Tinker Mountain hikes

Tinker Cliffs are visible atop Tinker Mountain from the bottom of the Andy Layne Trail in the Catawaba Valley near Roanoke, Virginia. (Bob Downing, MCT / April 18, 2011)

DALEVILLE, Va. — It is a tough uphill hike to Tinker Cliffs.

The distinctive cliffs of light-colored sandstone stretch nearly half a mile atop Tinker Mountain at an elevation of 3,000 feet along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The cliffs drop 50 to 60 feet to the sloped mountainside below and offer stellar vistas.

There are other attractive hiking options nearby: McAfee Knob and Dragon's Tooth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia. The three sites are together known as Virginia's Triple Crown for hikers. You can hit all three on a 24-mile overnight hike.

But I was headed to Tinker Cliffs on a day hike to see what I could see.

It was, in a way, a literary pilgrimage. I was paying tribute to Annie Dillard, one of my favorite authors, who penned "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in 1974.

Tinker Creek is visible in the distance from the flanks of Tinker Mountain. The landmark cliffs look out to the west in the opposite direction.

Tinker Cliffs is a special place along the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail, sanctified by Dillard, at least to some.

When I got there, I did an Annie Dillard. I sat. I looked. I observed. I absorbed. At least for a few minutes.

Her book — it won the Pulitzer Prize — is about living in a cabin along Tinker Creek and discovering the natural world around her through the seasons.

It is filled with a sense of wonder and an intensity of experience. It is about the inner spirit that is reached through reflections on the natural universe. It has a curiosity and a childlike wonder that are disarming. She is, in a sense, a modern-day, Southern Appalachian Henry David Thoreau.

"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" is part reportorial, often reflective, meditative or even mystical. She is on a personal pilgrimage, seeking enlightenment.

The style is highly poetic, with evocative sensory descriptions, metaphors, similes, alliteration and onomatopoeia, all interwoven with an array of allusions. Some love it. Others hate it, finding it overbearing.

A key message is that the natural universe abounds in extravagance and intricacy. True seeing is difficult to achieve. The human task is to experience the world in all its variety and wonder.

"I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. I think about the valley. It is my leisure as well as my work," Dillard wrote.

"Like the bear who went over the mountain, I went out to see what I could see," she later wrote. "On a good day, I might catch a glimpse of another wooded ridge rolling under the sun like water, another bivouac."

Her later books of poems, essays and stories include "Holy the Firm," "For the Time Being," "An American Childhood," "The Living" and "The Maytrees."

I took the hard way getting to Tinker Cliffs. I started at a trailhead off state Route 779 west of Roanoke and north of Catawba at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I set off across meadows and wooded plots along a stream — not Tinker Creek — that would take me to Scorched Earth Gap and Tinker Cliffs.

My route to the white-blazed Appalachian Trail was the Andy Layne Trail, named for a local trail advocate with the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club who died in 1991.