A long walk is always worth writing about

I was just finishing my customary morning coffee on the front stoop Thursday when I saw a red flash dash through the air in front of my house. It was a bird, of course. And unlike that blue jay that crapped right in front of me last week, it had some shame. It likely held it until I wasn’t looking.

To use the scientific name (and make myself seem smarter), it was a Cardinalis cardinalis, more commonly known as the northern cardinal.

The cardinal is hardly unique to where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. In fact, it’s quite common across a wide swath of North America. I only mention it here because the sight of it reminded me to write this post.

If you don’t see why a bird as common as a cardinal would prompt me to open my laptop add up these three facts:

(1) The cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia.

(2) West Virginia celebrated its 154th birthday on Tuesday.

(3) We marked the holiday – West Virginia Day – by going for a hike.

A long walk is always worth writing about.

When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, I suggested to my wife that instead of spending a lazy morning dodging bird doo-doo on the front stoop, we should celebrate statehood by going for a hike.

Although I suspect she was secretly disappointed about missing a chance to witness firsthand my shitty relationship with birds, she enthusiastically agreed to hit the trail. My wife is always up for a physical challenge, so I suggested we hike Maryland Heights.

Hiking the Heights may seem like an odd thing to do on West Virginia’s birthday. After all, the mountain is in Maryland. But I would argue that Maryland Heights might as well be a part of my home state, especially on June 20th – West Virginia Day.

Maryland Heights towers over historic Harpers Ferry, the West Virginia town at the confluence of the storied Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Harpers Ferry was a key stop for Meriwether Lewis as he prepared for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s famous for John Brown’s Raid and it has links to the present day NAACP through the now defunct Storer College. Storer was a historically black school. Frederick Douglass once served as a trustee.

It goes without saying that Harpers Ferry is steeped in Civil War history and as the highest point above the town, Maryland Heights played a key military role. Soldiers like to control the high ground, the better to lob cannonballs down on helpless enemies below.

On the day we hiked the Heights, it seemed to me that West Virginians were storming the mountain. More than once, I heard fellow hikers greet each other with a jaunty “Happy West Virginia Day.” One woman we saw wore a T-shirt with the state’s venerable “Wild, Wonderful” slogan on it. The man hiking with her wore a shirt emblazoned with a giant “304.” “304” is shorthand for West Virginia. It was the state’s only area code until 2009, when we were forced by whoever governs these things to begin using another one as well. I won’t say what the other area code is here. I will never get used to anything other than “304.”

As we were coming down off the mountain, my wife ran into a friend who was hiking with her son. They apparently hauled a state flag up to the overlook to snap a picture with it there.

To use what seems to be a favorite word of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, the overlook offers a “splendid” view of Harpers Ferry. It makes struggling up the Heights worth it, not to mention that it’s a good place to rest and catch your breath.

All in all, it was, as they say, a good day to be a mountaineer, even if we spent part of it in Maryland.

Only one thing marred our hike. The trailhead could be marked more clearly. Even though we had hiked the mountain with our kids once before, we missed it this time around. I grew frustrated with our failure and got petulant about it. So much so, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my wife attempted to persuade a bird to poop on my head.

In any case, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other as we made our way up the steep trail burned away any lingering hard feelings.

However, I remain somewhat anxious about bird shit.


A Memorial Day Misadventure

Usually, all my wife and I ever get out of our 16-year-old son are short, unintelligible grunts in response to questions about his day. He also grunts complaints that we don’t keep enough snacks around the house and when we require him to be seen in public with us.

Which was why I was surprised this past Memorial Day when he emerged from his basement lair and said in a clear voice, “I really should have gone with you guys.”

My wife and I had just returned from what we had billed as a holiday hike. We had planned to use Memorial Day to stretch our legs, discover more about our region’s Civil War history and, in the process, embarrass our kids by making them come along.

A few nights before the holiday, I announced our intention to scale, as a family, the Maryland Heights Trail, high above Harpers Ferry.

The news was met by our son’s customary grunt.

For those unfamiliar with the language of a teenage boy, it’s hard to tell one grunt from another. But that one was easy. I interpreted it as an expression of displeasure.

At least he didn’t actively try to avoid the hike. He left that to his way more talkative 12-year-old sister, whose desire never to be seen with her parents rivals his in its intensity. The only difference is that while he grunts his objections, she starts talking faster.

“But dad,” she complained like a locomotive belching steam and picking up speed. She went on to quickly explain that she had planned to spend Memorial Day at a friend’s house. They were working on a school project together and it was due later that week.

She kept talking until I acquiesced.

When Memorial Day dawned, it occurred to me that since our daughter wasn’t going, it might be nice to hike Maryland Heights with just my wife for company. With my schedule, we rarely have the opportunity to be by ourselves. I work nights and weekends, the kids are around most of the time, and our needy dog Rodney demands attention at every turn. So when I woke up our son, it was to tell him that we were leaving and would be gone most of the day.

He roused himself just long enough to offer a grunt in reply. I took it to mean he was relieved.

After dropping our daughter off at her friend’s house, my wife and I made our way to the trailhead, across the river from Harpers Ferry. That’s when we discovered that hiking a popular trail on a holiday was not such a good idea.

The small parking area along the narrow road hard at the base of the mountain was frustratingly full. So frustrating that after making several passes in hopes that someone would leave, I simply gave up and suggested we go over to Shepherdstown in search of parking and a far less strenuous stroll along the C&O towpath. But no one wanted to give up their parking space there, either.

All told, we spent about three hours failing to find a place to get out of the car to take a long walk. In that time, I could have commuted to my job in Washington, D.C. and returned home.

To make matters worse, I told my son the truth after he expressed remorse for not going. In hindsight, I should have let him feel guilty.

Because now, I’ve only hardened his conviction about how lame his parents really are.