A narrow path, hardly a few feet wide, snaked its way off the main road and into the forest, hard underfoot with packed earth. It was gravelly in places, occasionally rocky; now and then a thick, bulging root would cross the path. Mostly flat, the path inclined gently in places. Slivers of mid-morning sunlight filtered through the foliage, throwing dappled patterns on the ground. An occasional gentle breeze rustled through the trees, creating a muted sound. At other times, a bird call or the hushed conversations of unseen fellow trekkers would float through the air.
It was silent otherwise on the Stony Man Trail, an easy 1.6-mile (2.5km) trek inside the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, US. On either side of the path grew tall oak and hickory trees, their barks greyish brown while the floor was lush green, covered with grass, bushes and small plants. Here and there, tree trunks and large boulders had been taken over by moss. The air was heavy with the smell of the forest, a woodsy, pine scent that tickled the nose, possibly due to the overwhelming presence of terpenes. It brought to mind Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life Of Trees and his revelations about what they feel and how they communicate. Were we eavesdropping on their gossip session? It was fascinating to imagine.
As the path went deeper into the forest, the sounds of civilisation fell away. The trail was easy, gaining less than 350ft in elevation, and was marked by blue blazes, small marks along the trail. A part of it overlapped with the mammoth Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile trail in eastern US that is the holy grail of hikers and is marked by white blazes throughout. Where the two overlapped, the two blazes sat next to each other.
Traversing 14 states, from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail passes through forests and wilderness, as well as farms and towns in some places. Considered the world’s longest hiking-only trail, it has been around since 1937. It shot to worldwide fame, however, with Bill Bryson’s 1997 book, A Walk In The Woods, which humorously chronicled his attempt to hike it. The task proved too difficult and he ended up hiking only a part of the trail. In 2015, the book was adapted into a movie, starring Robert Redford as Bryson.
Several years ago, during my Bill Bryson phase, I had devoured his books, and his Appalachian Trail experience had stood out. So to be walking on a trail where he may have walked struck me as surreal. I could better appreciate his book and his descriptions. It felt only right to walk in silence, the process almost meditative, keenly aware of every little rustle, every faint bird call. Every now and then, the accompanying US forest ranger would stop to point to a tree, plant or flower and whisper the name. The flowers were especially endearing—purple wild geraniums, wood anemones and thrillium (both white), bluets (a mix of blue and lilac), golden ragworts, wintercress and dandelions (all bright yellow but different in shape). There were fallen acorns and pine cones, bearcorns growing out of oak tree roots and different kinds of fungi.
But not everything was as it seemed. Hidden in the midst of tall grass and small shrubs was a pretty plant with trifoliate (three-leaflet) leaves, often confused with poison ivy. At the tip was a spathe kind of flower with a spadix in the centre, a curving tip and brown lines running down. Called jack-in-the-pulpit, it’s highly toxic. A shiver ran down my spine.
The forest is also home to a plethora of birds, though only a few made their presence felt. We could hear the double note of the veery, a mix of short chirps and longer flute-y notes. An occasional cardinal, with it brilliant red feathers, a robin or a junco flitted past. The ranger told us the area was also home to the vulnerable Shenandoah salamander and copperhead and timber rattlesnakes, as well as bears. But they remained elusive. Instead, it was glorious tranquillity that wrapped us.
The path veered through dense and sparse growth; in some places, the canopy contrasted picturesquely with the brilliant blue May sky. After we had been at it for close to an hour, the path narrowed considerably, ending abruptly in a clump of tall rocks. Though it marked the end of the trail, the rocks hid everything beyond.
I clambered up the nearest rock, only to be buffeted by incredibly strong, gusty winds and stunned by a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the Shenandoah valley ringed by hills on the far side.
Earlier that morning, before embarking on the trek, I had seen a different view of the valley. A 105-mile long road, the Skyline Drive, runs through the length of Shenandoah National Park; it’s the only public road in the park.
Skyland Lodge, where I stayed, sits on a promontory overlooking part of the park and the valley. It offers a dramatic view of the park, the valley and rows of hills, with thick clouds above, at daybreak. That morning, the air was still and chilly; dew clung to the thick carpet of grass. But it was rewarding to sit on the low wooden fence, gnarled and weathered, and watch the drama unfold over the valley, soaking in the warmth from a cup of steaming hot coffee.The inky-blue sky changed rapidly to shades of grey and light blue. Soon the horizon lightened and the clouds won a delicate pink, then orange, edge. Birds came to life in the trees around me, chattering incessantly. Nothing could top it, I thought.
I was wrong—the lookout did. The wind was so strong, though, that it was difficult to stand; sitting was a safer option. It was also impossible to have a conversation: The gusts carried the words away. Which was actually perfect, since the view made conversation unnecessary. Passing clouds hid the sun for a few minutes, alternately drenching the valley in sunshine and shadow, a moving montage. There was not another soul in sight, nothing moved except for the whistling wind. Mindfulness came unbidden.
It was too good to last, though. A bunch of trekkers arrived at the cliffhead, breaking the spell. Our return journey, however, was quiet; we were absorbed in our thoughts and the surroundings. It was as if the forest had enveloped everything. Was this what the Japanese called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing)? Among the various definitions of the concept I had come across, the one that resonated most was to let the forest enter through all the senses. The sound of birds and breeze, the colours of the leaves and flowers, shadows etched by sunlight, the smell of the forest, the feel of the ground and the textures of the tree trunks, rocks and foliage... Above all, the calm. It was exhilarating.
* Best time to visit is April-September.
* Wear comfortable shoes and carry water.
* Stay at Skyland Lodge for the most beautiful views of the park and valley.
* Apart from the Stony Man Trail, there are others of varying difficulty level in the same area.
* Visit Luray Caverns, an underground cave series that has the most astonishing speleothems.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.