With the present political and COVID turmoil, I was recently discussing with my wife Michelle how fortunate we are to live in Crozet versus somewhere like Washington, D.C., or another major metropolitan area. As crazy as things seem to be getting these days, I’ve wondered if Crozet is enough of a bubble to insulate us from these troubles. There are times when thinking about living in some small town in South Dakota or Alaska is appealing. But, no, Crozet is our home.
One tool that I have been using for years to get away from it all and recenter a bit is heading into Shenandoah National Park (SNP) for a solo hike or trail run. At least once a month for the past 7 or 8 years I venture into SNP for a few hours of solitude, exercise, and nature. No headphones, just being present in the forest and ridges. The southern district of SNP that borders Crozet offers some of the best backcountry experiences you can have in the entire park, all without the crowds that the northern district gets.
One of my recent solo adventures was parking at “Browns Cove” off of Rt. 810 north of Crozet and taking the Browns Gap trail up into SNP all the way to Skyline Drive. I crossed Skyline and headed west down into the “Big Run” area where I made a loop of the Big Run trail and Patterson Ridge trail back to Skyline.
This area of SNP, west of Skyline Drive and just northeast of Grottoes, is a true gem of backcountry. As you descend the Big Run Portal trail, you sense that you are leaving civilization about as far behind as you possibly can.
Wondering through these trails, alone and without distractions, the first thing that strikes you is the quality of the forest. Old oaks and mountain laurel reign. Hemlocks are hanging on. The forest isn’t choked with invasive weeds as it is in so many other nearby places.
Big Run is the stream that wanders through the bottom lands, a stream that has been left alone by developers and dams and bridges. A healthy stream is a rarity these days and running along the banks of Big Run makes you feel like you could be existing a thousand years ago.
Patterson Ridge trail is one of many options that climb out of the bottom lands of this wilderness bubble. As you climb the ridge to higher elevations, one of the best experiences of this part of SNP comes into view: a ridge trail with 360-degree views of nothing other than other forested ridges, without roads or houses or civilization. There are not many places around that offer this sight.
As I run and hike on these trails, my mind wanders where it wants. There are, of course, the problems of the day, tasks that need to be done, and worries. But at some point, you simply feel like a part of nature. After being submerged in the forest for a while you can be reminded in a clear way that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it. This is easy to lose sight of, or sadly, to never feel in the first place.
Climbing up Patterson Ridge I appreciate all of my senses, particularly the forest’s distinct and familiar smells—the pine needle-covered trail, a wind blowing through the oaks, the cedars growing in the rock outcroppings. There other sensations, too: hawks crying overhead, treading on different surfaces, the sway of trees in the breeze, the changing of temperature with the change of altitude, pockets of warmth and cool, the taste of the mountain air, alertness for predators, awe at arriving at an overlook, the pounding of my heart and arteries; and the pattern of my breathing.
I sense these things because I have taken the time to immerse. Once immersed, you realize how rarely you use all of these senses at once in our civilized lives.
What the heck does this have to do with fitness?
What the heck doesn’t it have to do with fitness?
When I entered the woods that particular day, I had worries about COVID, politics, and the struggles of our shop hanging over my head. All of that went away. My mind was fully occupied with a completely different set of inputs and priorities.
You can call me a hippie or a dreamer, or someone who is using exercise as a coping mechanism to escape the real world.
I argue that getting out into nature, alone, gives us more perspective on humanity than most other things we can do. It calms us, makes us think, and forces us to consider our specific place in our communities. And when we can combine this type of mental and emotional boost with actual physical exercise, we become healthier as a whole.
You don’t have to start in a wilderness area. Here in Crozet we have abundant trails right in our backyards. Your level-one solo adventuring can be right on neighborhood trails. Just get out there alone. The next level up can be a place like Mint Springs Valley Park, where you can feel completely away in the mountains while being only minutes from your car. And then, there is Shenandoah. It’s easily accessed from Rockfish Gap, Skyline Drive, Jarmans Gap, Sugar Hollow, or Browns Cove. We have so many avenues to explore this national treasure in our backyard.
I always carry a phone and let someone know exactly where I’m going. Then, I disappear for a while.