Overcoming Great Expectations

Two BRO Staff Members Reflect on Hiking Grayson Highlands State Park

You could say that BRO Travel Editor Ellen Kanzinger and Digital Content Coordinator Shannon McGowan have different trip planning styles. 

Ellen: Shannon—I don’t think we can ever go camping together again.

Shannon: We must be cursed. Or maybe Mother Nature just has it out for us.

From our wet Ragnar trail run to our wet and cold packrafting trip to our even wetter and even colder ice climbing excursion, we always seem to have the worst weather when we go on an adventure together.

So as spring came around again, we both got vaccinated, and we started planning our first camping trip of the year, we were hopeful that our luck had changed. After we settled on Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, we both set out to prepare in our own ways. 

It’s All in the Details

Ellen: When it comes to getting outside, I like to have a plan. I never head out without first scouring trail guides and blogs for details, downloading multiple offline maps, and making sure I have several backup plans in place. I check and recheck all of my gear, sometimes overpacking because you just never know what kind of scenario you might encounter on the trail. 

If there was a motto that meant the opposite of “go with the flow,” that would be mine. 

Shannon: Stop the flow? Oppose the flow? Plan strategically on how to build a dam that perfectly redirects the flow?

Ellen: I think you found my new motto! 

Yet, Mother Nature couldn’t give a f*ck about any of my plans. She’s got her own schedule and reason for doing things that don’t always align with what I am trying to accomplish. That’s why having a friend like Shannon inspires me to try to chill out, even just a little bit. Throw any unexpected development her way and she will take it in stride, making you laugh and enjoy it just as much as she is the whole time. 

Once we decided on a location, I dove into all I could find about what to expect from the trails in the area. Because of Grayson Highlands’ remote location and high elevation, I wanted to be prepared and set my expectations ahead of time. I made a list of all the hikes I thought we should do, carefully crafting a schedule that would get us to all of the sites we wanted to see in the most efficient manner. 

Two days before we were set to leave, the weather forecast was not looking good. While we would have clear skies and sunshine the afternoon we would arrive, the next two days were slated for rain and intermittent thunderstorms. 

That certainly dampened my excitement. But I was trying to be optimistic that the weather would clear up and allow us to get in every hike. Little did I know Grayson Highlands would put my ability to let go of the need to control everything to the test. 

Photo of Ellen Kanzinger taking in the foggy mountain views. Photo by Shannon McGowan

Let It Be

Shannon: Going with the flow comes naturally to me, keeping me on my toes in an exciting way most of the time. Though in recent years, I find myself feeling behind because my mindset often defaults into a reactive lifestyle pattern. I tend to be so reactive that it’s hard for me to be proactive, leaving me feeling like I could have accomplished more. 

Having a friend like Ellen, whose promptness, thorough research, and strategic planning radiates  reliability, inspires me to improve the proactive-planning-portion of my life. Since our work warrants a lot of traveling together, I get plenty of practice.

Ellen: And when she says traveling, she means hurling ourselves towards the mercy of the Elements.

Shannon: This trip to Grayson Highlands was the ultimate test for my newly honed planning skills—I was packing and planning for three consecutive trips.

Long story short, I was hopping from Richmond to watching the Grayson Highlands Marathon to camping with Ellen to Charlottesville and then back to Richmond. This required me to lug around tons of layers, camping gear, every chord and device needed for work, and all the rest of my personal crap I couldn’t go a week without. 

When I sat down and worked out the plan I had the thought, “Do I struggle to plan ahead? Or do I just create such ass-backwards, complicated plans that it becomes nearly impossible to make it all work?” Both great questions. The answer is yes. 

Shannon enjoying a few moments of clear skies from the Listening Rock Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger

Welcome to Grayson Highlands 

Shannon: When I arrived in southwest Virginia, the weather was stunning. What a beautiful way to experience Grayson Highlands for the first time—bright sunshine and a cool breeze. Up on the Twin Pinnacle overlooks, I forgot all about the huge pile o’ crap I brought that was sitting in the car. All I knew was that I was fed, dressed comfortably, and had a charge on my camera. Being that prepared helped me feel more present in the moment. 

The weather for race day was really nice too—partly cloudy but the sun was pleasantly warm. The night before, I took a look at the route and planned where to be at what time in order to take good photos of my friends in action. If you think this is a humble brag of my new found planning skills, it is. Following through with a plan made me feel like I made the most of my time. 

When Ellen and I met up, the weather was still pleasant. I thought, “maybe Mother Nature won’t notice us traveling together this time.” I was wrong. It started to downpour as soon as we got into our sleeping bags that night. Even though we dodged the rain that evening, Mother Nature still had the last laugh—Ellen and I hardly slept a wink. 

Ellen: Stupid allergies. 

Shannon: Stupid deflating sleeping pad. 

This is where I gained a better understanding of why big time planners get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan. After Ellen asked me how I slept that night, I replied, “ya know, I worked so dang hard to make sure I had all the right gear at all the right times this trip. This isn’t a matter of human error; this is uncalled for faulty gear!”

If you call a human (aka my dumbass) not closing a valve properly “faulty gear” then sure, I was right in what I said. Still, I appreciated the new perspective of having a wrench thrown in an almost perfect plan.

Ellen: Drowsy but pumped for some hiking, we rolled out of our tent Monday morning to rain on our tarp, clouds in the sky, and thunderstorms nearby. We didn’t want to chance a hike to Mount Rogers since we would be on an exposed trail with little tree cover the majority of the day. Instead, we decided to focus on some of the shorter hikes around the state park.

Already I was feeling disappointed since hiking to the highest peak in Virginia was on my bucket list. But my hopes fell even more when we reached the first overlook and saw nothing but fog. At this point, there was a steady drizzle coming down, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep, and cranky because my careful plans weren’t working out. I’m not proud of it but I know I let my irritation get the best of me and felt my sarcasm going too far. Sorry, Shannon! It wasn’t you. It was me. 

Shannon: No worries, Ellen! I packed my anti-sarcasm GORE-TEX layer just in case!

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Ellen: When we hit the second overlook, I was nearly despondent because we once again couldn’t see anything. But then, out of nowhere, a strong wind blew in, clearing the fog and opening up the views before our very eyes. We nearly lost our shit with excitement as we ran back and forth trying to get photos before the fog descended again. 

That was the moment I realized the views were even more epic because of the low clouds and stormy weather. That moment wouldn’t have happened if everything had gone according to my perfect plan. We would’ve been on our way up Mount Rogers instead of at that overlook. So yes, I didn’t get to reach the peak. But I did get to spend time outside in a beautiful place away from the emails filling up my inbox. Looking back on it, that’s all I can ask for. 

Shannon: [Insert cheesy line about learning to dance in the rain.]

Photos of Grayson Highlands State Park by Shannon McGowan

The Takeaway

Ellen: Despite my best attempts, I struggle to accept that there are few things in life you can control. We did decide to cut our trip short by a night since there were severe weather warnings in the area, we’d done all the hikes we could do, and we both needed to actually get some sleep that night. 

In reflecting on the trip, it wasn’t the total disaster that I felt like it was in the moment. Sure, hiking in the rain isn’t my favorite. But that is a temporary condition that will eventually change. Plus, I can always go back another time to hike Mount Rogers. Time spent outside with friends is always something worth carrying forward. 

Shannon: There was something special about this trip, not in how many miles we hiked or how much elevation we climbed, but just in making it happen. With a lack of travel this past year, I value these new experiences more than ever. Showing up prepared helps make the most of these moments, and I am so grateful to get to find the perfect balance between “going with the flow” and being prepared with a friend like Ellen.   

My recipe for success: make a list, choose car camping, throw all your sh*t in the car, drive to location, repeat. Above all, always bring a raincoat when traveling with Ellen Kanzinger. 

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Header image: Ellen Kanzinger, left, and Shannon McGowan slog through the rain. Again. Photo by Rachel Stone

Places to Go, Things to See: