“Walk into splintered sunlight, inch your way through dead dreams to another land.” Grateful Dead, Box of Rain, Lyrics by Robert Hunter
I really need to write, and this week I really want to write about something happy.
I like to stare at the map. It’s a way to look closer at the place I live, the places I’m going, the places I’ve been, and perhaps best of all, dream about places I have not yet seen, but may see one day. Once upon a time I was staring at my Virginia Gazetteer, a map showing every road in the commonwealth. I was looking at the hamlet of Rawley Springs, Virginia, where we were about to vacation for the first time. The map showed a “jeep road” going on beyond the end of the paved road in Rawley Springs and up into the mountains. I owned a four-wheel drive vehicle at the time and I dreamed of seeing that jeep road.
We took our first trip to Rawley Springs in the cool, early weeks of spring one year, and walked up to the end of the paved road, crossed the boundary of the National Forest, saw the post marking the forest road — and stopped at the edge of the water. The trail continued onward, after about 75 feet of cold, thigh-high wading. We were not outfitted for cold wading, and thus we were at the end of our road.
We could see the rough outlines of a jeep road approaching the crossing, and even a stone piling that is probably the remains of a bridge. We could see the jeep road going on beyond the other side. But we stayed on our side of the water, and spent the rest of that short vacation wondering what lay beyond the end of the road.
We returned to Rawley Springs three years later, and number one on our to do list was to see the other side of that trail. Thanks to more detailed maps and local inquiry, I now knew the trail was called the Maple Spring Trail and it did go on for about 4.5 miles. I already knew the water there at the end of the road was called Black’s Run (run being a good name for running water too big to be called a creek, but not yet worthy of being known as a river). I had been told that the trail went “all the way to the top of the mountain,” but I could not find one single entry about it on Google, a true rarity in today’s world.
Now for a little perspective. We weren’t Lewis and Clark, about to set off into the dark, unknown forests of the Pacific Northwest. We weren’t John Wesley Powell, with a chair lashed to a long wooden boat, holding on for dear life with his one remaining arm as he led his party on a raging brown river down the blank space on the map where the Grand Canyon is shown now. We weren’t Columbus, looking beyond the very edge of the map and seeing a way around to connect to the other side, with riches and plunder in between. But we were suburbanites planning to go into cold mountain water up above our knees so we could venture miles up a trail that was not mentioned anywhere on the Internet beyond a line on the map. That has to count for adventure in today’s world, right?
First, we hatched a plan — wear our river shoes, stash them on the far side of the crossing and change into our hiking boots. Then we provisioned — walking sticks for balance, an extra towel and a couple plastic bags in Dad’s backpack along with the water and the food and the first aid kit. Finally, we set out, feeling brave and excited to see what lay beyond the end of the road after three years of imagining.
We set out on a cool mountain morning in late March, the light long and speckled coming through the still leafless trees and down into the narrow valley of Rawley Springs. We walked along the paved road to its end at the national forest boundary. The sound of Gum Run (which Black’s Run flows into) falling over rocks and down through the valley is the background for our walk to the end of the road, and grows louder as we come to the place where the “jeep road” that is now a walking trail crosses the run.
We drew in a deep breath, grasped our walking sticks, I tightened up my backpack, and we plunged into the cold water, stepping carefully and working our way to the other side. I came out of the water with the blood flowing from the cold and a smile on my face, more excited than ever to see what lay beyond. Per our plan, we changed into our hiking shoes, stashed our wet river shoes under a bush, and set out to see what marvels would be found on the rest of the Maple Spring Trail.
About two hundred yards farther on we ran into another water crossing, this one not as deep looking but at least twice as wide. I turned back down the trail to retrieve our river shoes while my wife and son began debating if this trail was worth the cold, wet price of admission.
We eventually discovered that one must ford the water eight times to progress along the Maple Spring Trail. (The picture above is the third crossing.) Those of sound balance and nimble feet may be able to rock hop some of those crossings, depending on the water flow, but most of us are going to get wet feet. Our collective pride and sense of accomplishment began to fray as we came to each crossing — I was happy to wade into the river, but my hiking companions less so. Yet we kept on, through cold wet feet, one semi-scary fall, and an incredulity that we kept having to cross the water.
The thing is, the trail is incredible to behold. It’s just a thin line on the map, there’s no reviews on Trails.com, no friend of mine had ever tagged themselves at that location on Facebook, no lover of the North Mountain section of the George Washington National Forest had ever set up a blog or self-published a book that described this or the many other trails in the area. Yet the Maple Spring Trail winds along with wide, clear running water nearby for the first 2.5 miles or so. Hemlocks abound, and most of them show no signs of infection and withering yet, like many hemlocks in the Eastern states do now. The path is wide and easy to follow, as it is clearly the remnants of a jeep road, or going even further back, a carriage trail. The mountains rise steep and rocky on both sides, hemming you in and adding a quiet shade to everything other than the sound of running water. In some spots water just burbles forth from the earth, and creates a stream to find its way to one of the larger runs that created this valley. The walk along and through the Gum Run and the Maple Spring Run is the very definition of idyllic.
A little ways after that eighth crossing, where the water had diminished enough to be fairly called a stream, the pathway moved up and away from the waterway. We came to a lone stake in the road, placed right in the middle to prevent further passage by vehicles that had not passed this way in many years. The passageway narrowed and a little further on, turned steeply upward. We continued along, much more slowly now (well, the big guy was moving slowly), no destination in mind. Finally, after ascending hundreds of feet in elevation and another mile or more in trail distance, we stopped for lunch, sitting on fallen trees and looking out through a gap in the trees to the neighboring ridgeline. After lunch we assessed the remaining food and water and the time of day and decided to turn back down the hill, having conquered the obstacles at the beginning of the trail and yet leaving the end of the trail for another day. The walk back can best be described with my grandmother’s favorite word, “divine.” When we made it back to the first, and deepest, water crossing, we decided to wade and play in the water and explore a grotto behind that crossing even further, now reveling in the experience of dipping our feet in the cold mountain water.
Ok, Jay, you may be thinking, we’re getting on 1,500 words in and while we have a mildly touching story and maybe some passable travel writing, where is the look closer moment?
Well, I thought for three years about the landscape beyond that first water crossing on the Maple Spring Trail. Once I went beyond that initial barrier, more unexpected barriers arose, but in the end the experience exceeded my long-simmering anticipation.
I thought for three years or more about letting my deep thoughts out into the world like this before national events pushed me to cross the water and actually start writing. No one has benefitted from my writing more than me; the experience has been infinitely useful to my spirit.
I spent the better part of six years when I was younger and less wise living a mere half hour from this trail and this picturesque, idyllic valley and its running waters. Yet I never looked closer at a map, and when I wanted to get away to the mountains, or go camping, I went to spots that were further away and in some ways less beautiful, simply because I had been there before and was staying inside my known bounds. Yet my family and I are exploring the place we live now to a great depth, and are all the richer for doing so, for looking closer at the map of the hometown I’ve lived in for the majority of my life.
I have driven and hiked to many peaks and overlooks in Virginia and around the U.S., to view the world from on high. Most of them have a high place in my happy memories. Yet as I learn to look closer, few things I’ve seen or done in recent years have brought me peace like walking along those falling waters and among those hemlock groves of the Maple Spring Trail, with the ridges rising steep and high on either side.
I am now wondering what other boundaries in my world are nothing more than the metaphorical price of cold, wet feet and smelly shoes to get beyond to a brighter, beautiful world on the other side.
I am dreaming of a world where we all look closer so we can learn more about the landscape around us, the beautiful sights just around the bend, the possibilities that exist beyond the end of the paved road, and the willingness to pay a price in exchange for a worthy bit of personal evolution.
We recently returned to Rawley Springs and the Maple Spring Trail; that’s why I’m writing this piece. This time we just wore our hiking boots the whole time and dealt with wet socks and shoes. The water was faster and deeper, and the cold actually hurt a bit. We noticed a lot more details this time, especially in terms of small waterfalls, the way the three runs come together as they flow downhill, and especially remnants and clues about the bona fide roadway that once existed in that valley. The light was incredible. I kept stopping in the middle of the water to stare at the light glistening on the water and among the trees.
We still didn’t go all the way to the end of the trail though. We have not made it to the top of the mountain, or seen the Maple Spring itself. That would take a lot of effort and a fair bit of time. We could write it off — the trail just goes up and up through the woods, we’re not missing much. Yet the unknown is still calling me and I think we have to see the top of that trail one way or the other. I am still wondering about the end of the trail that goes on beyond the end of the road.
“Walk out of any doorway, feel your way, feel your way like the day before. Maybe you’ll find direction around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you.” Grateful Dead, Box of Rain, Lyrics by Robert Hunter