A breeze rolled through under the cloudless blue sky about once a minute; otherwise, the ridge was quiet. Sore step after sore step, we made our way along the dwindling path, deeper into the Appalachian Mountains until, with a start, I noticed that the trail had disappeared beneath our feet.
I looked around the dense tangle of underbrush, a world in hues of dark green sliced with brilliant shards of sunlight from gaps in the canopy above. It’s got to be around here somewhere… I leaned back against a boulder the size of a camper van, stretching my shoulders against the weight of my pack on the cool surface of the rock, and cocked my head as my fingers brushed against a ribbed metallic break in the smooth stone.
I turned and saw the soft bronze disk, weathered but legible, fixed firmly into the stone face: ‘Mount Rogers: 5729 – United States Geological Survey’.
“Got it!” I called to my companion, two words that filled the world for a moment.
I felt the weight flow out of my legs as I rested back against the rock and took a relieved breath. This trail had finally settled, resolved itself to an end after a long chase, and we enjoyed a satisfied rest at the highest natural point in the state of Virginia.
What is highpointing?
Highpointing in the USA is an undertaking in which a traveller summits the highest point in every US state, as determined by the US Geological Survey. There are no hard and fast rules regarding how this is done (some destinations are directly accessible by road), but many will agree that the most rewarding method involves hiking, scrambling, and climbing as much as possible.
A month prior, my friend, fellow student, and adventure magnet Matt had printed out a grayscale map of the United States, outlined a rambling line throughout the country’s Deep South in yellow highlighter, peppered it with sharp red dots, and plopped it down in front of me one toasty June afternoon.
Two weeks and change, he promised, that would hit 14 US highpoints, lush forests, sprawling badlands, the greatest cities of the South, the majesty of the Gulf, genuine moonshine, and the finest barbecue ever to grace the tip of my tongue.
The quest for high points takes the traveller from coast to coast, from sea level to the lower edge of the sky, through forests, deserts, highlands, and through the nation’s greatest cities on the way. Which is how one broiling July I found myself sitting shotgun in a silver Volkswagen with no air conditioning, driving through the barrens of northern Arkansas, hell-bent for New Orleans, trying to decipher 500 miles of sweat-smeared directions on a napkin in my hand.
High points and low points
The considerable topographical diversity of the country makes highpointing an excellent progressive challenge. Some high points, particularly those in the Southeast, aren’t even hikes. Drive-up locations like Iowa’s Hawkeye Point and Delaware’s Ebright’s Azimuth sit in the midst of slopes gradual enough to go unnoticed at small markers behind schools or highway rest stops. As a highpointer’s physical stamina and technical skill increases, they can take on more rigorous journeys, like Virginia’s Mount Rogers or Maine’s monolithic Mount Katahdin, both features of the Appalachian Trail. Lastly, and only with the proper equipment and training, dedicated climbers can summit the formidable peaks of the Rockies, the far West, and Alaska’s storied Denali.
Although Matt was a serious climber, my vertical CV extended to a few flailing tagalongs to the local rock gym and most of the trees on campus. Therefore I was relieved by the underwhelming nature of our first highpoint: Campbell Hill, Ohio, a staggering 1,550 feet above sea level. After parking and stretching our legs, twenty laden steps brought us to this summit, and the peak winds almost moved my hair as I gazed at the rippling majesty of corn in all directions for roughly a quarter mile.
Despite its unimpressive stature, I looked around as we drove off and realized what a pristine slice of America I beheld. Untouched by the course of interstates or the radial development of large cities, the areas we found reaching the early highpoints answered to no culture but their own, to no influence but time. In an arms-race of interest generated by guidebooks and travel television, the authenticity of the remotest parts of states retains an uncommon charm.
July and August came together in a blur of verdant wildlife, with occasional interludes into sprawling Southern cityscapes. As we moved from the sparse Midwest into the lush marshes and pocked valleys of the Deep South, the nature of the highpoints changed to reflect the land. With a faint blister or a sore quad the Southern highpoints gently inform the hiker that they are beginning to knock on the doors of mountains. As we sat on the sharp cliffs just off the peak of Arkansas’s Mount Magazine (2,753 feet), I looked out into the haze blanketing thousands of acres of pine forest. My mud-caked boots hung out into open air, letting my calves work out the knots accumulated on the winding switchbacks, and I let the view carry my mind to longer hikes and higher peaks.
The Highest Point
“Is…is that silo falling over?”
I ducked my unshaven head, looked past Matt in the driver’s seat at the 70-odd foot tall tower of pitted metal. Compared to the sloping natural monuments of stone that fenced in this valley it wasn’t all that big, and for the structures in this nebulous chunk of land, nestled somewhere in a neglected border between Virginia and Kentucky, it wasn’t all that dilapidated.
As the Volkswagen pulled faithfully through the wide turn, however, the severe angle of the silo’s lean became more and more apparent until, as the road straightened out, we began to wonder if it might not take the tumble before we passed through the town. The six or seven official-looking trucks and police cars at the base loaned some credibility to that assessment.
In the summer haze of the Appalachians, the surreality of the event didn’t come as much of a surprise. The Appalachian Mountains, a goliath chain running from the heart of eastern America well into the reaches of Canada, feature a rolling topography that baffles the cartographically-inclined, where hills seem to climb without end and valleys meander in patterns lost to time.
We made the Mount Rogers trailhead before noon. The mountain represented a culmination in the hikes we’d made over those three summer weeks: three miles in, three miles out, pushing through the rugged forest to meet up with the Appalachian Trail, which wound its way across a sprawling ridge before diverting off onto a steep, half-mile trail to access the high point. As we left sight of the road, we gave ourselves to the trail, and for hours the world fell away, one more time, to a tenuous line through the American wilderness.