Of bogs, goats, and Scarlett with a little Trump and Hillary to boot

Our hike to the Cranberry Wilderness brought risk and reward

By Captain

Were the Cranberry Wilderness a letter in the alphabet, it would be the 22nd: V with its steep sides descending toward an inverted apex.

V as in vertical. Viscious. Vilified. The first because the area's trails so often seem thus, the second for the same reason, and the third because people vilify the place after experiencing the worst of it.

"That's a goat path," a park headquarters employee told us when we asked about TR-207, otherwise known as the Big Beechy Trail.

TR-207 drops from 4,400 feet to 2,600 feet, which would be of little concern if it did so over the full length of its 6.5 miles. Instead, much of the trail's early mileage rolls gently through a forest of ferns and firs. It is the kind of place Disney's artists might have acquainted themselves with before animating Snow White's wooded resting place. At any moment, seven dwarfs might come marching out from behind the boulders through a hail of fluterring, colorful butterflies and birds, singing a catchy tune. High ho, high ho, it's off the camp we go. Idyllic to a fault.

Then things change.

The final 2.4 miles of TR-207 is a plunge through a tangled mess of downed trees. Those overseeing the Cranberry Wilderness take a very literal interpretation of the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, which mandates minimal human intervention in a woods designated as a wilderness.  Normal trail maintenance calls for a crew to ax and saw a clearing through larger downfalls and simply move the others off to the side. But when West Virginia's terrible storms knocked down scores of trees last June, the trees that fell across TR-207 were left to rot. As no less an authority than Olav Hjeljord,  professor emeritus at Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, once told the website ScienceNordic.com , It can take 200 to 300 years for a downed pine tree to disappear, but most of a spruce will be gone within 50 to 100 years." Unless they petrify first.

As the trail became more challenging the distance between our faster hikers and slower ones lengthened. Bill Ankenbauer, Leo McCallen, and I finished the trail at sunset around 7:40 p.m., arriving on the shore of a wide but shallow river just above a 10-foot waterfall and across which lay campsites. Flat tent sites. Fire pits. Logs arranged for sitting. An adjacent water supply. A pot of gold at the end of a goat's path.

With a group of eight on this hike, we were still missing five. Bob Pauly and Mark McGinnis arrived at dusk's last light. Jim Ankenbauer, aka, the Guru, John Curtin, aka Silver Pops, and John Hennessey, aka the Bull, were still missing as night fell. TR-207 is not a trail for after hours. Around 8:30 p.m., I headed up the trail to see if I could intersect the missing three. Though it seemed longer, I heard voices and saw the bobbing white dots of headlamps within 15 minutes. "Who-dey-who!" I called, our agreed upon greeting, and "Who-dey-who!" Silver Pops replied.Their water was low. So was their energy. Twice on recent hikes, Silver Pops has become dehydrated and ill. He didn't want to risk that again, so he was taking it easy. "Go on ahead. I'm fine." he told us, and sat down. We waited with him. There was no hurry now.

When I polled our crew after we got home as to what was the hardest part of the trip, there was one answer: the Big Beechy descent. As McGinnis succinctly explained his dislike by recounting the experience of TR-207: "Hiking in the dark while climbing over, under, and through fallen trees on a mountain goat trail with fogged up glasses."

It is easy to think of our hikes as without risk. We aren't climbing Everest. But in the woods, there is always risk. Errors, even small errors, increase risk exponentially. You don't want to forget something important matches or, as I once did, tent poles. Also, navigation matters. One tree looks a lot like another if you miss a trail junction. There is the risk, too, of falling, whether over a cliff and just down. Ankles sprain. Ulnas break. Skulls concuss. Blessedly, we've avoided serious trouble over our years together, although our Pine Mountain trip in an unexpected fall snowstorm was certainly unpleasant. Silver Pops was once a step away from testing his resistance to rattlesnake venom. And there was the time Bob wolfed down an energy drink only to simulate cardiac arrest, scaring everyone. This trip, Jim caught his boot on a recessed trail rock, tripped foward, and ended up with a knot on his forhead that looked as if small turtle had embedded itslef under the Guru's skin.

Our error this trip was starting about an hour or two later than we should have for the distance and difficulty of the hike head. Figuring a mile every 20 to 30 minutes, we should have covered the 6.5 miles in three hours or less.  But this trail required a slower pace, crawling or scrambling over, under, around, or through the countless deadfalls and stepping with care over the rocky, steep trail, which often was a ribbon wrapped between a cliff that dropped precipitously to the right and rose steeply to the left.  For much of this final distance, TR-207 is little more than a longitudinal ledge passing for a trail. A goat path.

But another theme emerged on this trip: For every bad thing that happened, a good thing followed, the campsite at the end of the goat path being the first example. In restrospect, an experience in town presaged this theme. Dining options in Richwood, West Virginia, are few beyond the DQ, which on the Thursday afternoon of Sept. 8, 2016 had a  handwritten sign Scotch taped on the door: "Machine broken. No ice cream." A franchise founded on ice cream that is however unable to serve it might reasonably be judged an omen. If so, then consider that before polishing off our GrillBurgers (as DQ calls its other menu staple that comes from cows), the ice cream machine was fixed and Blizzards back on the menu. So if one omen felt foul, its successor forecast favor. DQ was telling us something. Our hike into the Cranberry Wilderness might have its woes but also its wins. And thus did it unfold. For every cloud, a silver lining. For every thorn, a rose. For every Ford, a Ferrari.

The ordeal of TR-207 was followed by fine evening in camp. By the time his brother arrived with the two Johns, Bill Ankenbauer had a fire blazing because anywhere an Ankenbauer pitches a tent a campfire appears. It's a family thing. The brothers just have a way with flame. It was a warm night, still in the low 60s, so the fire was mostly decorative  a prop for storytelling. We discussed the usual, plus a little politics. We banned political discussion before we left on the trip but the ban was violated faster than you ask, "Hillary or Trump?" We were about evenly split on that question, which perplexes me since I'm unable to comprehend a vote for a misogamist and bigot who has never governed a dog pound much less a nation. Before you read the next few paragraphs, here's a warning: The observations contained do not reflect the unanimous opinion of the Patio Boys nor of their associates, which is not a reason to stop reading. Just proceed with caution, as if walking down a goat path.

The Donald loyalists want smaller government. Me, too. As Jefferson put it so well, "That government is best which governs least." When Bush left office, there were 4,206,000 federal employees.  Obama knocked it down to 4,185,000. Trump & Co. also want fewer undocumented immigrants.  How's this? In 2014, the deportation rate was nine times what it was 20 years previously, according to the Economist, which added: "Border patrol agents no longer just patrol the border; they scour the country for illegals to eject. The deportation machine costs more than all other areas of federal criminal law-enforcement combined.”

Want a stronger economy? As they say on NPR (but not on Fox), "Let's do the numbers." Gas is $2.15 a gallon, the jobless rate is 4.9 percent, the stock market is over 18,000 after Bush handed Obama a market had plunged below 7,000.  Consumer confidence is up. Interest down. Bush handed Obama a rotten apple. His team drew out a seed, planted it and produced an orchard. Obama made America great again. Buy the man a red baseball cap!

Of course, the GOP nominee has his own numbers. They are awesome numbers. The best numbers. No one has better numbers. Some are on his tax returns. They, too, are awesome numbers. Well, except the one that line labeled "TAX." That one includes a number that is kind of small. Zero. Un-awesome.

Enough politics. My editor, Mark McGinnis, says I'm going to alienate people. And my trusted adviser Silver Pops says maybe I should say something good about Trump. So here goes: His wife is pretty and I agree with him that we have to rebuild America's infrastructure. Our roads, our bridges, our airports, and even the trails in our national forests needs some attention.  Of course, taxes do those things. If the rich duck theirs, we won't have much revenue. And maybe I should say something bad about Hillary, too. Here's goes: Her husband has the sexual morals of Donald Trump. Oh, wait, that's not about Hillary is it? I'll try again. She sent emails on a private server. Should she go to prison? Isn't being married to Bill all of these years prison enough?

Like I said earlier, a hike has its risks, and the more we discussed politics the more we risked going to bed perturbed at one another. So we quit that. Just one last thought: Hillary is more likely to preserve more wilderness, to assure less degradation of our land, air, and water, and to understand that global warming is not a fairy tale.

But hey, we like fairy tales and found more of them when we turned to the provocative question: If you could be on Naked and Afraid with the woman of your choice and not your wife, with whom? The Founding Fathers had Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams. We have Trump and Hillary. They had John Locke's writing, Paine's Common Sense, and the Federalist Papers to inform their discussions over whiskey and rye. We had Naked and Afraid to inform ours. We did, however, have whiskey and rye.

Our discussion was a double helix of a fairy tale, spiraling and connected like a DNA molecule if DNA stands not for deoxyribonucleic acid but for Don't Never Ask because what happens on the trail stays on the trail. Suffice it to say that Scarlett Johansson always comes up these kinds of discussions, as well she should if one appreciates beauty.

But here's the fairy tale, part one: Unless the Scarlett shows up as the Black Widow as she does in the Avenger movies, then what does she bring to table in terms of survival skills? Her looks?  And here's the fairy tale, part two: the real Ms. Johansson, the Black Widow, likely has a low Personal Survival Rating or PSR, as Naked and Afraid calls its evaluative scale, with 10 being a caveman named Gil, pronounced with a soft G because his full name is Gibraltar and his friends just call him Rock or would if they knew words, and 1 being Scarlett Johansson in a little black dress and spiked heels.  For a person with a PSR of 1 to last for 21 days with no food, no water, and no shelter, she would be obligated  to the Blanche DuBois rule ─ that is, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Therein might be an opening for the Patio Boys had they not once been nearly undone by a goat path in West Virginia. A high PSR takes a hit from the likes of that.

I had five more paragraphs on Scarlett Johansson but I'm cutting them after reading them to my wife Kate, who thought I had overindulged that fantasy. She wanted a paragraph on Carey Grant instead. What can I say? She likes old movies. And her PSR is respectable after six days on the John Muir trail last summer (see related story on this site).

The goat path behind us, our woes were fading. Around the campfire, our greatest challenges were when to add a log and where to sit. Those who brought Helinox chairs knew exactly where to sit. Those of us who did not competed for two flat rocks or a turn in a vacant chair should its owner get up. This apparently left some of those owners slightly indignant, as one shared later: "Every time I got up, someone pounced on my chair." Added another: "Maybe if you plan to sit you should bring your own chair. It's not right taking the chair of someone else who carried those extra two pounds."  I am guessing it was the Bernie Sanders voters trying to get a seat someone else carried in. 

Next morning, we started off on a day hike along the Middle Fork Trail and a portion of the Little Fork Trail with the intention to go all day if the trails were accommodating. They were not. That's the thing about the Cranberry Wilderness. The trails are not marked, maintained, or, in some places even trails. The land here is an oversized drainage ditch. I don't mean that as an insult, just as a way to help you visualize the place. The mountains are tall by Eastern United States standards. Up top, they are a wavy plateau. That creates a lot of surface area to collect rain. Below are valleys that are steep and deep, into which all of that water collected up top flows into two watersheds, the Williams River and the Cranberry River. Flash floods here are not an anomaly. They are what happens every time it rains appreciably.

The biosphere that results is perfectly adapted to the flood cycle. Those ferns and firs up high disappear down low in favor of trees that can bend and withstand hydraulic pressure. The ground cover is thick with stubborn roots that hold the soil in place so that the lush, lower forest can flourish. If you stick a hand spade into the dirt, as you must when preparing for nature's call, you can barely penetrate the dense tangle of roots. Alone, each root is no more than a strand of hair. Together they are muscle against the flash floods.

The rapid drainage from peak to valley renders the trails into a network of itinerant streambeds because water finds these pathways and, in doing so, carves into them, exposing rocks and creating what seems like a sequence of potholes. Along the river itself, this phenomenon is exacerbated.  The Williams River has a doppelganger running parallel to the actual river. At high water, the two streams flow side by side. At higher water, they merge into one raging turbine of brown, roiling water.

On a normal day the doppelganger is dry and is sometimes the trail. Done with, five of our group turned back after lunch at a picnic grounds that had been beaten around by the floods.  The bear-proofed trashcans withstood the water but most everything else was upended, busted, or both.  Bob, Bill, and I pressed on to the Little Fork Trail, which wound its way through a scrappy woods, fading and reappearing enough to make you wonder if you were on the trail or off. It was kind of a pain.

Little Fork comes to an abrupt stop at a littler fork, barely too wide to step across, after which it ostensibly goes up a mountainside. "I'm done," Bob announced, confirming intentions he'd clearly stated at the onset that he would turn back if the trail started up a steep hill. He wasn't in the mood for a goat path in reverse -- and this was that minus the path part. That is, the trail was impossible to find on the other side of the water. Bill and I tried, but were almost immediately bushwhacking. Trees were downed every ten yards or so and the faint indication of trail just grew fainter until it was gone altogether. We turned back, got lost on the Litter River Trail as it passed between rivers (the Little Fork and the Middle Fork). Using a compass on Bill's iPhone, found our way back to camp in time for dinner.

Next day, we broke camp and headed uphill on that leg of the Middle Fork Trail, which has to regain the lost 2,000 feet in elevation but does so graciously.  The difference in spreading 2,000 feet of elevation change over six plus miles rather than concentrating in 2.4 was remarkable. Rare will you climb this much this easily. Also, our packs were lighter, having consumed some of the food and much the bourbon over the past two night. And with a river beside us the whole distance, we could carry less water, which subtracts weight meaningfully.

Things were going well until one of those ruts dug out by the rush of some past flash flood caught Jim's boot. He planted a trekking pole to support himself but it gave way, telescoping itself into a shorter pole. He fell forward and banged his forehead on stone. A nice knot appeared.

A little history is in order at this point. Jim was a mythical figure to us in the early years. We'd never met him, but his brother told of him and of his exploits. He had biked across country. He'd hiked the Colorado Trail, staying out for 44 days and covering 486 miles without so much a stop as a gas station for a soda and a candy bar. It was also reported to us by Bill that Jim had the best, the latest gear. Backpacking is a gadget lover's game at Jim was at the top of the game. Before anyone else knew they existed, Jim owned and used a SteriPEN, which looks like a baby thermometer but beams ultraviolent light through a bottle of water and kills the bacteria.

Because of Jim's experience and knowledge, relayed to us in relentless repetition by his admiring brother, Bob bestowed Jim with a trail name even before we met him: Guru. Well, the fall on the Middle Fork Trail ended that. Bob gave the Guru a choice of two possible new trail names: Lumpy or Knot Head.

Our camp for the night was right beside the river, which tumbled beautifully over stones of many shapes and sizes. John Hennessey commented on the joys of sleeping streamside, hearing the soothing sound of flowing water as you drift off to sleep. Things were good, and then Leo and Silver Pops decided to walk up and move the cars. Their idea seemed okay. We had parked at one trailhead and would come out at another. So they could move the cars to our exit spot -- and we'd get a head start home the next morning.

They set out with what seemed like abundant time to complete the task but as the sun set and darkness fell we grew worried. As we did on goat path night, Bob and I got lights and got started to look for them, a déjà vu from our first night. Here we go again, we thought. A second rescue mission. But before we crossed the stream, John and Leo's headlamps appeared, bobbing down the trail.  They made it to the cars, moved them, and started back to camp. But the trail from the new parking place was just as long as the trail to the old one but steeper. Why hike that with packs in the morning, they asked themselves, when the old parking place was an easier exit? So they turned back, got in the cars, and moved them right back to where they had been, then hiked back the way they'd come in the first place. Smart move and generous toward the rest of us, though it added time and erased any useful purpose to their trip.

So that evening's campfire chat was: Top ten Patio Boy mistakes of all time? Four on this trip could make the list. One, the futile hike to get the cars. Two, Jim's stumble. Three, coming in by way of the goat path (I beg to differ on that one, as it seemed adventurous and interesting to me, but I'm outvoted), and four, coming to the Cranberry Wilderness in the first place. McGinnis, our web master, has agreed to post a poll so we can vote on all the nominations from trips over the years, including the hike to Pine Mountain and the return to Pine Mountain, which are both assured places among the top ten. But I predict the decision to go to the Cranberry Wilderness will not, once the voters are in, make the list. There's a consensus that we'll not be going back but we have no regrets. For the past several years, we've been keen to explore someplace new rather than going back to the Smokies and the Red River Gorge all the time. We try to stay within six hours of home; this stretched that limit but it put us somewhere we knew little about. It was fun and little exotic.

And, in the consequential presidential election year of 2016, we had an ideal place to consider the nation's options on Nov. 8.

Remember when an MTV guest asked Bill Clinton boxers or briefs? Briefs, he said, and the dignity of the American presidency was diminished by the thought of the commander in chief in whitey tighties. How have we come to still be obsessed with the Clintons all these years later? There's a fatigue to it. For all his successes, including for the most part peace and prosperity, he governed a decade that no one remembers as a heyday for America. In those years, the slaughter in Bosnia was an awful example of the world gone mad, as Syria is today. The 1990s also set the stage for Bin Laden and 9/11 and for the housing bubble that would burst on W's watch. As if things couldn't get worse, a president who couldn't keep his boxers or his briefs on while at the office disgraced America and, deservedly or not, brought on only the second impeachment in the nation's history, this one for tawdry personal behavior rather than for an approach to post-war resettlement policy. At least with Andrew Johnson the issue was public policy not personal debauchery.

Not much to celebrate, the 1990s. Through it all, our own Mitch McConnell was ascendant and perfecting his "gridlock is good" political strategy, which would teach the TEA Party how to bring Congress, and the fine art of finding common ground, to a screeching halt.

Maybe that explains what we saw in Richwood, which is diehard Trump country. In the May GOP primary, he had 2,230 votes. Ted Cruz was second with 176. Hillary, in contrast, lost to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. For every vote she got, he got two.

When people want change, they don't want another 1990s any more than they want 2016. They want something different. And if ever there was a town in need of something different, Richwood, West Virginia, is such a town.  Abandoned by an economy once insatiable for lumber and coal so long as it could be harvested without accountability, Richwood's is trying to rebuild its economic foundation around the lowly Allium tricoccum, otherwise known as the pungent wild leek or the ramp.

 The leek harvest, and the festival celebrating it, is in April. Since it is now September, not much was happening in downtown Richwood.  Here's what was happening: Inside the DQ, a woman overheard us say we needed napkins. She was at our table faster than you can say "weird" with a fistful of napkins, "My hands are clean," she said by way of greeting us. She had a freakish array of rings on all the wrong fingers. This you noticed because the napkins made her hands a focal point. She was 73, she told us.  If so, it was a hard 73. But if her town had human face, it would be her face. Worn down, worn out, and looking for something fresh. She found Leo, who is naturally compassionate and spoke with her as though she deserved every ounce of his attention -- which she craved.  Richwood, too, craves attention.  To be relevant again.

Once, the lumber and coal booms fed this little mountain town's economy and its people's dreams. Just outside of town is the estate of one of the boom's barons, who has constructed everything -- his mansion, his wall around it, his stables -- of brick in a town otherwise living in clapboard and shingled siding. His hillocks are cleared of trees, replaced by expanses of lawn and sporting a giant banner of The Donald, his trademark hat atop his massive wisps of orange hair and his scornful pout that looks like the pinched lips of a carp. "Hold on miners," the sign reads, "I'm coming!" This in a part of the country long known for its "Jesus is coming" signs. Now there's a new messiah.  Who can fault hope, even though it may false hope?

The trail is removed from these complexities. And the Cranberry Wilderness, though a next door neighbor of Richwood, feels nothing like the town. It's isolated. Wild Beautiful. Ecologically and biologically unique.  The forest even has its own rare bird, the ghost hawk, which we may have seen one evening, mistaking it for an owl. Jim Ankenbauer, who drove up from his home in Florida to hike with us, arrived a day early, and saw black bear on the highway. And most remarkably, a bog more common to Minnesota or western Ontario and the Canadian Shield rests in an alpine bowl, a gorgeous and mysterious anomaly.

Such bogs are common where glaciers carved through granite, scoring, scaring, and leaving deep indentations that filled first with water and then with the organic debris of life until there accumulated a watery soup of fertile muck in which scrubby bushes grow beside spongy mosses. Such bogs look like solid ground but dare to step into one and you will sink as if in quicksand.  The glaciers halted and retreated before they got this far south, so the Cranberry Wilderness bog is exotic for its place. It's also a home the namesake berry, red and tart and abundant.

A few days before this trip, I was at conference during which a speaker played a clip of John F. Kennedy's speech at Rice University in 1962 under a sweltering Texas sun. Vigor was a word everyone used back then, and JFK was vigor come to life that day. With Dallas still 14 months into the future, he sounded full of promise as he delivered a speech that would be central to his legacy. He spoke first against ignorance and in favor of knowledge. He insulted no one. Instead, he celebrated the accomplishments of humanity and summoned Americans to lead the world further forward. This was the speech calling for us to go to the moon and be the first to do so.

It would take some doing. Our space program was second to the Soviets. Neither they nor we had the metallurgy, the fuels, or even the radio communications needed for such a mission. Today, the phone in your pocket has more computing power than NASA had in 1962 and the nonstick skillet on your stove has higher tech composites for withstanding heat.

Undaunted, President Kennedy delivered the most memorable line of the speech with his head cocked confidently toward the heavens, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard."  A nation was turned on by its leader, not turned off.

I cannot honestly say that we chose to go to the Cranberry Wilderness because it was hard, but it was a little hard  and that made it worth it. Now, if only we had a JFK running for president this year.