What I learned about life from hiking Old Rag

I’ve been looking at Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park for years. While hiking the many other trails in the park, I’ve often looked over at that rocky summit and promised myself that one day, I would climb up there.

Well, that day came a couple of weeks ago. My friend James Kyle, who’s hiked it before, said he’d go along. So at 7:00 Friday morning, October 26, 2012, we hit the trail for the nine-mile round trip that ascends some 2,500 feet. (Thanks to James for some of these photos!)

Some of the published information says it’s a strenuous hike that should take five and a half hours, plus half-hour for lunch.


For old, overweight geezers like me, it is at least seven hours. And strenuous doesn’t begin to describe it. I’ve been hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains since I was a teenager. And this is by far the toughest hike I’ve ever done.

A friend described hiking Old Rag as a rite of passage. It was certainly that, even though I didn’t accomplish it until age 61. But it was an exhilarating experience.

I learned a few things about hiking… and about life.

Take your time. Climbing the Ridge Trail, with its mile-long rock scramble, is a marathon, not a sprint. Although some hearty and healthy speedsters passed us with ease, this climb is best taken slowly and carefully,  savoring the experience and taking in all the sights & sounds along the way.

Watch how others do it. I remember one section of the rock scramble when I wondered how in the world we would get over an especially imposing series of boulders. We stood back and let a couple of women pass us. And we watched as they hugged the rocks and swung their bodies around them. No male pride here. We followed their example with gratitude.

Trust the blue blazes. I don’t know what kind of person it took to figure out the best path to the top, marking the route with blue blazes. But I’m glad they did. Even when the marked path seemed insanely treacherous, we followed it faithfully. Sure enough, it took us right to the summit. When all else fails, follow the directions.

Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. What’s that old saying? “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That last half-mile on the way up was tortuous. But rather than wondering, “How much further?” I decided to concentrate on the next step. Then the next. And that series of steps eventually led me to the top.

Stop and take some pictures along the way. It was cloudy all day. So there were no breathtaking vistas to photograph. But rock formations, the colorful leaves, the lichens on the boulders all provided a visual symphony worth capturing.

Rest and take nourishment. Amazing what a little water and trail mix will do for you. I’m glad Devra packed some for me. It got me through the last mile.

Remember: this is do-able. I wasn’t the first one to hike Old Rag. In fact, when we got to the summit there was a big group of school children running around on the boulders as if it was a playground. They didn’t even seem winded from the climb. And there were some folks older than me gasping for breath. But all of us had made it up the mountain and lived to tell about it.

Even when you get to the top, clouds may obscure the view. This is what the view from the summit looks like on a clear day.

This is what it looked like on the day of our hike.

It would have been nice to see the fall colors from the summit. But in hiking as in life…

the thrill is just as much in the journey as it is in the destination.