Islands above


When most people talk about going to “the islands,” they think of the Caribbean or the South Seas.  I go to Mount Rogers.


I’d talked about my interest in doing one of my occasional pilgrimages to Virginia’s highest mountain with my Nepali friend, Mohan.  When he e-mailed to say he’d be available on a late February Saturday, I said, “sure, but don’t be surprised if we see some icy or snowy trails,” given Rogers’ elevation.


He replied, “I don’t want to walk on ice or snow.”


Bullheaded as I am, I said, “Let’s go to the trailhead and see what’s there.  If it looks bad, we can hike the valley nearby.”


A communication snafu left us late for our rendezvous, so it was nearly lunchtime when we reached the trailhead, two hours southwest.  Then we got fooled.  The first few hundred yards of trail were across an open field, swept by wind and sun of the snowfall of two weeks prior.  As we entered the woods, we hit four to six inch depths of snow.  Damn.


Trudging onward, I stopped to take a snapshot of an intricate icicle hanging from a trailside rock only to discover that my daughter had removed the storage chip from the digital camera.  Damn.  As I pondered my predicament realizing that I would be taking no pictures this day, I took a swig of water from my water-bag and got a mouthful of mold.  Double-damn.  Given the unpredictability of this wintertime ascent, I had applied my best Boy Scout “Be Prepared” ethic in packing my daypack.  Yet I had committed two sophomoric errors already.  Silently scolding myself over my ineptitude, I muttered, “Don’t do anything dangerous.”


Awhile back, in this case about 10,000 years ago, the earth was ensconced in the throes of its most recent ice age.  Huge glaciers covered much of our continent, extending within a few hundred miles of Mount Rogers.  While left unscathed, Rogers did see a concomitant change in local vegetation, as colder temperatures bulldozed what we now think of as northern, boreal forests into our temperate South.  When the glaciers retreated, leaving many well-known features of today, including New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island, which is a terminal moraine, the temperate forests returned.  Following the glaciers northward, boreal forests migrated along the Appalachian ridges, but they also evacuated the lowlands, moving upwards in elevation.  Today, a handful of acres of the top of Mount Rogers are still crowned with this forest, an island of Nova Scotian vegetation, floating atop a sea of Appalachian hardwoods.


Even though the day was mild for the season, Mohan let me know he wasn’t happy with the snow and was developing a blister.  So after we stopped for lunch less than half-way to the summit, he decided to turn back.  With several miles of energy-sapping trail ahead of me, I pressed on with urgency. 


Surprisingly, the Appalachian Trail merely skirts the summit, which is accessible via a blue-blazed spur.  By the time I reached the junction in a vast clearing, the commanding view to the south cheered me and took my mind off my cramping right thigh.  I was carrying excess weight around the beltline, plus a pack filled with too many clothes and a useless camera.  This hike had become serious work!


At the top of the clearing, the trail turned abruptly to my right and I entered the primeval forest with the same enveloping certainty as Shoeless Joe Jackson leaving Ray and Annie Kinsella’s Field of Dreams to vanish into an Iowan cornfield.  The forest itself was dark and spooky, with none of the day’s defused light hitting the forest floor.  Snow covered everything, looking atop each broken stump like the head on a pint of Guinness. 


Many Appalachian Trail through-hikers never take the half-mile spur to the top.  Unlike Tennessee’s Clingmans Dome, North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, and West Virginia’s Spruce Knob, Virginia’s highest peak has no tower, no views, and only a table-sized boulder with an imbedded Geological Services disk to mark its noble distinction. 


At the summit were five hikers and two dogs.  Not wanting to take the time to engage a conversation, I took a quick look around (No photos!), and began my descent.


Emerging into the clearing, I remembered reading of a small South Seas island described as “Ground Zero of Global Warming.”  When the earth gets warmer, the ice caps and glaciers melt, and sea levels rise. This island had only a few feet of elevation to begin with, so rising seas were to become catastrophic.  The island was drowning.


Mount Rogers’ boreal forests live just above the ethereal elevation of air able to support the colder climate they need.  As society continues to spew hydrocarbons into the air and global warming continues, this line will inexorably rise, accelerating the rate at which Rogers’ firs, spruces, and ferns are pushed skyward into oblivion. 


I double-timed down the mountain, boot-skiing the steeper sections.  Nearing the final clearing, I reckoned that at least seven of the nine total miles were walked in snow.  I found Mohan sitting on a rock reading a newspaper in the open field.  He and I walked back to the parking area and I collapsed in the car, knackered.


The next day, I went to the gasoline station and refilled the tank, playing the gas-price craps game that we play with each fill-up, absolutely mindful of the hypocrisy implied in the consumption of ten gallons of gas to take a hike.


Michael Abraham grew up in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.  He keeps doing the things his mother warned him against.