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  Towns were further apart, and farms had been replaced by long stretches of unbroken forest.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.


  1. WOW! Very well written! You painted a verbal picture as brilliant and detailed as any artists rendering. Can't wait for more of the story!

    Well Done.


    1. Dan,

      Thanks, I appreciate that.

      I have a mess of these vivid memories that seem to bring out the best in my writing - maybe because they are so "NOW" that I feel like I can just reach into my memory and pull them out to re-examine.

      I'd love to be able to try to do some REAL writing (like a novel) but whenever I try to fit some sort of manufactured storyline into my writing it just feels all boxy and fake. Maybe I should draw some inspiration from Tim Joe and incorporate these real world memories into a plot, no matter how bare bones.

      I do have an idea for something, too. Just don't know if I dare even try...

      Steve Z

    2. TimJoe is definitely on the right track with incorporating the real world into stories.

      As for whether or not you shoudl try it - I say GO FOR IT!!!!


    3. It's like an itch you can't scratch, SwampBoy. It just keeps nagging and itching until you find some way to get it done. It might not bring satisfaction but it will bring relief.

      I once travel through the area you are describing and found it to be stunning and accessible in a way that the Rockies are not; and far and away less crowded.

      Like Dan, I look forward to reading more.


    4. TJ,

      Nicely put. I have one big story idea, but I think I'll save that... and think of something else as an idea for a "warm up" story. I'm a-wrackin' my brain (or what's left of it).

      Steve Z