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.
We had started our trip with a series of misjudgments. We didn't begin hiking until after noon, late for a day of backcountry wandering. Wanting to travel light, we carried only a day pack, leaving the tent and most of our supplies in the car. Still, we moved fast through autumnal air scented with dry pine and decaying leaves. The forest opened broadly at the creek. The rustle of a light breeze was soon inaudible behind the rush of the water. Red Creek ran about 30 feet across, cutting through a much wider flood plain littered with boulders and time-polished dead trees. Burly mountains stacked to the horizons.
The spooky beauty of the wilderness was broken when a cloud blocked the sun, shadows blackened the hills and a cold breeze filled the valley. In that moment, the mountains resembled real Western mountains, the kind that don't care if you live or die.
A mile in, we came across a couple pondering Red Creek. The chubby, bearded husband scanned for a rock hop across while his wife, wearing jeans -- not good wilderness garb -- sat by a waterfall. With a quick nod, impatient as always, I waded straight across.
Waiting for Anne, I noticed that Bearded Guy was starting across the rocks without unfastening the chest strap on his backpack. That's a stream-crossing no-no, I thought to myself with a flash of outdoor superiority. Falling into rushing water with a big pack on is bad enough, but if you can't quickly jettison the dead weight, drowning becomes a real possibility.
Bearded Guy crossed easily.
We left them and leaned into Little Stonecoal trail as it rose from 2,740 feet to over 4,000 feet through hardwood forest laced with rhododendron and laurel adjacent a mossy ravine. Sweat poured even as the temperature dipped.
All was well. We were a fourth of the way into our route with hours to spare. Soon we stepped into a wilderness daydream: pines, rhododendron and red and yellow brush hung over a glass-clear stream that hugged a grassy clearing. Our map showed Big Stonecoal, a trail that would shoot up back to Red Creek for an easy, meandering hike out.
Instead, we found a baffling series of deer trails where we expected a clear junction. We took one for 100 yards, ran out of trail in a vibrant green meadow, tried another, turned back, eventually defaulted to the Dunkenbarger Trail. But we second-guessed ourselves after another quarter mile and doubled back again, only to see Bearded Guy and his wife strolling merrily into view.
"Oh, no," said the guy whose woodmanship I had questioned a few hours before. "Big Stonecoal is up here a ways; you can't miss it." It's a signed junction, he noted pointedly, one of the only trail signs in all of Dolly Sods's 10,215 acres. Most trails are marked only by small piles of stones.
Thank you, thank you, Bearded Guy. They gave us explicit directions to our car, even recommending a camping spot.
The trail was so well defined that we stopped worrying and started enjoying the scenery. But suddenly the trail disappeared under a field of loose, ankle-threatening stone, the remains of a huge landslide. We hadn't seen any splits in the trail since we started on Big Stonecoal, which meant that we couldn't possibly have taken a wrong turn. Right?
The sameness of the terrain scared me ("You could hike for days . . .") but I tried to act calm. We found a trail but were immediately confounded by another junction.
But, oh sweet joy, a plume of smoke, the signal of a campsite nearby. Knowledgeable folks, surely, who would guide us to safety. The hill down to the camp was steep and treeless.
Loose rock tumbled underfoot like marbles on gravel. Looking up, I could not believe my eyes. Here was Bearded Guy and his wife, relaxed in their cozy camp, beers in hand, fire ablaze. Seems maybe there was a split on Big Stonecoal. Seems we missed it.
"Now you're on Fisher Spring Run," he said, slightly exasperated, like a weary parent. His wife shook her head, bewildered. They offered no comforting lies about how we might make the car by dark. We were miles from where we wanted to be.
For the next 2 1/2 hours we trudge, scramble, fall, cuss and lose and find and lose three more trails. Soon after, another clearing, another campfire, another plea for direction and a final, humble, stroll down the path to our car, warm clothes and cold beers.
Yes, you could hike for days out there. And it would be a beautiful walk.
Just bring your tent.
CAMPING: Backcountry camping is free in most of the Dolly Sods Wilderness but must be at least 300 feet from roads, streams and trails. Within surrounding the Dolly Sods Scenic Area, campsites costs $10 per night in the Red Creek Primitive Campground, a 12-unit plot on Forest Road 45 (pump water available; no rest rooms or other facilities; open April 18-Dec. 6). Other campgrounds nearby. Park officials strongly urge the use of camp stoves instead of open fires. A major camping area near upper Big Stonecoal burned extensively in the late 1980s after campers failed to extinguish a fire.