When I saw the James River cutting through the Blue Ridge, I knew that I was home. Standing on a bluff 2,000 feet above the river gorge, I felt like my heart was about to burst with excitement. Twenty years after leaving Virginia, I realize that I remain in many ways a Virginian, emotionally connected to these mountains and valleys. The James River was central to the geography of my youth. Much of the history I knew then centered on the James. The next few weeks would be an emotional high point of my hike as I walked familiar trails and visited old friends.
Crossing the state line into a few miles south of Damascus was exciting. After all, I was back in the state where I grew up. But southwest Virginia is well removed from my experience so my excitement was the excitement of seeing new places. Walking through Virginia (or any state, for that matter) was a new experience for me. I saw the state’s rocks, roots, ridges and streams close up. I was part of the forest that surrounded me and attuned to its ever changing moods. As I walked north, I anticipated my arrival in the central part of the state where I had previously hiked and spent much time as a young adult. Each step brought me closer to that reunion.
In the meantime, however, Virginia had many new and interesting facets to show me. Damascus was a pretty little town nestled in the Virginia’s southwestern highlands The highlands around Mount Rogers offered gentle walking on a sunny day after a winter storm. I followed flowing streams through deep gorges as I made my way to Troutdale, enjoyed the warm sun on Chestnut Knob, dodged hail in Stoney Creek Valley and marveled at the view from Tinker Cliffs. As I walked, I gained an appreciation for parts of Virginia I had not known before.
My anticipation grew as I crossed the Shenandoah Valley and climbed on to the Blue Ridge. Crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway at Black Horse Gap meant that I was very close to familiar territory. Each time the trail crossed the parkway I looked for old memories of that place. Although I could rarely recall anything specific, the scene always looked familiar. Morning light filtering through the forest canopy, jumbled rocks, lichens and ferns all seemed familiar as I walked, marveling at the beauty of the forest and remembering here before moving to Arizona.
At Petite Gap, I began walking a section of trail that I had hiked twice years ago. The terrain felt vaguely familiar but all I really remembered were a few hazy images. The shelter at Marble Spring was long gone but the area was a good spot for lunch. The walk up Thunder Ridge was more exposed and hotter than I remembered. But I knew that the day’s hike would bring me to the heights overlooking the James River Gorge. I remembered that view and looked forward to seeing it again.
And when I did see it, I was awestruck. As much by my emotions as the scene’s beauty and power.. Below, a great body of water coursed over rocks. I could hear the water even at this height. The gorge dropped precipitously away from me and rose equally sheer from the north bank. It was a glorious scene to behold on a sunny summer day. More than just a beautiful scene, the James River Gorge spoke to me and welcomed me home after years of wandering. When I moved to Arizona, that state became “home”. I consciously avoided thinking of Virginia as home to avoid being homesick. I largely succeeded. But when I saw the James River that day, I knew that I had long ignored a central fact: Virginia was and always will be a big part of what I call home, which is more a collection of experience and emotion rather than a geographic place. Looking into that gorge, I saw a past, present and future. My heart was happy and filled with joy.
The next weeks brought me even closer to home. A few days later I walked through the early morning haze at Reed’s Gap. I had spent much time at Reeds Gap in the 1970's and early 80's. My father-in-law owned a cabin just below the gap where my wife, dogs and I would visit frequently. We watched many sunsets and gazed into the night sky from the open field at the gap. Even after we divorced, I frequently returned to Reed’s Gap for short hikes, to sit on the rocks looking across the Shenandoah Valley. I was highly pleased to return now as a through hiker, very happy to share that experience with long time hiking companions from Arizona.
Two days later I walked through into Rockfish Gap on a foggy morning. I had passed through the gap many times before, often in a fog like this. The gap looked deserted in the gray mist. A phone call to an old friend led to a joyful reunion and ride into town for breakfast, a shower, companionship and a familiar place to sleep. I was home.