SPRING 2018: THE BEAUTY OF THE MOUNTAINS NEVER GETS OLD EVEN IF WE DO

Bonus: See a video of this trip

By Mark Neikirk

Mohs surgery is, according to the Mayo Clinic, a precision technique for treating skin cancer. Layers of skin are peeled one by one as one as if we humans were onions. The idea is to remove each layer, examine it and, if cancer is found, then to remove another and another until arriving at a layer with no cancer. It can leave a nasty scar.

A colonoscopy is an exam that invades your body the way the Deep State invades your privacy. The procedure is proceeded by a purging of the bowels that involves drinking skunk urine, all the while knowing that in a few hours this substance will induce a medical version of Montezuma’s Revenge. Sometime after your family is fast asleep and while Sports Center is showing reruns of last night’s show, you will be disturbed in an unpleasant way so that by sunrise your bowels will be sufficiently empty for a doctor to make a movie of your inner ass using a long, flexible tube with a miniature Go Pro on its  business end. There are three good things you can say about a colonoscopy: You’re knocked out while it’s happening, cancer is worse and you probably won’t need another one for five years.

I bring these up because the Patio Boys are not as young as we used to be. Hence, before we could leave for this trip one among us had an appointment with the dermatologist to inspect a concerning spot on his head that would require Mohs surgery. Another announced that his colonoscopy had left him constipated for three days. The condition made him anticipate every refueling stop as another opportunity to announce in triumph, “The Eagle has landed.” Eventually, it did.

Those were only the most immediate maladies. Our collective medical history includes a heart attack, prostate cancer, a recent diagnosis of diabetes, and a prescription for Coumadin to avoid a blood clot, which can kill instantly and nearly did once. The  minor nusances of aging afflict us, too – things like being winded and rubber-legged on the inclines and, of course, bad backs, which bother anyone who is 60, plus or minus, as we are.

As Bette Davis quipped, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” Philip Roth wasn’t, I assume, quipping when he spoke of the “massacre“ of aging, as reported by New Yorker on the occasion of the novelist‘s recent death at age 85.

And so we make accommodations. Blow-up mattresses. Lighter tents. Lighter sleeping bags. Lighter stoves. Lighter packs. Lighter anything. Even lighter silverware. The right fork can save ounces or less. And then there's the Advil and Ambien, though Ambien is falling from grace after Rosanne's Twittergate.

Our biggest accommodation to age is distance. In the early days, the Patio Boys hiked 10, 15, even 25 miles in one day. This trip's hike with backpacks was two miles from car to camp. It was a magnificent two miles, up an exposed hillside strewn with pop-up outcroppings of stone that gave the whole place an exotic look, as if the American East had somehow given over a piece of itself to the American West, with the West's arid, open mountains that let you see for miles and miles toward purple mountain majesties. The magnificence doesn’t change the distance. Two miles. A bank teller probably walks this far in shift.

By car (SUV, to get technical), we had come six and hours from home to the Lewis Fork Wilderness in southwest Virginia near the Grayson Highlands State Park. Until this trip, we had a rule: Our weekend hikes needed to be within five hours of home, which put the Smokey Mountain National Park at our out limits. We could go no further. It was a rule. After a decade together, we agreed to break the rule in the interest of seeing something new and different. To put it another way, we were willing to drive further and walk less. Does that sound like grandpa or what?

The Appalachian Trail crosses Virginia State Route 600 at the Elk Garden roadside lot outside of Abington. That was our starting point. We parked, peed, and proceeded up the AT toward Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet. A little short of Mount Rogers we arrived at flat, open area beside the trail with ample tent sites, which we needed as there were nine of us, each with his own tent. If you know the Patio Boys, you know don't share sleeping quarters nor should we. There is way too much farting, snoring, position shifting and other nocturnal disturbances to be sleeping side by side. So, nine people, nine tents.

This is right at the 500-mile marker from the start of the AT in Springer Mountain, Ga., so it's an early point of triumph for those intending to hike the AT's whole 2,190 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Through hikers, as those doing the whole trail are known, typically start in early March and reach Mount Rogers in late April. Having cast aside the daily routines of hearth and home for a routine of rise, walk, rest, repeat, they are an interesting lot – each with his or her own story. By the time we encountered them, they had been on the AT long enough to have experienced its rigors as well as its blessing, including the kindness of strangers, which AT hikers call “trail magic.” On this day, a small band of local residents set up a grill and brought a cooler of beer at a trail break to feed and fete the hungry, thirsty through hikers. After two months of ramen noodles and GU gel, through hikers were giving this five stars even if Michelin would not.

A waxing gibbous moon was on its way up and the mercury was on its way down by the time Steak and Spuds rolled into our camp, still buzzed from the trail magic beer. They found us nested among the still-barren hardwoods (it was a late spring in southwest Virginia this year) and nestled close to fire blazing hot enough to smelt iron. A Bluetooth mini-speaker hung overhead from a limb, adding a Baby Boomer vibe to the night air as it looped its way through the Patio Boys playlist, everything from the Eagles to Johnny Cash. Glen Campbell kept crooning “Galveston” every few songs as if he’d hacked the playlist to make himself heard more. The list could use a little Jimi Hendrix. Just sayin'.

The fire had to have been inviting. I don’t know about the music. Depends whether Steak and Spuds, who as members of Gen Z were younger than our children but older than our grandchildren, liked oldies. Steak and Spuds had walked into a whole camp of oldies. They’re lucky we weren’t deep into a discussion about what age is best to sign up for Medicaid and Social Security – topics we saved for the drive home in order to stay awake on the otherwise dull interstate.

What would Steak and Spuds care of any of this? They were all of 17 and 18 respectively and, technically, still both in high school. Back home in Vermont, they’d succeeded in persuading their teachers, counselors, principles, and parents that the AT would provide more educational value than the last three months of high school – which is almost surely true. They planned to fly home for prom and graduation but otherwise they were all in. At an AT shelter, they’d wrapped a duty shovel in aluminum foil and used it to cook steaks and potatoes over an open fire. On the AT, other through hikers give you a trail name and this was their moment. It was suggested they be Steak and Potatoes but no one wanted to be called “Potato” so they agreed to Steak and Spuds. They were followed into camp by Sugar Booger, whose name has something to do with being from the South and either liking sweets, being sweet or both although in the North, where the AT heads, "sugar booger" connotes a cocaine habit. We saw no evidence of that.

They were full of stories, including of the man in his nineties, "Pappy,” who was about a day behind them and trying to set a record as the oldest person to through hike. They also told us about the odd egg who was hiking in a loincloth and loitering too much. Virginia Creeper is an indigenous plant to Lewis Fork but it might also be a good choice for that hiker's trail name. It was Sugar Booger who told us about the trail magic beer.

“I wasn’t sure if you guys were going to make it back on the trail today,” Booger told Steak and Spuds. “You were pretty drunk.”

“We were,” Steak said. “But we were fine once we got started.”

“Fucking fine,” Spuds added. He said “fucking” a lot in the way you might also if you were barely 18 and in finally in the company of adults who possessed no authority to tell you to stop saying “fucking” every other word. Admittedly or not, the Patio Boys were envious of Spud's youthful foul mouth along with being envious of everything else about him, most especially of his youth.

This is because we are old. The signs are all before us but we deny, deny, deny. Our oldest member, the inestimable John Curtin, assured me that hiking only two miles before camping has nothing to do with age. He cited the next day, when we hiked 10 or 11 miles, failing to mention that we did so without packs. Here, in his own words, is the denial: “The Patio Boys are a very determined group of men and we will never give in to something as fleeting as age. At least not yet! As John Wayne stated in the ‘Quiet Man’ and as far as this trip goes, ‘It’s just a little stretch of the legs.’”

Who wants to be the one to tell Silver Pops that just quoting a John Wayne movie is, prima facie, evidence of age? The Quiet Man was filmed in Technicolor under the direction of John Ford in 1952. Steak and Spuds were not only not born; neither were their parents. Also, John Ford died in 1973 and John Wayne in 1976, roughly a quarter of a century before the births of Steak and Spuds.

Like I said, we’re old. Or as Spuds would say, fucking old.

But we are still out there. Others our age post questions like this on Facebook (this is not fake news): “Which is the better golf cart, gas or electric?” We, in contrast, are still most excited when the REI sale flier arrives with a 30 percent discount on a new tent. Mostly, we look forward to the next trip as soon as current one ends.

Why is that? It is unquestionably the good company, but that’s available at home. The draw is primordial – the call of the wild. It’s why Daniel Boone walked to Kentucky all those years ago, and he had less to get away from. No incessant smart phone demanding every minute of his time and probably spying on him (do you really think Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t listening even if the FBI isn’t?) No leveraged mortgages or faltering 401K’s. No NBA playoffs over-occupying ESPN. In the 21st Century, we all just need a break now and then. For us, the woods is that break.

The Lewis Fork Wilderness will rank in our annals as one of the best places yet for a break. It was, no hyperbole intended, freaking gorgeous. Those exposed hillocks that I’ve already described led into a dense hardwood forest that, because of the arrested spring, permitted the late April sun to shine onto the forest floor and awaken the wild flowers. We met one aging couple from nearby Troutdale, Va., (what a wonderful name for a town; you for the trout, stay for the people) who said they come to the Lewis Fork Wilderness every year around this time to see the wild flowers. If a world where the kindness of strangers is the equivalent of trail magic, the flowers couple were the kindest of strangers. They chatted with us. Introduced us to their two dogs. And they pointed us in the right direction home, as the map seemed a little unclear as trail maps often do A few too many squiggles, a few too many 6-point, italic fonts.

The wild flowers were tiny but abundant. Checking a guide, the joy of this taxonomy is clear from the vibrant names: Black Medic, Mountain Angelica, Wapato, Whorled Wood Aster, Rough Heuchera, Hooked Agrimony also know as Tall Hairy, Putty Root Orchid also know as Adam and Eve, Love in a Puff (which came first. Adam and Eve or Love in Puff?), Doll's Eyes, Beechdrops, Beggerticks, Sessileleaf Bellwort, American Bladdernut (hope this isn't anyone's AT trail name), Marsh Gayfeather (this one may be), Quaker Ladies, and Prickleweed (which sounds more like an insult than a flower, as in "The president is real prickleweed.") Not a flower, but memorable nonetheless, was a patch of what appeared to be wild hostas covering maybe a quarter acre of slope – a dense, green garden. No wonder we saw deer nearby. They certainly love suburban hostas; I assume these taste even better. It was impressive to behold, and just isn’t something you see every day.

The forest floor is sliced by mountain streams that are cold and clear and hold native brook trout that are as beautiful as they are small. Eric Krosnes and I brought fly rods for this reason, and he caught a half dozen to my one. The largest might have been 8 inches if your tape measure is made of stretch fabric. But you would be hard-pressed to ever hold a more glorious living thing. Stripes and spots and shades of color combine in a mighty, almost radioactive effervescence. Since the fishing is catch and release, you can enjoy the sight only briefly before returning the fish to the water, where if darts off, pissed to have been caught and a little wiser for the experience. Next time, it might not be gulled by a wisp of hair tied to tiny hook.

Our fishing, mine and Eric’s, was a big portion of this trip for the two of us. Since the whole group had based camped with the intention of arriving on Friday and day hiking on Saturday, he and I made plans to split off and hike into the valley to find the headwaters of a trout stream, Helton Creek, which we knew would likely be narrow enough to step over at elevation but gradually widen as it descended. We ended up hiking some five miles downhill before finding a section of Helton Creek wide enough to fish. Even then, it was at its widest point maybe 12 yards and more often it was half that width or less. But it was a picture-perfect mountain trout stream, twisting its way through thickets of laurel and past cut banks of its own making, all the while tumbling over miniature waterfalls and small boulders among beds of stone that flashed yellow in the sunlight, refracting a fusion of muffled light back toward the water's surface. Finding a place where the water slowed enough to pool, and therefore be calm enough to cast above the next riffle, was a chore but a happy one. Eric found the best of these, and it produced on the way down and again on the way back.

In the end, we came to a farm road and, as if from another time long passed, we saw a farmer and his hand herding cattle toward us with a dog keeping the lead cows on course as the farmer called and whistled commands. The only thing making the scene modern was the fact of the farmer being aboard a four-wheeler. He a big man, at least around the belly, like a Santa, including the white hair although his beard was a stubble only. He wore rubber mucking boots, khakis and a work shirt, all of which showed of the day’s labor. Stopping, he took his hat off, wiped his brow with is shirtsleeve, and greeted us as if we were old friends. The cows, he told us, were being moved to graze on the lower hills of federal land. He purchased that right for his herd, and so moved them between his land and the publics. Did he know this stream? Did he fish it? He laughed – chuckled, I should say – as well as any Santa and replied, “Well, I used to but if it did now I’d probably fall in and drown.” What might he know about the stream? “This stretch here,” he said, signaling toward a long, straight stretch just beyond where were stood on the farm road, “it’s a really good spot. I used to fish it all the time.” At this point, I had yet to catch a fish, while Eric already had landed three. So we stopped there, and within a few minutes, I’d caught a brook trout on a little yellow fly that imitated I don’t know what – but it worked.
We hiked back to the campsite, five miles uphill, and managed to get a little lost. Forks in the road in Lewis Fork look substantially different on the map than in real life. We had the good fortune to re-encounter the wild flower couple and they kindly guided us again.

Back at camp, the other seven of us had rekindled the fire and started their dinner, which tends to be freeze-dried for some and just-add-water things from the shelves of Kroger for the rest of us. A lot of sharing happens, as we try to figure out what tastes best and what sucks. A current favorite is the epitome of simplicity: a packet of instant mashed potatoes combined with a foil pack of chicken chunks. Feeds two. And don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I’m a bit of food snob on the trail, bring onions and dates and special spices. Taters and chicken work just fine.

I should explain why Eric and I were fishing instead of hiking. Number one is because Lewis Fork is a fly fishing paradise. Wild brook trout are everywhere. They can be a trick to catch, or so they were to our inexperienced selves. But they are abundant in this wilderness’s latticework of streams. Having just heard James Babb, the long-time editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal and author of the collection of essays charmingly titled Fish Won’t Let me Sleep, I was enamored with the romance of wild brook trout – Mr. Babb’s obsession. So the timing was right and Eric is always an easy “yes” if I suggest that we go fishing. Since he is the superior fisherman (he made be write that), I’m always honored and humbled to be in his company and learn. The others Patio Boys are less interested and have been known to mistake a creek chub for a trout. So they hike. We fish. At least, that’s the drill when we go somewhere with trout streams and when we base camp, which gives everyone options on the second day. You can hike. You can fish. You can sleep in


The hiking here was very good, and I’m sorry to have missed it – although since we hiked ten miles total to get to the stream and then back, I don’t think you can really say that Eric and I missed out on hiking. But we missed out on “The Hike,” which Bob Pauly – who thoughtfully and thoroughly plans our trips – had mapped out as 11 miles toward Mount Rogers and through Deep Gap, a particularly scenic section of the AT with periodic views that were, as John Hennessey described them to me, “open and amazing from left, right, front and back.” Some of the seven day hikers took the spur up to Mount Rogers. Others chose to rest, having heard that the view at Virginia’s highest point it obscured by trees atop it. We’ll not name names as to who among them rested rather than labored.
Back together, they hiked back to camp and, apparently, could have used the Troutdale flower couple to give them a little guidance as they ended up, as we Patio Boys like to say, “Misplaced.” Not lost, mind you. They fellas were fine heading out the trail. Those upper ridge trails were well-marked and well-traveled. But ... well, I’ll let John Hennessey tell you: “Somehow on our day hike we managed to loop to a lower trail head at Massey Gap, turned right, down what seemed to be an old logging or service road. The trail became confusing with no people and no evidence of people. Onward anyway, down further through the wet ruts made into creeks by recent rain.”

I should give John Curtin a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T here, as it was this difficult stretch of trail were he seemed at his best. Others complained of the rocks, the running water through parts of the trail the horse hazards. But Johnny C, who says of age “it’s a number and mine’s unlisted,” was feeling it this trip. Yes, he reported later, it was treacherous at times, but it was perhaps the most scenic hike we’ve had in the East, he thought, and maybe that energized him. Also, he’d been to spinning class all winter and out on his road bike once the weather broke. “When we went on that day hike, at the end, I just took off. I was way ahead of those guys. It was flat and I just I can still do it! I wasn’t short of breath or anything. I think the biking helps.”

Complicating things further were the horses. The Lewis Fork Wilderness is adjacent to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where horses have been allowed to run wild. They’re an attraction – something unique. People come to see them. The trail maps warns: “Do not feed or harass the ponies.” Nothing tells the ponies not to harass the humans.

Horses beat up a trail and human walking gets more difficult. The horses also make more than one trail, which provided options for the Patio Boys. Ascending separately, they arrived at the top dispersed. There, they found a herd of horses. I’m going to let the eye-witness, John Hennessey, pick up the story again, as this is the climax of the hike: “The stallion of the herd noticed and charged but had too many targets. He started straight, veered one way and another, stopped, and shook his head. My guess, probably the weirdest thing he had ever seen. No human has hiked up that hillside in a very long time, and suddenly several standing in random spots at the same time sent him into a mental tailspin. Aliens beamed down from the space ship?”
You never know what you might see on the trail. That goes for humans as well as for horses.

Having provided the climax, I should wrap this story up – but there is a little more to tell. The weather was interesting this trip. No rain but it was quite cold at night. Maybe 25 degrees. That tested the limits of some sleeping bags, including my own which was warmer the second night after I discovered it has an internal cinch cord that tightens the mummy from the shoulders down. Nice feature. Consider that a plug for Hyke and Byke, a little outdoors company that makes incredible gear and keeps the costs down by selling direct mail. Gusts of wind keep some awake, busting through the camp and rattling the tents, followed by a calm and then another gust.

Day three of our trip was a touch controversial. The night before we discussed around the campfire what to do the next day. Bob, our trip planner, favored hiking two miles back to the cars, driving to Grayson Highlands for a day hike, then hiking back to the same backwoods campsite for Sunday night. That brought out the opinions.

“I don’t want to hike out and right back in. If we leave, let’s just car camp at the state park.”

“If I leave, I’m not coming back.”

“Let’s just stay and hike around here.”

“There’s no place to hike around here. We already did the only trail.”

“That’s not true. We can go to Lewis Creek.”

“I don’t want to go there is if means hiking through the water and rocks again.”

“Somebody make a decision.”

Somewhere, you could alsmost hear Steak and Spuds, now 10 or 20 miles down the trail, say, "OK, gramps."

I’m really not sure if we decided Saturday night or just got up on Sunday morning and broke camp on autopilot. But by lunch, we were at a really great country store buying ham sandwiches and, to take home, local honey. By midafternoon, we were paying camping fees at Grayson Highlands and, for Eric and me, state fishing permits for the park, which cost, OMG, $40 each. By then, we’d lost Jim Ankenbauer, who had driven from his home in Florida to be with us, as he frequently does, and decided he’d rather head back home than car camp. It’s a little hard to blame him, as car camping is decidedly less exotic. But you do see a thing or two in camp. A couple pulled in just before sundown in a converted van with a pop-up top with all the amenities. She was from some remnant of the Soviet Union. He was from Chicago. They were seeing the country. She want to see Grayson Highlands and its horses. So here they were.

Mark Goetz had purchased some beer at the country grocery, so the evening was soon a patio scene apropos to the Patio Boys: a fire pit, bottles of beer from a cooler, the Reds on the radio, and, inevitably, stories about old girlfriends and whatever came of them and why so and so didn’t marry so and so as they were quite the boyfriend/girlfriend at one time. And so on. Reds lost. There is a photo of this and we all look cold and old.

I should point out that before things reach that point, some of the crew did go on a day hike and Eric and I went fishing. We ended up in Eden. I do not exaggerate. We walked a roadbed until we came to a skinny trail that descended quickly to one of the park’s several streams, Wilson Creek.
Its shore was lined in laurels that were impossible to pass through. I tried and was thwarted. It was like walking through some kind of elastic wall. It would give a little but never allow you to progress. I was trying to get above this fantastic waterfall that was at the foot of the trail. It was maybe 30 feet tall, though you could not tell for certain because there were stony stair steps above the last big drop, and you could not see all the way up. The water fell into a clear pool of water that absorbed colors of the forest and sky, melding blue into green as if one color. Eric cast into the pool and, in time, caught a little brookie and invited me to try there as well. But the one trout was it for us. We both tried the riffles below. Nada. There’s no doubt there were trout in the water. It was too perfect to not hold them, and we could see them rise from time to time to eat a bug. Seeing that, we switched from wet to dry flies but the current quickly sunk them. In the end, we understood that our skills must improve if we are to do better catching these wild trout. Back home, a friend who is a trout guide advised me that we should have used little wet flies and maybe even a tiny split shot to get the fly deep. There aren’t enough bugs out in early spring to keep the fish looking upward. They are prowling the streambed for nymphs. You have to feed them what they are eating. Next time.

But as with the fishing on Saturday, the fishing on Sunday took us somewhere utterly special place that we would not have seen had we gone on the day hike with others. Successful fishing would have been a bonus; but to have seen that waterfall was enough.

People get old. Nature’s beauty never does.

This is an account of our Spring 2018 trip, taken on the weekend of April 27-30. On this trip were John Curtin (his highness, Silver Pop), Bob Pauly (Mooch, our fearless leader), Mark McGinnis (Tarp Boy, who would like a new trail name), Mark Neikirk (Captain, your humble correspondent), Bill Ankenbauer (Billy Goat, whose sure-footed feet require a boot that might fit Shaq), Jim Ankenbauer (Guru/Knothead -- his trail name is a work in progress), Mark Goetz (Stormy, though no one calls him that but he did get baptized as a Patio Boy in an epic storm; however, in 2018 that names needs to go unless Mr. Goetz is planning a career in porn and as a presidential doxy), John Hennessey (Bull, as he is one tough hombre), and Eric Krosnes (One Match, in tribute to his fire-starting skills). An important footnote: The Patio Boy who went to see the dermatologist is doing fine. His Mohs Surgery took care of things just fine. Would you like to comment on this story or otherwise contact us? Send an email to Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.,