This interesting aerial photograph, taken during the day on May 5, 2011, shows a thin band of snow on the crest of Iron Mountain in the foreground and two wider bands of snow on Mount Rogers on the left and on Whitetop Mountain on the right. On Wednesday, May 4, 2011, the temperature dropped precipitously across Southwest Virginia in the evening. It rained in Abingdon during the night but as the photo shows it snowed with just a tad of accumulation in the higher elevations.
This week perhaps the worst set of tornadoes in history hit the South. In Washington County, Virginia, where I live, we experienced tornadoes unlike anything in the last 60 years. This tragic event prompted me to recall some of my own personal experiences with extreme weather, and to contemplate the fierce, uncontrollable power of nature from the perspective of those who love the outdoors.
Ignorant of the Danger
On Wednesday, April 27, 2011, I came home for dinner and went back to work at my office in Abingdon, unaware of severity of the impending storm. My wife called me around 8:00 PM, telling me we were in a tornado watch area, and that a neighbor who was coming back from Knoxville had his vehicle pelted with hail while driving up Interstate 81. I told her to call back “when it got closer.”
She called me again at 10:30 PM, and told me in a raised, nervous voice, “Get home. It’s here!”
“What’s here?” I asked.
“Where the #%^* have you been? What do you think? The Tornado!”
I quickly closed down the office and drove home. As I drove home, there was lightning and thunder all around in the sky.
Our family spent the night in our unfinished basement. My wife and I sat in lawn chairs, watching the weather reporters who broke into the regular TV evening programming, while our children lay in sleeping bags on the basement floor. We experienced some anxiety and fear, but I also was curious and strangely fascinated in what was happening. Having grown up in the Midwest, I had experienced tornado watches and had done innumerable tornado “drills” in school, but I did not recall ever previously being in the direct projected path of one.
Actually, there was some disconnect between my view outside of our house and the weathermen’s Doppler radar graphics showing the super cells and tracking them in real-time. I periodically opened our basement door, looked outside, and never did I hear the locomotive engine roar that was associated with tornadoes. There was no incredible wind or horrible hail as was being reported on TV. The closest we got to the action were the sounds of hail pounding the television station studio coming through the TV, thunder in the distance, and the shrill call of Abingdon’s fire engines and ambulances through the night. The worst thing that we physically experienced that night was lack of sleep.
I had to awake and leave early for work Thursday. Our cable TV went out in the early morning, so I did not know the state of affairs until my wife called me and told me the news that a tornado directly hit the small community of Glade Spring. Later that day, my office manager, who lives near Glade Spring (and who thankfully was alright), explained what she saw on her drive to work. “It would make you cry,” she said.
I would later appreciate how bad it was: Glade Spring looked like a war zone, and individuals with whom my family has connections were killed. Numerous students whom my wife teaches at Patrick Henry High School in Emory, Virginia suffered damage to their homes. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency that morning, and as of this writing the roads are still closed in Glade Spring and a curfew is still being imposed there.
Glade Spring is just a few miles from my house in Abingdon. The tornado that hit there would have come right through the middle of Abingdon if it had been on a trajectory just a mile or so to the north. We were fortunate that it did not come through our neighborhood, like the tornado did in 1944.
The storm spawned a series of tornadoes that traveled northeast at high speeds, some as fast as 100 miles per hour. Their glide path essentially paralleled I-81. This may have been what allowed them to maintain themselves. In our region, tornadoes coming from the Tennessee and Ohio valleys usually peter out by the time they come across the Appalachian Mountains. Not this time.
On Thursday afternoon I was sent a photo of Virginia Creeper Trail Trestle No. 7. This is one of the longest and most beautiful trestles on the trail. It spans (or spanned) a large dry creek bed on the Smith Farm between Watauga Road and Alvarado, and is the only trestle wholly located in open pastureland, allowing the intricacy of its curved design to be viewed from an approach from either direction on the trail.
The photo was jaw dropping, not only because it showed the trestle completely demolished, but because my son and I had traveled over it and had stopped to take pictures of it barely a month earlier. I could remember the feeling of the cool March breeze across the trestle, the sound of the trestle while running over it (running on the trestles creates a unique, woody, slightly dampened thud with each footstep), and the smell of its aged railroad ties and wooden planks as if we had just completed our workout a few minutes ago. Now I was looking at a photograph of it utterly obliterated.
We often forget—or take for granted—the danger of extreme weather and how paltry human frailty is in comparison. It takes an event like the one on Wednesday to humble us and renew our respect for nature’s power.
“So Fast, So Sudden” read the newspaper headline in the print edition of the Bristol-Herald Courier print edition on Friday morning. Seeing the photos of the devastation in Glade Spring, I was chastened to realize how cavalier I had been on Wednesday evening about the power of the storm and the seriousness of the situation.
Those drawn to the outdoors know that there is some element of danger in every adventure, and we cannot go outside without accepting some risk. Driving on the highway to and from the trailhead remains the most risky element of most adventures most of the time. Yet the longer it is since we have personally experienced nature’s power, the less conscious and less respectful of it we usually become.
Similarly, those who come away from first-hand encounters with extreme weather completely unscathed also may develop a hubris that leads to being less cautious when the weather may turn poor. We misinterpret our good fortune and consciously or unconsciously convince ourselves that it was not but for the Grace of God that we were spared, but that we have acquired some kind of mastery over nature. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It takes something dramatic to shock us into recognition of that which we should know without a reminder.
In the mountains, the weather can change in a heartbeat, and those who go unprepared or ignore the reality of our frailty sometimes suffer serious, even deadly, consequences. The harrowing tale of the storm on Mount Everest in 1996 may be the most held out example of this phenomenon. As reported in Into Thin Air, in 1996 a number of climbing teams, whose leaders were trained and experienced with protocols concerning safety and “turnaround” times lost sight of these rules in their aspiration to get their clients and themselves to the summit of Everest. The teams’ leaders ignored the warning signs and their own protocols when the weather turned bad. As a consequence eight climbers perished and a number of others were permanently injured.
“Summit fever,” as it is known in mountain climbing, manifests whenever people outdoors lose respect for nature’s power, become consumed with themselves and their own personal objectives, and as a result make poor choices that may end in dire consequences. The storm on Everest in 1996 was not predicted and came upon the climbers suddenly. While the climbers could not have avoided all adversity related to the storm, the previous years’ relative safety may have lulled the climbers into apathy or lack of appropriate concern regarding the ever-present danger of extreme weather.
I personally experienced an unpredicted and uncanny swift change of weather while on a mountain climbing expedition last year on Mt. Shasta in California. Mt. Shasta, 14,000+ feet above sea level, is the southernmost intact volcano in the Cascade Range (Mt. Lassen, 70 miles away, is technically the southernmost volcano, however Mt. Lassen is not fully intact due its eruption in 1915 that blew most of the top cone off of it).
The main climbing route up Mt. Shasta, known as the Avalanche Gulch route, is easier than the main climbing routes up Mt. Rainer in Washington. We were climbing with several folks who had successfully summited Mt. Rainer the previous year. Therefore, in planning this trip we decided to climb Mt. Shasta via the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge route, a much more difficult, less taken, and semi-technical route with some 45 degree pitches that ascended a ridge between two glaciers on the on the northeast side of the mountain.
We had planned and coordinated the Mt. Shasta climb for months—actually for almost a year. We carefully chose to do the climb during the best “weather window” based upon studies of previous years. We chose the last week of June/first week of July, based upon the fact that the snowpack would still be good but the weather and chances of storms would be minimal.
The weather forecasted for the climb was perfect. No rain or snow was predicted. The first day of the climb, we had great conditions, a blue sky and warm temperatures. At base camp at 10,000’, we were ready for the final ascent the next day and were awoken by the guides at 2 am. We got ready quickly and started climbing in the dark for the summit push.
We were surprised, however, that it was colder than expected—mainly because of the wind chill. None of us remembered seeing anything on the weather reports before the trip about the wind chill. With the wind chill, the temperatures were below freezing. At one rest stop at about 12,000’, I began to shiver uncontrollably. The guide told me to take some ibuprofen, that the altitude may have caused some swelling in my blood vessels that could be affecting my circulation. As we continued to climb, I would warm up while moving, but the wind chill was making our rest stops, which were a necessity at the altitude, difficult because we were cooling down so fast every time our movement stopped. And with each stop higher on the mountain, the wind’s intensity increased and made it still yet colder.
The route required us to climb more or less straight up the northeast side of the mountain until we were almost at the summit. About 200 yards from the summit our route required us to traverse around the north side of the mountain to the western side, where we would walk across a flat section near the top about the size of a football field and then climb just a few feet to the true summit on the southwestern peak.
As we began the traverse, the wind velocity continued to increase with each step. The wind was blowing 40+ miles per hour in our faces. Walking forward with crampons became difficult. With two groups of five climbers roped together, our purchase on the rocks and snow during the traverse was becoming increasingly more treacherous due to the winds. As we continued to travel around the mountain, gusts began literally blowing us backwards. Each of us looked like a news reporter getting blown by hurricane force winds on the beach. Except unlike at the beach, if one of our groups fell, the plunge was 1500 vertical feet down a steep ice and rock covered slope.
As we came around towards the west side, several of us slipped and almost fell. The guides huddled us together, each of us lying down so that we would not get blown away. We conferenced about whether it was safe to continue. We had to scrunch our heads close together to hear each other in raised voices over the howling of the winds. Several of the members of the group pleaded to continue. The guides explained we were still in a protected position on the lee side of the mountain. They told us that when we went around the mountain—only about another 100 feet or so—the wind speeds would pick up to 70+ miles per hour based upon how they were ripping around the mountain to where were currently located. We were told the summit was a no-go: “When you go around the corner, it will be like sticking your head straight into a hurricane. We cannot cross the flat area. You will get blown off.”
We could see where we had to go. It was just behind those rocks above us . . . you could almost reach out and touch it . . . it was so close. You could smell it, too—the sulphurous odor coming from the top of the volcano was detectable notwithstanding the ripping winds. After eight bleary-eyed hours of climbing in the wind, after tramping up to base camp with fully loaded packs the previous day, after assembling the whole group in California, after many of us individually traveling across the United States from Virginia, after all the anticipation, planning, and effort . . . it was so damn close. There was a strong temptation just to ignore the safety concerns and continue onward.
We agreed to a compromise: We would try to attain the north summit, only about 100 vertical feet up the mountain. One group would proceed about 40 feet in front of the other. Being in the second group, I followed the first group climb up the final section of the mountain. After about thirty steps, each of which seemed to be in slow motion, I glanced up and saw more spindrift than usual swirl up around the corner of the mountain, exactly where we were headed. An instant later, a huge gust of wind hit us. It blew the group in front of us down. In unison, just as we had been taught, each member of the fallen group self-arrested. (Self-arrest is the alpine technique to drop and plunge your ice axe into the snow to stop, or arrest, a fall down the slope of the mountain). All of the members of the first group were chest down on the snow, but they were not sliding and were secure in their place. The group’s lead man, one of our guides, turned his head and squarely looked back at us. He raised his hand to the front of his neck and very deliberately moved it back and forth in a chopping motion. Although he spoke no words, the message was clear: “We’re done.”
We were less than a hundred vertical feet from the summit, and yet nature had turned us back. That afternoon, back at base camp, we knew we had done the right thing. The conditions had been too dangerous to proceed. The guides suggested we should count the climb as a success, since it was not lack of physical conditioning or human error that caused the summit to elude us. We were practically there. Practically. Sometimes, reflecting back on the trip, it continues to gnaw on me to this day that we were so close yet had to turn around right at the summit. On the other hand, the weather added an epic perspective to the trip and provided an up close glimpse of the physical and psychological conditions world-class mountain climbers experience when confronted with extreme weather.
While the Southern Appalachians and the Blue Ridge may not have the altitude of the higher mountain ranges, there are similar dangers in our region that are inherent in outdoor activities in relatively remote locations. A good friend and I went on a winter backpacking trip once in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and we almost got stuck in a two foot snowstorm. That snowstorm was totally unpredicted.
Late season snow can hit higher elevations even in the South. We once were caught in a huge snowstorm in the Smoky Mountain National Park and were forced to stay in an overcrowded shelter. When we got back home, we saw that the freak storm had caused an unheard of snow delay during the spring race at the Bristol Motor Speedway. While on both of these occasions we were prepared with equipment and clothing, the weather took us by surprise and changed the scope of the trips.
I am sure there were backpackers and campers in the Cherokee and Jefferson National Forests when the tornadoes came through our region. Some were probably shocked by the change in the weather even if they were on the periphery of the tornadic activity.
Summer storms can be the most dangerous type of weather in the mountains. Perhaps the scariest weather phenomenon I have experienced was in Rocky Mountain National Park in July 2002. My wife, young son Karl, and I went to Colorado for a vacation. We camped in the national park, and one of the days I went for a day hike with my son in a Kelty child carrier. This is a carrier that has a child seat built into an external aluminum frame that the adult wears like a backpack. My son and I were traveling up one of the lower approaches to the Keyhole Route, the famous hike that climbs Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park. My idea was to hike up the trail for a few hours, and then head back to the parking lot.
We left the parking lot in the middle afternoon on a beautiful, warm summer day. The sky was cloudless and cobalt blue. After about an hour of hiking, during which we passed other hikers, a single, low-lying cloud became visible as it skirted across the mountains we were approaching. The cloud hugged the mountains, snaking over them and towards us, expanding as it approached. At first it was innocuous but became ominous as it got closer. The sky above us started to turn from blue to grey, even though the sky was blue everywhere else. The dark, grey mass came right at us. We turned around and started back down the trail. I walked as quickly as I could with Karl in the backpack carrier.
Then I could feel the electricity in the air. The hair on my neck literally started to stand on end. My three-year old son, sensing the danger, started to cry uncontrollably. Lightning flashed everywhere, in the heavens and with crystal-clear sharp, white bolts striking the foot of the mountains immediately behind us. The thunder reverberated in the amphitheater of peaks surrounding us, amplifying the already deafening sound. The dark cloud with wispy white tendrils swirled around us, seemingly inescapable, as if we were being drawn into a grey whirlpool above.
I had experienced this kind of weather before in the East and Midwest, but with less intensity. I had also read about what was happening to us. Anyone who has researched hiking out West has read about the quick developing, high altitude summer lightning storms prevalent in the Rockies. I knew I was about to be in the middle of one, and I knew they could be deadly. And I was acutely aware that I had my helpless toddler son strapped on my back in what amounted to a high-tech version of a lightning rod.
Telling Karl everything would be alright in the most soothing voice I could manage in the middle of a full-on lightning storm and saying a silent prayer for both of us, I walked still faster to get below the treeline. Then, just as quickly as it developed, the storm cloud dissipated. “So fast, so sudden,” it was gone. In fact, by the time we made it back to the trailhead, the sun was shining again. Nature had been merciful on this day.
While I have not had an experience quite as scary as the one in Rocky Mountain National Park with my son, I have been in several situations that are comparable while hiking and running, and I have been caught out on the road cycling numerous times and subject to unpredicted torrential downpours. Indeed, afternoon lightening and thunderstorms are practically de rigueur during the summertime in the Southern Appalachians.
As we have known since time immemorial, as Robert Burns wrote in 1785, nature may cause men’s best laid plans to go awry. Sometimes the effect of nature’s power cannot be avoided—the devastation in Glade Spring is an example of this. From our perspective as outdoorsmen and women, such incidents serve as reminders that we should always respect nature’s power, be humble, and not allow our vanity and hubris to ever lead us to underestimate the dangers when we go outdoors.
Easter brought a surprise for my brother-in-law and his wife in southern Wythe County. They spotted a bald eagle, and they were able to photograph it. This eagle was immediately distinguishable from an osprey or a hawk because of its size; the eagle was about 200 feet from the road on the creek and may have just caught a fish as it was looking down towards its talons. Here is one of the photographs taken with a point-and-shoot camera:
I was surprised that there were any eagles in the mountains of Virginia. I personally have not seen a single bald eagle in the last 20+ years I have been hiking in the region. As of the time of this writing there are no bald eagles officially reported in Wythe County per the Virginia Bald Eagle tracking program of the Center for Conservation Biology. In fact, it looks like the only reported nesting areas in Southwestern Virginia are in Tazewell County and Buchanan County. This would mean that this bald eagle was either migrating from another region or was a native resident that came here naturally and without human introduction. For this reason—and in the interest of protecting it and the landowners—I won’t specifically identify where in the county it was seen.
The mountainous areas of Wythe, Grayson, Smyth and Washington counties would seem to be logical areas of reintroduction for bald eagles since there are still remote, larger wilderness areas (by Eastern U.S. standards) and an abundance of creeks and streams with trout and other aquatic life for the eagle’s food supply. While I have read they usually prefer large open bodies of water, it may be possible there are enough larger streams and lakes in Southwest Virginia to accommodate some of these animals.
Apparently the bald eagle’s plumage was not completely white; there were still some grey flecks visible. As you can tell in the above photo, it does appear that it was not completely white. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries bald eagle fact page, a bald eagle does not fully obtain the characteristic white plumage until it is five years old, when it reaches maturity. It is possible it was still a youngster, or it was wet and looked somewhat off-white. In any event, it’s a remarkable thing that this grand bird of prey may be back in part of Southwestern Virginia.
Distance: 17 miles
Time: Approximately 1 hour, 10 minutes @ 15 mph
Difficulty Notes: Moderate climbing on hills
This will be the first installment of numerous cycling route reports from Abingdon, Virginia and the surrounding areas. Maiden Creek Loop is one of the shorter loop road bike rides available from Abingdon. It is approximately 17 miles in length over rolling roads with a few small climbs. It generally has low vehicular traffic.
Most of the routes I shall describe in the following installments are loop rides, that is, rides where the route is a circular or square loop trip of some sort with minimal doubling back on the same roads. I prefer loop rides because the scenery during the ride is fresh during the entire ride. In addition, there is a certain sense of satisfaction in completing a journey (or approaching the completion of a journey) with a loop trip that is different than in doing an out-and-back trip, regardless of the distance.
The Maiden Creek loop starts in downtown Abingdon. For reference, most the rides I will report start in downtown Abingdon. Perhaps the best reference spot is the so-called Washington County Courthouse “Jockey Lot,” the parking area immediately behind the courthouse at the intersection of Court Street and Valley Street. This has traditionally been a meeting spot and point of reference in Abingdon going back well over 100 years.
The ride begins on Valley Street going east. The first left down Valley Street is Whites Mill Road. Take this left onto Whites Mill Road. This road is flat and then gently ascends until the intersection with Chip Ridge Road. Stay on Whites Mill Road. From here, Whites Mill descends rapidly, all the way to Whites Mill, an historic mill about three miles from Abingdon. The initial descent on Whites Mill from Chip Ridge is significant. I have accelerated to almost 50 mph on this descent, and speeds in excess of 42 mph are easily obtainable without pedaling. You will pass farmland and pasture on your left. As you descend Whites Mill there are also excellent views through the hills of Clinch Mountain in the distance directly in front of you.
At the mill the road veers to the right and intersects with Rich Valley Road. Take a right on Rich Valley Road. This is a rolling road that generally travels east along the valley floor between two ridges. Note that to your left (looking north) you can catch additional glimpses of Clinch Mountain in the distance. After approximately 5 miles, you will intersect with Maiden Creek Road.
Take a right onto Maiden Creek Road, which ascends following Maiden Creek to the right as you go uphill. The road here is not in the best condition but is fine for a road bike. Note there are numerous little riffles and small waterfalls to your right as you ascend. The creek’s flow varies and is sensitive to rainfall as it mostly runoff from the hills at the top of the road, yet at times the little falls are quite pretty. At the top of the initial climb, about two-third the way up the road, there is a little descent and then a false flat that gradually ascends to end at the intersection with Old Saltworks Road.
Make a right at Old Saltworks Road. Old Saltworks continues to ascend for about a half mile, and then mostly descends until the intersection with Walden Road. Make a right on Walden Road, this road ascends for about two miles and then descends until it rolls back into the town limits of Abingdon. Continue on this road, which eventually turns into Valley Street. Continue on Valley Street until you are back at the courthouse.
Maiden Creek loop can be completed in approximately 1 hour, ten minutes at a pace of about 15 miles per hour. At 15 mph the workout should be a moderate one, but is not “noodling” by any standard. The rolling nature of this course, like many in Southwest Virginia, will result is slightly slower times than what you would expect in flatter sections of the country. This route as set forth above has the advantage of all right turns, so there are no turns crossing traffic. Traffic on this route is usually low, with the most traffic within a mile or two of town and on the section of Old Saltworks Road. There are times you may encounter less than a half-dozen vehicles on this loop (excluding traffic in the town limits of Abingdon). There are occasionally farm tractors on this loop, particularly on Rich Valley Road.
An alternative end of this route is instead of taking a right onto Walden Road, continue on Old Saltworks Road until it ends at Hillman Highway. Make a right at the junction. There is a steep little climb up on Hillman Highway immediately after you make the right. Be careful here as vehicles coming in the opposite direction cannot see you ascending, and drivers behind you may be impatient and illegally attempt to pass you without being able to see oncoming traffic. Once you climb this little rise, Hillman Highway will take you back into Abingdon in about the same time as Walden Road version of this route. Hillman Highway ends at the junction with Main Street. You can ride Main Street back into town towards the courthouse.
This route may also begin and end at the Coomes Center, Abingdon’s recreation center. To begin the route from the Coomes Center, make a right leaving the Coomes Center past E.B. Stanley Middle School. At the junction with Walden Road make a left. Ride Back through to Valley Street and make a right onto White’s Mill. From here the directions are the same as described above.
This weekend two good friends, my wife, and I drove over to Boone, North Carolina for the evening to attend the local screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival at the Farthing Auditorium at Appalachian State University. The Banff Mountain Film Festival is the largest and oldest film festival for celebrating mountain sports and culture. The festival takes place in Banff, Alberta, and then a shorter version travels around North America (and the world) for screenings of the best films. The Boone screening, a two night affair, is supposed to be one of the largest outside of the actual festival in Banff.
Our road trip was about an hour and ten minutes via Route 91 through Mountain City, Tennessee and up Route 421. As we went through Trade, Tennessee, we were treated to a setting sun shining directly on snow-capped mountains on the North Carolina side of the state line. The upper half of the mountains had a nice dusting of fresh snow that looked like someone had dumped powder sugar on them. Apparently it had been snowing all day in the higher elevations, setting the mood nicely.
Arriving at Farthing Auditorium, the crowds were raucous, and there was a lot of energy anticipating the screening. We watched five films. WildWater, Eastern Rises, and The Swiss Machine were the most memorable. WildWater is about the spiritual aspects of paddling in wild places and the devotion of those who paddle. The film contained incredible footage, including creek boating in Colorado, rafting in the Grand Canyon, and the massive rapids of the North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho during high water.
Eastern Rises seemed to be the best liked film of the night. It documented a bunch of guys who took an incredible fly fishing trip to Kamchatka, Russia. Kamchatka is one of the most remote areas of the world: A vast, basically unpopulated peninsula across the Bearing Sea from Alaska and to the north of Japan and China. In the film these guys fished super remote rivers and streams, many without names. The trout were huge, and they were rising to go after gigantic custom-tied flies. The guys’ reverence for trout fishing and the pristine waters they fished came through, and their irreverence towards one another was hilarious. This is one entertaining movie regardless of whether you are personally into fly fishing.
The Swiss Machine was an adventure biography of Ueli Steck, an alpinist who is a speed climber. The film shows Steck climbing in the Himalaya, Yosemite, and in the Alps. The film leads up to his speed ascent of the north face of the Eiger. Viewing the steepness of the Eiger face on the big screen almost made me queasy. The filming shows how dangerous speed climbing can be. Yet the film is quite inspirational. Steck’s athleticism and determination are well conveyed for such a shorter film. The cinematography in the final scene is superb.
Coming back from the screening, appropriately enough it began to thunder snow on the drive home. This is in April in Virginia, mind you. There are additional screenings of the Banff Film Festival in other places this year. This was the first year I was able to attend the annual festival; if you have a chance to see it sometime, I highly recommend it. It’s inspirational and definitely makes you want to go get into the outdoors in the mountains.
Recently my minister gave a sermon that explained the concepts of chronos time and kairos time. Chronos time is that time measured by the clock. Kairos time, on the other hand, is the concept of the Lord’s time, which does not correspond to chronos time and may not be measured. Kairos time is metaphysical and beyond human comprehension. This concept goes back at least to Greek times, when it was understood that time could be more than a measured unit.
In our modern age, chronos time is what drives us both at work and home. We constantly confront deadlines, whether imposed by a third-party, our boss, or ourselves. In my profession, for example, the court sets deadlines in litigation for filing lawsuits, filing papers, scheduling these cases for hearings and trials, etc. Clients set deadlines for projects and transactions. My profession also measures my worth, or value, based upon chronos time. For most legal work, the billing unit is tenths of an hour, or six-minute increments of time.
Most jobs are similar in that meeting deadlines and time spent on the job wholly or to some extent measure performance. Scheduling and time commitments are also ubiquitous aspects of personal life. There is always so little time and so much to do. Indeed, in an increasingly busy, complicated and technological world, even “finding time” to be outdoors can be difficult.
In most outdoor sports, chronos time determines victory or measures success. Whether racing against a competitor or directly against the clock, we are competing in chronos time. When we race, we are conscious—usually very conscious—of the passage of time. We wear watches that can keep track of it down to the hundredth of a second, and we time ourselves even in training.
We also, however, can experience kairos-like time in the outdoors. Upon reflection I believe this may be one of the most important reasons those of us who are attracted to the outdoors spend time there. In the outdoors time can become metaphysical. The beauty of outside and our exertion somehow converts ordinary chronos time to kairos-like time or at least may allow us to experience something akin to kairos time.
Reinhold Messner, the great mountain climber who has spent as much time alone in the mountains as anybody, has stated that while climbing his perception of time could become altered. Messner has reported that while climbing he has had conversations with his deceased brother, and that at times when at altitude his entire existence seemed to be reduced to nothing more than a single, breathing lung. Reading through literature, it is apparent that mind-altering or other virtual out-of-body type experiences like this are not that uncommon among extreme outdoor athletes, especially when they are alone and in remote areas. They also almost universally experience kairos-like time.
A friend of mine who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail once told me that his journey completely altered the way he experienced and viewed time. “Time was meaningless for me on the trail,” he told me. This was one of the most memorable and important experiences of his 2000+ mile journey. When I run, time may become slower and faster—sometimes simultaneously. Time can seem to palpably slow as my mind relaxes, clears and yet races through thought. For example, I wrote this entire essay in my mind within a one mile section of the Virginia Creeper Trail while running.
When we get in “the zone”—and all endurance athletes know what this means—time as we ordinarily experience it is altered or may even seem to stop altogether. In “the zone” there is a zen-like state of mind, feelings of a sort of euphoria, and temporal freedom. Our mind relaxes until there is only the pleasantly repetitive, meditative stride while hiking or running. While cycling, there is only the trance-like pedaling cadence, legs “ticking like a metronome,” as the saying goes. We don’t always achieve this state of mind on every outing, however when we do it is a truly transcendent experience. It’s part what keeps us coming back to these activities.
“The zone” has been extensively studied by scientific experts, and its cause is not well understood. One possible yet inconclusive theory is that it is somehow related to the endocannabinoid system. Like “the zone,” the phenomenon of kairos-like time in the outdoors has not been scientifically explained. Are these experiences merely a perception resulting from the mind-altering physiological effects of exercise in the outdoors, an endorphin-induced high no different from the effects of a drug? Is our perception simply the calming effect of being in nature? Or is the different kind of time experienced in the outdoors not just a perception, but a reality: Perhaps the closest we can come to appreciating an actual ordered yet unmeasured kind of time like kairos?
I am thankful for time spent outdoors. There usually is not any analysis of it, though. When I come back later than planned from a bike ride, run or hike and my wife asks what happened, I don’t get into a religious, spiritual or philosophical discussion with her. I just shrug my shoulders and tell her, quite honestly, “I guess I just lost track of time.”