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Sugar Grove: April 2020, Part VII (Expedition Memoirs)

In 1957, the town of Sugar Grove in Pendleton County, West Virginia, had a population of twenty-one residents.  A single crossroad marks the center of the community, with the post office, general store, and gas station combined in a single structure overlooked by a church from across the street.  The rest of the town’s center would have consisted of a few houses lining Sugar Grove and Moyers Gap road.  These roads, like most in this part of Appalachia, follow the curves of fluvial plains long dammed up by civil workers employed through the New Deal.  Although rich with sediments, the rocky soil would only yield a limited number of plots suitable for agriculture, thus limiting the effects of any consequent population booms.  And so whereas towns like Charlestown and Harrisonburg saw upticks in both population and wealth, Sugar Grove remained small and remote.  Few who heard the steady beep from the Soviet satellite Sputnik that October could have imagined its ramifications on the small town.

            With the launch of Sputnik and Sputnik-2 the following month, the Soviet Union had not only demonstrated to the world their ability to project communications into outer space, but more to the point their ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  And if they were capable of launching something as heavy as a satellite into orbit—with a passenger in the form of the dog Laika, in the case of the latter—there was nothing to stop them from mounting a nuclear warhead atop those very same rockets.  Overnight the strategic advantage in the delivery of nuclear armaments which the United States possessed over the Soviet Union evaporated.  The fleet of long-range strategic bombers which had been the focal point of Curtis LeMay’s post-war Air Force were all but rendered obsolete by Sputnik.

            In response, the Eisenhower administration began an effort to accelerate America’s own stalled rocketry program, resulting in both a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and the Space Race.  But ICBMs were only be capable of delivering blows against the enemy, and therefore they alone could not shield the United States in the event a total catastrophe.  What use would there be to initiate nuclear holocaust if even a technical victory would only result in your own annihilation?  Seeking to neutralize this concern, the Federal government began to a process of constructing underground facilities to serve as centers for the continuity of government following a nuclear strike.

            Although nuclear bunkers were in time constructed beneath many of the principal buildings of government in and around the D.C. area—such as those beneath the White House, Pentagon, and Naval Observatory—it was understood that advances in nuclear weaponry would in time render even these formidable defenses obsolete.  The Federal government therefore canvassed the surrounding countryside for other potential sites, ones which would not be dependent entirely on human construction for shielding but could instead benefit from the security of mother nature.  The stone of the Appalachian Mountains, compressed over hundreds of millions of years, met these necessary requirements, and so the Federal government undertook a series of secretive construction projects across the region.  By 1959, the subterranean facilities at Mount Weather in Bluemont, Virginia, were completed, while excavation began beneath the Green Brier luxury resort nestled in the safety of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.  The mountains thus would provide shelter from the blast, fires, and fallout, while the various ridgelines acting as shields for the next.  Construction on further underground facilities resulted in a chain of such complexes stretching from as far south as Roanoke, Virginia, to the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Adams County, Pennsylvania.

            Just as the Eisenhower administration had predicted, advances in nuclear weaponry allowed ICBMs to go from strictly stationary emplacements in the earth to the mobile platform of trucks, warships, and most significantly, submarines.  This was the beginning of the American Nuclear Triad which distributed responsibility for the delivery of nuclear payloads among the branches of the military: ground-based ICBMs under the Army and then later the Air Force, long-range strategic bombers under the Air Force, and submarine-borne ICBMs aboard purpose-built Navy submarines.  Of these, the most secretive, plentiful, and critical of these three elements remains the submarine lurking the waters of the world’s oceans.  Where missile silos could—and in the event of nuclear war, would—be targeted by enemy’s own ICBMs, and where strategic bombers could be shot down or preemptively destroyed still on the tarmac, nuclear-powered submarines could remain beneath the waves for a near-indefinite amount of time, surfacing at a moment’s notice to unleash their belly of warheads before disappearing beneath the waves to fight another day.  This unique characteristic of the nuclear submarine force—its relative survivability over other such American assets—make them a critical component in the plans for continuity of government drawn up by the United States.  Were the United States to be successful in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, it would be necessary to shield her submarines against annihilation.

            Although underground shelters might be sufficient to save persons and critical groups, one can obviously not construct a series of underground shelters for submarines.  There are certainly rumors of such constructions in existence, however, such as the rumored subterranean waterway which spans the Pacific Northwest from Lake Pend Orielle in Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.  Because of the lake’s uniquely deep waters, it is used by the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Bayview for the training and evaluation of submarine technologies, with facilities known to be active on the floor of the lake for those training in submarine operations.  It is rumored by locals that an underground river allows regular submarines—as opposed to the smaller training ones at Bayview—to enter the lake.  Far-fetched as this may seem, for those who are familiar with Roman history of the Late Republic, this may sound strangely familiar.

Denarius of Sextus Pompeius in the guise of Neptune (obv.), warships (rev.).

            During the last round of civil wars which wracked the Republic, the tides of fortune could and often did turn on a dime (on a denarius?), and erstwhile allies would very quickly become enemies of the highest order.  Such was the case with Sextus Pompeius, the son of the prior generation’s preeminent general Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), whose rivalry with Octavian—adopted son of Pompey’s own rival, Julius Caesar—exploded into internecine warfare in 37 BCE.  In this conflict, neither side could outmatch the other, for where the young Caesar possessed the advantage on land, the young Pompey possessed the advantage at sea.  This latter advantage allowed Sextus Pompey and his faction of exiled republicans to operate as he pleased from his base in Sicily, while ensuring that Octavian would not be capable of constructing a fleet to invade.  Without such a fleet, Octavian risked losing the war through sheer attrition as the blockade quickly starved Italy into submission.  It fell to Octavian’s righthand Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to undertake the seemingly impossible task of raising a fleet on the shelter of land which could then be put to sea.  He began by having the fleet constructed in the waters of Lake Avernus, just a few miles from the Bay of Naples.  While he and his deputies trained the fleet, Agrippa simultaneously undertook the task of construction a naval base for the Caesarian faction at Misenum, near the site of ancient Cumae.  Portus Julius—named for the deified Julius Caesar in whose name the Caesarians ostensibly fought—would harbor the new fleet which would in time give Octavian his much-vaunted authority over land and sea, and it would serve as the stage for a letter by Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus recounting the memory of his uncle launching rescue operations from Misenum following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

            But what good was a fleet of warships in a lake when the enemy stalked the waters of the Mediterranean Sea?  With Roman loyalties then being divided and confused among numerous warring factions, Agrippa and his deputies understood the importance of discretion—the same reason they had been forced to construct the fleet in Lake Avernus would inform how they would transport said fleet to the sea.  Canals would have seemed the obvious option, enlarged versions of the Roman aqueduct, but open-air canals alone would be too obvious for would-be spies, even in a world before spy planes and orbital satellites.  It was here that Agrippa demonstrated the true measure of Roman genius, for not only did he direct the construction of canals connecting Lake Avernus to the Bay of Naples, he had the portion leading to the sea constructed underground.  The porous volcanic stone was already replete with channels carved out by subterranean water over the millennia, and so through an operation consisting in part of expanding existing tunnels and in part carving new ones, the Roman slaves and soldiers put to the task carved an entrance to the sea beneath the acropolis of Cumae.  Proof of this plan’s success comes not only in the victory over Sextus Pompeius and his faction on Sicily, but the ultimate victory at the Battle of Actium five years later which cemented Octavian’s hold on power.

            Visitors to the archaeological site at Cumae can even today still see the subterranean canals carved out more than two thousand years ago.  If such an enormous undertaking could be accomplished using hand tools and verbal directions, it is well within the realm of possibility that an American Agrippa of the Cold War might have undertaken a similar task in the connection of protected inland facilities with their primary theater of operations.  The rumors of a second, similar facility shielded beneath the islands of the Puerto Rico archipelago may add credence to this larger possibility—or may simply be fodder for conspiracy theorists.  Whether or not such facilities exist is largely irrelevant, however; for such facilities would not exist to shield submarines from nuclear annihilation—miles of oceanwater ensure that.  Thus, where survivability and the continuity of operations are concerned, the preservation of the primary elements—the submarines themselves—is not as critical as the preservation of their command and control.  Shielding submarines would mean shielding their command elements.

            In the early 1960s, the Navy found a solution in the form of their own underground mountain complex.  Located only a few miles from similar hardened facilities at Greenbrier, Mount Weather, View Tree Mountain, and Green Bank, Sugar Grove Mountain was selected to house the Navy’s nexus for continuity of operations.  Nestled in a valley between the Appalachian Plateau to the west and Shenandoah Mountain to the east, the site had always been remote and uninhabited but for some Forest Service logging operations.  From the ridge that runs from the town of Sugar Grove to the next town north at Brandywine, one can catch glimpses of the facility through the tree line, but the better view can be found on the eastern side, atop the narrow ridgeline of Shenandoah Mountain.  In the days of its construction, even the most intrepid adventurer would rarely have come this deeply into the Forest, and they would almost certainly have no knowledge of the underground facilities around and beneath them.  It would have been doubly more difficult for Soviet eyes to pick it out.

AN/FRD-10 antennae at Sugar Grove, ca. 1960s (source).

            The site was established as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility for the purpose of intercepting Soviet undersea communications.  If the underground facility was the shield against a loss of command and control, then the command’s purpose was to safeguard the assets it had deployed across the globe.  With nuclear weapons not as a pressing a threat, the submarine’s only natural predator remained other submarines, and so establishing the status, location, and various other bits of intelligence about the Soviet fleet could mean the critical difference between the America’s survival or destruction.  The large, cage-like radio telescopes used in subsurface intercepts were the first residents atop the hardened facility, but the advent of orbital communications very quickly rendered these pieces of hardware obsolete, and subsequently many of these odd-looking satellite dishes were removed, with only one remaining visible in the present.  The facility adapted to the changing landscape of communications, being known to have been used for the purposes of intercepting communications of the Soviet space program being bounced off the lunar surface.  But with the removal of the submarine-intercept dishes came new members of the Upper Base: a large, solid satellite dish oriented to the east, and a host of smaller satellite dishes pointing in a variety of directions.  These communication arrays, unlike their predecessors, possess solid dishes and are therefore identifiable as over-the-air radio telescopes—i.e. not for intercepting subsurface communications.

            And in fact, we know precisely what these dishes are used for, and a mere Google search for the terms ECHELON and PRISM in this context should be sufficient for those who wish to do more reading on the matter.  In the case of the larger of the satellite dishes, their eastward orientation fulfills the mission of passively intercepting international communications entering the Eastern United States.  The smaller dishes are, as demonstrated by their size, intended for the passive collection of local communications.  That is to say, domestic communications.

            The underground facility is colloquially known as the “Upper Base,” as a way of distinguishing it from the smaller navy base of Sugar Grove located just to its north along the same ridgeline that connects Sugar Grove and the town of Brandywine.  The construction and maintenance of the two bases represented the greatest population influx experienced in Pendleton County’s history, more than doubling or even tripling the population of Sugar Grove in the span of a few years.  The “Lower Base” within Sugar Grove is a town unto itself, containing operation and support facilities, as well as accommodations, for the assigned personnel and their families.  The base was home to a Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA), indicating the Lower Base’s initial purpose as the security element for the Upper Base, but with the end of the Cold War and a general easing of tension in the 1990s, the base transitioned to the control of Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC).  Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the majority of military signals intelligence assets were placed under the overall control of United States Cyber Command in its civilian guise as the National Security Agency, and the operations and facilities at Sugar Grove were no exception.  With changes in the approach taken towards warfighting and the collection of intelligence in the post-9/11 world, it was decided that the Lower Base at Sugar Grove would be decommissioned but its fate today remains in limbo.  The Upper Base would undergo extensive upgrades collectively referred to as Timberline, and today the facility remains operational as a National Security Agency listening station.  Indeed, if one searches for “Sugar Grove Station” on Google Maps, the satellite dishes which populate the top of the Upper Base are readily visible alongside the disconcerting label of “Sugar Grove NSA Listening Station.”

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.
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Spring Turkey: April 2020, Part V (Expedition Memoirs)

The next day we woke with the sun.  I at once occupied myself preparing the fire while we both began the process of breakfast and breaking camp.  Our itinerary called for a drive across the western part of the mountain situated directly to our north, initially doubling back over a portion of the trail we had taken on the way in, passing back into West Virginia and connecting to new trail, one we had never before taken.  If the condition of this new road was anything like the conditions to which we were accustomed, I estimated that it might take us as much as four hours to reach the next campsite.  With this in mind, we got to work disassembling our encampment, packing its individual elements, and loading them onto the Jeep.  This in itself took some time since it was only the second time Mark and I had worked together in breaking camp, and my own singlemindedness could often become overbearing in moments of perceived urgency.

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Coelophysis Cove: April 2020, Part IIII (Expedition Memoirs)

The next day started late, with breakfast around 11 a.m. — but it was a holiday and so there was no rush to be anything or go anywhere.  Sometime towards the middle of the afternoon, we armed ourselves with insect repellant, bear repellant, and a pack full of beers, snacks, and water and hiked down to the stream we had seen running to the west of our campsite.  We had expected a longer hike, but instead found the stream lay some two hundred yards from the road, which was itself another two hundred yards or so from our encampment.

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Sinclair Hollow: April 2020, Part III (Expedition Memoirs)

Our campsite may once have been cleared of trees, though no intact stumps remained.  There were signs of prior habitation, and like what we had seen with the canvas tent on our way in, these seemed to be at least semi-permanent.  There were not just the obvious remains of a chainsaw in the felling and cutting of an unusually inflammable (sic) tree, but older, cut logs from a different tree.  Two of the logs were employed in the fabrication of a wooden bench, topped by a cutting from the other felled tree to span the two logs.  A third log we used for our water reservoir; some seven gallons hauled up on to and then down from the roof rack, and which represented the majority of our water supply.  All around these logs were the remnants of a firepit, the parts of which we utilized to construct a smaller pit that first night.  This included a number of thick, charred logs, which we proceeded to burn that night, as well as a number of recent cuttings.  We located the rest of our wood in the surrounding forest, the ground being littered with sticks and logs of all sizes and in every stage of decomposition.  Much of the wood was dry and punky, a sign of past flooding.  The water would first saturate the wood before then drying out to a degree which green cuttings simply do not, rather like driftwood on a beach, in that respect.

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Tactical Bro: April 2020, Part II (Expedition Memoirs)

We arrived in the forest just before two that afternoon, entering from the south not far from Stokesville, a small community characterized by a gas station with its attached convenience store/grocer.  It was here that we had purchased forgotten supplies in an expedition the year prior, and where during one of my first expeditions the owner assisted an accompanying girlfriend in the printing of a fishing license she had left at home.

            On this particular occasion, the gas station served the role of waypoint rather than commissary, and it was with some surprise that a couple of locals standing outside the shop watched us zip through the store’s parking lot.  Much like the spectacle I must have made to the family passing before my apartment that morning, so we must have made quite the sight passing through this quiet, country town.  We were, blaring funk music from Bluetooth speakers, neither of us attired like anyone from around that area, and both distinctly attired from the other, Mark having opted for something more casual and no doubt more comfortable than what I had picked: an old t-shirt and jeans.  The Jeep, a striking royal blue, was equipped with a large roof rack weighed down with all of the outdoor gear necessary for so many days away from civilization, while in the rear seat they would have seen a gold-colored dog who had decided to lean against the window rather than lie down, with a white-and-black Guard Dog On Duty sign in the back.  The trunk of the Jeep was filled with gear half the way up the windows, like an aquarium of camping equipment: sleeping bags, ground pads, hatchet, bowsaw, canned food.  There was a small Puerto Rican flag on the dash and a large thirty-five-star American flag—the flag employed by the United States from 1863 to 1865—in the back.  And not a hint of familiarity.

            I waved to them cheerfully as we passed, nostalgic for the small-town lifestyle lived in my formative years.

            They returned the wave, if hesitantly.

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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.

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