I Thought You Brought the Tent

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By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 6, 2001

We are lost.

You can spend a lifetime outdoors hoping never to say that. Those words can instantly sap the pleasure from a day in the woods, replacing the bliss with mounting unease. But we are lost, really lost, my fiancee, Anne, and I. We're somewhere on a steep mud slope in West Virginia's Dolly Sods wilderness, just as a sharpening breeze sucks the last daylight out of Red Creek gorge and fear wells in my gut.

I can't even see Anne; she is on the far side of a hump in the hill scrambling down toward Red Creek, our only reference point and, it appears, our only hope.

We are well off the trail, hours from our car and ill-prepared to weather the advancing cold night. We have no tent, no sleeping bags, not enough food. A night out in this wilderness would be miserable at best. At worst it would be -- well, I'm not ready for those thoughts yet.

I call to Anne but get no answer, and start my own descent. My feet slip, my day pack slams into the hill and I hear my favorite water bottle bounce off rocks and into a grove of trees below. A shudder of panic, and then I hear something else: the echo of a conversation held in the visitors center nine hours earlier, when the day was still bright and full of promise.

"You want extreme? Then you want to go here," the woman had said as her finger stubbed at a map of Dolly Sods. "You could hike for days out there."

We were in the Seneca Rocks visitor center, trying to choose an area for a challenging day hike. That's all, just a day hike. Would it be Dolly Sods or another well-trailed area nearby, Spruce Knob?

Flip of the coin, really. Virtually all of east central West Virginia is a challenging heap of earth, bleeding the hard-scrabble history -- mining, logging, ranching, boom and, more often, bust -- that makes natives resemble their land: big, weathered, sincere and always braced for another blow.

In Dolly Sods, those blows came quick and hard. Once home to the largest stand of red spruce in the world, the area was logged clear in the late 1800s. Absent the trees, the seven-foot layer of fertile humus below dried to a tinder, was ignited by lumber-carrying rail cars and burned down to the spiny soil beneath. Throughout, the mountains endured battering weather -- 150 inches of snow yearly on average, temperatures down to the minus 40s, winds that pull skin from bone.

Still, we chose Dolly Sods, in spite of the potentially malicious weather, because it's renowned for dramatic terrain. Now, as the breeze picks up, I wonder if the weather will be our undoing. I brush red dirt from my legs and continue downhill, thinking of the loggers who endured these extremes decades ago, huddled in ramshackle camps, drinking raspy liquor, staring into fires.

I catch up to Anne. We follow the rushing stream until we can go no farther without a waist-deep plunge into the dark torrent. With no other choice, we turn into the woods, forging uncertainly into the deepening gloom.

"You could hike for days." The woman from the visitors center is nowhere to be seen now, but her voice rings louder as we bushwhack, in near pitch darkness, through a thorny morass, cursing and still lost.


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© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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