Highpointing partner-in-crime Tom and I met up in North Carolina and headed north out of the floods and into Virginia, a long tangly drive through rolling hills and Christmas tree farms into stunning Grayson Highlands State Park. The hurricane rains had scrubbed the sky to a translucent raw purple, making the perfect fall colors pop vibrantly in fiery contrast.
We climbed a short hill through towering firs and glowing orange deciduous trees, opening up to a “bald,” a gently rounded treeless glacial hill with expansive views of the surrounding land. Here we met up with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, then ducked back into the tree cover.
At the next bald we were greeted by the local ponies introduced here in the ‘70s to keep the wild grasses in check, now fat and looking boredly at the passing excited humans. We abided by the trailhead warning signs to not touch the ponies, annoying one of them who irritably chased Tom, flaring her nostrils in indignation at the lack of treats.
The trail turned rockier and steeper as it climbed through the hills, swooping around giant boulders and outcroppings of dark granite. Each turn brought a surprise: here a view that went on forever, waves of fall colors lapping on in the distance; there a heap of rocks in a meadow, growing closer until they became the rugged trail underfoot. A spiny tunnel of rhododendrons gave way to a real tunnel of granite, a natural cave buried among the tumbled boulders.
After these rocks the trail changed yet again, another bald, even more fat ponies languidly grazing in the low golden sunlight. The trail ducked and dipped through trees, rocks, rhododendron, then through a signed wilderness area and fields of red under the slate sky.
The trail to the highpoint broke away from the rolling red fields and entered a different world, like we’d been magically transported to Nova Scotia or something out of Lord of the Rings. Tall trees (Ents?) covered in thick carpets of moss looked soft enough to pet. The ground bristled with shin-high ferns.
We crept quietly through this foreign land, so dark and quiet compared to the sunny main trail, until we stumbled upon a series of damp grey boulders carelessly scattered amongst the trees, one of them drilled with the metal summit marker. Tom and I took turns climbing up to this highest of high points to survey the lack of view in the shady cool trees, and raised a toast to beautiful, varied Virginia.
About the beer:
Pumpkin beers, once only available from a few brewers, are now so ubiquitous there are entire shelves devoted to them at beer shops, where they’re practically synonymous with September. Despite this it’s hard to find a good one, most are overly sweet or just taste like a standard ale or porter packed full of that generic dry “pumpkin pie spice” grocery-store blend. I never make it through an autumn without picking up a few of my favorites (Schlafly, Elysian, Four Peaks) and sampling some others, though; it’s become a seasonal tradition.
AleWerks’ Pumpkin Ale is one of the good ones, maybe even one of the best ones. The smell is more sweet roasted pumpkin than that cloying pie blend, although it reminded me of the surreal experience of actually cooking a pumpkin pie: taking it out of the oven piping-hot, the filling bubbling under the skin on top like a tiny creature fighting to get out and then finally slowly subsiding. This ale tastes of sweet caramelized hot sugar, gingerbread and molasses and of course rich pumpkin pie, the subtle spices mixing with the hearty flavor and the sweet brown sugar. It’s a well-balanced tasty rich pumpkin, an outstanding gem in the field.