Four Walls in the Wild

There comes a time when one feels like throwing off the chains of civilization and returning to the simpler and friendlier past. The comfortable sofa loses its appeal. Processed foods no longer satisfy. The office worker stares past his computer screen, controlled by an urge to unleash himself into the pathless woods, the lands empty of plastic trash. This impulse, whatever its true source or true end, generally reaches its consummation in a camping trip. It looks for its satisfaction in a sort of role-playing game, acting out the part played by people as diverse as prehistoric man and Canadian fur trappers, but far from normal life as most of us know it. The idea is to return to our true home, from which we have been displaced for many generations into agricultural and industrial exile.

Some friends and I, comprising a group of nine men, decided to spend a Friday and Saturday in the Dolly Sods in West Virginia. According to the National Forest Service, the Dolly Sods is “an area of high elevation windswept plains on the Allegheny Plateau” that “is well known for its extensive rocky plains, upland bogs, and sweeping vistas.” The last time we had visited, we’d spent our time in the northern part of it, which is delightfully full of scrubs and stunted trees reminiscent of Canadian tundra. This year, we planned to spend our time near the center, where the milder landscape would be compensated for by the peak of Breathed Mountain and the sight of a waterfall and the Red River.

As we hiked along the access trail into the wilderness, we saw that the remainder of a week’s heavy rainfall had made itself felt, even at this altitude. Everything was green and sodden, and rivulets ran along the path. But on the sunlit gravel, we had no need for concern. At midday, the woods were silent, empty of human and animal sounds alike. The air was cool, five or ten degrees cooler than the summer temperatures in Canaan valley below us, and empty of insects. The path had no tree cover, and the sun on the rhododendron and laurel that lined the path put us outside, rather than inside, the woods, which stood right on the other side of the bushes. Here was light—beneath the trees was dim. The land was still unexplored, unpenetrated, an enigma to us modern men, though in time we would enter it and find our home. We stopped to examine a few red flowering bushes of a name that escapes me, which were scattered along the trail, their waxen leaves glinting in the light. Once I heard the faint hum of an aircraft passing overhead. Over everything was a damp, woodsy smell that reminded me of wet hair.

Deeper into the woods, we began to see puddles in the trail. Soon they became wider—great muddy gulfs that took up the whole space. Where this had happened, people had tried to walk around them, widening the path, but their trampled places soon had been covered in mud or water also. The trail bulged and squelched like a python that had swallowed too many cantaloupes of indiscriminate size. Remembering last year’s dry hiking across stones and dusty earth, I now wore cloth shoes that were no match for a muddy puddle. The other guys had mainly worn hiking boots, and I began to regret what had seemed wise at the time.

Conditions did not improve. We came to a fork, where the two branches of the trail were nearly invisible beneath mud. We turned right onto Big Stonecoal Trail and headed down into a forest, where the damp trees loomed above, and we were out of the sun at last. It was hardly alive enough to be a gloomy woods—trees drooped listlessly, their bark saturated and their leaves still damp. The forest breathed silently, as though it had narrowly escaped drowning and now lay on the bank of a deep pool, having exhausted itself from gasping for breath under the steady downpour of a week’s rain.

A stream ran beside the trail. The trail was a stream. Sometimes the trail and the stream were one, and sometimes they were two, but in no case was it easy to tell the one from the other. Everything got wet. Many of us slipped in the mud.

This was the context for our first halt. By now, several guys had started to regret the weight of what they’d brought. We were smarter than last year—we hadn’t packed tents or much heavy equipment—but some had still brought camp chairs, which I thought—and still think—were a pointless convenience, although I temporarily changed my mind when the ground everywhere proved to be too wet to sit on. We took some time to shift some heavier items around between people, giving each of us an average of about 25 pounds, which isn’t too much to carry for miles.

One hiker who reviewed the Dolly Sods Wilderness said, “As always, a hiking trip is what you put into it.” What you take along determines your success. By now we had learned that more did not always equal better—that what you don’t put into a hiking trip is as important as what you do. We had learned from last time not to put a cooler full of steak into it, and to bring a water filtration system rather than water itself.

The last time we had camped in the Dolly Sods, we’d loaded up with everything needed to build a temporary home in the wilderness. I’m not a strong guy, and I know it. I was careful to pack only fifteen pounds, and I was carrying about that weight of water as well; still, I was perplexed to find myself at the beginning of the line as we threaded our way through brush and boulders starting from Bear Rocks. It took me a bit to realize what the problem was with the big guys behind me. They had apparently never had to think of physical limitations before and were therefore weighed down with steaks, tents, chairs, pots, pans, an axe, and other things I don’t like to think about. They were sweating and complaining, and at every turn in the trail, one of them was sure to suggest stopping and setting up the tents. At about the third juncture, I turned around and realized that I could still see the parking lot, “We can’t camp within sight of the truck,” I insisted.

It isn’t until you pack up your belongings that you realize how much is to be said for the slug. It may be vulnerable and easily killed by footstep, bird, or salt, but it’s at least not encumbered by the entire four walls of its house. We never realize the weight of what carries us until we need to carry it. The conveniences of the permanent dweller quickly become encumbrances in the woods, where the accretions and furniture of a few thousand years do not fit into the wild any more than their owners do. But for us to recognize the wilderness home when we find it, we want to take our consumerized home commodities along as well.

As we stood there distributing weight, someone asked, “Where’s Dennis?” Dennis, it turned out, was a minute or two behind us. When he caught up, we asked him how much weight he carried. “Forty pounds,” he said. Did he want to share some weight? “No,” he said. “I’m feeling great.” And, other than his naturally stoic expression, he betrayed no signs of wearying.

Crossing a torrential stream, and consequently wet to the thighs, we found a campsite halfway up a ridge, overshadowed in tall forest pines. Some of us set to work cutting up partially dry logs for the fire, while others filtered water from the stream. The water’s high iron content must not have been affected by the filter, and it kept its apple-juice color even after filtration. After eyeing it dubiously, we decided it would have to be safe to drink.

When the fire got started, we dried out our shoes and legs and proceeded to make soup from mixes and to chew on jerky. Being only minimally wet at this point, and therefore maximally cheerful, we sat around the fire and told stories late into the night. Finally, we bundled up in our sleeping bags for the night, the fire sinking down to coals and leaving the stars, half-covered by a grey cloud, as the only source of light.

As I tried to sleep, I stared up at the sky, framed on all sides by tall trunks of pines, their tips converging on an empty patch of sky. It was, I thought, like being suspended at the bull’s eye of a target, with spear shafts sticking into the target all around. This was not a comforting thought. Off to my right, looking farther up the ridge where we were camped, I saw a slightly lighter patch that stood out from the background of forest. Was it sky, or a white tree? It was about the right size for a person looking down toward us. A few light raindrops struck my face and I pulled my jacket over my head to hold the elements at bay.

The next morning, we had decisions to make. Both of our water filtration systems had malfunctioned, and we had only a half gallon left from the previous day. This was not a contingency we were prepared for—we’d planned a long day’s hike, and we knew from experience what a lack of water would do to us. We found that we could get a little water by forcing it through the filter with a syringe made for that purpose, and we half-heartedly boiled some more, knowing that it would be warm and not much fun to drink. This, breakfast, and bandaging a cut on my hand (received from falling off a slippery log), took up half the morning. By the time we were ready to leave, a number of the guys were wandering up and down with zoned-out expressions, already tired of the camp, too familiar with it and ready to move on.

My brother and I on what I think is Lion’s Head Rock (photo by Dean Hostetter)

We set out, ready for the best part of our hike. It was another sunny day. Striking across bushes and brambles, we returned to the path, which was marginally less muddy than it had been the day before. We headed south toward Breathed Mountain, no longer loaded with the weight of civilization, since we planned to loop back and pick up our gear later. We had left it all behind and set out to foray through the wild country, as our ancestors had done in days long past. We strode exuberantly down the trail, sometimes trying to keep quiet and hear the animals, but sometimes breaking out into strains of garbled and ad-libbed song. At times, when the trail grew too muddy, we struck out through woods, taking shortcuts like we belonged there. Every now and then we stopped to pick chokeberries—the only edible plant that we recognized. In the woods, we no longer feel at home. Plants are simply plants, not people with names and personalities—we don’t know which are herbs and which are poisons.

At last, winding up through steep trails, we reached Lion’s Head Rock, at the summit of Breathed Mountain. The trails for the last half-mile had been like jungle paths, shaded with translucent leaves, luxuriant greens through which the sun filtered in a sort of Amazonian jubilance. Now it opened onto scraggly but still green shrubbery atop a stack of craggy, dimpled limestone rocks. We had reached the highest point on the trail. Across a valley, I saw mountains, and in a cleft between them ran a river and a lake. The early afternoon sun glinted on the rocks. Stepping, and sometimes leaping or crawling, from rock to rock, we came out to a point at the end of the ridge, a peninsula jutting into the green valley below. I walked out onto a rock from which I could see three ways across a narrow valley floor hundreds of feet below. We gazed out into the deep, watching two eagles soaring below us, looking for prey below. We had brought along our own prey—chocolate and dried fruit.

From where I was, I caught glimpses of a grove of trees nestled among the rocks. It was at a level about twenty feet below us, and I looked for ways to get down to it. Mostly, I found only crevices between rocks that all seemed to lead to dead ends. It was surprisingly difficult to reach, but something about it called to me. After circling as far around it as I could, in hopes of finding a path, I found one rock where I could slide down for about six feet and leap the rest of the way, only four or five feet farther. I soon found myself in a shady pathway between two rocks, which lead, on the one hand, into the grove, and, on the other, into more boulders.

I took a few steps into the trees and found an answer to my unspoken hopes. A little ring of trees and bushes—an little clearing between them, roofed with leaves—the sunlight deflected through the canopy and playing in little shapes on the floor—a fire circle and a few rocks worthy of being sat on—it was perfect. There would have been enough space for a few people to sleep there, on the top of the world but sheltered from the wind and from sight all around and above.

I called to the others. One by one, they slid down the rock and joined me. We spread out a meal of dried fruits and chocolate and rested from the sun. We humans are still cavedwellers. We measure everything for home, casting an appraising eye around us to see where the bed should go, and where to put the coffee table—looking for where we can shape the world about us to make us comfortable. Inside that grove, we found satisfaction amid the homeless woods—all one really needs in order to start planning housewarming parties are four walls and protection from the sun.

I pulled up Google Maps and dropped a pin at that spot, not because I think I’ll be there again, but because when you find home, it’s so easy to lose it again. There are many sorts of places in the world, but only a few of them want to keep you—they tell you to come back alone, and you’ll still be welcome.

After the hiker thinks about settling down, there isn’t much more to be done. We gathered up the crumbs and began laboriously hiking down the rocks, down into the Red River Valley. We still had five miles ahead of us, full of potential delights—but there comes a time when a hiker grows tired of the endless trail, when home looms in front of him even more so because it isn’t there. In fact, I barely remember the rest of that day.

—Lynn Michael Martin

This essay was written for a class on writing nonfiction narratives.