I live in Washington DC. While I normally relish opportunities to disparage anything and everything about this city, it does have a few things going for it. For example, it is possible get out of it. Unlike some big cities, you can actually escape for the weekends and get to something that resembles gen-u-ine wilderness. Granted it takes some effort. You have to drive at least three hours into WV to really get away- and it takes the first hour just to drive the short five miles to escape DC proper. Of course, for city folk, rural West Virginia can be, well, an experience. There’s a popular house and lawn decoration out that way. It’s a red flag with a big blue X in the center, which is filled with white stars. I’m not sure what it means exactly, but I’ve heard it has something to do with equality. And I tell you this- the Dems definitely don’t have many out-of-the-closet supporters in those parts. However, I don’t want to make it seem like all West-Virginians are intolerant. For example, on the road leading to one of our favorite camping spots, there’s a church with “All Races Welcome” painted right there on the side of it.
If you asked me a few weeks ago, I would have been hesitant to call any Mid-Atlantic forest “gen-u-ine” wilderness. For anyone that’s been to the West, you get it. Most Eastern forests were clearcut at some point in the not too distant past. The mountains, while beautiful in some cases, kind of feel like hills if I’m being honest. When you get to the tops of those hills – ahem- I mean mountains- you’re far more likely to see roads, houses, and farm land than virgin landscapes. Bucolic yes, but wild? And while part of me appreciates the fact that I’ll never be eaten by mountain lions in West Virginia, another part of me would gladly offer myself up as a big cat’s lunch if it meant the area was as wild as it once was.
However, my girlfriend Katya and I recently had a gen-u-ine wilderness experience, but not because we were necessarily seeking one. It all started because I had a bright idea.
It was early April and the weather in DC was mild. We both had a long weekend and planned to go backpacking. We looked into some hikes and settled on one of our old stand-bys- Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a wilderness area in the Monongahela National Forest with some unique attributes. The landscape is somewhat reminiscent of upstate New York or southern Canada. At elevations above 4000 ft., the dominant tree types are spruce, birch, and maple- very different from the typical oak-dominated Appalachian forests. There are vast meadows filled with blueberry bushes and peat bogs chock full of lowbush cranberries. There are streams and plunge pools to dip in on hot summer days.
|This is what Dolly Sods looks like...sometimes.|
I have seen hiking forums that describe Dolly Sods as unique in climate as well as landscape. Apparently, it snows there even in early summer, and temperatures can vary wildly from microclimate to microclimate. Until last weekend we had only visited in late Spring, Summer, and Fall. Normally we drive to the trailheads on the eastern side of the park, which is essentially a plateau at the top of a mountain. However, last weekend, we encountered something we hadn’t expected. An extended section of the forest road was closed for the winter. The road was blocked some five and a half miles shy of our desired trailhead. It was annoying, however, neither one of us wanted to abandon our plans to camp out. It just meant that we would have to walk an additional five and a half miles uphill in the rain before reaching the trailhead. Backpacking isn’t always roses.
We loaded our gear, slung our heavy packs on our shoulders, and headed up the switchbacks. As we ascended, I grew more and more annoyed. The road was in great shape. There was no need for it to be closed. The rain intensified and the temperatures dropped noticeably as we gained elevation. Walking uphill isn’t actually that much fun.
“Five miles uphill could mean a few more hours of this”, I said.
And that’s when I had my bright idea. What if we were to bushwhack up the side of the mountain, avoid the switchbacks, cut across the plateau to the forest road, and arrive in glorious triumph at the trailhead having shaved off some serious time?
Initially Katya was dubious. The grade off-road was ludicrously steep and there were large rocks everywhere that would obviously make locomotion difficult. However, I can be convincing. “We either spend a long period of time moderately exerting ourselves, or we do a short burst of extreme exertion”, I said. After rounding yet another steep switchback, knowing there were many more to go, Katya became more amenable to the idea.
I scouted out the side of the mountain looking for something that was steep but not ludicrously steep. I found a game trail that snaked up the mountain. “If deer use this trail, it probably isn’t that bad”, I said with utter conviction. Never mind the fact that deer are ungulates with hooves that have evolved to move about gracefully in wild landscapes.
I started up first. While the first fifty feet were very steep, the slope from that point on became more gradual. We occasionally needed to grab on to trees to pull ourselves up a particularly steep or slippery section, however, it was very doable. We climbed for about twenty minutes before reaching a level area dominated by incredibly dense mountain laurel thickets. “We have to get through these thick laurels and over that small rocky hill before we reach the mountain-top plateau. From there we should just have to cross the plateau over some big rocks and we’ll be at the trailhead in no time,” I said.
Taking the lead, I tried to bust through the thickets in a few spots, but was repelled wholesale. I noticed another game trail that seemed like a better option. We started along the trail and found the laurels to be dense but penetrable. We reached the rocky hill and scrambled our way to the top. It was not easy by any means, but again, it was doable.
In my mind’s eye, everything was so clear. After cresting the hill, we would be atop a magnificent rocky plateau. We would hop from granite slab to granite slab unimpeded before reaching Forest Road 75.
That wasn’t the case. Not even close.
We might has well have been on the surface of the moon. A massive escarpment of bare rock stood in front of us. There were enormous gaps between the rocks that would be challenging to cross. The smooth rocky highway I saw in my mind’s eye turned out to be bullshit.
I was discouraged, however in an attempt to convince myself that I should be excited, I invoked the spirit of an intrepid mountaineer- one who is able to pause and find transcendence in Nature’s beauty in even the harshest conditions. “This is beautiful,” I said. In reality, everything had turned to crap. It had become very cold atop the mountain. The wind howled at a steady 25 mph with frequent stronger gusts and drove the rain sideways in sheets, soaking our clothing. The rocks were slick and my thin-soled running shoes offered little in the form of traction. To boot, I was wearing eyeglasses and they had fogged over so completely that I was functionally blind.
Katya and I climbed over several sizable fissures to reach the base of the escarpment before carefully scaling the rock face. “Baby, I know it’s rough but we just have to get to the top of these rocks and then we should be able to cut across to the road,” I said.
Do I really have to tell you what happened? I didn’t think so.
It was the moon’s surface still, only this time a lot more of it. Dense blueberry bushes made moving from rock to rock even more difficult, and painful. I wiped the fog from my glasses and saw that at least a mile that treacherous terrain stood between us and a tree line (which I guessed demarked the forest road). Katya stopped to don an extra pair of pants because the blueberry bushes were cutting her legs through her thin spandex leggings. It was at this point I remembered that I lived in 2017 and those fancy cell phone contraptions got GPS that tells you were you is.
I shielded the phone from the rain and looked at the screen. We were a tiny blue dot with lots of green around us. I zoomed out and saw that Forest Road 75 was about a mile in front of us. I assured Katya that my futuristic technology had confirmed what I knew all along. We were almost there. More crap.
I picked a large group of trees in the direction we needed to travel, however, it was impossible to walk in a straight line. The giant cracks between rocks forced us to walk in zig-zags, and made us focus so much on our feet that it was difficult to stay trained on our target. Katya was sure we were traveling in circles. I assured her that was not the case. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure we were traveling in circles. I became increasingly disoriented and paused several times to take GPS readings. I was starting to worry that the rain was going to ruin my phone and leave it all up to my wits. In case you haven’t been paying attention, I don’t have any.
We carefully climbed over the rocks for about an hour before finally reaching the trees. The GPS showed that the forest road was 75 yards in front of us. However, a wall of spruce, laurel, and rhododendron stood between us and the road. We looked for a way around the greenery, but our efforts proved fruitless. We would have to go through it.
I started into the dense vegetation, trying to find anything that resembled a path. Nothing. That’s when I went for broke. I used my shoulder to push apart the torturous branches and forced my way through with brute strength. My backpack hung up on everything. My glasses wouldn’t stay on my face. Lacerations abounded. At one point I made it a few yards before realizing that I wasn’t actually walking on the ground, but was instead walking on a mat of overturned branches and limbs a foot or two off the ground. We were traveling at the rate of about a meter a minute.
Bushwhacking takes a lot out of a person. I was positively winded and my muscles started to feel all gooey. My clothing and backpack were now dripping wet. I remember thinking that I couldn’t take much more. It was just then I saw something that resembled light. I used my gooey muscles to power through the last few yards and finally broke through into open air. I took a few steps and found myself standing on Forest Road 75.
“It’s the road!” I exclaimed. Katya joined me. We hugged and did a little dance. We proceeded on to the trailhead, still operating under the assumption we were going to camp out. It had rained so much that the trail was more river than trail. It’s never good when a trail has a current I’ve always said. Regardless, we started down the path, which cuts through vast meadows in the northern section of the park. Without the protection of trees, the wind buffeted our saturated bodies and we started to get real cold real fast. I was shivering. My dexterity was impaired. My fingers were pruned as if I had stayed in the bath for too long. I was worried that the forest was so wet it would be challenging if not impossible to make a fire. Our sleeping bags and extra clothes were obviously soaked. This is when I said the first intelligent thing in a while.
“What if we were to just go home?” I said.
“That’s the only good idea I’ve heard all day,” Katya responded.
|Yeah that wasn't happening.|
We hopped and skipped down the road, rubbing our hands together to get some feeling back in them. Joy came easily as we made haste down the road. We weren’t fighting gravity. We weren’t fighting slippery boulders, gale force winds, or impenetrable forests. We knew we would be warm and comfortable that night. We got to the car and got the hell out of there.
On the drive home, Katya and I joked and listened to music. It’s easy to joke when you’re not hypothermic. Then I got to thinking about our ordeal and realized many things. First, we are pretty tough- physically and mentally. Some people would have panicked and/or collapsed if they were in our shoes. Second, we are adventurous. Plenty of people wouldn’t have been in our shoes because they wouldn’t have strayed off the road into unknown territory to begin with. Third, sometimes I have jelly for brains- not fancy currant jam or apricot preserves, but store-brand grape jelly (I for one like to blame mathematicians- it turns out the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line).
Finally, I realized how important it was for me to have had that harrowing experience on the side of the mountain. How many chances do we get in this strip mall nightmare to feel the overwhelming force of unadulterated wilderness? How many chances do we get to feel completely vulnerable- not because we wear our hearts on our sleeves or someone shines a spotlight on our deepest insecurities- but because the landscape we are in can actually kill us? These were strange thoughts for me, because I spend so much time thinking about how I want to become more a part of the ecosystem. Over the past few years I have learned so much about how wilderness can potentially sustain and replenish us, but not so much about its occasional disregard for us, the ecosystem participants.
However, these thoughts don’t depress me. They give me hope. I often worry about how humans are destroying our precious planet. I worry that humans are incapable of being responsible stewards. However, our ordeal reminded me that Nature was here before us and will probably be here after us. People can buy into whatever nonsensical narratives they like that place humans in dominion over Nature. Humans can go on believing that Nature is there for us to exploit. Nature doesn’t care. She is resilient. She is implacable. She is simply there- in all of her majesty, rawness, and occasional ferocity. She’s just there, and we can do more than take. We have the choice to open ourselves up to her enduring rhythms and the privilege to join in and make her song more beautiful still.