Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bear Rocks

There's a distinct flow to the long drive from my home in northeast Ohio to the heart of Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. 

The trip starts on the big roads.  Being as populated as it is, you're never too far from a four lane highway where I live.  For east and west travel both I-80 and I-76 are within twenty minute drive, and I-90 is an hour north.  If you're heading north or south you can get to I-71, I-77 and I-79 within a short time.  And we have a couple of four-lane US highways that fill in the blanks between the interstates.

So when I put my backpack in the car, plugged a tape in the cassette deck and pulled out of the driveway, within 15 minutes I was on four lanes of concrete heading south at 70 miles an hour.  I've always loved that feeling of putting the miles behind when you get started on a long drive on the interstate.  You travel through the countryside so fast that you can see the terrain slowly changing.  The small towns and farms on the gentle hills of Ohio gradually gave way to the more heavily forested hills of western Pennsylvania, and once I was south of Pittsburgh those hills began to express themselves a bit more, growing taller and steeper, occasionally showing off bands of bare rock.

After about three hours I was leaving Pennsylvania on I-79 and entering West Virginia.  By now the hills were noticeably bigger, with just small flatlands lining the rivers between them.  Towns were further apart, and farms had been replaced by long stretches of unbroken forest.  Driving past Morgantown and Fairmont gave me brief glimpses of city development, but they came and went quickly - the extensive suburban belt I'm familiar with from Ohio doesn't exist here.

I finally turned off the highway onto a smaller state route.  The cluster of businesses at the interchange reached less than a mile, after that only scattered houses lined the road.  The state route was a nice two lane road, but my speed inevitably dropped because of local traffic and the constant curves and hills.  After a while I turned onto a smaller road.  The first three and a half hours brought me over 250 miles - the last hour only about 45.  This newer road was much narrower, and seemed to follow every contour of the mountainside, curving back on itself as it slowly made it's way southeast.  Small towns, some no more than a crossroads with a few houses and maybe a gas station, occasionally lined the road.  By the time I made it to the National Forest boundary dusk was upon me, and heavy clouds further darkened the sky.  I looked at the odometer and the dashboard clock - my average speed had dropped even further, to around 35 miles an hour. 

After checking the map, I turned off the narrow two lane onto a gravel road leading up the side of a broad mountain.  Slow and easy, I made my way into the growing dark as the wind picked up.  The forest road switchbacks were tight, and I slowed further as the road got rougher.  I was nearing the top when the first splashes of rain hit the windshield, first one, then another dozen, and soon the road ahead was blurred by the heavy downpour.  As the tree cover pulled back the road steepened and the occasional flash of lightning revealed scrubby pines among heavy rock cover.  I was almost there.

(Might be a good place to click on this link for a soundtrack:   Bear Rocks storm   )

I navigated the last switchback, a climbing left turn, and strained to see the edge of the small parking area that I knew was there.  As I eased the car into the lot the storm seemed to pick up in intensity, with lightning striking a couple of times each minute.  This was my destination - Bear Rocks in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area.  I turned off the motor and listened to the sound of the rain beating on the car - not the weather I would have picked, but it wasn't anything I couldn't deal with.  That wasn't what I was thinking about though.  I was too captivated by the building storm to grab my pack and head off to find a place to camp.

Bear Rocks, with Dolly Sods in the background.  My parking space for the storm was off the road in the background, just about behind the second highest pine tree in this pic.

I sat on the shoulder of the mountain with the valley before me.  The windshield wipers provided a clear view of my surrounding with each swipe.  Lightning flashed across the valley every few seconds, seeming to be concentrated over the river below but occasionally striking close enough to make me jump.  The thunder was so close it felt like a tremor coming up out of the ground - like an echo of the artillery shells fired up here during Army training during World War II.

Trying to feel it more closely, I turned off the wipers and listened to the storm.  As the sheets of rain washed over the car and flowed down the windshield they provided a wavery version of the valley and mountains before me.  Each lightning bolt lit up the whole landscape with a blue-white intensity that lasted just a second, leaving a negative of the scene burned into my eyes as their brief illumination ended.  I could see the green slope before me that I had just driven up, the tree canopy boiling in the wind.  Below that the valley of the South Branch of the Potomac River could be seen in the distance.  Further away I could see New Creek Mountain, and the long shape of North Fork Mountain trailing away into the distance.

The black sky above me blazed up into an amazing vibrant purple centered on each lightning strike, then quickly fading, leaving my eyes dazzled by the contrast.  Outside the car window the white rocks along the edge of the plateau stood out brilliantly in the momentary flashes, forming a silent bulwark against the fury of the storm.  Gnarled pine trees, tough survivors on this exposed height, grew with their branches flagged off the downwind sides of their trunks.  The scrubby blueberry bushes that covered the rocks between the pines seemed to move like flexing muscles as the wind intensified and dropped off.  I watched, transfixed by the everyday magic around me, as the fury travelled east across the mountains.

After a while I realized that the lightning was moving off to the other side of North Fork Mountain, and that the wind wasn't gusting as hard.  The rain began to calm as well, fading to an even, solid downpour drumming the roof of the car.  When I turned the key to check the time I was astounded to see that it was approaching midnight.  I'd been sitting spellbound for nearly two hours, alone on the top of the mountain.  As the power and energy of the storm front faded to the calming susurrus of a heavy rain I began to feel tired - the aftermath from the adrenaline rush of the electrical storm combined with a long day made me want to just close my eyes and sleep in the car.  But I hadn't come all the way to Dolly Sods for that, so I started the car and backed out onto the gravel road. 

The road through Dolly Sods, near my camping spot.  Notice how the trees have most of their branches growing on the downwind side.

A short while later I was at another tiny roadside parking area, a place long familiar to me from earlier backpacking expeditions.  Rummaging around in the car I donned my rain gear and headlamp, then braced myself  as I stepped out into the steady rain and pulled my pack from the trunk.  Wrestling it onto my back, I prepared to hike back into the wilderness to find tonight's camp - but I stopped for a moment before setting off.

The glow of my headlamp seemed pitifully small, like a match glowing in the night, but the shifting circle of light showed the deep green of balsam pines all around me.  The sky was black - no more lightning to shock my eyes.  I switched off the headlamp - total darkness.  The rain came down as if I wasn't even there.

My son and I at Bear Rocks, more than ten years ago now.

Monday, January 14, 2013


When the calendar rolled around to 2012 I hoped that it would be a good year coming up, though the trend certainly doesn't seem to head that direction these days.  A lot of that was because the year before had not been so great, and I was desperately hoping for some sort of improvement.  Now we're one year further on down the road, so I thought I'd take a look back.

My line of work - architecture - was certainly one of the hard hit professions during this recession.  With construction taking such a huge hit the architecture market was forced into fevered competition for the remaining jobs.  The firm I work for was lucky to go into the recession with several good sized jobs, but after two years we were hurting.  Some local firms closed down for good, while others downsized to a bare-bones survival mode.  Our firm was forced to downsize as well, cutting some of the staff that wasn't as diverse their skills, while the remaining staff had their hours cut by 10 to 20 percent.  At the end of the year we're about half the size we were before the recession.  It seems that we're slowly starting to make some headway coming back, though we certainly could use a couple of big jobs to establish some real security for the near future.  My schedule has been set back to 40 hours a week, which is an huge weight off my back. So going into 2013 at least I'm not so worried about losing my job, which as you can imagine is a immense relief.

My family has been doing pretty well through the last year.  My wife had taken on more hours of work in an effort to make up for the hours I'd had cut, and was working up to 70 hours a week.  There is no way I can express my gratitude for her stepping up in such a way during this time.  She's a sweet girl, but she can be tough as nails when she has to.  That's one of the reasons I married her (our 19th anniversary was January 9).  Since I'm back to a full schedule she's been able to cut back on her hours, but being the person she is, she hasn't quit her second job - because she doesn't want to leave them hurting for employees.   My son has had a good year, though he's had a few typical 11 year old boy issues.  All in all they've come through 2012 pretty good and leave the in better shape than when they entered it.

And speaking of "in better shape", one of the major things about 2012 was the lack of a major injury for me.  I'm having some problems with my left arm from trail work, but I'm hoping that it will resolve itself soon (I go to the doctor about it next week).  In 2011 I had a double skull fracture, in 2010 I had a major knee surgery, and in 2009 I broke my leg in two places.  So just having a year when I didn't spend a lot of time in the hospital feels like a major victory.

One other notable thing happened in 2012 - the formation of Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition, our new IMBA chapter for eastern Ohio.  I'd been considering trying to start a mountain bike club for our area for a couple of years, but when I met up with some other people that had similar ideas it finally happened.  We're still struggling to build a reputation and increase our membership, but we've got a lot of things going for us.  In the 6 months since we started we've managed to get some significant things done, but we definitely have a lot of work ahead of us to get to where we want to be.

There have been some not so great things too - some good people were lost this year.  I'm not going to dwell on that much because it's inevitable for us all.  But there were some that left that will be sorely missed, and for a long time.  And the state of the nation and the world is such that I've pretty much moved to a stance where I willfully ignore what's going on, choosing ignorance instead of a continual state of agitation over the stupidity of the decision makers. 

All in all I'm pretty grateful for the way things have turned out over the previous year.  I hope things turn out as well at the end of 2013, not only for me and my family, but for all of you out there.  Cheers.

PS.  I had some really nice photos to add to this post, but damn Blogger won't let me upload anything from my computer.  If Blogger screws me over ONE MORE TIME, I'm done fooling with them and I'll move this blog to a site that actually functions.