There’s a whole state-full of forest near Pennsylvania, a place that time forgot. Here, free-flowing rivers still bring mountain spring water down to the mighty Ohio and more wooded ridgelines are all that can be seen from any ridgeline. In one hidden holler’ after the next, ramps push up through the duff, salamanders emerge and morel mushrooms make their appearance as April leads on into May. I like to spend as much time here as I can.
I have access to a large chunk of this land that few people do, a place that looks no different, in general, than all of the other surrounding wooded hills but that is owned by friends of mine. This is where I went last week to build a trail, assess mushrooms and generally check up on the place. But I also went to be alone in the woods, to climb through the silent hill-land forest and sleep on the ground next to a brook. I’ve been needing some of that.
It’s a place that immediately breaks one from city things and turns the thoughts to one’s surroundings – to the creek that trickles past through red clay banks or to the buzzards circling high overhead.
I arrived at the wide lawn and empty house about nightfall and threw up the tent immediately north of my car. I got situated for the night but, still not tired, decided to walk around a bit. I took my headlamp and checked out the creek banks for strange new creatures. I saw fish and what looked like spawning depressions in the gravel. This was good. I heard a faint whirring and saw a huge insect rising off the water – a soft-winged Dobson fly. Almost as soon as my light fell on it, I heard another brisk flapping noise and a bat struck, out of nowhere, assaulting the fly but missing, turning on a dime and making a meal of him. It was probably about the largest thing the bat was capable of eating. All this action played out just beyond arm’s length from me.
I took notice of the eroding lawn a little further down. This had progressed since I’d last visited, not too long ago. The day I’d pulled out of here, a flood was just beginning and I’d wondered how the creek would change. Here, roots showed that hadn’t before and one of the few trees seemed a little less stable.
In this part of West Virginia, cleared narrow valleys between steep wooded hillsides are the norm. Unfortunately, this usually means that creeks are cut to their banks by landowners, leaving little in the way of riparian vegetation. A healthy riparian zone is important to the health of a stream (and beyond) for several reasons not the least of which is erosion control. Plants of various types and sizes help to stabilize the stream bank and to keep one’s property from washing away down the North Fork River perhaps and on to the Mississippi. But a good riparian zone also:
- offers quality shelter (near water) and traveling corridors for all kinds of wildlife.
- offers food and shelter for aquatic invertebrates.
- cools the stream through shading.
- reduces the smothering sediment load so destructive of fish eggs and aquatic insects.
- contributes and holds large woody debris (in time) so vital to high quality flowing waters.
- contributes annual leaf debris so vital to a flourishing invertebrate community.
- generally contributes to a more diverse fish population.
- fosters a more diverse and natural wildlife community from beneath the clay bed to nesting sites in the branches above.
I cringe at the site of lawn abutting the water but this was only an imperfection here in an otherwise idyllic place – a place that seemed humans had touched only lightly in comparison to the suburbs of Pittsburgh or Chicago or Raleigh.
I clicked the light off and realized how very silent everything was here, how dark and how vast the expanse of stars – an appropriate dome above this almost endless expanse of forest. This was a good time and place to sleep close to the earth.
I woke before daybreak and listened to the various birds wake up in the surrounding trees. A barn owl offered a crescendo or denoument to a good night’s rodent patrol before heading home. It was just a bit chilly and as soon as it was light enough, I slipped on the sneakers, hopped the brook on the stepping stones I’d left last time and took a run up the back hollow. This seemed a good start.
The zip stove whirred back at “camp,” incinerating a load of broken sticks as my breakfast boiled and sizzled. Something would be missing from the woods experience without this tradition, a cooking experience that takes me back to long walks through the Appalachians.
I ate many types of animals early in the trip. Soon my animal crackers ran out though and I realized that I’d need to go foraging for things like mushrooms (or pull other junk food from the pack).
Preparation for the mission at hand didn’t take long. I checked the small pack for a few essentials, snatched up the sleeping bag in one hand and a bucket of ramps in the other, and was off into the woods. I crossed two sets of stepping stones and climbed steeply up a gas line right-of-way. My “clippers” were on my hip and I began making use of these as I entered the woods, opening up the trail a bit.
“The trail” is my primary contribution to the property. This was just the first thing that had popped into my head when I’d heard that my friends had acquired the place. “You’re going to need a perimeter trail,” was my first inkling at improvement, at getting the most out of this wooded acreage. On early visits we’d taken stabs at flagging a line through the woods to surround the property but hadn’t made huge progress. We’d even used tools to cut in a section, “slabbing” along a very steep slope. But, overall, the trail was still in its infancy and more work needed to be done before one could head out the back door and expect to return to camp at the other end of the circuit. Still, I didn’t expect to create a National-Park-grade path over the next couple of days.
My trail-building ethos, or strategy, is much the same as for other areas of my life. It’s not about the grand goal, really – the perfectly graded, mulched and bordered long path between the trees. It’s about the long process of creating this, something I’ve come to describe as iterative trail building. This means we don’t go out and put in a perfect section of trail in a day. We walk the trail over and over, each time improving a little, shuffling through the leaves to interrupt the humus, clipping a few branches and maybe laying a straight log or two alongside. Later we might paint blazes on trees, cut into steep slopes and build rustic bridges. But nothing is “cut into stone” and this line between the trees remains malleable, changing with our needs or whims, re-routing as necessary – fluid like the creek downhill. All good trails are. And the joy of trails, for the builder, is more in the process of construction, less in achieving a perfect sylvan byway.
My eyes were open for morel mushrooms and for ramps – that choicest of Appalachian delicacies. But this had been a dry April and neither were evident. I wandered along the first trail we’d cut through (the easy way) looking for my favorite edibles and finding neither. The ferns, however, seemed oblivious to the lack of water and were going ahead with their life-cycles on schedule, unfurling lacey fiddleheads above the moss. It seemed there were three species here, at least.
Shuffling on downhill again, I came to the little stream that drains this acreage and dropped off my sleeping bag here for later.
Things were dry but in a central depression, back uphill a bit, I found the kind of damp spot I’d been looking for. As far as I could tell, this property lacked ramps, something no Appalachian property should lack and I was prepared to rectify this. Reaching into the bucket and opening the paper bag inside, I took clusters of ramps I’d brought, 5 at a time and, using my trowel, planted 12 clusters all around the almost-pond. Ramps transplant easily, I’ve been told. We’ll see, as this is my first time doing it.
Ecologically-minded people might shudder at the thought of my bringing this vegetable from far away to introduce to this pristine forest. Was I introducing the next invasive peril?
No, I wasn’t and here’s why: Ramps are native virtually everywhere in the mid-Atlantic Appalachians and beyond. The difficulty with ramps is more in maintaining enough rather than in letting them run wild on the forest floor. This is because Appalachian people know what a ramp is and very much want to eat them. They’ve come close to eating them all in the past and, certainly, whole populations have been wiped out. Also, it is very likely that at one time there were ramps growing somewhere in this soil. A lot of change has passed through these hills in the most recent few hundred years and I wasn’t really defiling a pristine ecosystem at all (even if my tasty addition were “defiling”).
And, by the way, my sense is that nowadays Appalachian folk know that ramps can be decimated and are much more careful than they once had been about their harvesting practices.
A third of a mile or so on, I returned to the place Drew and I had left off in our flagging of the perimeter trail. Flagging, or placing of bright flagging tape, is, of course, the first step in establishing a trail. I consulted a new map I had and thought about the old barbed wire remnants I could see in front of me. I spent some time adjusting the most recent flags we’d placed and then ran the next leg straight downhill over the next hour or so, placing tape and clipping branches. I saw a wide variety of trees – all shapes and sizes – but no morels, no ramps. Much too dry.
The trail would simply be left routed along the gravel road at the back end of the property for a quarter mile or so and, this being lunch time, I walked this route back towards headquarters. It was hot now, awfully hot for April. No sign of rain. This didn’t bode well for mushrooms.
I heard a small engine and saw an older feller’ leading a dust cloud in my direction on his aging side-by-side. This was Jake and he stopped to talk for a couple minutes as seemed customary. Jake was none too friendly but probably curious about what I was up to. It seemed that Jake owned an adjacent property and knew the property lines well.
“I ‘herited from my father and him from his Pa. Yeah, I been here ‘muh whole life. I remember when all this (motioning at Drew’s vast lands) was all pasture – grazed all the way up. Weren’t no trees back then.”
This seemed hard to believe as I went on my way. Surely this was a lush forest, forgotten by the timber cutters, a refuge for fungi, deer and owls. Could it have gotten that way again in a mere 50 years?
I ate and, naturally, fell asleep on the back porch of the house. It’s what one does after a nice meal on a hot and not-too-busy day.
The other half of the property still needed trail though and this needed to get done today, heat or not. I started back in at another property corner, strategizing a bit differently for the steep climb up this ridge. I would proceed in exceptionally wide switch-backs so that we’d end up with a long walk to the top but with none of that climb requiring all fours to claw one’s way straight up. Halfway to the top I found a spring I hadn’t seen before, still flowing in the dry conditions, and dug this out, making it more usable for man and beast.
A couple of hours after starting, I achieved the top, rewarded with breezes unavailable in the valley below and a decent view through a canopy that hadn’t quite closed yet for the year. Below me ran a long line of zig-zagging flagging tape marking new trail – new potential and new adventures. From here, the trail would make a generally easy line back toward its origin.
Descending a last rough spot near where I’d started to walk in the morning, I saw an old minivan pull in at the house trailering a riding mower. There was no doubt as to the driver.
George had to get a little close to confirm my identity, his eyes not being all they once had been, but he seemed glad to see me once he was sure. George caught me up a bit on late happenings around his home county and I shared some about the current projects that were afoot-such as the trail. Then George backed the mower off and got to work and I started dogs on the zip. Also, there was a dog, about the same age as George in dog years, who played games back and forth all around the mower as it spewed grass. George personified all that was best about this neck of the woods and without his patience and generosity, my friends would have had a tougher time finding their place here, it’s certain.
Before leaving, George had a book to show me, as he sometimes does, something from a local author recounting a lifetime in America’s forests from his early days in 1950’s Massachusetts on. He said that he was trying to promote and/or sell these for his friend and I gave him $20 for one copy without a thought. As I’d left home, I’d reached into a little box of cash I keep and extracted $20 for the very unlikely event that I’d need it for something while out in the woods. This seemed fortuitous. This new book is 10,000 Days in the Woods by Russ Richardson and I’m privileged to be among its first readers.
George asked about what time I was likely to get back on the trail tomorrow for another lap and said that he might like to join me.
That evening as I was getting ready to turn in I heard another 4-wheeler approaching and it was Betty, one of the nearest neighbors checking up on me and bearing gifts, primarily watermelon and chocolate cake, both of which I do eat. We talked about all sorts of things related to this neck of the woods until Ricky, her husband, also in his 70’s, came strolling over as well.
“Listen good and you might hear the whip-poor-will while you’re here. We had them when I was little but they’ve been gone for ages. I heard one last week and he’s been hanging around. You might hear him at night,” Betty advised. With that, Betty and Ricky roared off, leaving me alone with a lot of silence, a jar of melon and a big slice of chocolate cake.
I still like to think of myself as a very independent sort, thrusting myself often into man vs. wild scenarios, concocting my own plans, blazing my own trails. But at times I have to remember Susan back home who packed just the right amount of just the right foods for my adventure. Then there’s Drew and family who set me loose on their acreage (inadvisable as that may be). Nigel, the renowned English baker, sent along a loaf of the finest seed bread I could have carried in my pack. George, as different from Nigel as one could be, enriched each visit here simply by making an appearance whether or not he had anything literary for me. And then there were the people from up and down the holler’ who always stopped by with some randomness to inject into my plans, generally something I was glad not to have missed.
I laid out on the ground that night where I’d left my sleeping bag along the creek. As darkness grew complete, the silence was punctuated with rustling leaves around me and a sort of buzzing. Huge beetles, one after another lofted into the sky for short flights before crashing noisily around me. I’d never seen the June bugs emerge before and I would have missed this if I hadn’t come out. My repose here was perfect and comfortable, too perfect – surely it would get cold or the biting flies would show up or…
I woke to the morning birds in the darkness a bit before six. I hadn’t stirred in more than eight hours of perfect sleep. I felt the most well rested I could remember. That too had been worth coming out for. And there was a loud bird up the back holler’ crying a distinct “whip-poor-will.”
I had Nigel bread for breakfast, fished in the large creek a few miles off, hiked a couple of hours with George and napped on the back porch after lunch.
Leaving late in the afternoon, I stopped to say good-bye to Ricky and return an empty jar. Conversation swung toward the history of the land around us, and the people, little of which I knew.
“The hills around us here,” said Ricky with a sweep of his arm, “were all bare back when I was young and when my father was young. Pretty much everything in this part o’ the state was. This land was mostly land-granted after the Civil War, huge tracts to individual men and families. When their young inherited it, it was split, often between 12 to 15 children and the same with the next generation. So the plots kept getting smaller and smaller. But folks tried to stay and keep making a living out of smaller and smaller farms, using every tiny piece of land for crops or hay for the cattle. And that’s why all the trees were gone and the creeks cut to the bank.’
‘But the result was poverty and most everyone had to leave. Starting maybe in the 1950’s, the woods started to return and now it looks like this, but it didn’t back then.”
It was hard to pull away from Ricky and begin the long drive out to the nearest highway – a long, winding road that would put me on what most people would call a highway.
As I’d left, the creek I followed and the little homes along the way reminded me how little seems to change here in Appalachia. But people like Ricky remember that today’s West Virginia isn’t yesterday’s West Virginia.