Challenging Humpback Rocks
Posted on January 10, 2019
In July 2016, my partner Gary Mallory and I failed the first challenge of our motorcycle ride twisting through 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
A Works Progress Administration project that tracks the Blue Ridge Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina, the 35 mph, two-lane road has myriad stops that include overlooks, hiking trails, waterfalls, historic sites and campgrounds.
Bright with enthusiasm, we stopped just six miles into the trek at Humpback Rocks to take our first hike. Our friends insisted the view from the top was breathtaking, so we parked the Harley-Davidson and, in our leather motorcycle boots, started up a path the National Park Service defined as “strenuous.”
Within 10 minutes, I was gasping for air, while others — younger, fitter folks — were strolling calmly uphill. I wasn’t alone in my struggle — Gary didn’t mind stopping to catch his breath. Could we really be that out of shape?
Less than 20 minutes into the hike, after learning the elevation only gets worse, we bailed. No shame in knowing your limitations.
Or is there?
In October, we were in Rockfish Gap, Virginia, at the entry to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We planned to ride our new-to-us BMW motorcycle along Skyline Drive, a 105-mile stretch from the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway through Shenandoah National Park. Like the Parkway, the Drive has numerous reasons to stop and gawk.
Before we could turn north onto Skyline Drive, Gary wanted to conquer Humpback Rocks, so we detoured six miles south on the Parkway. This time, Humpback Rocks wasn’t about the view. That was obscured by thick fog. We were out to prove something. To ourselves.
Signage at the trail entrance advertised a 0.8-mile hike to the summit. How hard could that be? Let’s just say the signed lied. I know because my FitBit logged 1.4 miles EACH WAY. No biggie on Ohio’s flatland. However, the FitBit also registered the equivalent of 75 flights of steps climbing 800 feet in elevation. Keep in mind that Key Tower, the tallest building in Cleveland, is just 57 stories or flights of stairs.
While the beginning was a gentle slope, elsewhere random rocks approximated steps. Water flowed through the path of least resistance — the trail — making it muddy and slippery. Fortunately, we were wearing new-ish hiking boots we’d purchased to create an image of serious hikers. That didn’t matter for the first half of the hike, but the traction was welcome on moss-slicked rocks as we progressed upward.
Gary, at more than a foot taller than I, could see further ahead and would assured me that it was going to level out soon. That was always an illusion. We huffed and puffed upward. My hair was soon soaked with sweat, despite the 67-degree temperature, and at one point I was sure my eyeballs were throbbing from exertion.
At 3,080 feet, the humid woodlands opened onto a bare granite outcropping that pitches upward. While the landmark is usually busy in summer months, it was occupied by a lone couple with cameras raised and clicking. They left, and we were alone to take selfies and read the graffiti tags of those who preceded us.
The 90-minute climb pushed us outside our cardiac comfort zone, making the 30-minute return nearly absurd. I practically skipped down, occasionally grabbing to keep from falling.
You might call this #firstworldchallenges. No matter. We were ready for any and all hikes we’d face on northern-winding Skyline Drive.