Saturday mornings are usually for sleeping in, especially cold February mornings like this one, but I had a strong sense that I should get up and go hiking. I tossed and turned hoping the thought would pass, but it was too late…I felt if I didn’t go, I would be missing something…in fact, I was pretty sure I heard the Holy Spirit say, “don’t miss it!”
It’s a 4 hour drive from Virginia Beach to my favorite hiking spot, Old Rag Mountain, one of the most challenging and spectacular hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Shenandoah National Park in Northern Virginia.
My friend Bob, who lives closer to the mountain, was also going to be hiking Old Rag that day and I called and asked him if he would meet me at the summit at sunset so we could walk down the mountain together. By the time I gathered my backpack, hiking boots and stopped for gas and water it was 11 a.m. Wow, I’m getting a late start, I must be crazy But, I didn’t want to “miss it,” whatever “it” was.
It was a beautiful day, sunny, windy and cold, about 45 degrees. I still had to stop for lunch and bandaids but I told myself, if all goes well, I could start hiking by 3 p.m. and make it to the summit by sunset – which was around 5:30 p.m. The traffic on I-64 West was steady and I was making good time, I glanced over at the car next to me and I noticed its vanity plate….GDN ANGEL. Guardian Angel! It was a sign.
The last time I had hiked Old Rag by myself – the clouds above me made the shape of a giant angel. It was so beautiful and clear and I never forgot it. I felt the Lord was reminding me that when I go hiking my Guardian Angel goes with me.
One of the best parts of hiking in the Shenandoah is the drive there. Oh, I just love the rolling green hills dotted with black cows, bales of hay and the occasional rustic red barn. And it’s worth slowing down to go through the quaint little country towns with their little country stores where people are so friendly and you can still get a Coke in a glass bottle.
I arrived at Old Rag around 3 p.m. and quickly put on my boots, scarf, gloves, hat and backpack full of water, snacks, cell phone (and a windbreaker just in case) and headed up the steep paved road that leads to the head of the trail. I saw 2 other hikers looking at a map but other than that it looked like I would be enjoying some solitude – just me, the Lord and the mountain. As many times as I’ve climbed Old Rag, I always marvel at what an awesome playground God made for his children. And being from West Virginia – well, you can take the girl out of the mountains but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.
The hike up was going well. I needed to make good time if I was to meet my friend by around 5:30 and enjoy the sunset from Old Rag’s summit. I ran into a few people, including an Amish family (the girls wore dresses to hike in) who were making their way down the mountain and also got to see two beautiful deer. One had a gorgeous white tail and they both stopped to stare at me as I stared back at them, mesmerized by their beauty.
As I approached the famous “rock scramble” of Old Rag – the wind really picked up. In the more than 10 years that I’ve hiked Old Rag, I can never remember the wind being so loud or so powerful. There is also a portion of the rock scramble that is so difficult that I’ve always needed a push from behind or a hand up to finesse it. But today there was not a soul in sight. I prayed, ”Lord, show me a foot hold or a hand hold that will allow me to propel myself up this rock.” I thought back to my rock climbing days where you have to use your head as much as your strength…..I’m not exactly sure how I did it but within a few minutes, I was able to figure out a way to use some momentum and push by body up through the crevice to the other side. It was a nice sense of accomplishment but there was no time to rest. The clock was ticking and I needed to keep a good pace to make it to the top before dark.
As I got closer to the top, the biting wind became too much for my Northface fleece jacket. The windbreaker I’d packed was a life-saver and I shivered at the thought of not having it. I figured my friend Bob was already waiting for me at the top since he had gotten an earlier start and was probably watching my progress from his lofty vantage point. I hoped he was staying warm. Bob is a very experienced climber and knows Old Rag like the back of his hand, so I wasn’t too worried.
Finally, I arrived at the summit. 3, 291 feet of pure adventure and adrenaline. Usually, I love to linger at the top, have a bite to eat and talk to fellow hikers. But on this late February day, the wind was whipping so hard I had to steady myself against a rock just so I wouldn’t blow away. And it was c-o-l-d! I looked around for Bob. Bob! I yelled. no answer. To my disbelief, there was no one at the top, not a soul. I yelled again, Bob! No one, not even Bob apparently, was crazy enough to be at the top in this weather except for me. I took my cell phone out and there were 3 voicemail messages but I had left my phone on and the battery was drained…battery too low for radio use. No way to contact Bob. My mind immediately went into self-preservation mode. Ok, I need to make use of every ounce of daylight I have left to get down this mountain,which usually takes me about 2 hours – and that’s going pretty fast. I had hiked down Old Rag more times than I can remember, many times at night – but never alone.
The last time I’d been on Old Rag I took a pretty bad spill coming down and I didn’t want that to happen again. So my mantra was no close calls, no falls. I wasn’t sure but I was guessing I had maybe 20 minutes of daylight left. I prayed, Lord, keep the lights on as long as possible. I did have a small flashlight but was not looking forward to needing to use it. I hightailed it down the mountain but it’s very steep with a lot of rocks, roots and switch-backs so you can’t really run but I went as fast as I could. The race was on but the darkness was inevitable. Lord, have mercy. I kept thinking about the vanity plate I saw on the way here, “GDN ANGELl”….Yes, that’s why God wanted me to see that vanity plate, so I would know that He is with me. God sees me right now. He’s with me. He knows I’ve gotten myself into a potentially dangerous situation – and His angel is with me.
Psalm 91 says, Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; “For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
The trail widened and I was able to run. I passed two shelters, Byrd’s Nest and then a little later, Old Rag Shelter…often there are campers or hikers having a bonfire or cooking out, no such luck tonight. By now, the moon was out and darkness had fallen over Old Rag Mountain. If I can just make it to the Fire Road – then, it will be just two miles in the pitch black dark until I reach the top parking lot! God help me! I wasn’t worried at all about bears, I figured they were hibernating but, I wasn’t sure what other predators were in these woods; wolves, coyotes, mountan lions maybe? And if they were there, I was sure they were hungry. As long as I was running, I didn’t feel that scared. But, I’m not a runner and my legs were not cooperating.
I spoke to every part of my body – legs be strong! heart be strong! lungs be strong! My backpack was heavy with the unused water so I poured two bottles on the ground which ligtened my load considerably. I could run (jog really) faster but still had to take breaks to walk. I heard what sounded like coyotes howling. Thank God my flashlight was working! I kept thinking about the fact that God allowed me to see that vanity plate, Guardian Angel. He knew it would bring me some much needed peace and comfort. I’d feel better if I could actually see this angel – but didn’t Jesus say blessed are those who have not seen but still believed? Lord, help my unbelief. I tried to stay focused on getting down the mountain as fast as possible and not on tomorrow’s potential headline – News Anchor found eaten by wolves. I pushed my body to the limit. Like I said, I’m not a runner…but, those trips to the gym and the hiking were paying off. I was running. I made it to the Fire Road…the moon was just a sliver but it was brilliant and the stars were breath-taking. Even as scared as I was, I still marveled at the beauty of God’s creation.
I continued to run and walk, run and walk. I passed the one mile marker.. I was gettnig closer. I said out loud….God is with me. He is my defender. I sang as I ran….”Your love is amazing, steady and unchanging, your love is a mountain, firm beneath my feet! (interesting lyric…mountain, firm beneath my feet! – didn’t think of that until now) I knew that nothing could happen to me apart from God’s will and that I had a promise of His protection from the word of God.
Psalm 27 v 1 & 5:
The LORD is my light and my salvation-whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life-of whom shall I be afraid? For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.
Psalm 32 v 7:
You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalm 34 v 7-8:
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm-He will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
A little bit into the second mile on the Fire Road,- I was speaking out loud to my legs – be strong! and I saw something moving ahead of me, something big and black, actually it looked like several things moving…………I zoomed in with my flashlight…..
It was a group of hikers coming down the mountian without any flashlights. Thank God! Humans! I had never been so happy to see people than at that moment. I approached them and one of the guys said, ”Wow, you’re brave, coming down the mountain in the dark by yourself.” I said, ”It wasn’t by choice.” He was a Marine who had just returned from Afghanistan. To be called brave by a Marine felt pretty cool actually. We compared the night sky of Afghanistan to the incredible starry display above us. He said, “it’s even more beautiful in Afghanistan, the stars seem so much closer and brighter because there isn’t any light competing for their attention.”
The rest of the hike was pure joy. I told them about missing my friend Bob at the top, they described him to a tee and said…”Yeah, we saw him up there.” Turns out, Bob had gotten a little restless waiting for me and went down the mountain to see if I had gotten stuck at that tricky part. He used the “escape route” to back-track which is faster. Otherwise, we would have run into each other.
But suffice it to say, there would be no real story if Bob had shown up. God showed me that He can take care of me and you in the most difficult, scary and even dangerous situations. He just wants us to trust Him. God knows I love adventure and perhaps this is what I needed. And, even though I’m having a hard time walking today from the sore muscles, I’m sure glad I didn’t miss it! Thanks Heavenly Father. Walking with you is always an adventure.