Friday, July 01, 2011

At home on the trails

One runner's experiences at Smith Mountain Lake State Park

In July 2010, I visited my mother in Moneta and she kept telling me about the hiking trails at the Smith Mountain Lake State Park. Having grown up in Bedford, I had gone with Mom on numerous occasions to the park, where she volunteers regularly. But having lived in Connecticut for the past 13 years, I somehow missed these stunning trails as they were forged. Naturally, I was impressed when I saw how abundant, intricate and manicured they are, while blending into the landscape as if they had always been there.

    From the ranger at the check-in, I grabbed a trail guide and parked. I looked at the map for a few minutes to orient myself and ran a finger over the 13 trails, all ranging from easy to moderate. Thinking I would be fine with the path markers, I left the guide behind.
    At 101 degrees, these were among the summer’s muggiest days, and I was thankful for the tree shade that cooled me. Because of the heat, I barely managed three miles on my first trek, heading to the top of Walton Creek and back down part of Striper Cove, cutting over to White Tail and returning down Walton.
    Without the map on that first day, I had struggled with the navigation. The trails are marked well, but when you reach a nexus where one turns into another, it can be a little confusing at first. I solved this issue by bringing a map with me on each subsequent run. The only problem was that the paper disintegrated into a ball of sweat by the end of the jog. After I figured out the lay of the land, though, I ran map-less.
    While I was running, my face met with spider webs that blanketed my eyes. Often, I would see a six-point buck stare at me, only to dart away at the last second. I suddenly noticed two tiny fawns hopping off in tandem. Soon after, I hurdled over a terrapin.
    I was hooked.

    I try to rest the day after a run but decided to return the next afternoon and run all of Striper Cove, the longest of the trails, which snakes up and down the whole way and joins with Turtle Island. One moment you are in the woods; the next instant, the lake comes into dazzling view. This happens countless times. Woods, lake. Woods, lake.
    I was back for more the very next day on Buck Run, which led me down into the Beachwood loop, one of the more difficult runs because of the hills.
    On my final day, I ran Chestnut Ridge (my favorite), as well as shorter hops such as Turtle Island, Opossum Trot, Lakeview and Tobacco Run.
    Later, during another visit in August, I came back to Walton Creek, taking it up to Osprey Point this time, and back down to Striper Cove, which I had missed before. The next day, I picked up Striper where I had left off and came back Buck Run.

Runner’s Paradise
    For a runner, these trails are ideal for the feet, knees and hips – unlike most roads and sidewalks. You often turn a corner, sprint up a small rise, sidle down another hill, and that makes it modulated and interesting rather than just flat and tedious. Just when you think you are deep in the woods, you see the lake again.
    Even with a map, you have to stay on your toes to not make a wrong turn, although, if you do, you will merely be running on more lovely trails, just perhaps not knowing where you are at first. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost here because the trails weave back into the main roads, and yet while you are on the paths, you never hear the road at all.
    The trails feel firm and soft because your feet land on fallen, mulched and moistened leaves. It is so silent at times that it’s like you’re in an empty cathedral, especially early in the morning. All you hear is the soles of your shoes touching supple ground, a sibilance broken only by the crunching of a stick underfoot.
    I recall one morning being all alone in the park. When I came back toward the Visitor Center, I saw a fog rising and a doe in the distance, as if there mystically. She lifted her head and stared at me.
    Sometimes, the summer humidity had sweat pouring off my body. I was forced to a humbling walk at these times. And yet I became a hiker, which was fine, too. I walked and reflected – and only felt regret because I had not discovered this pristine place until then.
    As I ran all the trails, about 25 miles in six runs, I remembered that I was from here, from Bedford, and was now a visitor. But running this sweet ground had brought me home.

    During other visits home in late 2010 and earlier this year, I headed to the trails as soon as I could. In March, I spent another stint of time at my mother’s and joined the park as a “friend” volunteer, picking up brush and removing fallen trees on my jogs and hikes. It is an Eden of Virginia, a privilege of land, an environmental poem.
    Recently, I was coming up a hill on Buck Run when I saw three white-tailed bucks hop away like huge rabbits, rustling leaves under their hooves. I stopped, just for a moment, smiled to myself and thought: That is what this place is, a spot where there are actually bucks on Buck Run.

A native of Bedford, Mark Damon Puckett published “The Reclusives,” a book of short stories, in June. He has worked as a professor of creative writing, poetic technique and screenwriting at the State University of New York at Purchase College. Puckett earned a master’s degree in Fiction and Playwriting from the University of Houston, as well as master’s degrees in English and African-American Studies from Middlebury College. His website is markdamonpuckett.com.

Want to Go?

Smith Mountain Lake State Park

Address: 1235 State Park Road, Huddleston

Hours: Trails are open year-round during daylight hours

Phone: 540.297.6066

Website: dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/smi.shtml

SML State Park Trails
Hiking and biking allowed

Name     Distance (miles)
Beaver Den     .4
Beechwood     .9
Buck Run     1.7
Chestnut Ridge 1.7
Lakeview    .3
Opossum Trot    .4
Osprey Point    .4
Striper Cove    3.1
Tobacco Run    .5
Turkey Foot    .2
Turtle Island    1.4
Walton Creek    1.3
White Tail Path .1