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.
The woods in this part of the Forest are almost entirely deciduous, though we would at times emerge into clearings—either the remnants of logging operations or cleared campsites—differentiated from the tree-line around them by scrubs and yellow grasses. We proceeded at a good clip, the road here being primarily gravel and dirt, peppered with the occasion small rocky formation. We call these “sedan roads,” and so we kept the vehicle in two-wheel drive (2H—“two high”) until after crossing into West Virginia, at which point we engaged the four-wheel drive. The trail turned increasingly difficult and narrow, eventually yielding a number of stream crossings and the open trail gate. We had by then re-entered the Commonwealth, driving south in the general direction of Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness. Here the road was deeply rutted amid the thick, clay-like mud of the road, affirming the road’s recent use by another four-wheel drive vehicle, which made us wonder if someone else might already have taken our spot. We were mindful of the two encampments we had seen on our way in, one smaller with a pickup truck and a motorcycle, and the other consisting of a garage-sized canvas tent that looked to have been there for quite some time.
This latter site in particular was foremost in my mind, as I had noted signs of more permanent habitation there than the first, including a structure camouflaged amid the heavier brush at the foot of a hillside at the far side of the site, logically an outhouse. There were other signs of regular habitation, including the characteristic flattening of the earth and foliage around the tent and along footpaths leading this way and that from the encampment. Along the edges of the flattened earth, we could see tarps and clothing hung on lines to dry, along with gardening equipment and an outdoor grill. There was also notably no firepit, which further supported a more permanent habitation given the inefficiencies of open-air firepits given more permanent and readily available sources for cooking, light, and heat. I had myself used a number of camping heaters, some powered by batteries but most by kerosene, and within even a large canvas tent like the one in question, even one of those heaters could make a world of difference. The expedition that February had included a night in which temperatures dropped to 20°F overnight, and so I found it difficult to imagine that anyone would stay out here for as long as the encampment implied with only clothing, sleeping bag, and fire for heat.
Although there were no signs of life both then and when we passed the tent again two days later, we both noted that all of the scattered miscellanea otherwise indicative of habitation had disappeared and only the canvas tent remained.
The site of our encampment was a small clearing overlooking the muddy forest road we had come along. Looking out beyond the road, we could make out earth sloping to a drop, which I knew from satellite imagery was a stream called Shaws Fork which mirrored the roadway. And so like concentric tiers of terrain—the rise on which we were located, the slope down to the road, the slope down to the stream—, they formed a sort of peninsula around us. To our south we could see the rising hills enclosing on their opposite side Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, but like much of the forest at a distance greater than a hundred yards, the ubiquitous color of fallen foliage and the interrupting stands of trees made deciphering objects at a distance challenging. To remedy this, I had brought a pair of binoculars, but even these proved limited without greater familiarity with the flora around us. My primary concerns were bear and coyote, both of which were known to live within the Wilderness in particular and the National Forest generally. We realized immediately that it would be difficult to discern anything or anyone approaching our campsite before that hundred-yard line-of-sight. Our own camp was resplendent with the same predatory-animal camouflage present in the forest surrounding us, carpeted by a layer of fallen leaves, sticks, pine needles, and cones. A stand of small furs stood directly to our south, extending in the direction of Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness—a camouflaged tunnel, Mark pointed out, for the sneakiest of black bears.
Much like we experienced that February at the bottom of Dictum Ridge, the earth here was typified by stones weighing between one to ten pounds and very little true soil. Here we were fortunate to be in a floodplain carved out during the Pliocene, one which most likely flooded seasonally until the damming up of the Forest’s many rivers during the twentieth century. The sediment deposited over the millennia afforded us enough soil that we could confidently lie our heads on the ground and not wack them on a stray stone. It likewise made the messy but necessary task of digging, using, and ultimately burying latrines far easier than our experience in February. The pick-mattock made short work of especially difficult stones, and we would both later laughed at is superiority over the small shovel I carried.
In February, having been thwarted in our attempt to cross from the bottom of Dictum Ridge to Second Mountain, we were required to make camp amid the rocky accretions of past water runoff. To the task of digging a latrine, I had assigned a folding entrenching tool which I had received with a bundle of first aid supplies—like the toys we used to find at the bottom of cereal boxes. It was a fun little add-on, and a novel innovation on the traditional inclusion of a three-and-a-half-inch folding pocketknife or multitool. The task of digging latrines seemed naturally suited to the small spade, being both light in weight and rather dummy proof in its use. It was, in retrospect, a nod to the trending fashion aesthetic my coworkers and I sardonically refer to as Tactical Bro.
And true to much of the Tactical Bro aesthetic, the shovel proved itself more fashion than utility. With its first use at the simple task of tilling the earth, the spade at once bent—and not a little bending, mind you, but a lot. It all but bent ninety degrees to its original shape under the force of my under-exercised arm muscles. Perhaps the comparison with a toy at the bottom of a cereal box is indeed apt, for what are first aid supplies than a flavor of Tactical Bro cereal? Indeed, its replacement—a small gardening shovel I purchased at my local hardware store lacking the tactical look and folding utility—has since proved the superior tool, another example of how all things tactical do not necessarily equate to quality. We had a good laugh at the memory, and the subsequent memory of my bending it back into shape with one hand, before descending into the sort of self-congratulatory revelry I witnessed at College Park, though here in ceremony of the pick-mattock than the proof of our own genius.
Having been predictably delayed in our departure due in part to my traveling companion’s affinity for late-night video gaming, our consequently late arrival at camp—nearly five-thirty in the evening—gave us little sunlight to pitch our tent, make a fire, and cook dinner. We did, in fact, manage to set the camp in its entirety before the sunlight disappeared behind the mountains, but were it not for my own foolishness in fire-making, we might not have been delayed in cooking and might have been able to eat in the daylight. I was resolved to use shavings from a recently felled tree, thinking it would serve as tinder superior to the traditional use of little sticks. We were likewise eager to attempt the use of a recently purchased flint fire-starter on an accumulation of dryer lint in order to start the fire, an old trick I had learned with the Boy Scouts. There were entirely too many variables, and so it inevitably went wrong.
The lint did not, to my blustery exasperation, burn—not well, at least. It was possible to catch a light, but the lint would either only smolder or go out—and where it did light, it produced a disconcerting green flame which was itself insufficient to light even the smallest of sticks or the driest of bark. My ingenious use of the wood shavings from the aforementioned felled tree did not account for some property of the wood that made it unusually impervious to flame, perhaps being too saturated with moisture from still being green. We witnessed this again later when we made use of larger cuttings from the same tree, which likewise took a considerable amount of time to burn. It was my own stubbornness to make use of these materials which diverted my attention from the setting sun, and so it was that in those final eight minutes of sunlight, I at last relented and returned to the tried-and-true method of using little sticks—and the judicious use of scrap paper-towel. And true to form, the flame took at once. I am not sure how long I spent wasting time, but I can absolutely say that the time it took to start a fire following the proven method rather than my own delusions was at least a third or fourth of the time—and under eight minutes, because I had the fire roaring before the last glimmers of light disappeared.