Since returning to the landscape of my childhood, I have adopted the ritual of hiking the White Rocks Trail every year for my birthday. I reconnect with the woods and the mountain. It is not just connecting to nature but also a connection to a particular place. White Rocks is embedded in South Mountain. The walk serves as an annual fitness test — is my body coming out of winter in good shape or do I huff and puff on aching knees? The spring I turned 60, my birthday fell on Easter Sunday: life was returning to the mountain.
The trail up to White Rocks in April is through open woods. Although the parking lot is full there are no other hikers in sight. White sandstone boulders, which the ancient mountain has sloughed off, lie about, discolored from mineral rain and the lichens and mosses fast on the rough surfaces.
The whole path, but a mile and a quarter, is a connector to the Appalachian Trail. The eponymous rocks, 500 feet above the parking lot, are halfway in. The ascent to White Rocks takes only a half-hour at a leisurely pace. Although short, the trail climbs through definite zones.
The bottom starts with gentle slopes, like a warm up. Here the trees are tall and deciduous, mostly oaks. The forest shows the first pulse of spring. The oaks are blooming giving the slightest yellow haze to the canopy. In early spring the real action is in the understory. Witch hazels unfold their leaves first, to grab the warming sunlight before tall neighbors block it out. Huckleberries bushes fill the understory, showing a plush of new leaves. Everywhere herbaceous plants push through the litter.
A little farther up the trail we pass a vernal pond. Two young people, perhaps a budding couple but oblivious to us, loiter about looking for life stirring in the water. Snow-melt saturated the ground, filling the pond, and spring rains topped it off. It is just the shallowest bowl in the gentle slope, maybe fifteen feet across. Brown, wet leaves from last year’s crop litter the margins. Although finding the edges in springtime is at best a guess — the sodden leaves perhaps floating, perhaps resting. Local amphibians — toads and salamanders — embrace this chance to spawn. Life in nature always has its perils, but at least there are no fish in an ephemeral pond for tadpoles to dodge. With normal rain, they will have lungs and legs before the pond is gone. By August there will be no water in this vernal pool, just rich humus and forest plants going to seed.
Beyond the pond the trail starts to pick up. It is steeper and rockier; the steepness enabling runoff to wash down loose soil. We are climbing high enough that we can see through the trees and begin to make out our vantage. We are on a north-facing slope looking across a great valley. The climb heats our muscles. We greet a fellow hiker on the way down, his Labradors bounding and sniffing, enthusiastic at the landscape’s return to life. Spring smells good to me. How does it smell to the descendants of wolves whose noses are a hundred-thousand times mine? Not only do they discern in far greater detail — they can pick up scores of scents on a single leaf — but they can also tell how old a smell is. I smell spring woods; these dogs sense the history of the mountain.
We reach the ridgetop where sandstone pokes through the thinning forest soil. The trees have fewer resources and are smaller in stature. The trail turns west and follows the ridgeline. We work our way over and around increasingly larger white sandstone formations until we get to the biggest pile. The rocks here, more exposed to the sun and wind, are the white weathered bones of the mountain. It takes some scrambling but we get on top of White Rocks. It is bare rock here, the only trees are a few stunted pines that have wedged a toehold in fissures. Pine needles litter about but they will blow away before they become soil. We can see south across the hollow to the next ridge. The view is lovely for its intimacy From above we see the oaks are flowering, giving a chartreuse tinge to the woods. To the north we have windows of long views across the agricultural valleys that have given the landscape its modern form.
We are joined by a family speaking Spanish to themselves and English to us, out for an Easter parade. Two school-aged boys lift a gordo brown and white hound dog up the rock pile. After admiring the promontory, they pass through with daypacks of lunch heading for the Appalachian Trail.
Another family, with three scions ranging from late teen to early adult who are still in the familial shadow, catch up to us. We had passed them several times on the trail. We admire the views together. They offer to take our photograph, which I tell them will record my sixtieth birthday. The patriarch asks if they could say a prayer for me. I could see by their earnest faces, they really wanted to pray for me. While I don’t desire or expect divine intervention, I agree because it is clear that the gesture would increase joy in the world with so little cost to me. But then he asks what I would like to pray for, and I suggest the mountain. It is obvious from his crestfallen face: the mountain’s soul is not what he hopes to save. So I say, it is his prayer, he should decide. He prays for the day, and my birthday, and the potential of more joyous days ahead. I can live with that.
The thing about a landscape is everyone can connect to it in their own way. I can think of no better way to spend my birthday than connecting to the spirit of this place. The return of spring in Pennsylvania goes back to my earliest landscape memories. It is a rhythm I have internalized. My ritual to White Rocks occurs when I welcome being outdoors in shirt sleeves. This is when I check every day to see what tree is flowering, what leaves have unfolded to the sun, and what fern is pushing up through leaf litter. On this landscape, it’s like witnessing a prayer for the mountain, and the offertory is a walk in the woods.