Writer Jessica Dixon wearing red on an outcrop at McAfee Knob

Hiking with Ancestors at McAfee Knob

I looked out the window of the prop plane, jostled by turbulence, and felt a thrill at my first sight of the brick-red soil, rich with iron. My brother and I used to announce the red dirt from the back seat of our mini-van on the long drives from Indiana to Roanoke, Virginia in the summer. It was a sign-post: proof we were getting closer to our great-grandma’s small house in the country, where she lived with a black cat whose head was permanently cocked, as if he were perpetually curious. We used to talk long walks down dirt roads until we reached the water wheel or the llama farm, picking wildflowers and marveling at the rich red clay.

My grandma grew up in a Blue Ridge Mountains valley so narrow it seemed to take the sun longer to rise. After moving to the Midwest, she played down her accent until it was merely hinted at in the rhythm of her speech, but her mother had a graceful lilt that matched her tall, thin frame. Growing up in central Indiana, flat enough to see stretches of soybeans punctuated by distant clumps of trees, Virginia seemed an exotic ancestral homeland to me.

I had spent the last year untangling myself from what I had woven around me—a life I wore like someone else’s itchy sweater. I hadn’t been to Roanoke since I was a child, but as the plane bounced through the thick air towards the runway, I hoped these hills would bring me that same familiar comfort of a warm welcome at the end of a long journey.

On my first full day in Roanoke, I took an easy drive to the McAfee Knob trailhead – signs for Appalachian Trail parking thrilled me. While I now live an hour away from some of Colorado’s most beautiful hikes, the AT felt like an insurmountable goal I’d never earn. A day hike wouldn’t earn me a trail nickname like some of the through hikers I passed, but I felt lucky to spend eight miles and a sunny day on this well-trodden trail.

The hike to McAfee Knob
The hike to McAfee Knob

The hike was shady and pleasant, with mountain laurel in full flower along the trail. It was easy to identify the thru hikers, looking weary and grimy and utterly at home, shouldering heavy packs and a wariness of my eager eye contact. As I continued climbing under a canopy of trees, each noise in the brush reminded me of my great-grandma’s great-grandma, who killed a cougar in these mountains, armed only with her walking stick. I am a worrier who carries my anxiety like a backpack, laden with fears about never feeling at home in my own life. I hoped that here, where my people had already cleared the path, I could feel free.

When I reached McAfee Knob, I understood why it’s one of the most-photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail. A promontory of rock hangs above an expanse of air, overlooking the Catawba Valley. Pictures often show brave hikers on the point, but they rarely capture the vast beauty you see while balancing on the Knob. The lush beauty of the foothills in the valley below seemed to steady me while I posed for my own scenic snapshot. I sat near the edge, closer than I thought I could be, and looked out in silence.

I thought about an old picture of my Grandma and her brother as teenagers, up to their ankles in a mountain creek. The water must have been cold, but she has a carefree – almost wicked – grin. By the end of her life, loss and loneliness had chipped away most of her joy. I wondered if this part of her still echoed through the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains, picking daisies from the rusty soil and splashing in the creek.

Hiking has a soothing rhythm: left foot followed by right, uphill followed by down. It is grounding and disarming, and it cracks open my city armor, creating space for wonder. Even a dandelion seems extraordinary when seen on the trail.

I allowed myself to revel in this awe; welcomed it as it washed over me and restored my sense of perspective. The blue sky, hazy with clouds, the green hills below, and the warm rock beneath me – it all soothed my lonely heart. I realized I didn’t have to know what was next. I was fine right where I was.


About the writer

Jessica Dixon is a Denver-based writer who loves to explore, whether it be the Maasai Mara plains in Kenya or the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. When she’s not watching a beautiful Colorado sunset, you can find her hiking in the Rocky Mountains with her dog Bella. Follow Jessica’s adventures on her website and Instagram.

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