Graduation: The Shenandoah Valley

I will miss the Shenandoah Valley.

At my high school’s college fair, the only reason I approached Roanoke’s table to begin with was because there were mountains displayed in the semi-circle logo, just under the “1842” establishment.

Driving up I-81 over spring break as a prospective student that year, I goggled at the endless emerald hills, the fields of budding flowers and cows chewing cud. I could detect each consecutive ripple in the mountain ridges we passed; the landscape was far from the flat low country which I was familiar with, and I knew I wanted my college adventures to take place here. They did.
The first weekend of freshman year, I joined some honors students for a hike up to Dragon’s Tooth.  After a few miles and a bit of rock scrambling, trekkers are rewarded with some fun bouldering and incredible views of the valley. It was so surreal turning onto 311 that first time and almost instantaneously steering along curvy, incline roads. I’m in the mountains! I’m ten minutes away from campus and I’m already in the mountains! The second weekend, I went cave spelunking during the honors retreat. Heck yes. Weekend three I joined the Chaplain’s Canoe Trip, paddling eleven miles (with the current) along the Shenandoah River and felt an awful lot like a modern-day Pocahontas. After a month at school, family weekend arrived, and I dragged the Compton Clan – even my late-seventies grandparents – up Sawtooth trail. Though short, it is pretty much straight up. Later that semester I participated in the Catawba Challenge, Roanoke’s 19.6 mile day hike; it was the first of many trips I made to the valley’s token McAfee Knob, known to be one of the most stunning overlooks on the whole Appalachian Trail. You get the picture. I love hiking, and I hit the trail as often as I could.
Unbeknownst to me, my outdoor enthusiasm had developed a reputation of its own during that first year. When the next class of freshmen were on their honors retreat the following fall, upperclassmen warily warned, “Don’t hike with Jessica. She’s too fast.” I keep a steady clip, but I’m not that fast. I suppose when it is combined with my over-the-top enthusiasm, though, I could be mistaken as an intimidating trail partner. Thank goodness for Nick. He is my friend, but he was also my trusty and ever-game hiking companion. Without him, I would have had to disobey my parents’ never-hike-alone policy pretty often.
Last May was my first bigger backpacking trip. My friend Wesley and I hiked the lower forty miles of the Appalachian Trail and another 30 miles or so of side trails in the Shenandoah National Park. Though the trek included debilitating bubble blisters and poorly rationed water, I loved the six days we spent in the woods. The first speedy ultralight thru hikers were beginning to make their way into the park, and it inspired me to do larger sections of the AT in the future.
I thought all of my spare time in college would be spent on the trail. I thought I would have been a lead Outdoor Adventure guide and expert on all things outdoors by the time I was a senior. Instead, I spent most of my time doing homework, which is probably my biggest regret of college. Regardless, Southwest Appalachia stole my heart freshman year. I treasure the distinct geography of the area, and I needed one last fix before summer began.
After finals, I kicked off senior week by returning to the Trail for a few days. I don’t completely understand my magnetic draw to the woods. For most people, the monotony of walking up and down hills all day, constantly hungry and quickly adopting a perpetual sour B.O. is not “fun.” But I think it is. I like the peace and majesty of the woods, the ample opportunity to think and pray, the camaraderie of other hikers, the challenge I offer my body after a few hours of energy expenditure, the reminder of what is and is not over-the-top materialism in my normal life of showers everyday and a memory foam mattress every night.
Driving back up from Dublin, I admired the Shenandoah Valley just as I had during that first visit to Roanoke. Though I’ll always wish I had backpacked more, I reflected on the many mountain moments that compose some of my fondest college memories. I only cried once during the week leading up to graduation, and it was not for the academics, or the people, wonderful as both are. It was when I returned from that final two-night backpacking trip, realizing that it was my last time to revel in the nature of Shenandoah for quite a while. My tears fell for the mountains. They are what first drew me to Roanoke. They are the reason I fell in love with the area. They allowed me to explore and challenge myself the last four years. They will keep calling me back.

 

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