Getting Lost On Maryland Heights

Hiking the hills surrounding Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, can be an exhilarating, breathtaking experience.  The views are fantastic.  The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at this historical town is shrouded by a lush, green backdrop of wooded hills and rocky crags. From the heights, you can see the shallow waters tumble down over rocks, with kayakers making their way downstream.  It is quite remarkable.  However, if you decide to hike on Maryland Heights, beware of advice from the locals.  You can end up lost, or worse, dead…and the leading story on the next edition of GMA.

That’s what almost happened to us.  While heading to the Maryland Heights trailhead across from Harper’s Ferry, my girls met a guy with a tawny-brown puppy which was admittedly quite adorable.  They petted the dog while I struck up a conversation with the owner.  The man was friendly and we shared dog stories.  I mentioned we were planning to hike on Maryland Heights and asked if he thought it would be too difficult for my family.  (The website said it was a “difficult” hike).  He said, “no, they should be fine.  It’s made for trucks to drive on.”  He then was led by some supernatural demon to tell us about the hidden trial that cuts 45 minutes off the climb.  “Just look for a trail that’s not well-marked, near the overlook, and head down…,” he said, “…it’s a little steep, but you’ll come to the road near the town and not have to retrace your steps.”

It sounded good to me.  I don’t like seeing the same thing twice, and I love saving time.  With a casual wave, we parted ways with the man and his dog and headed for the trail.

The trail was indeed nicely graded, wide enough for a truck, and not too steep.  Although it was quickly reaching the hottest part of the day, somewhere in the 90’s, we made the two-mile climb in decent time and reached the overlook in good spirits.  We spent several minutes admiring the view, taking pictures, and talking with the other hikers.

When we’d had enough, we started back on the trail that led down the mountain.  When we reached a juncture, I convinced my family that a certain path veering off to the right, unmarked except for one sign labelled “fire trail”, was probably the one our local friend had referred to.  It was grassy and clearly visible.  We headed down that way.  It was easy walking for the first half-mile.

However, as we went along, I became aware that though this trail was easily discernable, it ran along the hillside rather than down it.  We could vaguely hear cars on the road below but could not actually see the road.  This did not concern us until the trail suddenly became unrecognizable, cluttered with fallen trees and tall weeds.

In the business world, the phrase “low risk, high reward” is used to describe the paramount of golden opportunities. “High risk , high reward” is used to describe an endeavor that is fraught with danger but still holds appeal for future success.  “Low risk, low reward” may be easy, but it has no payoff, so why bother?  Finally, “high risk, low reward” is just plain stupid.  This same logic applies to many aspects of life, our hiking adventure being no exception.  What we faced on the edge of Maryland Heights that hot day in July was a key decision: return the way we came, or explore our way down the unmarked, unfamiliar mountain to the road below.  We considered the first choice low risk, but low reward.  Who wants to backtrack so far and take so much time doing so?  On the other hand, the second choice seemed like low risk (how hard can it be to go down a mountain?), and high reward (a whole 45 minutes saved!).

We contemplated heading down the mountainside to try our luck at finding the road, even though no recognizable path was evident from our elevation.  It is a known fact that going down a steep hill is much easier than climbing it.  Even so, it seemed inconsequential that if we failed to find the road once we went down, there was no easy way to go back up and try again.  Throwing caution to the wind, we “committed” — We headed down the hill, to the road, and to an early return.

We didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of the word “committed” until conditions worsened.  We descended as far as we could, until we reached a dense patch of weeds – with thorns and briars and poison ivy woven together in an entangled mess.  We looked left and right but could not see a break or gap in the patch.  The heat was stifling inside the shroud of trees.  It was then that we noticed our water bottles were almost empty.  We became acutely aware of the dryness in our throats.

The first sense of panic set in, but not enough to completely give up.  I took a stick and tried to hack my way through the weeds, but they were thick and menacing.  My effort was in vain.

We still couldn’t see the road.  We were hot, tired, out of water, without hope of finding our way to the bottom.  A few steps back up the hill made us quickly realize it would be a major undertaking for five already-weary hikers to make that climb.

This is when the panic kicked into high gear.  Here I was, a middle-aged father with my wife and three children, dressed in our tourist shorts, colorful T-Shirts and tennis shoes, lost in the woods.  The panic that took hold of my heart and was as real as my feet.  I could see it in my children’s eyes, too.  I didn’t want them to see me afraid, wanted to put on a bravado.  But my voice gave me away — I was deathly afraid.

It was then that we realized no one knew we were here — the only evidence we were even on the East Coast was our Suburban parked at the Harper’s Ferry Visitor’s Center about 4 miles away across the Potomac.  The only device among us with any charge remaining was my Blackberry.  We all know how worthless those can be even when you have a viable signal.  I began to think about how I could get the Park Ranger’s contact information.

In those moments, everything else that held such importance before — hotel reservations in the next town, the report due next Tuesday, the meeting with the Board of Directors later in the week — all of these had become worthless.  All that mattered now was survival.

My kids looked at me.  I looked at the weeds, then back up the hill, then back at the weeds.  At that point, I did the only thing I could think to do.  Taking a page out of the Sunday School Lesson Book, I prayed that God would show us a way to go.

It was then that Michele offered the best advice ever — “5 minutes of pain is better than 2 hours of difficult climbing”.  She was right.  I turned toward the briars once again, determined to get my family through.  With sticks in hand, my son Joel and I headed back to the weeds.  By God’s grace, we found a spot where they were not so thick.  We hacked, and the girls followed, enduring the scratches, mosquitos, thorns, and itches.  After 15 minutes of hacking, we spotted civilization — a red truck.  Hope soared and we kept hacking.  Soon we spotted a house and headed for the backyard.  It didn’t take long before we were climbing out of the woods, through a side lot, and onto the road to Harper’s Ferry.  We were free!  Hot, sweaty, but happy to be alive.

If you visit Harper’s Ferry, I highly recommend the trails at Maryland Heights.  But please, take my advice…stick to the trails.

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