Gale Warning: April 2020, Part IIX (Expedition Memoirs)

At this elevation, deciduous trees give way to scrub and reedy pines, the soil there being too rocky for the growth of stouter trees.  The relatively denuded mountaintops provide relief from the darkness of the valley forest, though the sunlight which greets one is accompanied by more of the same power gusts which would stalk us the remainder of our time in the woods.  Lacking the shelter of heavy foliage, the wind chill felt exceeded the cold we had experienced overnight, and so we both donned heavy sweaters and beanies, a decision which proved wise only moments later.  For it was just as we were departing the overlook, and in fact only in the seconds before we got back in the Jeep, that it inexplicably began to snow.  Meagre icy snowflakes—but snow in the middle of April, nevertheless.  The snow now took the wind’s place as our boon companion and accompanied for a few minutes as we descended to the timberline.

Jan. 2020

            The journey from there we knew quite well, this being now the third expedition along this route, and so with relative ease we worked our way over familiar obstacles: the stepped tiers of stone, small but sudden drops, and at last the mud playground just beyond Flagpole Knob.  The Jeep in every respect performed astoundingly, now equipped with a Chrysler 8.25 with a rear-slip differential in place of the stock Dana 35—which is all to say, the modifications which had I had commissioned were proving their worth.  The General Grabber A/TX tires likewise proved their worth, the heavy-duty grip clinging to the wet, slippery stone with the ease of a mountain goat and never failed to perform.  Where the Jeep could not accomplish something, it was entirely due to our own ignorance and lack of experience.

            Amid proudly navigating the mountain trail, we could, by then, tell that Meadow Knob would be inviable for an encampment, a realization which was confirmed a half-hour later when the Jeep rumbled out from the trees and onto the clearing.  Tall yellow grasses covered the area before us, with a central clearing not unlike the bald spot on a monk.  It was center was adorned by a tall, well-built firepit which Mark and I at once scrutinized critically for its suitability.  But in that we realized the inherent difficulty in not simply lighting a fire under blustery conditions, but also in locating firewood—for we were now just above the timberline.  There was very little wood within the clearing—no helpful stockpile as at Sinclair Hollow, and there was none that we could see along the tree line.  The blackened stones of the firepit spoke to the fate of whatever wood this place might afford, and so I made a note to carry wood in advance for any future outings at such elevation.

            As though in disapproval of any notion we might have had of camping atop it, Meadow Knob’s snow turned to dark clouds heavy with rain.  We began a mad dash for the final of our four scheduled sites, a journey estimated to take us the better part of two hours.  Even if we managed to arrive at dusk, we would have precious little time to set camp, build a fire, and cook before dark.

Meadow Knob, Jan. 2020.

The loss of our planned encampments at both Bald Mountain and Meadow Knob was demoralizing, perhaps to me most of all.  Having seen a number of other trail closures between Sinclair Hollow and our present predicament, we began to plan for the likelihood that our fourth and final destination might be closed to us.  Like Bald Mountain and Sinclair Hollow, our final destination at Peach Pond was situated at the end of an old Forest Service Road and not far from a source of fresh, running water at Black Run.  The site was selected for its easy access to Union Springs Road, originally intended to serve as the site of a small birthday party—plans from of a time before the pandemic.

            We began the final portion of the descent from the mountain, traversing an unusually rocky and challenging route suited ideally for a 4×4.  We took turns driving, placing the Jeep in neutral and allowing it to coast in descents, while allowing the low-range four-wheel-drive to carry the vehicle up slopes.  It would all but drive itself, an experience we were keen to preserve through a fastidious use of the clutch, recently replaced the year prior with the swap of the factory engine for a new one.

            The AMC straight-6 engine is a beast, which is why it came as some surprise when it experienced a critical failure the year prior during an attempted expedition to Second Mountain.  It happened while driving south along Interstate 81 outside Marshall in Fauquier County, when from beneath the hood there was a sudden explosion, followed by a sheet of white smoke or steam—it was impossible to tell—which rose from around the hood and beneath the car.  A mechanic in town would later determine that the camshaft had overheated and exploded, blowing a hole the size of my fist in the side of the engine block through which a piston could be seen emerging and disappearing like a meercat in its burrow.

            The replacement of the engine set me back, particularly coming on the heels of elective upgrades I had made to the suspension, tires, and front bumper.  More than one person recommended against swapping the engine, and those who agreed with that general notion advised against a refurbished engine; they thought I should be rid of the car, and if not then at least acquire a used engine.  The constant refrain, to include from my auto insurance provider, was that I would not recoup the cost of repairs if I sold the vehicle—which in itself implied I would ever desire to sell the Jeep, or that I had not already committed to the creation of a new vehicle.

            In the same breadth, I also joke about the toxic nature of the relationship between me and the vehicle.  More than a year on, as I edit this, I can tell you that I did indeed sell the Jeep and indeed did not recoup the cost.

            That’ll show ’em.

            But in that moment, the vehicle proved its worth, carrying us through deep mud and water, over rocks and down the mountain.  In the departure we noted a number of promising sites, campsites with sunlight and plenty of space, but even at half of Meadow Knob’s elevation, the winds which assailed the Jeep spoke of the impracticality or impossibility of setting camp.  So we proceeded down the mountainside, leaving the rocky portions of the trail for the dirt and gravel of the outer portions of the Forest, mere miles from the pavement of Rockingham County.

            It was here that we were greeted by the same news which had met us at Bald Mountain earlier in the afternoon, of a closure and the foiling of yet another plan.  By now we had passed on a number of sites at higher elevation and failed to find any within the valley.  Had we at that point settled to return to Sinclair Hollow, the only sure location, we would arrive some two hours after sunset—a prospect we both wished to avoid.  And so it was, with no clear idea of where we else we might camp, that we settled upon the only plan available to us: to find a suitable campsite before reaching civilization or head home.

            It was the same plan we had reverted to during our first expedition.  That particular excursion had been planned as a day of off-roading punctuated by a single night’s stay, followed by the trip home.  It being the first time I had taken the Jeep on such challenging terrain; I was then more concerned with traversing the obstacles before us than in locating a place to stay.  By the time we turned our combined attention to locating a spot rather than driving, we had passed the proverbial point of no return and returned the same day we arrived.

Sep. 2019

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