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 Va. 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.
The yellow-blazed trail climbs about 1,700 feet through the forest in a long series of switchbacks and one straight-up ascent that was a killer. That was a hard, long, extended scramble up a 75-degree slope that sucks your breath away and leaves your legs feeling like old rubber bands. That was the only time I really hated Annie Dillard.
Along the trail
The trail crosses wooden stiles or ladders for hikers over barbed-wire fences, and there are two wooden footbridges over gurgling Little Catawba Creek as it runs through a pretty cove.
Much of the trail is routed over property owned by the Roanoke Cement Co. Hikers are welcome to use the Andy Layne Trail, despite the numerous No Trespassing signs.
The original Andy Layne Trail was steeper and tougher. It's been rerouted with more switchbacks to make it more hiker-friendly.
The hike begins at 1,300 feet elevation, rising to 2,360 feet at Scorched Earth Gap and 3,000 feet at Tinker Cliffs.
Scorched Earth Gap got its name from an unhappy, foul-mouthed female hiker who was extremely vocal about a 1982 bushwhacking hike.
Tinkers Cliffs' factory-size boulders are 450 million years old.
You can see west across the Catawba Valley with its farmhouses and the endless mountain ridges beyond.
It was overcast and hazy when I reached the top and the views were less than stellar. No, I didn't blame that on Annie Dillard.
The flanks of Tinker Mountain offer distant views to the east over the Tinker Creek watershed and Roanoke. The stream flows through Lone Star, Glebe Mills, Daleville and Cloverdale before it empties into the Roanoke River in Roanoke. A bike path-hiking trail follows a portion of the stream in Roanoke.
Tinker Mountain reportedly got its name from the large number of Revolutionary War deserters who hid on the flanks of the mountains and made pots and pans.
Interestingly, the Andy Layne Trail and the nearby North Mountain Trail were both once part of the Appalachian Trail, but it was relocated in the 1970s.
Just south of Tinker Cliffs lies McAfee Knob, which many through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail say offers the best views in Virginia.
The rock ledge on Catawba Mountain sticks out into space and offers 200-degree views of the bucolic Catawba Valley, plus vistas of Peaks of Otter to the south, Potts Mountain to the west and House Mountain to the north.
Some say McAfee Knob is the most photographed landmark on the entire 2,160-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail. It is 6.1 miles one way from Tinker Cliffs to McAfee Knob at 3,197 feet, or a 6.9-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead at state Route 311 to McAfee Knob and back.
It is named for James McAfee Sr., a Scottish-Irish immigrant who settled along Catawba Creek about 1750.
From another State Route 311 trailhead, it is a 5.6-mile round-trip hike south to Dragon's Tooth, a dramatic sandstone monolith that provides views of Millers Cove below. Dragon's Tooth juts from 3,020-foot Cove Mountain and offers views of the Catawba Valley.
It is a tough and steep climb from the trailhead to Dragon's Tooth. You gain and then lose about 1,300 feet in elevation. The round-trip trek will take about 3.5 hours.
Nearby is Carvins Cove Nature Reserve. It covers nearly 13,000 acres and is owned by the city of Roanoke. It is reportedly the second-largest municipal park in the United States.
It includes a drinking-water reservoir of 800 acres plus 30 miles of trails. Activities include boating, mountain biking, hiking and equestrian riding.