It was with the expectation that were presently directed towards our journey’s end that we continued down the trail in the direction of certain civilization. At points along the way, we paused to look in on potential campsites, including an abandoned quarry we had once before visited and attempted to scale. Here we once more attempted and once more failed to scale the hill, the chokepoint at the top being if anything more impassable than it had been the year prior. Why precisely I did not decide to there and then to engage the winch to get us the rest of the way up, I cannot recall and so to it I assign the fatigue and frustration I was feeling at that point.
Beyond that particular portion of impassable road, there is a very convenient and secluded clearing in which vehicles at one point in the past had used as turnabout before descending the hill. The clearing is perfectly suited for camping, and it was at his juncture, facing down the prospect of returning home, that Mark made the unusual offer to act as Sherpa to our gear. His idea was to leave the Jeep at the base of the quarry, while he would carry our gear back and forth, whilst I at the top set camp. Much as the idea was tempting, it was eventually decided that leaving the Jeep unattended at a distance and on such a steep incline would be unwise. There had been an issue with the rear brakes which we had nearly discovered the hard way the February prior, and although the addition of wheel chocks might have been reassuring to most, it was not to me. I could not shake the vision of its boxy blue form first groaning, then sliding, and at last careening down the hillside, across the road, and over into the ravine on the other side. And so, after some convincing, Mark was persuaded that we should proceed.
But whereas I had lost the impetus to move forward and began increasingly making plans for the ride home, Mark’s determination changed in the opposing direction, and although we had received repeated warnings from the NOAA weather stations of impending rainstorms, the clear skies and bright sun that followed a day of freezing wind and even snow was too good an opportunity for him to pass on. He now become driven by the mission of locating a new campsite, if only to prove that he could.
It was about a half mile later that my compatriot spotted an opening in the tree line—the head of a trail that meandering its way east into the woods. It was clear by the extent of overgrowth and the accumulation of sand and debris that the trail had not been used for quite some time. Flash flooding gouged the earth between us and this hidden trail, accumulating sediment in the form of a sharp embankment which lay now between us and access to the possibility of a clearing beyond. It was down this path that Mark disembarked, bear spray in hand, to scout for just such a possibility. Had I been smart and swapped the batteries on my old two-way radios, we might have been able to discuss what he saw at a distance, but as it was, I remained with Sasha and the vehicle while he scouted ahead.
There was indeed a campsite there, some two hundred yards from the main trail. The clearing there was the remnant of a vast flowing floodplain. Rocks the size of footballs littered the area, all of them worn smooth by years of rushing waters. Never once did the concern of a flash flood, the evidence for which lay all about, cross our minds, for whatever troubles the rocks may have given in the setting of our encampment, they also repaid in kind, providing us with solid quantities of dry wood caught among them and the securing embrace of thorny vines which populate their slate architecture.
In scaling the sheer embankment, I made use of the vehicle’s powerful steel crossmember to pivot the Jeep like a seesaw over the embankment, easily taking it up and over the mound to the other side. But both on the drive in and on the drive out, despite my traveling companion’s admonishments, I failed to consider the Jeep’s angle of departure, which had extended slightly since the addition of the hitch-mounted carrier. As a result, I knocked the portion of the carrier closest to the back of the Jeep into the back door, though to Detroit’s credit, it was the gas can carrier which dented and not my car. The Jeep sustained minimal paint damage.
It was down this trail where at last I had the opportunity to take the Jeep truly off road, driving through brush and, when unavoidable, over trees. Through this tangle of dried foliage and stones, we at last emerged in the clearing which Mark had discovered and proceeded to set camp. Here the pickaxe showed its worth once more at the task of tilling the earth free of rocks, while newly acquired rakes helped clear a good inch of fallen leaves and sticks blanketing the ground around us. The site had not been disturbed for some time, and but for a plastic bucket that might have been flotsam in some prior flood and the telltale rings of stone firepits, there were no other signs of civilization around us.
Over a powerful fire we cooked dinner and spent our time dodging the column of smoke which it emitted, made erratic by the gusts of wind coming down the mountains. We were situated in a valley formed by ridgelines on three sides, creating a funnel to the open side through which the wind picked up its pace. We could actually hear the winds coming well before we felt them, giving us time to brace ourselves and anything light enough to be blown away. When a gust at last completed its journey among tree trunks and rocks to reach us, it would strike forcefully and seemingly randomly over the rocks of our firepit, exciting the smoke to dance. More than once we each became entangled in a game of cat-and-mouse with the plume of smoke, requiring us to rise from our chairs on a regular basis to maneuver in order to avoid the worst of it.
That night it grew bitterly cold, due entirely to the chill of the inconstant wind. We attempted another late night of revelry, like the first, but at last I could no longer stand the cold and retreated to the relative shelter of the tent. Although we continued to be buffeted by the wind all night, knocking about our chairs and tables outside, the tent insulated us well against it and made the ambient temperature not only tolerable, but in fact comfortable.
Our final morning was met with a beautiful, clear blue sky and increasingly warming temperatures. We had been monitoring the weather our entire time out, and although the rain had continued to be delayed one day after another, it had now stabilized, and the forecast did not bode well. The expectation was a one hundred percent chance of rain starting the following day and running into next week. Rather than attempt to set and later brake camp in the middle of a rainstorm and given the number of closures we had already encountered, we regrettably made the logical decision to cut the expedition short and return home.
Breakfast was snacks and jerky, while the majority of the morning was spent cleaning and packing. The process of breaking camp may seem easier than setting, given the innumerable tasks necessary for the preparation of a decent encampment. But the process of breaking camp and packing can be even more difficult given the sheer number of items and equipment unloaded upon arrival, and the necessity of finding their place amid the limited space we had. Such trivialities were front-and-center in my mind, and I suspect that I was more touchy than usual that morning, given the challenges of the past few days and the present necessity to cut the trip short, lest we wind up a diluted Shackleton.
Having encountered no animals of any kind or humans of any character, we placed the Jeep in low-range four-wheel drive, put it in first, and back through the woods we went, retracing out steps from the day before. The passage out was easier than the one in, if for no other reason than I had a better sense of the route to be taken. Crushing scrubs and bending saplings from our way, the Cherokee rumbled its way from its remote night’s slumber. We again came to the steep embankment washed into existence by some past flood, and true to form the Jeep surmounted the small rise in two fluid motions, first catching the crossmember on the top and allowing the vehicle’s momentum and weight to tip it over the precipice and down onto the other side. And true to personal form, I once more neglected the compatriot’s counsel to approach the embankment at an angle—surely, I had this under control. After all, it wasn’t my first time over this mound, so clearly, I knew what I was doing!
With the exclusion of the dent from the day before, I added another scratch to the rear liftgate.
Satisfied that the damage to my car was not nearly as dramatic as times past—particularly the time the engine exploded—we began our journey home that bright, sunny morning. Some stops for breakfast on the way reminded us of the pandemic, then beginning to spread, and it was with no small amount of discomfort that we pulled through the drive-thru at Taco Bell and then McDonald’s for food and coffee, respectively. At each drive-thru window, we were met by a dystopian version of the reality I remembered. I never imagined I would live in a world where we have to hide ourselves behind medical masks, latex gloves, plastic shields. Being so far from everything over the past few days, I had all but forgotten the crisis and the limitations it was placing on life. And there was then a part of me that wondered if we should not have turned around and gone back to stay longer, and simply suffered through the fun of wet-weather camping than the alienation of normalcy.
But our decision was made. We resumed the interstate at Harrisonburg, flying past the abandoned grounds of James Madison University and whatever American National University is. The road and traffic conditions were favorable, and it was with some hesitation that my mood began to lift once more. Though we might not have accomplished the expedition’s mission, to camp for nine days and eight nights, we had accomplished many other things and had the chance to enjoy some time laughing and drinking. It would certainly not be our last expedition, and so I am inclined to think of this curtailed excursion as merely a temporary cessation and not a conclusion.
And then the Jeep blew its master fuse and lost all power at sixty-five miles per hour. We left it on the side of Interstate 81 for a tow. While traditionally we would have got a lift home with the tow, the pandemic brought a new way of doing things, and so it was that an hour later we found ourselves sitting on brick retention wall outside an Exxon. With our remaining beer in the Jeep, we purchased a six-pack of beer and split it as we watched traffic go by as we awaited a lift to Alexandria. Somewhere in there the tow company which had originally been contacted to tow my truck but then cancelled the job because I would need a ride called me to say that the Jeep had just been tagged by the State Police for towing to a yard—despite the assurances of VDOT that they would not. Whilst on the phone, we watched as the blue figure of my Jeep sped past on the bed of a tow-truck as panic welled inside me that the Jeep would be impounded, and the disaster intensify. Fortunately, the truck on which we saw my Cherokee was the correct one, and about two hours later we joined the Jeep back home in Northern Virginia.
It only remains to be said that our fortunate timing in deciding to leave might have made the difference between the relative disaster of being stranded on the side of the interstate and the catastrophe of being stranded at the top of the mountain or deep in the woods with a dead Jeep. And although the cause at the time was unknown to us, it would not have been any more reassuring to know that it was the master fuse which blew when it would be followed by a day’s hike out and the consequences of having to hire an off-road tow. Although the issue was later fixed with the Jeep, the gremlins which inhabit it continued to pay their retribution for my ill-advised perseverance through the consumption of money. Innumerable unexpected and unwanted projects—the typical situation with an antique car—at last became too many and I rehomed the Jeep to a collector of classic 4x4s. My new steed is a worthy successor, though it too has its own issues (ANDROID AUTO!!!), and yet it lacks the personality and reasonability of my Cherokee. It now lives a comfortable life, going out only occasionally and not the six-week cycle I kept, and well that it should.
It certainly earned it.