The phrase “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” kept running through my head throughout this hike – even though the song itself has nothing to do with the activity that we were indulging in.
A temporary change in circumstances – being by myself for a few weeks – brought me to Virginia on a Friday evening for an adventure that was to begin the next morning. I had been successfully roped into a hike that I would not have attempted under normal circumstances. The Little Devils Stairs and Piney Branch Loop Trail, advertised as being 7.5 miles long and somewhat difficult, was the target for the next day’s activities.
We left home early, but it took us a while to get to the trail head. The drive was long. We had also stopped along the way to pick up breakfast. I indulged myself with a breakfast that was substantial and different from my usual pickings. After all, I needed the calories for the activities that were to take place that day.
The skies were clear when we arrived at the parking lot for the Little Devils Stairs Trail. The parking lot was quite full by the time we got there. We managed to find some space to park beside the road just outside the lot.
It was also cold. The temperature was hovering around freezing when we started up the mountain. Fortunately, there was no wind at that time. The rising sun on our backs, and the effort that we were making climbing up the hillside, warmed us up quickly and nicely. In fact, layers of clothing were shed as we climbed in spite of the temperature. The process started early in the hike,and we reached even further levels of upper body disrobing further up the trail.
What a climb this turned out to be! This was how it was nearer to the start,but pretty soon we were ascending quite steeply up the hill following the path of a stream called Keyser Run. The trail weaved its way up the sides of Keyser Run, crossing the stream itself on several occasions. We basically ended up on a trail climbing next to a string of waterfalls, walking on both sides of the stream and its waterfalls.
The slope of the trail increased as we reached further up.This turned into more of a rock-climbing exercise as we got higher and higher. There were even stairs created with rocks in some places to help. We could see other climbers making their way up – way above us – giving us a clearer indication of how steep the climb was, and of how much more we still had to climb. I did not hesitate to use my hands when needed to clamber up the rocks, making sure that the camera hanging around my neck would not slam onto the rocks, or even putting it back into my backpack in some extreme conditions.
We lost track of the trail at least once. Okay, I was responsible! I tried to lead us up a dangerous leaf-covered slope that turned out to be the wrong path. But it was not completely my fault. A tree had apparently fallen right over the intended path obliterating it from my sight. We had to detour on the rocks directly beside the flowing water to get past this section.
This awesome climb came to an end after about two miles, at a turn in the trail where it diverged from the path of the stream. This waterfall was the last we saw of Keyser Run.Soon after, we reached the Keyser Run Fire Road at a location called Fourway. The road would have provided the shorter route back to our trailhead, but we set out towards the Piney Branch Trail on the Pole Bridge Link Trail connector instead.
It should be noted that, in spite of all the climbing, we were still well below the Skyline Drive (the main road in the park) at this point. There were optional trails that could have taken us to the top of the ridge. We did not get onto any of them since such a detour would have added too much mileage to the overall hike.
After a relatively unexciting stroll on the Pole Bridge Link Trail, we turned left at an intersection to find ourselves descending down a hillside with a stream flowing below us. That turned out to be the Piney River. The river was going to be our companion for a while. We were now on the Piney Branch Trail.
At this point we started encountering heavy gusts of wind, and the sun was also beginning to play hide-and-seek with clouds that had appeared out of nowhere, presumably from the west. The heavy clothing that had been shed for the climb up Keyser Run went back on.
This part of the hike turned out to be a different kind of experience from that of Little Devils Stairs Trail. The slope of the trail was more gradual, and we also had the presence of a relatively placid Piney River flowing down the hill nearby. Depending on where we were, the trail either overlooked the river from a great height,
or ran closer to it.
I have to admit that this looked like more of a stream than a river at this point in its flow.
There were a couple of stream crossings.
It was during the first of these crossings that disaster struck. I got one of my shoes wet. I lost traction on the sloped surface of a rock when attempting to get across. This turned into my first experience on the use of poles to provide balance while crossing a stream. Once I crossed the stream, I had to squeeze the water out of my socks before continuing. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to adjust to the situation of walking in a wet shoe.
Lunch went down nicely as we relaxed beside the flowing waters.
Soon after, we reached a point where we had to take a turn to leave Piney Branch trail to get on to the Hull School Trail. This was a straight climb up a hill. The wind was howling in the dales below us, and also gusting around us, as we climbed. We put our heads down and focused on the climbing. It was an intense 500 foot climbing effort coming towards the tail end of what had already been a long walk. We were in good enough shape to make it without pausing for rest.
We met up with the Keyser Run Fire Road once again at the top of the hill. There was an interesting cemetery at this location. It used to belong to the Bolen family who used to inhabit the area. (Perhaps it still does!)They were forced to abandon their homes when this area was converted in a National Park in the 1920s. It is a sad story, captured in a poem on one of the tombstones. Unfortunately, I goofed when taking a picture of the tombstone. So I will have to say penance by typing out all the words of the poem:
Why The Mountains Are Blue, by Wayne Baldwin
Enter these here Blue Mountains,
And enjoy Sky-Line’s views,
Sample the streams and fountains,
But don’t forget the sacrifice that was made for you.
That you can come and experience this National Park today,
Many lives were affected in many different ways.
While you relax and take in all this natural beauty,
I’d be remiss if I failed in my duty…
To tell of a people who once resided on this land,
Who toiled, labored, loved, laughed and cried,
Having their lives altered by a “plan”,
And whose stories, many untold, shall never die.
Whose way of life and culture was exaggerated by many an unjust fact,
Whose property was condemned by a legislative act,
Who moved willingly or by force,
Changing forever their life’s course.
Out from the protection of the hollows and vales,
Out into resettlements onto properties their pittance procured at sales,
Looking over their shoulders with tears in their eyes,
Pitifully departing their old homes among the skies.
Leaving familiar sights, their homes, their burial plots,
Most left begrudgingly for some low country spots…
The blue of the mountains is not due to the atmosphere,
Its because there is a sadness that lingers here.
I have not been able to find out anything about the author of this poem so far.
This poem informs me of the fact that very often “progress” comes at a cost – with sad stories of the real human beings who are left behind. This is true even today. From the context of being a hiker on this every enjoyable trail, I ought to be saying a prayer of thanks. As a note, a similar kind of displacement of people, most likely on a larger scale, also took place during the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Incidentally, you will be hard-pressed to find any mainstream reference to Bolen Cemetery today. You are more likely to find blogs on the subject from other hikers like me!
The rest of this hike was all downhill from then onward, and I do not mean this in a negative sense. We walked down the hill on the Keyser Run Fire Road all the way back to the parking lot where we had started the climb up Little Devils Stairs Trail.
A short distance down the fire road, the presence of what looked like a power line running up the hill served as a reminder that we were heading further back towards civilization. There was even a clearing cut through the woods for this overhead line.We were feeling it in our muscles at the end of the walk. I am not sure if we could have tackled anything that looked like another uphill climb in good form at this point. It was good to shed off all the stuff we were carrying and for me to get out of my wet socks.
I was in a pleasantly languorous and detached state of mind as I sat in the back seat of the car while being chauffeured back home, listening to the still animated musings and conversations from the front seats. I was so happy and thankful that the young ones had included this older geezer in their activities of the day.
As a postscript, I realized after this hike that I am not in as bad a shape as I feared I would be. I am up for further adventures of this kind!