The map of this part of West Virginia seems like it was drawn for other worlds, or at least other parts of the country: rivers named Cranberry and Cherry; hills that whorl like cyclones -- not the stately straight ridges of the Shenandoah. Driving through this area of the Monongahela National Forest not far from the Virginia border, you find valley walls that are surprisingly steep and unpopulated. This is a landscape of the unexpected, as dramatically beautiful as the Great Smoky Mountains farther south.
Then there are the cranberry bogs. Cranberries evoke notions of New England and fall harvests, don't they? Bogs, meanwhile, are primordial and soupy and perilous. Picking fruit from a swamp? No thanks. A natural cranberry bog in West Virginia? Too out of place.
Maybe that's why the maps use the more genteel "glade." But really, the Monongahela's Cranberry Glades Botanical Area near Marlinton, W.Va., is a proper highland bog (technically, a wetland that accumulates acidic peat from deposits of dead plant material). This is the real McCoy under a crisp, blue autumn sky. Stepping out onto it on a cool morning, you're hit by a colorful mosaic: deep reds and greens against wheat-colored grasses, a finely stippled meadow that sits on several thousand years' worth of peat. Rimmed by mountain ridges and pines, the meadow glistens with dots of white cotton grass, garnet-colored cranberries and dewberries that shine in the morning light.
This slice of West Virginia's eastern edge is one of the state's rarest and most varied landscapes. The vegetation might as well be growing on sand for all the nutrition the plants get from the peat, a watery sponge with virtually no root food. That's why some of them, such as the pitcher plant and native sundew, turned carnivorous, devouring insects.
Our visit to this prehistoric American landscape began in a pre-Civil War cabin at the Jerico B&B in nearby Marlinton. Our hillside cabin had wide planks, a wood stove that would cut the chill and a notch in the roofline where a tree grew through. At breakfast, our host repeated Daniel Boone's joke about never getting lost in the woods: "I was never lost, but I was bewildered once for three days."
Now, looking over the dense surface of berries and plants that choke down bugs, my wife, Lisa, and I felt surrounded by real old-timers. Cranberry sauce becomes more than just a can-shaped loaf that appears each Thanksgiving. On its ancient native turf, the cranberry almost glows.
This is one of the few fruits native to North America. Native Americans used the cranberry as food and medicine. It grows from April to November, with berries ripening in late summer and fall, and an individual plant can live more than 100 years. A trip along the Cranberry Glades boardwalk takes you through one of the few remaining natural Southern populations of a plant that was once indigenous from North Carolina to Canada. (Another highland bog is within the Dolly Sods Wilderness, about 35 miles from Elkins, W.Va., near Seneca Rocks.)
If you stepped off the boardwalk, the spongy red sphagnum moss would rebound underfoot like the moon bounce at a county fair. But this is a protected area, so you can't saunter off the prescribed path. We followed the walk along the edge of the bog, pausing to peer into the pitcher plants for a glimpse of recent prey, inhaling the musky scent of the grasses. We continued into a stand of conifers at the bog's edge, punctuated by monkshood and turtlehead flowers. A massive yellow birch, 300 years old, draped its twisted trunk near the trail like a python.
In a nearby copse of trees, two researchers measured the ancient dimensions of this place. Elizabeth Byers and Jim Vanderhorst, both with the state's Division of Natural Resources, worked amid hemlocks and a towering red spruce. Red spruce once covered about half a million acres in West Virginia before timber cutters came through. After drilling out a core sample and counting the rings, Byers told us the huge spruce is 165 years old, predating the first loggers. She said this grove has likely grown here, nearly unchanged, since the end of the last ice age.
The Monongahela National Forest has other attractions nearby, including the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area and the High Rocks Trail, both within three miles of the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center. More than one scenic railroad offers fall color tours through these hills, and a drive along the Highland Scenic Highway offers spectacular vistas at least as dramatic as the Great Smokies, with a fraction of the crowd -- just 48,000 visitors last year.
For hikers, one of the more popular routes is the Cow Pasture Trail, which circles the Cranberry Glades with a fine day's ramble through grassy valleys and forested slopes. Not far down the trail from the nature center, overgrown shards of pavement mark the remains of Mill Point Federal Prison Camp, one of America's more remote jails.
"We're on the Arctic Island in West Virginia," wrote one warden, referring to the cold and isolation of a mountain winter. From 1938 to 1959, the place held a few hundred moonshiners and conscientious objectors who were kept there for refusing to serve in World War II on religious grounds. Inmates worked as firefighters, loggers and, in one case, as an amateur naturalist who catalogued plants and went on to pursue a college degree and a career at a Pittsburgh museum.
With no locks, the prison was absolute minimum security, the only barrier to escape being white posts every 40 feet that urged, "Keep inside!"
Miles of this peculiar wilderness did the rest.