Social Distancing: April 2020, Part I (Expedition Memoirs)

The morning wind demanded that I wear more than my predictable field khakis and safari shirt, and so it was on a blustery spring morning in April that I found myself attempting the clumsy task of both monitoring my dog and slipping on a polypropylene sweater.  My dog is a friendly, if unusual female possessing a strain of intuition I have not before seen in other dogs.  But this intuition makes her braver than most, and so it is that at all times I must keep a close eye on her, lest she entertain some untoward notion in her mind.

It was, in fact, on just such an occasion, with my attention otherwise occupied by any manner of triviality, that she reacted to the approach of my neighbor’s dog, a far larger female American Staffordshire terrier.  The reaction both by the sixty-pound dog and her owner, my neighbor, was perhaps one of the worst results of dog reactivity that I have witnessed.  We both situated atop the landing my neighbor and I share, having doors opposite one another.  The landing itself is not especially large, though it can entertain the four of us—but only with great objection from my dog, who I often believe would much rather live without another canine in the world.

The unfortunate victim of my dog’s particular antisocial conduct this day, the terrier, was only attempting a quick sniff and—having seen her play with other dogs—a quick kiss to establish friendly relations with her canine neighbor.  It was without my notice that my dog proceeded to first snap and then pursue the other dog, the terrier drawing away from those angry jaws with such rapidity that she toppled over backward off the landing and down the stairs.  The effect of an eighty-pound dog rolling backward down a flight of stairs on the “fur-mom” of the present age is often that the owner will follow her canine down, literally falling back down the stairs like a hominid mirror of her canine companion—a sight that might otherwise have been comical, had it not been real.

They were, I am very happy to report, unharmed by the encounter and its result.  But the incident understandably soured relations between us, and it left me hypervigilant of my dog’s movements and behavior.

With this in mind, there is no doubt that my reaction to her galloping approach to a family in our front yard must have seemed, as another neighbor once put it, mean.  She was, in retrospect, waging her tail quite happily and would most likely have simply rolled onto her belly to allow them to pet her.

I smiled from behind the mask I was wearing and waved.  “She’s friendly,” I assured them, as I immediately then commanded Sasha to lie back down: “DOWN!

The skeptical parents bid their children move a little faster, not giving me so much as a second glance.

And to be fair, I must have been an odd sight, attired like a cross between a boy scout and a member of a right-wing militia, wearing khaki pants and an olive-drab button-down with shoulder epaulettes.  There was a knife attached to one hip, and a handheld CB radio on the other; a canister of bear spray in one hand, and an ammunition canister—repurposed as a first aid kit—in the other.

Passing quickly, I released Sasha again to allow her a final opportunity to relief herself—time which she chose to spend rubbing herself in the grass.  Such is my life that my dog would behave like a small child, needing then to stop for a break to urinate an hour into the drive.  But then my sister had done the same on our family outings growing up, and so I was already in a lifetime’s habit of stopping some thirty to forty-five minutes into the drive—it was not my preference, but I could at least understand it.

So much for my canine companion.

My human companion on this expedition would be my long-time friend, Mark.  We met some time in 2013 when he and I both were employed in the Farragut area of the nation’s capital.  At the time I worked for a pair of attorneys who owned a legal services company that has since been absorbed by a competitor.  We were friends through a mutual drinking buddy who has since moved on to other horizons in his career.  The three of us bonded over beer, port, and whisky, at times undertaking retrospectively dangerous drinking bouts that might last well into the morning, all of us being then in our early twenties and possessing money of our own.  Many a night have we spent discussing the merits of a particular distillery of Islay scotch over those of rival, and of course the universal question of which style of whiskey is best.  Although I left that job to remove myself from the soul-crushing hell that working for those particular attorneys had become, we all remained friends long after and now are like family.

When I became determined to undertake the hobby of overlanding—a glorified term for camping with an off-road vehicle—he expressed interest in joining such an outing, though it may have been after some blissfully ignorant insistence on my part.  There are indeed few people willing to undertake an overland expedition of nine days and eight nights, away from internet and cell phone access, and the comforting embrace of a bed.  Indeed, I am nearly certain that I promised a limit on the number of expeditions, which have since become one every six weeks.

In preparation for the present expedition, we had undertaken a scouting expedition that past February to Dictum Ridge in order to determine the general suitability of our equipment to the environs of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.  It was during that first expedition that we recognized a number of deficiencies in our gear, which for this expedition resulted in the purchase of the aforementioned bear spray, along with a pick-mattock for tilling the obstinate Appalachian earth, a new open-fire grill to replace the propane one, and a number of improvements to the vehicle.

A 1991 Jeep Cherokee Laredo, I had purchased it only three years before and had already done entirely too much work to it—and there are many, including my auto insurance company, who wonder if I should not have invested in a new car than make “installment” investments into a thirty-year-old vehicle.  They were all universally inclined to remind me that the resale value on such a vehicle would remain low and would not appreciate despite a new engine, new tires, upgraded suspension, steel front bumper, and a vehicle recovery winch, among numerous other modifications, upgrades, and repairs.  But it is an undeniably capable vehicle, one which I have now taken into the woods some four times prior to the February expedition, and so am loathe to part with it.  I do, in fact, have every intention of possessing the vehicle until it the transmission goes.

The area to which we were bound was familiar to both of us from prior expeditions, consisting entirely of Forest Service roads and trails.  The National Forest had at that time closed all of its day-use and camping areas to the public in response to the spread of the COVID-19, but it imposed no such restrictions on the rest of the forest.  Being permitted to camp anywhere in the National Forest, a policy termed “dispersed camping,” was both keeping with the policy of social distancing and not using the National Forest visitor resources.  I had therefore mapped a number of sites suitable for both off-roading and camping, often at the end of old Forest Service roads along which logging is regularly conducted.  Such examples are resplendent in the satellite photos readily available on Google Maps.  These areas, cleared of trees, provide excellent sites to set a multiday camp.  I mapped five separate campsites for the four locations we would need, with the additional as a standby location in the event one of the primary sites were inaccessible.  We would remain at each site for two nights, spending the intervening day hiking, before proceeding to drive to the next site.

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