In January 2005 I went cross-country skiing up by White Grass Mountain, WV. On the way home our group passed through Seneca Rocks. I made a mental note that day to return in the summer sometime. I had seen a beautiful mountain along our route which I was desperate to explore, I figured the place would look spectacular with a little greenery and warmer temperatures.
Corporate America stingily gives its workerbees a 3-day weekend on July 4th for the holiday. I didn’t feel like planning an elaborate trip, nor spending much money, so on the Thursday before the weekend was to begin I decided to make my return visit to wild, wonderful WV.
Mind you, I never paid much attention to this state before I moved to South Baltimore. But when you live in Baltimore you quickly learn that pretty much every white person who lives in SoBo at one point in their lives also lived in West Virginia. It takes about 6 months of getting to know your neighbors here to become an expert on the nuances of WV even though you have never set foot in the place.
West Virginia is beautiful and sparsely populated. I set my sights on Seneca Rock, an oddly shaped slab of sandstone; and Spruce Knob, the highest point in WV at about 4100 feet. Beyond that, I planned to sleep in my van and pack my food supply in a cooler. I put some clean clothes in a bag and filled some plastic grocery bags with kitchen supplies and I was off.
I headed west on I-70 (2200 miles to Fort Cove BTW), careful to honk my horn three times as I drove under the Appalachian Trail, just to pay homage. I headed south on I-81 and noticed a lot of vacation traffic. I stopped off at the Martinsburg Wal-Mart to pick up all the items I had forgotten and was quickly mesmerized on how incredibly fat people were once you got over the WV border, and here I thought the Baltimoreans had a weight problem. These WVpeople were some real heifers, friendly kind heifers, but still heifers.
Then I headed west on VA/WV Route 33. I was heading upward, high high up. I love up. When I drove over the top of Shenandoah Mountain I started to descend on the 10% grade. My brakes, as usual, were completely useless. I could smell the brake dust coming through my air vents and prayed that nobody would get too close to me. It was at this point that I knew I was officially on vacation. Yee haw!
I drove through several little hamlets and after a total 250 miles, arrived at the beautiful Seneca Rocks. The rocks are a magnificent formation rising nearly 900 feet above the North Fork River. Eastern WV contains many such formations of the white/gray Tuscarora quartzite. The quartzite is approximately 250 feet thick and is located primarily on exposed ridges as caprock or exposed crags. The rocks lend themselves as a playground for experienced climbers. Ah, but I am not a climber, am I?
I decided to find a place to bed down for the night without being hassled by some forest ranger. I found a wonderful spot next to the North Fork River next to some sort of concrete plant. I woke early and went back to the rocks to make my first ascent of the day. I took the hiking trail at the base of the rocks and managed a 1000-foot easy ascent in 30 minutes. I noticed I was the first one on the cliffs. At the top there was a lookout platform, and beyond that there was some signage, something to the effect of "Only experienced climbers beyond this point" then another sign, "15 people have died here since we opened this rock to the public, do you want to add your name to the list?"
Okay, so I thought there was no time like the present to gain some climbing experience. Inconveniently, I failed to remember that I have suffered an inner ear infection three weeks ago and it had not completely healed. My balance that day was way off. Did that stop me?…..Come on folks, you know Cham well enough at this point that she is prone to doing unbelievably stupid things.
So up I went on these craggy rocks. As I ascended I felt more than a little dizzy, no problem, I just laid flat on my stomach spread eagle and inched forward. The rock slab was about 5 feet wide at the top and about 300 feet straight down on both sides. Determined to ascend, it was real slow going upward, I only needed to go a few feet. Once on the top I just had to look down, straight down. I experienced a serious sickening case of vertigo and wasn’t quite sure about how I was going to get off the rock. I descended the same way I got up, spread eagle, flat on my belly. Truly stupid, but worth it, thank you very much.
I hiked down the mountain and wasn’t sure what to do next. I asked the nice ladies at the Visitor’s Center and told them I was looking for a great hiking trail. Without a second thought, they recommended the North Fork Trail, gave me rudimentary directions down the road and I was on my way. You won’t believe it but this trail was the very same mountain that I had admired back on my January trip, I was thrilled. The first 4 miles of this trail had an ascent of about 2000 feet. It was a beautiful trail with breathtaking cliffs at the top. For the first time ever, I saw a backpacking trail-runner…impressive.
I alighted and went back to a swimming hole at the base of Seneca Rocks to get clean and met some climbers. We shared stories of our day; they had had a wonderful time climbing the rocks. They were from Baltimore too. One of the guys offered to teach me how to climb but I will have to wait for this ear problem to clear up completely.
Afterwards I drove up to the Spruce Knob area to bed down for the night. I chose to sleep at a trailhead off the Gamby River. The next day I rose early to get a good start to the day. I wanted to hike 18 miles but once I was on the trail I realized I had to do quite a bit of bushwhacking and I hate bushwhacking. This place was horse heaven and the trails were badly scared from the horseshoes. I gave up after about 10 miles and headed back to my car.
Since Monday, the next day, was a holiday and I had no plans for the day I started to drive north and head home slowly. I took the WV back roads through Romney and stopped at the Mount Top restaurant. The prices were incredibly cheap and I ordered the Ribeye dinner for $7.95. I looked around and saw a young man of no more than 20 who must have tipped the scales over 500 pounds. I saw a boy of no more than 12 who could have easily passed the 300-pound mark. Then I realized what the problem was. I qualified for the salad bar with the rib eye order where there was some iceberg lettuce but that was the only fresh vegetable there. There was potato, macaroni, pasta salads, some type or sweat bread and several other artery-clogging concoctions. There are no sidewalks in WV either. The lack of healthy foods available and lack of areas to walk in this mountainous community was a death-knell to most of the residents. I felt so very very sorry for these wonderful people that were eating themselves to death.
Romney WV has one of the best radio stations on the planet, BTW. Classic Country 104…Patsy Kline, Hank Williams, Connie Francis, George Jones, Randy Travis….. What an absolute treat! I was tempted to stick around just to listen.
I headed further north not really looking at where I was going and it was time to find a place to spend the night. I saw a sign that said, "Public River Access". I was the public, I like a nice river and I definitely wanted access so off I went to find the river. After some time on a winding road I found the access along with the obligatory "No Camping" sign. Next to the no camping sign there was an entire hillbilly clan set up with a bunch of tents. I inquired about the possibility of spending the night and they said they managed the area, which is why they were allowed to camp. They told me that I could park my minivan next to their tents and all would be well. Then they suggested I come swim with them.
It took them all of about 10 seconds to adopt me as one of their own and I made some lovely friends. These people were from Paw Paw, which was up the street a bit. We swam, they smoked, they toked and drank. I decided to watch but the weed smelled awfully good for locally grown wacky tobacky.
The next morning I, again, got up early and inflated my new float tube. Did some great tubing down the Cacapon River. I bid my new family adieu and headed into Paw Paw because I vaguely remembered there was some sort of canal tunnel there.
Sure enough, when I got there was a big tunnel on the C&O canal. Carelessly leaving one of the best headlamps money can buy in my car, I ventured into the darkness. This tunnel is over ½ mile long and once you get into the middle all you see is a dot of light behind you and a dot of light in front of you. My balance started to fail again. I groped my way along the moist dripping wall and slowly made it out the other side. Needless to say, I took the hiking trail over the tunnel on the way back.
I returned to my car only to find one of my tires flat. Luckily, my air pump and a can of fix-a-flat got it to hold all the way back to Charm City. I stopped in Cumberland, MD, to snap some pictures of that beautiful town that reminds me of upstate New York. Cumberland is on the way back from blight and Washington Street is a wonderful place filled with stately Victorian homes. One day, I plan to spend a lot more time there and I made a mental note to return.