Glittering Gold

Location: Nelson Sods, 38° 40' 18.9" North, 79° 26' 23.6" West

To get to where I’m sitting you’ll have to drive to the base of the highest mountains in West Virginia.  Next, follow the rocky and rutted Franklin-Circleville Pike until the road deteriorates so much that you can drive no further.  The road is the long-ago abandoned route over North Fork Mountain which now dwindles to just a footpath the further up you go.  You’ll then have to find a spot to pull off where you’re not blocking the way for others.  (Note though that the pull offs and the others are few and far between in this very remote locale.)  Leave your car and continue on foot up, up, and more ups until you reach a saddle in the mountain.  Veer right and follow an old, even-more-rutted jeep trail.  More ups relentlessly ensue until you finally arrive at the peak – Pike Knob, a 4,290 foot forested summit.  You’ll be out of breath, but you’re not done yet. 

Though this preserve I’m visiting is named after its peak, the true gem is where I currently sit: Nelson Sods a half-mile further on.  Finding this amazing mountaintop meadow requires some off-trail instincts; there is no path.  Preparation, map skills, and a solar compass are necessary if you plan on joining me in the single best viewing spot I’ve ever found in the Appalachian Mountains.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) describes where I’m at as a place for fit hikers seeking one of the most secluded locations in the state.  When I first read about Pike, I must admit I was a bit intimidated.   Choosing to visit in late November only added to my worries.  It’s hunting season, so would I be entering a crossfire?  And just ten minutes after setting out on foot, I heard gunshots near where I was headed. 

My car’s balding tires are near the end of their useful life, so would the rutted road leave me in the middle of nowhere with a flat, or perhaps with a torn up undercarriage? 

Fit hikers?  At this elevation, was I truly fit enough to make it up the mountain - heart troubles, quadriceps tendinitis, vertigo and all? 

Aside from all of that, the forecast called for a high of 35 degrees… and that was for in the valley 2,000 feet below the summit. It’s not easy getting to Nelson Sods; its elusive remoteness though, unquestionably is one of its charms. 

Another charm is its weather.  Bluntly, this mountain is the driest spot in the Appalachians.  Storm systems marching over the state are wrung dry as they rake across Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest point just to the west of Pike Knob.  This orographic phenomenon has been on full display this morning as I sit dry in the sunshine while just across the valley Spruce Knob is shrouded in clouds.  Amid the sunshine, the knee-high rice-grass in this meadow is a sea of glittering goldenness. 

A lone bald eagles soars past, not flapping its majestic wings even once.  It surely has no trouble spotting me in blaze-orange hat.  This symbol of American prominence drifts gracefully on updrafts unconcerned, welcoming a non-threatening visitor into its astonishing kingdom. 

The views from Nelson Sods are as expansive as I have ever seen.  Forty years of hiking these mountains has not led to a spot more beautiful than this.  The elevated vantage point puts me atop the world, and makes it easy to spot other iconic peaks.  Draw a straight line from West Virginia’s highest point to High Knob on the Virginia border twenty two miles to the east and the line passes directly over Pike Knob.  Three prominent 4,000 foot high peaks lined up perfectly straight, and all three in clear view on this brilliant day. 

Before I turn and leave out after my hours immersed in the beauty of Nelson Sods, I take a few photos with my phone to be used as the background image for my display screen.  The images will pale compared to the true sights seen here, but they will justly serve as reminders of today’s incredible experience.  

Back in 2016, while on my sabbatical, Mike Powell spoke to me about Pike Knob.  Mike is TNC’s stewardship director and is aptly familiar with all of the state’s very best spots.  He emphatically told me a visit to Pike was a must-do and definitely worth the effort.  It’s been a morning of overcoming doubts and surviving demanding physical challenges but undeniably, Mike was exactly right.  Pike Knob Preserve is an amazing place and has re-set the scale by which I now judge the beauty within the Appalachian Mountains. 

The Essence of Life

As Father Krempa delivers the punctuating sentence ending his sermon, he stares steely-eyed out over the congregation for an uncomfortably long time letting the final words linger.  Then, very deliberately, he paper-clips his notes back together, tucks them into his bible, and walks slowly across the alter.  In that moment, I admire the man’s routine, and more importantly,  his singularity of focus devoted to his weekly speaking responsibility.   How fulfilling it must be to prepare each week for a few moments at the lectern on Sunday. 

I’ve spent the past nearly-30 years journaling and professing how each day has an essence, which I still strongly believe.  However, watching Krempa tuck his notes away has made me think in slightly broader terms than just a single day.  What is the essence of one week?  If I had to stand at a lectern and reflect back upon the past seven days, how would I sieve my experiences down to just an essence? 

As a career nine-to-five man, I live life deeply immersed in the passing of a seven day counter.  The cerebral re-focus that Monday brings, or the weightlessness of Saturday mornings, for instance, come in repeating waves, week after week, year after year.  I’m comforted by the seven day counter; it dices life into segmented, manageable chunks inherently motivating me; I know each Sunday night I need to flip a switch, and that on Fridays, rewards are ahead.   

Thinking more broadly still, how do you sieve experiences down to their essence when viewed in even longer stretches?  Seasonally, annually, or… here’s the big one… over a lifetime?  What would you say from the lectern given just a few minutes to summarize?  A season, a year, or your entire life explained in just a handful of sentences.

Alone on Ice Mountain

For the final eight miles,
Of Cold Stream Road,
High beams pierce the dimness,
As I pass no others.

Early Sunday drives,
While the world sleeps,
Are revelries in abandonment. 

I park beside the Miller House,
Setting out on foot,
Up a similarly abandoned path.

A No Trespassing sign is for others; not me.

With authority, I ascend,
To this path’s sandstone summit,
And it’s astounding westward views,
Of the meandering North River,
And the farms tucked into its bends.

From on high,
The world seems manageable.
Trifles and travails dissipate. 

A distant tractor growls,
Diverting the spell of a beautifully quiet sunrise.

My descent is graceful;
With gravity as an aid.
I wend through towering trees,
Under arching laurel canopies,
Through an algific talus chill,
And reach, with pleasure, river’s edge.

Green water flows imperishably,
Grinding and roiling,
Reshaping its path,
Imperceptibly and patient.

I’ve been to Ice Mountain before,
In groups with leaders,
Social and scripted.
But today, alone,
Free to wander,
And interpret the splendor
In glorious self-regard.

Lillooet Forest Service Road

The parking lot of the Pemberton Hotel is directly in-between Grimm’s Deli and the Blackbird Bakery, two competing breakfast locations in this small British Columbian mountain town.  Though Grimm’s has the more complete menu – including the fried potatoes I’m craving – it doesn’t have any customers yet.  Through Blackbird’s window, I see a smiling young lady attending to a customer.  Behind her in the prep area is another smiling young lady.  The customer is smiling too.  Though a bakery will have fewer food choices than a deli, I’m drawn to the happiness, and choose Blackbird’s over Grimm’s. 

Just outside the entrance, written neatly on a chalkboard easel, the happiness is of Blackbird’s is pronounced: “Come Inside, Get More Espresso, Get Less Depresso”.  As I enter, it’s a mix of young & old; French & English.  There’s a gray-haired man sitting at a table, but the bakery staff are all millennials.  The conversation glides easily between English and French, switching even mid-sentence at times.  After placing my order, a steady stream of customers comes rolling in.  In such a small isolated town, and at 6:30 a.m., the popularity of this bakery is perplexing, but also affirms my dining choice.  I note too that everyone seems dressed for the weather, which looks to be a cool wet Pacific-Northwest-type day.  Thankfully, I too am appropriately geared. 

I take my time savoring my fresh blueberry pastry, Americano coffee, and the atmosphere; all of which are outstanding.  I share a long wooden table with the old guy who hasn’t yet ordered anything.  Perhaps he’s here just for the happiness.  The banter in Blackbird’s is cheerful, and just what I needed after a long day of irritating travel yesterday.

I’ve been short-fused lately with humanity.  Yeah, that’s a broad statement, but I just have become less tolerant of my fellow humans’ often trifling exertions.  And on a travel day taking me across the country, which compacted a lot of humans into tight spaces, my annoyance with their exertions has been heightened.  The vastness of British Columbia has come at a good time.  After finishing breakfast, I’m off to explore a beautiful valley where the compactness of humanity will be replaced by magnificent natural splendor. 

Pemberton Meadows and the valley it’s located in are locally famous for a healthy agricultural environment, stunning beauty, and the milky-green Lillooet River flowing dramatically through it.  On its flanks are the iconic Coast Mountains of the Canadian Rockies, some peaks still covered in snow even at the end of summer.  The dramatic nature of this valley is quite attractive to bicyclists, fresh produce seekers, and beauty hunters like me. 

As I enter the valley, I’m immediately impressed, even beyond what I was expecting.  At every bend in the road, I’m presented with a new vantage point of awe.  The mountains are of a scale my mind is just not used to comprehending.  Their height, steepness and ruggedness are almost surreal to someone more accustomed to the smaller, softer Appalachians of my hometown. 

About halfway back into the valley, I turn onto a forest service road and the real drama begins.  It starts by cutting directly across a wide-open farm field whose crop rows point dramatically toward the canyon vertex.  It then crosses over the raging Lillooet River on a single lane haggard bridge and proceeds past a bank of warning signs, the most dramatic of which declares that you’ve enter Grizzly Bear territory.  Other signs point out that the road ahead is subject to landslides, avalanches, debris torrents, logging trucks, floods, and falling rocks.  Bring your rabbit’s foot; a trip down Lillooet Forest Service Road is a bit like walking under a ladder. 

Despite these warnings, the turn onto this gravel road brings a new level of beauty to my Pemberton drive.  As the valley narrows, the beauty is amplified.  The walls are closing in.  The mountains grow higher.  The river flows faster.  The trees are taller.  And the isolation intensifies. 

I stop frequently to photograph the remarkable scenes, but never stray more than twenty yards from my car; the Grizzly warnings have me on high alert.  The sound dampening effect of the thick, wet forest only shortens my tether.  Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but even the plunk of a pinecone dropping from a tree has me thinking it’s a bear sneaking up to maul me. 

When I’ve gone as deep into this valley as I feel my rented car can go, I pull over at a roughed-in side road; really just a path through the woods.  Tacked to a tree is a small hand-written sign with an arrow pointing north up a ravine: Landslide Safe Zone – 500m. Standing by the sign, I realize I’m as far from my home as I’ve ever been while still in North America – over 3,700 kilometers.  The safety of my home is a long way from where I stand deep in the heart of British Columbia, yet I feel quite peaceful. 

I’ll be spending the next five days here in British Columbia, most of which will be quite busily spent amid the compacted humanity of downtown Vancouver.  This visit to the beautiful Pemberton Valley has been a vaccination.  It’s given me a chance to reset before the upcoming urban whirlwind.  I suddenly feel less short-fused and I’m ready to take on humanity’s exertions again.


Take the Top Down

Goodbye office. Thanks Loudoun Mutual for allowing and supporting this mini-sabbatical about to unfold over the next 3 weeks. I’ve had a great 29-year career so far, and after this little break, I hope to come back even more committed to this great company that I work for. It sure has been a lovely space to earn a living, but for the next three weeks I’m trading fluorescents for sunlight, and climate controls for chaos. Time to take the top down.

Maryland's Eastern Shore

Third Haven Woods, Easton, Md
March 19th, 2016

For many of the places I’ll be visiting, and especially so here at Third Haven Woods, there is no Point B. 
My goal was simply to wander from Point A to where my whims take me.
"There is pleasure in the pathless woods".  - George Gordon (Lord) Byron

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail

Robinson Neck Preserve, Taylor's Island, Md
March 19th, 2016

This, and similar imagery, will be my office view for the next three weeks.

Robinson Neck features an elusive east coast feature: an unobstructed view shed.  In all directions, as far as you can see, it’s remarkably pristine.  But visit soon; the rising sea level is working hard to swamp this beautiful preserve, and in fact, all of Taylor’s Island.

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail

Lichens, Nassawango Creek Preserve, Furnace Town, Md
March 20th, 2016

The Paul Liefer trail weaves through a blending of a Pacific Coast rainforest with a southern bald cypress swamp.  Your neck gets a workout  – looking skyward in awe of how high the trees reach; and looking groundward stupefied at the oddity of the cypress knees, which look like wooden stalagmites.

With proper mindfulness, a stroll along the Paul Leifer trail will be one of the more peaceful walks of your life.

Nature Conservancy Link:                  Click her for more detail
Philanthropy (here’s your part!):      Click here to support The Nature Conservancy

Honing In

Honing My Skills Before Heading Off on Adventure...

It begins early tomorrow morning and looks to involve a race against a sweeping weather front.  We'll be ahead of it initially, but by Sunday night, I anticipate returning home soggy and chilled.  A wet opening act is on tap, but that's OK.  I’ve spent way too much of my life in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing. Time to confront nature in all its moods.  Just ask Henry...

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and wood... keep your spirits up.  Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

- H. D. Thoreau


Feeding the Need

Ten years before my fiftieth birthday, I hatched a plan.  I wanted to reward myself for reaching that iconic milestone.  The way things were lining up, fifty would be the year I wrote my last tuition check for my daughters’ educations.  Supposing I’d still be in good health, I started dreaming of a sabbatical as a reward for the sacrifices my wife and I made while rearing two delightful children.  Through all the iterations of those dreams, one thing remained constant… the sabbatical would involve one of my very favorite activities: travel.  A Kerouacian road trip, perhaps.  Or a hike up the Pacific Coast Trail.  Or a voyage down to Antarctica.

Through the years, other reasons began to emerge that started fueling the need for a sabbatical.  Most notably, work.  Recently, my company has been on a magical tear – one of the finest ten year stretches in the company’s 167 year history.  Heavy growth has nearly tripled our size necessitating many workflow, technology, and personnel changes, all of which have kept every single day full of challenges.  It’s been a wonderful whirlwind, but none of it has come easy.  My throttle has been wide open for a long time.  A pit stop seemed in order.

As I’ve dealt with the demands of raising a family and a full throttle career, a few outside interests have become neglected.  Fresh out of college in the ‘80s, I started writing a journal and have kept it alive ever since.  It’s been a wonderful mental therapist.  But the entries have slowed over the past few years.  Setting off on a sabbatical tangent would surely jump-start entries again.

Another outside interest that’s been neglected is simply being outside.  Like my journal, a few hours in the woods or on a mountain top are tremendously therapeutic.  They always refocus me away from the minutiae of an often too-artificial world to a more holistic view of life.  But those experiences have been infrequent lately.  I’ve spent too much time in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing.  I want to get dirty, in an earthy kind of way.  To step in mud and be guided by daylight hours; not a clock.  To be cold and zip up my coat, or warm and de-layer.  I want to hear wind rustling and water trickling, and not give a shit about electronic dings.

As a final reason for this sabbatical, there’s this: I live a wonderful life that I enjoy immensely, but I often stay under the radar.  Being a bit introverted, I don’t share my wonderful experiences that well.  The forty hours I spent in Cochise County, Arizona last year, for instance, were some of the best of my life; yet few know just how spectacular that was for me.  Now though, I want to make a bolder statement.  Frankly, I want to have a story; one I can reflect upon with great fondness: a feather-in-my-cap when telling stories to the grand kids.

Last July, I took the most important step in bringing this sabbatical to fruition – I secured permission from my employer to take whatever time was needed.  Since then, the planning effort has risen to near-compulsive levels.  And now, extreme planner that I am, a thematic itinerary is in place to address all of the reasons feeding the need.  Here I am, one week from embarking upon the sabbatical of a lifetime.  I couldn’t be more ready for it.

Crystal Coasting

Seated on a front row stool, I’m tapping along as Barefoot Wade sings Pencil Thin Mustache – a song I requested.  He laughs while changing a few lyrics to mock his long hair and acknowledge that he slept until four.  There’s a real happy vibe in this place which is a mix of locals and tourists like me.  In other rooms are shelves and homages to some of the world’s most amazing beers, including a whole corner devoted to Belgians, my own personal faves.  In my cup, fresh from the tap served by a happy young barmaid, is a local, peach-infused – but slightly too sweet - wheat beer.  The couple beside me, for some god-forsaken reason, is drinking Bud Light, but they’re as happy as clams on this warm evening in the middle of winter.  When I left Winchester yesterday morning, I was not expecting peach beer or pencil thin mustaches to be part of my wife’s birthday getaway to the Crystal Coast of Carolina.  But Harrika’s Brew Haus has brought plenty of surprises and will be one of our strongest memories of this trip… or of any of our other birthday getaways over the past twenty years. 

These last few days have done wonders to shake the winter doldrums.  We drove six hours in hopes of finding warmer weather and succeeded.  But what we also found were two other gems: spontaneity and creativity. 

Harrika’s was not on our itinerary.  And actually, nothing other than our lodging was on the itinerary.  We simply came to the beach to explore with practically no strategy.  I’m typically an extreme planner, but for this trip I sensed that the spontaneity of following our whims would be the better itinerary.  As such, our days included the unexpected – a bench at the end of beautiful bayside marina, a Mardi Gras parade in Beaufort, sitting atop cannons at Fort Macon, buying Girl Scout cookies at a pizza shop, and of course, Harrika’s.

Through all the spontaneity, I had an old friend – my Canon EOS Rebel - dangling from my shoulder.  Composing images is such an energizing & creative endeavor for me.  I come alive finding patterns, seeing textures, and discovering colors that otherwise go undetected when I’m not carrying my pal.  In a beautiful place like the Crystal Coast and on a vibrant day the near-overload of creativity was quite welcomed after spending the past few months engulfed in the grayness of winter back home.

On our way home, I chose the slightly longer option of connecting to the interstate – a 20 mile winding ride through a longleaf coastal pine forest.   One last blast of spontaneity, and a beautiful way to end a nice weekend on the Crystal Coast.