Timberline: April 2020, Part VI (Expedition Memoirs)

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.

Helmuth von Moltke, 1871.

We departed Sinclair Hollow just before midday, driving north by way of the same rutted trail we had taken on the way in two days before.  Crossing the streams again, we saw a sign hidden amid the foliage in such a way that it had not been visible when driving south.  The sign was a simple metal post with a metal plate bolted to the top.  A white sticker about the size of my hand was affixed to the sign, advising passersby that they were being monitored via security camera.  It seemed an odd place for a security camera, particularly given the apparent dearth of civilization in the area; there were no roads or trails leading into the woods, no power lines or permanent structures, or even a day-use picnic spot, from which a security camera might draw power.  Satellite imagery of the drive that day bears this out, showing no signs of habitation in that part of the Forest, as well as no plots of private property even remotely close to where we were passing.  We chocked it up to some local playing a joke on out-of-towners like us and laughed it off.

Scenic western overlook along Union Springs Trail, September 2019.
Western outlook along Union Springs Trail, September 2019.

            The campsite with the canvas tent we passed on the way in now showed none of the signs of activity we had seen on our drive south—only the tent remained.  The other encampment, the one occupied by a pickup a truck and dirt bike, was gone altogether, though we would later encounter someone who we believe had been its occupant.  As we proceeded north into West Virginia, we would occasionally catch the sound of a motor buzzing at some distance, but within the fluvial valley we were traversing, the sound would echo from all around us, making it impossible to determine its origin—or source—until it was right on top of us.  We initially mistook the sound for that of a chainsaw, and it was not until he flew past us on his motorcycle the first time that we realized what it was.  He would disappear around the next bend in the road, only to reappear a half hour later, bursting from the tree line where we would never have guessed a trail might be accessed.

            He stopped to chat with us while we were sitting on the side of the road, letting the dog relieve herself while the humans oriented themselves.  We had only that morning—just prior to meeting the turkey hunters—reactivated our various electronic devices, namely the GPS in our phones, but it was only around 2 p.m. that we finally reacquired a signal which allowed us to access the electronic version of our expedition map.  And so rather than drive us into a ravine while struggling to interpret the lagging image of my or Mark’s phone, I pulled us over to one side of the street and took the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs.

            While Sasha growled suspiciously from the shade of the Jeep, the motorcyclist asked us where we were from, commenting on the number of times he had seen us in the span of just a few hours.  We told him we were from Northern Virginia, and where he did not offer the same when asked, he instead posed another question, asking us what we were doing.  In turn I replied that we were doing some camping and off-roading, and were now in the process of relocating from one campsite to another, and were just generally having a good time.

            To this he nodded knowingly, the bobbing of his helmet making him look a little like a motocross version of a bobblehead doll.  But then he did something weird and asked the same question again, and not once but a few more times, wanting to know what we were up to, as though he had not heard me the first time.

            And I in turn responded rather robotically, using the exact same words three times in a row: “Oh, you know, we’re just doing some off-roading, driving between sites, camping, and just generally having a good time.”  It was rather amusing, if not for the awkward look he gave me in return—though to be fair, he had asked the same question and so he should not have expected more than the same answer.  But even this ascribes more credit to my thoughts in that moment than they deserve.  With no real amount of caffeine that morning and after two hours of driving in the radiant heat of the afternoon sun, I was starting to get a little fuzzy, and so my repetitive answers can be better ascribed to a fatigued state of mind than to any attempt at cheek—much as my personal character might argue otherwise.

            We thereafter parted cheerfully with the stranger, wishing each other a good day before he buzzed off down the road and we, a few minutes, followed in the Jeep.  After one last switchback, we did never again saw him, though we did encounter a number of other motorcyclists also out enjoying the day.  For our part, we navigated our way along a route neither one of us had ever visited, the road giving unexpectedly way from the gravel and dirt of to more familiar stones and roots, harbinger of an unusually insular area of wilderness.  Here large natural rock formations form a sort of barrier which clearly limits access to the area from the rest of the National Forest around it.  I was put in mind of the tours I had taken as a child at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park, where transitions between exhibits were designed to blend with the terrain in order to heighten the impression of being on a wildlife safari tour.

            Just as in those instances, we had all but entered the enclave when the woods around us exploded with the activity of wildlife.  In the span of those three or four miles, we witnessed more wildlife than in all the other hours of the expedition combined.  Birds would dart down from the tree branches, dodging in and out of the narrow roadway ahead of my grill before landing.  Here they would stare at the me stupidly until the last possible second, at which they would leap into the air to fly ahead of us—only to land again in the middle of the roadway and watch the Jeep barreling down on them once more.  This pattern was repeated innumerable times with jays, cardinals, and the ubiquitous sparrow, their seemingly irritated confidence a clear indication that none of these animals were accustomed to seeing people or motor vehicles.  The same could be said for the marginally more intelligence squirrels who would occasionally join the Disney-like chaos of the forest, darting across our path and among the trunks of trees.  At last we encountered a bevy of deer who sprung invisible from the brush to our right to cross our path.  I had never before seen Whitetail deer in this sort of action, having grown accustomed to the idea of their being like large squirrels, lazily grazing as they crossed golf courses and the backyards of the wealthy.

            From their place in the shallow valley to our right, where they had been drinking from a stream, they rapidly cleared the hill’s incline leading up the trail, taking them from being bodily beneath the level of our tires to well over the hood of my Jeep.  Of the three does we saw, two crossed the roadway ahead of us, clearing it in a single leap from the incline they had just scaled on one side to its continuation on the other.  The last thing we saw of any of them was the white of their bottoms bouncing into the brush before disappearing entirely. A few minutes later we crossed through another gate of stony outcroppings and emerged at the edge of the woods—and onto a paved road.

            We were at Reddish Knob Road, I realized.  My estimated timetable for the drive had been correct and we were, for once, right on schedule.  To the left the road led deeper into West Virginia and to the town of Sugar Grove, one of those towns a former scoutmaster of mine referred to as Blink-n-you-miss-em’s because of their characteristic single intersection.  To the right the road led back into Virginia and the National Forest, scaling the mountain up to our next waypoint at Briery Branch Gap.  From there it was a matter of a few minutes before we reached our intended destination at the foot of Bald Mountain.  Technically a part of the larger Shenandoah Mountain formation, Bald Mountain is a considerable peak of its own, sheltering the network of foot trails we would be hiking the entirety of the following day.

            Utilizing satellite imagery, I had located what I judged to be a series of locations well-suited to our needs.  A clearing for the encampment would be provided by one of the numerous “bald” patches encircling the mountain, these being the visible remains of logging operations, while the nearby South Fork Little River would provide the running water necessary for cleaning and bathing—and letting Sasha have a good swim.  The remnants inherent in the logging and the expected flotsam seasonal flooding would bring down the river argued for the location’s abundance in potential firewood, and so secure in this knowledge that the three primary requirements were met, we began a lengthy discussion of how best to utilize the lessons learned at Sinclair Hollow for the layout of this next encampment and—most importantly—the construction of our firepit.

            But the luck we had at Sinclair Hollow would not be repeated at Bald Mountain.  At the trail access point which would take us to the planned campsite, we were met by a locked Forest Service gate and a sign dated to December of 2018.  It explained that ongoing repair work at the nearby Hearthstone Dam required the closure of the trails leading south to Bald Mountain.  If construction had begun in earnest before the pandemic, the clear growth of foliage around the gate showed that work had long-since stalled, while the area was left inaccessible to visitors.  This was frustrating, to say the very least—and clearly our frustration had been shared by others, for the sign explaining the closure had been shot.  Amusing though it might have been, this would prove to be the first in a pattern of Forest Service signs we saw strewn with bullet holes.

            This unexpected divergence in our plan was not wholly unexpected.  The difficulties we encountered in attempting to access Second Mountain and Dictum Ridge that past February had taught us the importance of adapting to the situation at hand.  I had designated a fifth site at Puffenbarger Pond, just a few miles east of Sinclair Hollow, as a reserve campsite for just this very eventuality—but unthinking, I resolved instead to forge ahead to our next campsite located atop Meadow Knob.  Had we at that critical juncture turned and proceeded instead to Puffenbarger Pond or even returned to Sinclair Hollow, we could have made camp well before nightfall.

            But Meadow Knob is well-known to both of us, a natural stopping point on past expeditions for photos of the surrounding valleys and to stretch our legs.  We had seen more than one campsite up there, indicated by the charred stone circles of firepits.  If others had stayed on that patch of rock, then obviously we could, too—we were now, after all, experts in camping, off-roading, and just generally having a good time.

Meadow Knob, September 2019 (above); January 2020 (below).

            In scaling the mountain, we crossed a narrow ridgeline occupied solely by a paved road.  It acted like a sort of natural suspension bridge spanning piers of trees on the peaks of either side.  The views in both directions are spectacular, rivals to the vistas we had seen atop Flagpole Knob, Meadow Knob, and along the scenic northern portions of Union Springs Trail.  We crossed to the far side and parked the Jeep on a patch dirt on the side of the road so we could admire the view and get some photos.  Sasha was less appreciative of the experience than we were, however, having little in the way of room to sniff and prance about in the narrow roadway—though true to character, she would find excuses to attempt death-defying maneuvers at the precipice sheer drops.

            Distracted by my dog’s cardiac arrest-inducing behavior, I failed to notice the approach of two vehicles coming from the direction we were headed.  The unhappy looks directed towards me from the occupants of a red 4Runner and a trailing white Forest Service pickup—itself hauling a Forest Service UTV—felt out of place in an area where folks are usually universally friendly.  Neither of them returned my proffered wave, an experience which would be repeated again some ten or fifteen minutes later when we passed a second Forest Service pickup.  They too unanimously frowned at us in annoyance from the cabin of their truck.  In the case of the former two, I can understand the irritation of trying to drive down a the street while some idiot with his dog is milling around in the middle of the road, but in the case of the later I can only guess it was related to the worldwide pandemic.

            In the time between those first two vehicles and the resumption of our drive, we lingered some time more on that road.  At that elevation, with no tree cover to either side, the winds picked up their speed and we were buffeted back and forth with such force that it reminded me of the way my car could get pushed around by the winds coming off the Chesapeake whipping over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.  More than once a gust tore the hat from my bald pate, which provided Sasha with no end in entertainment as she chased after it.  While she thus amused herself, I took the opportunity to pull a pair of old binoculars from the Jeep’s forward cabin.  The powerful Tasco 7×45 put the mottled green of distant leafy foliage into clear focus, allowing me to watch as a small hawk lighted from the top of a tree some thousand or so yards to our east.  It crossed over us and the state line into West Virginia, eventually disappearing amid the green and browns of the forested hills to our west.

            In the valley below, white gleaming forms caught my eye, and shifting the gaze of the binoculars I saw a large satellite dish—the sort one usually sees outside of Verizon or Comcast buildings.  It looked like some kind of television studio or radio station, with a variety of smaller satellite dishes positioned across what looked from above like a small, open clearing, but is in fact the summit of a small hill.  There were other large dishes I saw, some in that same clearing and others among the trees to the north of that primary cluster, with land cleared all around them clearly intended to reduce line-of-sight interference.  I noted that despite being a transmission station, none of the dishes for some reason were oriented skyward to orbiting satellites—rather, they were directed in a seemingly random variety of directions.  Only the larger ones showed any degree of uniformity in their eastward orientation.

Radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, April 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

            One of the dishes positioned to the north caught my attention because of its unusual construction.  It alone among the orchard of parabolic satellites was the only one not composed of a solid dish antenna.  It looked instead like a sort of cage—the dome of an aviary turned on its side—in essence a satellite dish made of struts: a radio telescope.

            I blinked at the realization.  Telescopes of any kind are rarely also transmitters; they are instead observers, gatherers of information, interceptors of data.  I had seen that sort of satellite dish before as a child, living on Navy bases.  What I was looking down on was a Naval submarine communications antenna, one designed not to communicate with anything, but to listen in on ultra-low (ULF) and extremely-low frequency (ELF) transmissions passing through miles of seawater.

            And all at once I knew what I was seeing.  I had known that the base was near where we would be traveling, but I had not realized just how close we were to it.  From where I stood with my binoculars, it was a mere ten miles to the largest cluster of satellite dishes, perhaps another mile to the radio telescope.  The facility was not a transmission station at all, and like the radio telescope’s use in intercepting communications, the other towers were telescopes of their own, ones designed for over-the-air communications.  These were allegedly devoted to exclusively intercepting voice, radio, cell phone, and satellite communications entering the Eastern United States, but documents revealed to the American public by a former intelligence officer in 2013 show the facility’s role in the collection of communications within the United States.

Looking into West Virginia from near the summit of Reddish Knob in Virginia. The town of Sugar Grove is just visible in the distance at center.

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