A hike worthy of a war hero

The view of Craig Creek Valley from the Audie Murphy Monument.

Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times

The view of Craig Creek Valley from the Audie Murphy Monument.

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Maps

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Appalachian Trail, Va. 621 (Craig Creek) to Va. 620 (Trout Creek)

  • Trailheads: Parking is available on both 621 and 620. 621 connects with Virginia 311 between Catawba and New Castle (past the Dragon's Tooth trailhead if you re traveling west from Roanoke).
  • Distance: 7.6 miles.
  • Shelters: None on this segment. Nearest shelters are Niday, one-half mile below 621, and Pickle Branch, one mile continuing north from 620.
  • Water: Craig Creek and Trout Creek at the beginning and end, respectively, of this segment keep water continuously. On the ridgeline, however, there is no dependable water source.
  • Elevation difference: From 1,500 feet at Craig Creek, a quarter-mile from the 621 trailhead, to a maximum of 3,000 feet on Brush Mountain, back to 1,500 feet at Trout Creek near 620. The walk is relatively level for the first mile as it bridges several creeks just past the 621 trailhead and again for three miles on top of the mountain.
  • Highlights: The Audie Murphy Monument, located where the most-decorated World War II veteran died in a 1971 plane crash, is located almost exactly halfway along this segment.
  • More information on Audie Murphy: www.audiemurphy.com.

Back in 2001, thousands swarmed into Bedford on June 6 for the dedication of the D-Day Memorial.

A much more peaceful scene surrounded a small monument on a Virginia mountaintop that Memorial Day, 30 years to the day after America's most decorated soldier of World War II perished there.

Audie Leon Murphy survived three injuries in the horrors of combat in the European Theater to win 33 medals for his bravery and valor, but he could not survive the fiery plane crash into Brush Mountain southwest of Roanoke that killed five others.

An actor in 44 movies after the war, the Texan was on a business trip to consider an investment in Martinsville when the eight-seat plane in which he was a passenger hit the mountain in fog and rain on May 28, 1971.

Three years after the crash, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5311 in Christiansburg placed a stone monument on the mountain near the site where the wreckage of the plane and the six bodies were recovered.

Nearly 20 years after the fatal crash, the Appalachian Trail was rerouted to run down the spine of Brush Mountain, and consequently, to pass by the Audie Murphy Monument

Now, thousands of AT hikers every year are briefly educated about a man who, many fear, is quickly being forgotten as our nation's World War II veterans die off by the hundreds daily. It is something that we should all be reminded of, as we have the freedom and pleasure to hike the AT whenever we like instead of being required to goose-step to the Nazi salute.

On a spring day that defied all superlatives, I paid my respects to the man who defied all superlatives as a soldier, and through him, I paid respects to all who have served our country. I hiked nearly four miles and up 1,500 feet under deep blue skies, fluffy cotton clouds and an emerald forest enlivened by a week of drought-busting and creek-swelling rains to visit Mr. Murphy's spot high on that mountain.

As it works out, the Audie Murphy Monument is almost exactly on the halfway point of the 7.6-mile AT segment between Virginia routes 621 and 620. From either direction, the route involves a climb of about 1,500 feet to the 3,000-foot ridge top. Neither route is excessively steep, but it is a painstaking climb.

For those who want to visit the monument but don t want to or physically cannot trudge up a mountain, there is a relatively level half-mile walk available but it involves a white-knuckle, three-mile gravel road drive off of Virginia 624 to the top of Brush Mountain. The road is marked by brown signs off 624. After winding back and forth to reach the ridgeline, the road ends at a small parking area, and a sign points down the wide mountaintop trail to the monument. From there, it's just a pleasant stroll almost anyone can make.

From either direction on the AT, it is a fabulous hike. I hiked from 620 (Trout Creek runs beside it) last winter. The leaf-off views into the Craig Creek Valley are eye-popping. The trail begins climbing immediately out of the small parking area, but achieves the summit in a series of rises interspersed with more level breath-catching stretches.

It takes two miles to reach the ridgetop going south, then another two miles or so of easy ridgetop hiking to the monument.

The route from 621 teases you by beginning with about a mile of mostly flat hiking under a dense forest canopy (some impressive hemlocks) and over several streams. It was a good thing these streams were bridged: Craig Creek was more a roaring river the day I hiked it and would have been quite impossible to cross on foot. The smaller streams added musical accompaniment to a day worth singing about.

After the level stream-crossing section, the trail begins a steeper climb to the summit. It is never horribly steep, and there are some switchbacks, but there are lots of long unbroken ascents that will light matches on the backs of your legs.

Be sure and enjoy some of the views that jump out between trees from time to time. I love the many oddly shaped trees angling into the rocky hillside.

A wooden bench greets the AT hiker as soon as the trail quits climbing and hits the wide path to the monument. The AT turns left down the path for a mile toward the monument, which is just past a wildlife pond and up to the left on a short blue-blazed spur. The marker tersely explains who Audie Murphy was, how and when he died, and the family members who survived him.

There is also a short trail from the monument down to a rocky overlook point, featuring a scene of the Craig Creek Valley framed in pine fronds. It's definitely worth a few extra steps to absorb this peace in the valley. I simply sat quietly on the bench in front of the monument for a few minutes in Murphy's honor. It was hard to imagine the terror of combat or a plane crash as I watched several varieties of butterflies fluttering around and listened to the wind sift through the trees.

I also thought that if May 28, 1971, would have been as clear as the day I hiked, Audie Murphy might still be alive today -- perhaps as a dignitary at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

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