Devil’s Den

A thick layer of dust covers the path. With each footfall a small cloud explodes around my shoe. The last rain fell a week ago. Dry is an understatement. Years ago, I passed a couple with their toddler on this trail. The child sat in the dust, scraping together a mound, placing pebbles around the top like some sort of castle armament. Mom and Dad looked on with pride. “Hey, you know that dust is just dried out horse poop, right?” That’s what I didn’t say as I ran by. What’s the sense in upsetting them?

We call these the horse trails. That’s a point of contention with me. Groups run horseback riding tours daily. Those horse-people think they own the trails. I’ve sparred with them countless times over the past seventeen years. Once after running up behind the horse group, I stopped running and began to walk past them. “Don’t walk past us, that’s dangerous to the riders.”

“Well, you don’t stop so I can pass, what do you want me to do?”

“You can walk behind us until the next road crossing.”

I used to seek out these confrontations, now I work hard to avoid them.

Susan: “When are you going running today?”

Me: “I thought I’d run late, just before dinner, after the horse-people leave.”

So I ran before dinner, dry, dusty… and hot—my first run in the eighties this year. Two miles in, my tongue already dragged on the ground. Earlier in the day, Eli kicked my butt.

~ ~ ~

“Hey, I’m going out to Devil’s Den to play my guitar. “You wanna come and see my favorite rock?” Lots to dissect there. Both my kids have a favorite rock. We live on the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield, giant rocks litter the landscape. Wikipedia tells me that the rocks came from periglacial frost wedging of the igneous landform formed 200 million years ago when a diabase sill intruded through the Triassic Gettysburg plain. I don’t know what that means, but rocks, lots and lots of rocks. Devil’s Den is a jumble of boulders strewn on the side of a steep hill and along a stream. Families with young kids take a break from a weekend of nonstop history and play on the rocks.

Since he was a little kid, Eli focused on the streambed as his preferred place to rock scramble. Most people climb the rocks on the hill. I hate the hill. Kids walk straight out on a big flat rock and instantly find themselves looking down a forty-foot drop. I spent every minute with my children at those cliffs worried that one of them would fall off. Every summer, a couple of people get helicoptered off to a hospital due to inattentiveness or just a misplaced step. The streambed, on the other hand, is just a long, tricky scramble over impossible terrain. There’s risk, sure, the rocks are big, but you’d need to try pretty hard to get killed.

Susan, Eli and I arrived at Devil’s Den. “Do you want to go to my rock the fast way or the fun way?” Let me tell you about the fun way. We traveled a hundred yards climbing over, squeezing through, jumping between and even crawling under four to eight-foot boulders. Many of our routes took careful planning, assessing foot and handholds, gutsy leaps, and scurrying up steep walls like a lounge of lizards.

I felt unsteady. The last time I did any rock scrambling, somewhat before the pandemic, I confidently climbed. I took chances knowing my body wouldn’t let me down. At that point I trail-ran a couple of times a week. Trail running uses more muscles than road running. All those stabilizing muscles that keep you balanced are constantly in play. But for the past two years, I ran my miles on the road—less planning, no travel time to the trailhead, no horse-people. And not as good a workout. My scrambling was shaky.

After my disappointing rock scramble, I decided I better get back on the trail. And this is where we began: two miles into my run, hot and dusty, sucking wind. I guess that rock scrambling really used me up, because holy heck, I felt like crap. At the two-mile mark, my sensible side said, Hey Jeff, maybe you should just turn around and run back to the car now. Instead, I stuck with my planned loop and regretted it for the rest of the run.

I like the stability I gain from trail running. I’d like to recapture that. I think a weekly rock scramble at Devil’s Den might be a great shortcut towards getting it back. I’ll need to join Eli throughout the summer when he visits his rock.

By the way, Eli’s rock towered thirty feet high with sheer faces all around. We got to the top by side-shuffling up a crack. Certainly no safer than the cliffs at the top of the hill, I was pretty terrified the whole time. When I go back with Eli, I think I’ll skip that part.

19 thoughts on “Devil’s Den

  1. A lounge of lizards!! I absolutely love that they’re called a “lounge”😂😂😂 Yes, I looked it up to see if you made it up or it was the common name of a group. Almost as good as a murder of crows.

    You are a seriously brave person! I find the dumbest ways to injure myself. I’m not going rock climbing, although the helicopter ride might be fun😂😂

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    • Yes, I needed to look up the lizard grouping. Lounge was about the last word I would have guessed but it’s really funny. Re: your helicopter ride comment – that’s funny as S#!+ 😉

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  2. We spent Easter enjoying a jetty of rocks on the ocean in Plum Island. Each time the waves broke, it was a scramble to get to a safe rock. Floor is lava, is a game that he kids never get tired of. It was thrilling and exhausting all at the same time. Now in my 50’s I don’t need to do that again til next Easter.

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    • Googles Plum Island… ah an east coast gal. Looks like a nice place. Rock scrambling on wet rocks seems a couple degrees more dangerous than on dry. Especially when the water is near freezing.

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  3. Bob and I have very different opinions on Devils Den. He is one of those parents that takes the kids to go play on the rocks. I see the danger, he sees the fun. Not only does he let the kids (our clumsy kids) jump from rock to rock, he actually lets them play hide and seek inside the rocks. If I am there, all I am doing is praying for “playtime” to be over. And since I am not that much of a history person, that says a lot that I want to get back on the tour.

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    • You and I could sit in the parking lot and NOT WATCH the kids play. I still have twinges of those concerns with Eli, but he’s pretty sensible, and with the exception of a certain mountain bike accident, not so prone to getting hurt.

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  4. Bouldering is sooo much fun. An ex boyfriend and I used to do it all the time. That was 7 years ago though. I love that you all have favorites rocks! As far as the horse people, we have similar issue with Mountain bikers. They forget people have the right of way. 🙄

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    • The mountain bikers here are very polite (says a mountain biker). Seriously, I’ve encountered bikers dozens of times while out hiking and running and they always yield the trail with good cheer. Our woods are really pretty empty of people, but those park trails always have horses. Most of the riders are great, but the ones who run the tours can be serious —holes.

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  5. I love so many of your descriptions, Jeff, but “scurrying up steep walls like a lounge of lizards” sticks with particular delight : ) And I found myself nodding with recognition as I remembered the horse people from a trail I ran on in high school.

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  6. I continue to be amazed at all the stuff you do outdoors. How nice that you have so much cool stuff around too. Even if I’m like some of your other readers in that I worry too much about people getting hurt.

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    • Well, I’m a pretty good worrier too, and Susan isn’t much better. But it’s true there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff to do here. We really didn’t fathom how much when we moved here, and we moved here to be outdoors. It really wound up being a great move.

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  7. You certainly have a lot of perseverance and guts, Jeff, and a certain acceptance of your children’s risk-taking. If that were my kids, I’d be having kittens (I don’t know if you have that phrase where you are?). I’m glad to hear you, or they are not so likely to harm to serious harm on the streambed. Sounds like a tough run, though. And as for the horse people, I can only compare this with my driving down the footpath/cycleway to town on my trusty steed (well, okay, Alfie, my new wheelchair). I tend to stay on the footpath unless I need to go past a big group of people. It seems almost always that as I pull out into the cycleway to overtake, some cyclist comes vrooming past at top speed whilst cursing me at the same time for having the audacity to overtake the people. Well, where am I supposed to go? Admittedly, I have legs (albeit they don’t work very well), but I also have wheels (not me personally), so where on Earth am I supposed to go?

    My granddaughter would love those rocks. She’d be in her element. She wanted to be a palaeontologist or an archaeologist! Pretty impressive for a nine-year-old. Now, she wants to be a vet instead!

    I love the lounge of lizards. Did you know that a group of ladybirds is called a loveliness? There’s a useless fact for you. I’m full of them!

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    • Well, yes, I definitely worry about him on those rocks, like I worry about Sophie playing rugby, but I think I’d worry more if they were committed to a sedentary lifestyle. (Although it *was* pretty annoying when Eli broke his pelvis last summer while on vacation.

      Many of those cyclists just take themselves too seriously. When I lived in DC, much of my longer riding was on bike paths and those guys (always guys) who risked safety to shave 2 seconds drove me nuts. We called them LeMond-wannabes. Showing my age there.. LeMond? Who’s that?). Sophie was planning to be a vet from age 8 until 15 when she shadowed a vet at work for career day. The woman went on and on about how “the pay didn’t match the cost of the schooling and anyone considering being a vet was insane.” That was the end of that.

      Besides liking the grouping ‘loveliness’ I just like how you Brits call them ladybirds.

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      • How on Earth did Eli break his pelvis? He’s very young for that to have happened—poor thing. I can empathise because I fractured my pelvis (in six places) a couple of years ago and was in agony for nearly a year and on high doses of morphine for months, which helped a little, but I was completely zonked out for much of the time.

        LeMond? Who’s he? It’s okay; I googled it. I can see why you called them LeMond wannabes now. Funnily enough (well, not very funny, really) – I was coming back from town in Alfie a short while ago when a cyclist came bombing around the corner without looking and crashed into the side of me. He didn’t stop to apologise and drove off at top speed! Charming of him, I thought. Huh! At least I wasn’t hurt, but Alfie has a scratch on him now, and I’ve only had him six days! I’m not a happy bunny.

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