By Mark Neikirk

There came a moment of perfection atop a ridgeline at or about 2:30 p.m. on June 29, 2020, 161 days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States, 35 days after Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, and three days after the New York Times reported that Russia paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers.

The world is a bit of mess. But among a stand of grand pines towering over a bed of endless moss that arose in waves of bright green, the world's woes grew  distant and their importance diminished.

During four days of being gloriously off the grid, an oasis of wavelengths within the requisite range of 800 to 2,400 megahertz gave John Curtin access to a cell phone tower and a chance to check on his daughter Michelle, and her newborn son, Lorenzo John. Silver Pops, as we call John (not sure if Enzo will), smiled brightly, 100 watts, and gave a big thumbs up. Mom and baby doing well. He'd been anxious the whole trip, wondering  if all was well.

Never, said Bob Pauly, had he seen someone quite so happy as our Silver Pops upon taking this call. Bob hates cell phone use on a hike. It is an antithesis in his book of what’s proper. The Code. The Canon. The Rule Book. The Way it Ought to Be. If indeed Moses broke the second tablet containing commandments eleven through twenty, as Mel Brooks irrefutably proved he did in that historical documentary of his, then it almost surely true that XI read thus: “Thou shalt not carry any electronic device into the wilderness.”

Whether or not God expected the tablets to be broken, He had enough experience by then with Adam and his progeny (seriously, Cain, you had to be told not to kill your brother?) to realize his Commandments, no matter their number, would not be kept. XI never had a chance. Had not Moses broken it actaully, men would have brokent literally.

Most men won’t kill. Or cheat on a spouse. They might keep the Sabbath holy if they ever could figure out which day is the Sabbath. Is it Saturday or is it Sunday? So confusing. They are OK with not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Jehovah does not exactly roll off the tongue anyway. But we can reasonably divine the Divine’s mind vis-à-vis XI. Being all knowing and hence able to see 2020 way back when, He would have known the feeble abilities of Baby Boomers.

It is we, the Boomers, who in the 1950s listened to Pat Boone even though God gave us Little Richard and Elvis, to say nothing of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline and the last days of Hank WIlliams.

It was we, the Boomers, who in the 1960s saw the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Rev. King, and RFK and responded by legalizing and manufacturing more guns and with enhanced lethal capacity.

Who in the 1970s thought a proselytizing peanut farmer was the next JFK because he had a 1970s version of JKF’s hair and who also thought 1970s hair was flattering.

Who  in the 1980s turned to Ronald Reagan and trickle down economics. Weird is in not that the same political faction that thought and still do that the Theory of Evolution is “just a theory” thought and still do that the Theory of Survival of the Fittest is absolute fact when it comes to optimizing capitalism.

Who in the 1990s seriously wondered whether cunnilingus was sex (was, still is) while ignoring the most salient fact in front of their eyes that the boss was messing around with an intern. At the office and on company time.

And who from 2000 until today considered reality television real – so much so that we elected a reality television star as president and then acted surprised when he ran the nation (did, still does) as if it were an episode competing for ratings. What’s coming in 2024, Oprah versus a Kardashian?

God knew Baby Boomers before they knew themselves. It was He who coined the epigram, “Hey, Boomer!” and gifted to the Millennials, who, being the solipsists they are, gave themselves credit. So, long story short (my first use of this stupid phrase), God knew humanity was destined to break a commandment against electronic devices in the wilderness.
And we did, all five of us.

I brought a Kindle. Avowed gearhead Bill Ankenbauer along with John Curtin and John Hennesey brought iPhones and chargers. Bob, the Moses of the Patio Boys, planned to bring his vintage iPod so he could Blue Tooth his playlist to Jim Ankenbauer’s mini-speaker. Since Jim, the Guru (so named for his cool gadgets), decided at the last minute not to make the trip, there was no mini-speaker and Bob was spared an almost certain path to apostasy.

As it were, Bob’s only electronic device was a superbly powerful flashlight that had a strobe mode. Why? To freak out the squirrels? What self-respecting rodent would not return to the nest in the presence of a forest suddenly converted into a discotheque? Was this all-of-the-sudden 1979 at The Conservatory with Donna Summer about to belt out “Hot Stuff” while squirrel buddies ordered Pink Squirrels and chirping the lyrics to “The Hustle?” It had lyrics? Do the hustle. Say that again. There, you've written a hit song.

In Bob’s defense, we needed some kind of defense. Squirrels kept raiding the food. One nibbled through a baggie of my gorp. So much for my lunch for the next three days. They did the same to a bag of almonds that Silver Pops left on the ground. “What the f...!!” I am not just cleaning that up. I do not believe he uttered the full expletive, as he was so shocked that his bag full of smoked almonds was now a bag empty of its smoked almonds. We were under attack! This was like a remake of “Caddyshack” with squirrels starring as the gophers.

Bob’s water bottle came under attack, too. There was a river 15 yards away but the squirrels wanted Bob’s water. What is that saying among squirrels? The water’s always greener on the other side of the lid. Bolder with each conquest, they chewed through Bill’s Sea to Summit dry bag while it was suspended overnight by a rope from a tree to keep it away from them. They wanted Bill’s cup of instant noodles. Badly.

Bill decided not to eat the remaining noodles, though the squirrels really did not eat many of them. But if a man in China ate a bat and caused a worldwide pandemic, then maybe it is best not to eat after a rodent, even an American one.
I believe it is true that after Bob showed us the strobe function on his flashlight the squirrel incursions ceased. Correlation or causation? Regardless, the 11th Commandment never had chance with us.

And so Silver Pops got that call. And we witnessed his joy.

• • •

We were in the Cranberry Wilderness section of the Monongahela National Forest. We had been here once before in 2016, when Trump was a candidate for president and this part of the country was Trump country, as were so many rural places in America where people saw themselves as left behind. It seems less so now, if the presence of big, bold signs is any indication. The towns and farms still look left behind and, with the pandemic, the unemployment rate, which went down while Obama was president and down further under Trump at first, nearly hit 20 percent in April before falling back to 14 percent in May.

The mountains themselves are oblivious to this, which is why we needed a few days there, removed from a world gone mad.
Our return, were it a movie, would be analogous to The Godfather I and II, as good or better in sequel. In 2016, we came by way of a wicked trail, Big Beechy, which was more bitchy than Beechy. Getting down Big Beechy was a workout and, at times, simply dangerous. It dropped precipitously, more than 2,400 feet. It had the feel of an oversized drainage ditch, constructed to get water from one point to the next. Flash floods were so routine that the ground plants had adapted, showing less of themselves above ground than below, where their roots were talons clinging to their roost.

The last round of storms in 2016 left a trail cluttered with massive downed trees, often lying of the edge of a drop-off, which meant passage was limited to one side. At least when there was no cliff you could select from two ways around the tree, one of which might be easier. We had a large group that trip, and four of our number were still hiking down long after dark.
Departure was, naturally, uphill and, along the way, Jim Ankenbaurer fell, hitting his forehead on a rock and raising a knot the size of a ping pong ball. For the next 24 hours his trail name switched from Guru to Knothead.

Big Beechy left an impression, not only on Jim’s brow but on our collective psyche. The Cranberry Wilderness was beautifully different but a tough place. We were not sure we would be back. Last year, we paid a visit to Monongahela’s other side, Dolly Sods. It, too, was a tough place, and also beautifully different with balds – or “sods” as mountaintop meadows are called in this section of America. Like the south side, the power of water was in evidence. Rivers cut through everywhere, sometimes meandering and other times rushing. On what passed for land, marshes and springs gave the whole place a primordial gestalt.

Something geologically different had happened here to shape these mountains into something unlike their Appalachian kith and kin. They are the cousins who became wrestlers and bikers, getting tatted and growing ZZ Top beards to go with their greying ponytails. They wear sleeveless t-shirts with flags and eagles that say with unabashed militance, “I love America more than you.” Their other t-shirt is a clutter of Christian iconography. A faith based on love never looked more menacing. Likewise these mountains, the beautiful but menacing mountains of Monongahela National Forest.

• • •

Flash forward. June 28, 2020.

We left home at 6 a.m., arriving in Richwood, W. Va., around noon for a cheeseburger and soda at the former Dairy Queen now called the Chill Out Grill. It was COVID-19 adapted with drive-thru service only and a newly constructed picnic table by the parking lot. We sat there to eat, then shuttled the cars for a point-to-point hike.
Our descent into the valley of the Cranberry River began at the head of TR 245, Forks of the Cranberry Trail. TR 245 starts easy and never gets difficult. Its grade is gentler by far than Big Beechy’s, dropping just 430 feet.

Monongahela trails are not marked as most trails are. Few signs. One at the trailhead. One at the end. No more. And no blazes on the trees. As these trails are little used in comparison to, say, the Red River Gorge, they get overgrown in places, especially immediately after a wet and nourishing spring. The result is the occasional confusion over where the trail goes. Sometimes, a cairn built by a thoughtful predecessor provides guidance. At other times, you just guess and, if you guess wrong, you backtrack and try again. We had to do that a time or two, which may account for the fact that the trail map says TR 245 is 5.5 miles. Bill’s tracking app put it at 6.3 miles, which mathematically is not much longer but once a trail logs longer than mapped you have entered the unknown. Will it end around the next bend? Or the next? Or the next? Meanwhile, you are mentally finished with the walk. Your mind is fixated on a sip of bourbon and a seat by the campfire.

TR 245 ends at a gravel road. It is lovely old road, and its presence here creates a way of life for users, as infrastructure so often does. The road follows the Cranberry River for miles, providing ready access to a trout stream with native brookies, stocked rainbows, some brown and even the occasional golden. No cars are allowed, so the fishing community adapted, riding bicycles equipped with rod carriers to their favorite holes.

Every mile or so, the U.S. Forest Service has built shelters where campers can set up, first come first served. Down the road a piece is evidence of another category of users, the horse franchisees. We would later on our trip pass three of these setups, with their massive tent revival style of tents. They looked unused for months, a function I suppose of winter and COVID-19. The idea of sleeping in one of these tents with 20 or so strangers is frightening enough. Toss in a virus that hitches a ride on every sneeze and you’d have to be insane to book one of these trips right now.

We considered camping at North Fork Shelter but then followed a trail behind it to a campsite within earshot of the river. It would be home for Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, and we would stage our day hikes from here. We put up tents, gathered firewood, started a fire and scouted tree configurations that might accommodate a tarp. A light rain began and, though the campsite’s canopy of trees mostly kept it off us, we retreated to the North Fork Shelter to prepare eat and our dinners.

• • •

This trip was a true Patio Boy trip in every regard. First, it almost didn’t happen. Late March, April or perhaps May would be the usual time for our spring hike. COVID-19 put the kibosh on a trip in those months. America was still fumbling its way through new habits. Social distancing. Sheltering at home. Masking. Sanitizing. Hand washing while counting to 20 or singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Pushed forward in June, the trip seemed far enough in the future. Surely COVID would be a faded memory by then, like last year’s flu or January’s impeachment circus.
As it turned out, the Great Reopening of America did not go so well. There were 43,581 new cases on June 27, the second highest number since COVID became a thing. The highest number had been two days earlier 44,726. And the day after we came home, America broke the 50,000 barrier. And as I write this, 40 of 50 states are seeing increased cases and 130,000 Americans have died. Our collective response seems to be to yell at one another. Sometimes through a mask.

Time to get a way for a few days. Intentionally or not, West Virginia – especially rural West Virginia – had leveraged its isolation to avoid big numbers. The Monongahela counties had a handful of cases and no deaths. Where viruses were concerned, we would be at greater risk of giardia than COVID.

Our biggest concern was rain. Weather maps showed an Eastern United States about to face a deluge. We had first planned a trip to the Sheltowee Trace in southeast Kentucky. It closer to home – three hours away instead of six. Two of us, Bob and Bill, have hiked all of Sheltowee in their pre-Patio Boy days, doing a section each trip. They are committed to getting the rest us across this quintessential Kentucky trail, viewed as Boone’s own footsteps.

With five people going and a destination selected, we were all set until Bill gave us the weather report. He is obsessed with the weather, maybe because he works at a Cincinnati television station obsessed with the weather. At our planning meeting on Tuesday, Bill’s report had us facing four days with an 80 percent chance of rain each day. Give it a day, we thought. The forecast would change. It stubbornly did not.

By Friday night, we had switched the plan to the Cranberry Wilderness, where Bob wanted to go all along. How does he do it? Time and again, he researches the pros and cons of various options and presents those without bias. We ask: “Which do you prefer, Bob?” He answers: “I like all of them. This is a democracy. You guys choose.”
We choose Sheltowee. Bob did not judge. He seemed satisfied. But he must have immediately began his voodoo on the weather, and soon had Cranberry weighing out as the best choice. Stunning magic, his.

This was something of a special trip, simply because of the people who decided to make it.

Allow me to explain.

Some trips back, the Patio Boys spent a few hours on the trail writing bylaws, an action taken after discussing whether our children and grandchildren would one day hike as we do – and if so, could their trips be “official” Patio Boy trips. That doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things. Somehow it mattered to us. And it led to a basic question: What constitutes a Patio Boy hike?

The settled upon bylaw goes like this:
• The trip must include at least two PB ambassadors.
• An ambassador is any PB will with at least an equal number of nights out as original PB Sean Hudson, who had 48 nights out when he tragically died. This is our tribute Sean, who added fun and good humor to our trips.
• All PB members must be invited on the trip. Two ambassadors cannot just go hiking together and get nights out. They cannot go hiking with others and get nights out. Not if their hike was not open to all Patio Boys.

The five ambassador are, the order of their achieved nights out, Bob Pauly (119), Bill Ankenbauer (112), Mark Neikirk (76), John Curtin (74), and John Hennessey (74). All five, and no others, made this trip. There are 45 Patio Boys, two with just one night out and three who are deceased. Three Patio Boys are women: Kate Neikirk (7), Paula Heidrich (4) and Jane Goetz (4). There are endless future Patio Boys, Enzo, I hope, among them.

• • •

On Sunday morning, our second day, we set off, walking down the road along the river to find a trail to take us back up the mountain we’d come down the day before. Roughly, the layout here is simple. Things are more or less parallel, starting at the river and moving up. The road follows the river. Two to three miles up, depending on the trail, is a ridge 400 feet higher than the river, above that is an upper ridge, and above that is the Highland Scenic Highway, or the HSH as the trail signs list it, running 43 miles from Richwood to US Route 219, north of Marlinton.

The highway provides the best, and maybe the only, views of these mountains, which, once among them, hide anything remotely panoramic. The trails are more intimate. A vast stand of unimaginably tall hardwoods will define one section. Another stretch may be so lined in waving ferns as to suggest the inside an urban conservatory, where botanists have overplanted to prove themselves capable. The ferns might give way to cool, shady sections sprinkled with tiny springs spitting from the Earth’s belly and tumbling in miniature over rock ledges the size of bookends. Enlarged, they’d be natural wonders. Maybe national parks.

We elected to go up Birchlog Run, TR 250, which rises about 285 feet in elevation, with most of its net gain in the last mile as the trail connects with the incorrectly named North-South Trail, TR 688, which runs east and west. Breaking for lunch, we each picked seats of log and rocks to think it over. No one really had strong feelings. In a place shaped by water, we were willing to go with the flow.

We wanted ten or so total trail mails this day. We could go left, west, for a few more miles, or right, east, for few less. We went left and ended up with 15.7 miles by the time we returned to camp some 8½ hours after we left. TR 688 has a way down every three or so miles, and we came down on Rough River, TR 213, which turned out to be a treasure to see. Significant portions follow a river plunging through a gorge. Falls. Rapids. Pools.

There was evidence around of human settlement, presumably dating from the days when this forest was logged. Tall skinny trees stand next to the occasional monster, with Sumo girth – a tree probably too small in the 1800s to be taken but, today, exemplary of why loggers came here. We found old wagon parts. A bell housing for lighting. The remains of pot-bellied stove. A bed, large enough for two. Did the boss bring a spouse? Pots and pans, their bottoms rusted away. Two horseshoes, large enough for the hooves of a draft horse or perhaps a mule. And the metal harness to a log sled, or so we guessed it to be.

This would have been a harsh place to live. Winters were more severe a hundred years ago when logging was at its peak. The state’s record low, 17 below zero, was recorded in these mountains in 1917. And there was more snow then than now. The natural resources found here, timber and coal, contributed immeasurably to the climate change that has made winters milder. It’s hard to not to contemplate the irony of that as you walk past the artifacts of those days. Rough River was extra distance, but worth every step for its beauty, its history lesson and its reminder of how man changes a place, even the most remote of places.

I found a quote yesterday, dated 1824 and attributed to a man for all seasons (frontier minister, physician, historian, poet and beekeeper) Joseph Doddridge, whose masterwork is Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783, Inclusive. No less of a lover of wild places than Theodore Roosevelt called it ‘‘the most valuable book we have on old-time frontier ways and customs.’’

We have lost much of what Doddridge saw when he came to see and live in what would one day be West Virginia:

“A wilderness of great extent, presenting the virgin face of nature, unchanged by human cultivation or art, is certainly one of the most sublime terrestrial objects which the Creator ever presented to the view of man."

We cannot claim to have seen what Doddridge saw. This is still wild place – a place where, while I hike alone for a time on the North-South Trail, a ruffled grouse rose like thunder from the underbrush. Elsewhere, though, this is man’s place now. Doddridge, whose coming and whose writing about its wonders, helped seal West Virginia’s future, giving rise in time to the gravel road, the shelters, the horse camps, the bridges, the old dam, and the signs along the stream advising trout fishermen to catch and release.

• • •

On Monday, our second full day in the Cranberry Wilderness, and our last, we headed back up the gravel road, looking for a different route up. We took Tumbling Rock Run, TR 214, named for a lovely little stream that behaves as its name suggests. Reaching the North-South Trail, we circled back toward TR 213, Rough River, as it seemed worth seeing again and would provide an easy way back to the gravel road.

Sunday’s walk across the North-South trail did not prepare us for the beauty of this section on Monday. John Hennessey and I took off first, intent on making time. Mostly, the trail was flat and something of a boulevard with stretches so soft underfoot from fallen needles as to feel as comfortable as walking across the sand of a summer tidal pool – even through the stiff soles of a hiking boot. Here, too, was a place of utter silence except for a whispering breeze and the songs of birds.

Giant pine and spruce trees sheltered blankets of moss, combining to create something usually rendered only in fanciful imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. No one would be surprised to see a hobbit or two scurrying from one mound of moss to the next, hither and yon, ducking into a hobbit hole so quickly you could not be sure you saw anything at all.

The North-South Trail’s gift, which really is the gift of the Monongahela in general, is that one beautiful spot will soon give way to another. The hobbit forest was extant for maybe 300 yards of trail and then came a dense flora enclosing the trail as though Project Genesis spores had exploded in full view of the Starship Enterprise. Through the tangle of leaves you might see a downed tree or two. But no trail. It almost surely had to be there, as a trail would not logically come this far just end at no place.

Confronted with one especially confounding example of this phenomenon, John and I turned to make sure we had not missed a cairn marking a turn. The ridgetop here was so narrow as to lack room for a trail to be anywhere else. Still, better to be certain, and Bill Ankenbauer had downloaded a tail map with GPS tracking. One look and he would know whether we were on course or off.

Call it luck or fate or act of God, but it was this about face that resulted in John and I being with Silver Pops, Bill and Bob when that all-important phone call came through.
It was nearly a half mile before John and I were back at the hobbit woods. The first person we saw was Bob. He was smiling like a fella who just scored seats behind home plate. We had an exciting event, he announced. Cell service.

This was extraordinary moment, a moment you would never have predicted and one you would call fake news if not witnessed it personally. Bob Pauly celebrating cell service? Had hell frozen over? Are there two popes? Well, never might that one. There are, and the movie about it is quite good. Anthony Hopkins. Wow.
I credit this inconceivable moment to a conception. Bob’s first grandchild is due to arrive come fall. He understood Silver Pop’s urgency in wanting to phone home even more than ET.
Ding! It might as well have been Liberty Bell, ringing to the point of cracking. Hikers halt!

It was no piece of cake, the call. Having the best signal, Bill placed the first call to Maryanne on John’s behalf at 2:18 p.m. No answer. At 2:29 p.m., Maryanne called back but the connection failed. She called again at 2:39 p.m. and the signal held. Maryanne gave Pops a full report on Michelle and little Enzo.
“Low-RENZ-zoh!” Silver Pops told us when we asked the baby’s name.

He is blessed with a voice for radio. Think Marty Brennaman. Or for documentary. Think David McCullough. If John Curtin and Morgan Freeman met in a bar for bourbon and confabulation – on any topic, they could be discussing Boyle’s Law or the finer points of facial hair removal – and everyone would turn to listen, drawn by the mystic chords of their vocal carriages. “It’s Italian,” John said of his second grandchild’s grand name. “Do you know the nickname for Lorenzo? Enzo. Don’t know if they’ll call him that. But that’s it.”

One reason for being a Patio Boy, one reason for going into the woods for four days, is to be present for moments like this.

Of the five us on this trip, four are grandfathers and, as I've said, Bob will be soon enough. We've spent countless hours over the years on the trail together catching up with each other, with each other's work, with each others politics, and, most often, with each other's families. This new chapter, catchintg up each other's grandchildren is as good a reason as any to schedule the next trip. And the next.

• • •

On our Monday, hike we would cover 12.1 miles, gain 1,293 feet of elevation and spend just over 7½ hours walking, the last couple on the familiar gravel road, which was in some regards a monotony of packed gravel with woods on one side and meadows on the other. But it also was a trove of curiosities. There was a headless juvenile black rat snake – probably headless because these babies look uncannily like a copperhead until the grow up, lose their gold bands and turn black. Someone perceived danger where there was none and, in ignorance, chopped of the head. Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid.

There were seven 9mm brass shells. Someone took a few shots here. At what? A snake? We collected 57 cents in change, including one shiny quarter that could have been dropped the day before and one 1967 quarter so discolored that it might well have been there since 1967, the same year that Stephen Stills and the Buffalo Springfield charted with “For What It’s Worth.”

There was an ancient, rusty nut that looked as though it might fit an ancient, rusty bolt that John Hennessey found on the trail. There was, now that I think back on it, no trash. No Mountain Dew bottles. No Bud Light cans. No Big Mac boxes.

At camp, I found a rock by the water and took a seat. The fireflies were just coming out. At first, it was not quite dark enough to see them clearly and I thought I might be imagining their flashes of light in the dusk. But as the sun set further, the luminescent beeps were obvious if not frequent. One, two, three, four.... On average, one flashed every 15 seconds. It is coming on the Fourth of July in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be most spectacular fireworks I see this summer.

If so, it was enough.