We’d return to our favorites again and again – doing Old Rag a total of 11 times and the Cedar Run & Whiteoak Canyon Loop 3 times.
Here’s a (hopefully) complete list of the hikes we did between May 5, 2007 and June 15, 2013:
Old Rag – 5/5/07; 6/23/07; 6/28/08; 7/27/08; 6/6/09;5/29/10; 6/19/11; 7/23/11; 10/15/11; 6/1/12; 6/15/13
Keyser Run Fire Road & Little Devils Stairs – 5/24/09
Rocky Mount – Gap Run Loriat – 6/28/09
Thornton River Trail – 7/19/09
Cedar Run & Whiteoak Canyon Loop – 8/8/09; 10/31/09; 5/29/11
Dark Hollow Falls & Hawksbill Peak – 4/1/10
Tuscarora – Overall Run Falls – 3/13/11
Buck Hollow Buck Ridge loop – 3/20/11
Rapidan Camp, Laurel Prong, Cat Knob, Hazeltop Loop – 4/3/11
In the miles and hours, we learned a lot about the Shenandoah Mountains. Most hikes are loops that start from Skyline Drive, so the first half is always hiking down one side or the other of the mountain range and the second half is hiking up. At the ridge line, which is about 2,000-2,500 higher than the valley floor, fall comes about a month earlier and spring arrives about a month later. “Run” is an east coat name for a small stream. The famous Appalachian Trail, which is incredibly maintained and looks something like a freeway of trails, runs along the ridge line where you can meet through-hikers with fun nicknames like Ant and Mountain Dew. There are a lot of waterfalls, especially in the northern part of the range, but you’d still be smart to bring plenty of water.
I think there will always be a Shenandoah National Park wherever we live – a place we can go to destress and enjoy nature. But even though I grew up hiking and camping in the Rockies, those were the adventures of my parents that I was allowed to attend. In that sense, Shenandoah National Park was my first. And even with the excitement of new adventures, I’m always going to miss Old Rag.