The small parking lot appears at the end of a gravel road that winds down through a couple of miles of dark hollow and up into high, tree-lined meadow. It's late afternoon, the sunlight mostly filtered through oak leaf and evergreen needle, and there's nobody around but this big raven on the fence.
"Raw," he says, trying to make conversation as I climb out of the car. He tilts his head and twists his long black beak in a questioning way, waiting for me to agree.
Okay, I agree: raw. When I left late this morning, it was thick and humid and 95 degrees, pretty much your typical mid-August Friday in the Nation's Capital--a day more or less made for dispatching crews of guys in orange jumpsuits to unpave selected high-traffic roadways, bury bunches of fiber-optic cable and then sort of repave and go home. A day whose rawness is measured largely in terms of tempers, if not knuckles.
Here, on the other hand, some 3,000 feet up on the daybreak side of Backbone Mountain, about a four-hour drive west and north of the Beltway to where Maryland stops playing all those disappearing-border tricks and finally lets West Virginia take over, it's almost weather for a sweater. The sky is clear and dry. The impression of rawness comes mostly from how much easier it is, up here, to lose track of civilization's advancements and improvements over the past 250 years or so, including fiber optics, and imagine how the spot where you stand might have looked back when people communicated by, you know, mostly standing there and talking to each other.
Standing before me now is my excuse for coming up to this lovely and still relatively lonely corner of West Virginia, a stone set over a spring said to be the source of the Potomac River: the famous Fairfax Stone. The original marker was engraved and placed here back when a guy named King George II was still in charge of this far-off land, and later replaced with a larger stone during the reign of a somewhat taller, local fellow named Eisenhower.
The stone isn't saying much today, the elements (or, more likely, the "wrong" elements) having knocked away most of the inscription, which is supposed to indicate that in 1746, a team of surveyors that included Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas) set this stone to confirm the northwestern boundary of the land granted by the king of England to Lord Fairfax. The southern boundary of that grant was the Rappahannock River. The eastern boundary was the Atlantic Ocean. If you're still not sure what people mean when they say someone is "lording it over" someone else, you might want to consult a map. Even a Texan would have to call this a fair piece of land.
You could not know any of this, or not care, and still love being here in Tucker County, W.Va., where are born such geophysical VIPs as the Allegheny Front; Canaan, the highest big valley east of the Mississippi; the quasi-Canadian heath-barren wilderness of Dolly Sods, and a little thing (very little, this summer) called the Potomac River.
And all I had to say was hey, water levels and the Potomac are in the news, somebody should go check the source. By Friday I was in the car aiming straight over the Blue Ridge, the digital thermometer on the console dropping roughly five degrees per hour. This could happen to you.
Actually, what is born here in Tucker County is the North Branch of the Potomac River--a feeder that the king's surveyors determined was the longest and most voluminous of the many that become the eventually mighty Potomac. Coincidentally, it was also the farthest north, which coincidentally made Virginia--and then, after the Civil War divorce, West Virginia--a bigger place, and Maryland that much smaller. (Maryland sued, actually, citing claims that the South Branch of the Potomac was longer and thus the official headwater indicated in King George's grant, and that the surveyors cheated. In 1910, after nearly a century had passed, the Supreme Court decided that since nearly a century had passed with the borders where they were, they probably ought to stay that way.)
Today, the Fairfax Stone itself is silent on the matter. Even the raven has left.
And, saying even less than either is the spring beneath the stone--which, even in normal conditions, as Canaan Valley State Park naturalist John Northeimer had warned me earlier this afternoon, is not a particularly robust font. It is, in fact, bone dry. Though the wash widens as it winds down into the woods, even after 50 yards, where a serious thicket bars the way, the creek bed remains crispy and moisture free.
Moisture turns out to be beside the point, of course.
The guidebook says there are only four acres to Fairfax Stone Historical Monument Park, the property otherwise enclosed by private lands owned by holding companies who bought it from the coal companies and railroads, holding it mostly to harvest timber and lease what's left to a few big hunting and fishing clubs.
The book doesn't say what you'll find if you walk to the end of the grassy mowed area around the Stone and follow the uphill path through a short woods and emerge on the edge of a knoll, where a narrow path meanders through the high grass and wildflowers that define this remote intersection of Tucker, Grant and Preston counties and the Maryland-West Virginia state line.
Above the grass, all you can see is sky. In other words, you are compelled to follow the path.
In less than a minute's walk, grasshoppers rocketing in all directions as your shadow precedes you over the rock-strewn field, the eastern horizon leaps from about 50 yards to more than 20 miles. Spread before you, like some model railroad layout lovingly glued to violently warped plywood, is a rolling landscape of farms and meadows and sandstone scarps and the cuts of unseen rivers and streams. In the distance, one of the few signs of civilization you can see from here, is a tiny toy white factory--the Mount Storm power plant.
Yes, there is significant logging here in Tucker County and over the state line in Garrett County, Md.--and even some remnant coal mining. The major private landholder in Blackwater Canyon either plans a large resort-home development or more large-scale timber harvests, depending on who's talking; yet others talk about a grass-roots campaign to turn the canyon and adjacent forest into a national park. Billboards done up in a forest-friendly green to promote "Corridor H"--the plan to extend the I-66 corridor west with four high-speed lanes straight into the Canaan Valley and beyond--mark the crests of the countless hills of Route 55 on the way here. And on that same route, every other slow-climbing 18-wheeler seems to belong to Wampler Foods, evidence of the boom--here in the headwaters of the Potomac--of the same chicken farms and related processing plants now being targeted for water-quality problems in the Chesapeake.
And yes, still, when you get out here, it is almost impossible pass up all those "wilds" and "wonderfuls" and other official West Virginia adjectives distributed at no charge by state tourism authorities.
Thousands of urban adjective hounds show up in Tucker County every winter--its 3,200-foot-high Canaan Valley, enclosed in 4,000-foot mountain walls, makes it a verifiable snow bowl (and, even this drought-defined August, the valley appeared significantly wetter and greener than surrounding countryside). But whatever you can do on slippery things--downhill skis and boards at Canaan Valley Resort State Park and Timberline Resort, cross-country skis and sleds at Blackwater Falls State Park and White Grass Ski Touring Center--you can do in the late summer and fall, but . . . slower. And with less company.
After the dry-road dust settles here on the edge of the Dolly Sods Wilderness--an anomalous plateau of low-rise tundra and wind-deformed spruce in the southeastern corner of the county, one of the coolest (and, temperature-wise, coolest) hiking areas within a day's drive of D.C.--I apparently have different company than I thought at the overlook on unpaved Route 75. A jeep, the only other vehicle in the lot this afternoon, apparently awaits long-gone hikers.
Movement in the scrub reveals my company instead to be a large doe and her gangly, skittish fawn, its white spots still bright, not more than 20 feet away from where I have started to enter a walkway to the overlook. I stand still. They see me, they stand still. "Just a couple of shots," I tell them. "I mean pictures." They remain frozen. I take the shots. Mom leads the way slowly across my path and into the brush, turns and waits for fawn. Fawn takes a few steps and stops in the middle of the path, forcing me to take one more shot. At the sound of the shutter, the fawn leaps almost straight up, boinging off into the woods after its guardian.
After a transporting drive along Route 19 through Dolly Sods, during which my brown sedan is dusted to white and I catch a glimpse of a small black bear trotting down into the woods a dozen yards from the road, I stay the night in a room in one of the motel-like lodge wings at Canaan Valley Park. The room is clean and, you know, motel-like. The view up to Bald Knob is far from average. The lodge has a well-kept fitness room and pool and a decent restaurant. The staff not attending to reunions and small church and business groups (and ski clubs, come November) seems to keep busy organizing activities and field trips. I stop to pick up a map at the park's modest Nature Center, which is dwarfed by a huge parking lot devoid of cars and guarded by a small battalion of Canada geese, and head up again toward the Fairfax Stone.
After turning east off Route 219 just north of Thomas onto the gravel road that takes you the two miles to the Fairfax Stone, however, I follow the opposite fork toward Kempton, Md., which seems to be the closest settlement to the Potomac's official source. After a mile or two, the road curves down into a narrow stream valley, and I have to cross a small plank bridge, which, at 20 mph, makes a huge racket, the planks ancient and loose. Someone has tossed a few beer cans onto the road nearby. A small metal sign on the other side of the bridge says, in fading black letters on white, "Entering Maryland--Leaving West Virginia." The loose-plank bridge is Maryland's westernmost Potomac River crossing.
The coal mine that gave birth to Kempton was abandoned and dismantled for salvage in the 1950s, as was most of Kempton--but development appears to be on an upswing. Technical writer Mark Evans and his wife, Eileen, a teacher, raised Kempton's population by a good 15 percent when they built a house here about three years ago, moving from Chicago--where his employer allows him to telecommute.
His office is within sight of the incipient Potomac--which, Evans says, is "not exactly okay, but it's pretty close to being okay." As part of an ongoing state project to reduce the flow of highly acidic runoff from abandoned mines into streams feeding the Potomac, Evans says, workmen "poured a lot of concrete, and covered the slag piles and planted grass, and put a lot of limestone into channeled water. I'm not a fisherman," he says, "but it seems to be helping."
Boon Pase, 70, on the other hand, is an avid trout fisherman--and had come up here from his home in Thomas to do some fishing with his grandson and visit his wife's two sisters and his nephew in Kempton. I run into him as I'm leaving Kempton. He's stopped his pickup on the West Virginia side of the bridge and is ambling about, picking up the discarded beer cans.
We talk about fishing. " 'Course, I think we're gon' to get a break," he says. "But if we don't, all these little potholes got brook trout in 'em, and they can't go up or down, either one. I told my grandson we'll come down here and seine 'em out and take 'em on down the creek where there's water . . ." And we talk about the Fairfax Stone.
"A lot of people think that's the original stone," says Pase. "We got that stone up there just out of Davis, and hauled it down here." The West Virginia Conservation Commission came and took the original stone, Pase says--visitors had started making off with chunks of it--and then he and a crew from Davis put the new stone in.
"That was 1956," Pase says, and proceeds to name the dozer operator and the other four men on the crew. We talk for another 20 minutes, standing between our cars, which are stopped beside each other in the middle of the road. Traffic is light.
Source of the Potomac
GETTING THERE: Fairfax Stone Historical Monument is about four hours from the Beltway. Most Tucker County, W. Va., destinations are either slightly farther (if you take I-270 west to I-70/I-68 west to U.S. 219 south past Deep Creek Lake into West Virginia) or closer (if you follow I-66 west to I-81 briefly south, taking Exit 296 onto Route 55 west and hanging on as it twists and piggybacks all the way to Route 32 north in Harman, which connects with U.S. 219 just north of Thomas).
BEING THERE: A mere four-acre state park with no facilities or staff (those are down the road at Blackwater Falls; see below), Fairfax Stone does not a weekend make in West Virginia's Allegheny Plateau. But the significant outdoor-activity depth of Tucker County and surrounding Monongahela National Forest--which includes the Dolly Sods Wilderness and Dolly Sods Scenic Area--more than compensates, in both warm and cold months. Call the U.S. Forest Service at 304-636-1800 or visit the Monongahela headquarters for maps, hiking, biking and camping information on Route 55 just west of Petersburg. (Hikers and bikers: Canaan Valley Resort, below, has a new waterproof "Canaan Valley Adventure Map" for sale at the park and other area locations for $7.95.) If you need gear, advice or guiding, check with Blackwater Outdoor Center (304-478-4456) in Davis.
There are unremarkable but reasonable lodge rooms and some terrific cabins at both Canaan Valley Resort State Park (1-800-622-4121, lodge doubles start at $85) and Blackwater Falls State Park (304-259-5216, lodge doubles start at $70). Both parks offer swimming, hiking, riding and mountain biking in summer, all of the above but swimming in fall. In ski season, Canaan is more of a downhill attraction, along with Timberline Resort (1-800-766-9464, in-season two-bedroom condos start at $375 midweek with a three-night minimum), just up the road. Blackwater attracts more sledders and cross-country skiers, though the latter find more trails and a laid-back family-owned feel at White Grass Ski Touring Center (304-866-4114; doesn't open its trails, school and natural-foods soup kitchen until the first snowfall in the valley--which averages 180 inches a year).
INFORMATION: Contact the Tucker County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-782-2775, www.canaanvalley.org. (Also helpful on the Web: www.wvweb.com/www/potomac_highlands/web.html.)