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.
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading