I write, dear friends, having returned in advance of our appointed time — and more to the point, having left our goals unfulfilled.
The expedition began as many do, with myself fighting with a seemingly unnecessary piece of equipment which I was all too determined to bring along. After many minutes spent sweating in the bed of the truck, I finally gave up and just used bungee cords to secure the toolkits I was bringing along — and would later discover they had done nothing. With more than a little dismay at my wasted efforts in the humid June heat — already 87°F (30.5°C) at 8am — I curtly shooed my comically difficult canid traveling companion aboard and we were on our way.
Well, not exactly. I was running late. And when you’re the dude who organizes something, you should probably not be running late.
For this expedition, a new human compatriot would be joining us, an acquittance from a recent past life, one in which I was married and his girlfriend was my spouse’s sister. That was a strange time, one which often finished in either another round of rummy and scotch or the ever-present explosive disagreement between father- and son-in-law over the finer points of diplomacy or politics. These subjects are the ever-present discourse of the economic elite in Northern Virginia, epicenter of our defense and intelligence apparatus and a common annex for the politics of our capital. It was into these distant and unusual times that Brad entered the melee of familial patriarchy, and though a quiet contributor in even the most animated moments, we shared a common bond as proverbial strangers in a strange land. On one family trip in particular, forced upon all of us by my ex-wife’s family, it was only our ability to bond over the idiosyncrasies of English culture and society that kept we two outsiders from going insane amid the petulant and sometimes violent outbursts from a particular family patriarch and the general drudgery of a country decidedly resplendent in shades of gray and wet. More than once we found each other individually escaping the crowd of the others to play a game of billiards in the adjacent “servants” residents, which we joked between us seemed to be our place in the grand scheme of things given that we were the only persons-of-color in the family — or even the entire county.
And true to kind, the Brits would invade our final bastion of uninterrupted liberty, at once assuming control of the billiard table. I do not believe we ever actually finished a single game before retreating to our respective female counterparts.
This being his first time on the trail, it was my pleasure to pick him up at his place — and although I was already running 15 minutes behind our latest scheduled departure time, I felt confident that the 3.5L V6 and weekend traffic leaving the DMV would help make up time. Even if I needed to stop to get gas first, and even if I hadn’t eaten breakfast and would invariably need to stop to get breakfast, and even if I hadn’t gone before leaving . . .
Brad would ride shotgun, responsible for comms and navigation for this trip. This arrangement did not particularly please Sasha, whose memory of Brad must have been too distant to register him as friendly, that memory itself consisting of a single day around Christmastime in 2017. I often caught sight of my dog eyeing our passenger suspiciously from where she reclined behind my chair, occasionally shifting to meet my gaze in the rearview mirror, as though to say, Just tell me when to attack. A discomforting thought when considering the quantities of blood that might be involved, but simultaneously adorable in her homicidal desire to protect our mutual well-being. And so I returned her cocked-eyebrow gaze with a smile and a soft, “Good girl,” to help set her mind at ease.
We entered the Forest by way of Rawley Pike, having first stopped at McDorman’s Grocery for water and snacks. I discovered the place recently purchased, having been for sale the last time I passed this way at the end of April. No longer were we greeted by the sideways glances and grumbling from behind the desk; in their place we found new and far more pleasant management, made personally manifest by the young and very happy clerk — and presumed owner — who greeted us on entry. The store itself is a quaint establishment, consisting of a single-floor convenience store and café, two gas pumps with mechanical numeral counters, and the inability to pay at the pump. There was, indeed, not a single electronic device to be seen on site but for the adding machine-like cash register and the Verifone credit card device. It was a nice departure from the insistent ads which assault the ears any time one starts a pump in Alexandria; to not be assaulted by the inevitable celebrity gossip which follows the first salvo of adverts was a great relief.
Polluting plastic bottles of water thus secured, we proceeded to rendezvous with the rest of our convoy. For this expedition, I was joined by not one but two other vehicles.
Chris rejoined the camel train for this his third expedition in his second-generation Tacoma (callsign Fish Taco) with his girlfriend, Molly. New to our convoy was our mutual friend Tam and her husband Zane in their 4-door Wrangler JK Willys (callsign Das Jeep). Both trucks had been lifted 3 inches and were equipped with oversized tires, Fish Taco running Yokohama Geolandar all-terrain 31’s and Das Jeep Bridgestone mud-terrain 35’s. My own third-generation Tacoma (callsign Challenger) had recently been mounted with General Grabber A/Tx all-terrain 32’s (265/70R16) and the installation of a 3-inch heavy-duty lift kit from Old Man Emu (OME), installation of the latter courtesy of Aylestock Automotive, with ordering by Bull Run Overland.
I had also recently installed an RCI steel skid plate package under the truck, armoring against damage to the engine bay, transmission, and the exposed transfer-case. In the case of the transfer-case, it and a portion of the exhaust hang below the line of the nearby crossmember, an incredibly stupid oversight on the part of Toyota since even an impact which misses the crossmember may itself rip out the transfer-case or puncture the exhaust. Armored against that sort of impact — which had dented the stock underside of my truck in April 2021 — I felt confident in my ability to both traverse and lead.
Our journey began at Switzer Lake, a reservoir into which flows Skidmore Fork, the stream for which the portion of the trail we were on is named. Chris had come early to do some first-light fishing, while the crew of Das Jeep joined him there about a half hour before our arrival. The last to arrive, I made introductions among the three vehicles crews, exchanged radios, and then led us down the trail.
Skidmore Fork Trail begins as gravel atop a concrete roadway, crossing its eponymous stream three times, each more interesting than the last, after which the concrete base disappears and the trail becomes more treacherous. We paused at the final stream crossing to put our vehicles in 4L and resumed our journey to Flagpole Knob. Besides the stunning view and open space to lounge, Flagpole Knob is also the site of a “mud course.” Large pools colored by the red-brown earth of this part of the Appalachians scour the area, interspersed by islands of steep mud embankments and large trees. I had been there before, both with the Cherokee and my present steed, as had Chris with Fish Taco when we came this way in April.
We found the trail more heavily populated than we had ever seen it before, passing multiple vehicles and motorcycles where we often averaged four total “sightings” per visit. Where in times past we might have joked of their identity as “cammo dudes” from nearby Sugar Grove, today we recognized the sight of other weekend warriors out for a day of fun on the trail. Since this was our first time out with the crew of Das Jeep, it was easier to allow others to pass us by than to hold them up in our relatively slower speed attempt at caution. A pair of medium utility pickup trucks, a slate 3rd-gen Tacoma and a white 2nd-gen Nissan Frontier, would pass us somewhere south of Block Hollow — and we would encounter them again before long.
From Block Hollow, the trail narrows dramatically as it competes with an adjacent tributary of Skidmore Fork, ultimately rising above the streambed before its final crossing at 3600 feet of elevation at the final ascent to Flagpole Knob. Along this particular route, the foliage grows thickly along the side of the trail, fed by spring and summer rains flushing down the sides of the mountain. The running water erodes underneath the drop side of the roadway, meaning one must at all times keep at least a foot of distance from the precipice. Although it might take the weight of a person or a dog standing on it, it would not be capable of holding the 4,000+ pounds of a pickup truck or SUV. For that reason, vehicles will scramble to hug the rock wall of the mountain side of the roadway, in order to allow others to pass, particularly other cars, while smaller vehicles — motorcycles, bicycles — and pedestrians pass at will wherever they may do so safely, which is often closer to the drop side than to the mountain side given their relative difference in weight.
One piece of wisdom born from spending too much in the woods is the understanding that the presence of vegetation along a potential drop is not evidence of there being earth directly beneath it. Much of the vegetation which grows up along the drop side is rather leafy, to take advantage of the greater sunshine afforded by the adjacent space of the trail, and thus being quite lush can be very difficult to see through to where its stems reach the earth and its roots. Much of that vegetation is, in fact, tall — as much as 2 or 3 feet in height, allowing it clear the edge of the roadway and then some, giving it the appearance of growing right along the trail, as opposed to below it. In the crude video which follows, I indicate the presence of this “deceptive foliage” in orange, while I have also added even cruder red lines to indicate the sides of the roadway relative to the flow of rainwater:
At our penultimate stream crossing just above 38° 30 N, 79° 9 W we began the series of switchbacks which characterize the final ascent to Flagpole Knob. The roadway here is characterized by the drop side on the driver’s side and the rocky mountain side on the passenger’s side of our vehicles, which is clearly illustrated in the video above. It was just a few minutes’ drive past that final crossing that we stumbled upon the white Nissan Frontier and its companion slate Toyota Tacoma who had earlier passed us roundabouts Block Hollow — both stopped in the middle of the trail (location indicated at 1:10 above). The slate Tacoma remained in the lead just a few yards further up the trail from its companion, while the Frontier seemed to have stalled or become stuck on a rock some hundred yards ahead of my lead vehicle.
We brought our convoy to a stop as a yellow tow strap made its appearance in the hands of the slate Tacoma’s driver, no doubt to help stabilize the Frontier against the potential of skidding over the side of the trail and down to the stream below. This strap was then connected from the rear of the Tacoma to the front of the Frontier. But then the unexpected happen, and rather than reverse to bring the vehicle back on to the trail, the Frontier lurched forward as it was yanked by the Tacoma — which rather than improve the situation began the process of making it catastrophic. For rather than pull the Frontier clear of its obstacle, the two had jointly brought the rear driver’s tire over the rim of the escarpment to join its front brethren.
It was here we realized that the Frontier had not merely become stuck or inconvenienced in some way, but that the driver had taken his steed too close to the edge of the trail… For some reason that makes no fathomable sense, he later explained that he had believed that it would make more sense to yield on the left side (drop side!) of the roadway in order to allow some motorcyclists to pass him coming down the trail in the opposite direction. He did this instead of pulling to the right (mountain side!) — or simply stopping. He believed, he said, that doing anything else would have endangered the motorcyclists, an absurd notion — as though an elephant should risk its life on a mountainside to allow mountain-goats to pass it.
When we approached on foot, it was at the point where we could see that the weight of the engine-block was already beginning to creep the Frontier further over the edge. We immediately attached a tow strap provided by the slate Tacoma’s owner to a tree-saver strap, which I myself carry in the bed of my truck, securing the Frontier against the ultimate possibility of total peril. It was at this juncture that we made a mistake in telling the slate Tacoma to attempt pulling the Frontier’s front. Although seemingly correct at the time, retrospect leads me realize that we ought to have attached it to the front driver’s side tire. While the strap we created to secure the vehicle tightened and the Frontier was able to be pulled from the edge, we could see there would be no hope without a tractor, tow-truck, or crane. Despite this, we did again attempt to dig out the dirt which had come to accumulate around the rear differential, which had gouged deeply into the mountainside. With each motion, the vehicle continued to erode further at the friable stone and loose earth as first tires, then axle, and now differential and frame dug themselves into the red Virginia clay.
We were joined by a pair of motorcyclists coming down the trail who mistook our efforts to assist the Frontier as the efforts of a single convoy, and thereupon they began directing the use of our vehicles for the recovery effort. Before any action could be taken, we were approached by a convoy of six Jeeps coming up the trail along our same direction of travel. We had passed this group on the way in, seemingly be well-equipped by what they carried on their vehicles — and therefore presumably competent. They sported mud-terrain tires, winches, traction boards, and all other manner of off-roading apparatus. Speaking Spanish, I explained to their lead driver the situation and that we were not sure what to do since we were not qualified or equipped to attempt a vehicle recovery. The motorcyclists and the Jeepers formed a knot at the front of the Frontier, discussing and debating strategies while the owners of the Frontier and the slate Tacoma stood around looking lost and providing no input. Among ourselves, our convoy discussed the possibility of turning around and leaving for an alternate trail, hoping that the Jeepers would be capable of recovering the Frontier and getting everyone on their way.
“TURN FUCKING AROUND!“
The shout came from down the trail, among the Jeeps, from which then emerged a bald, bearded man in a black t-shirt whom the other Jeepers called “Angel.” He came striding up the trail toward us and began barking orders and shouting about there being too many chiefs and not enough Indians, too many chefs in the kitchen — though I thought it strange since the conversation among the owners of the Frontier and Tacoma (what little they contributed), the two motorcyclists, and the Jeepers had only just begun. He then started shouting for everyone to return to their vehicles and back up, shouting, “If you’re not going to help, get back in your vehicle and turn fucking around!” Those very words he directed squarely at me, standing in front of me midstride and pointing at me, though he made no eye contact, nor did he turn his body to face me. Whatever was his issue, I shrugged it off and started back down.
They, too, may have been under the assumption that we were all part of the same party, and that we would therefore provide the bulk of the recovery effort — despite having already explained that not one of us was qualified or equipped to conduct a vehicle recovery. By then we were agreed among us that the weight of the vehicle was at a point where, without the aid of a heavy duty tow or tractor, no recovery could be affected safely. Even a winch would only dig the Frontier further into the earth, in turn eroding more of what was supporting it in its present position, and very few 4×4-bound motor winches are powerful enough to pull up a free-hanging vehicle. But neither I nor any other member of our convoy are experts in these things, and so we deferred to the apparent expertise of the Jeepers. And so in reverse we drove back to that last stream crossing, where we parked our vehicles and watched as the Jeepers roared back up the trail. The crew of Das Jeep went after them on foot to observe the recovery operation, while the rest of us remained with the vehicles of our convoy and the two stock Wranglers left with us by the Jeepers. The vehicles that went up the mountain were a pair of heavily modified Wrangler JKs and the group’s lone Cherokee XJ, which was itself likewise modified. It seemed only a matter of minutes, given their confidence and the amount of equipment they carried, that we would see the crew of Das Jeep return to pronounce the success of the recovery, and thus we would resume our journey.
But after some 45 to 60 minutes, we began to wonder what had become of the situation, and so the four of us remaining wandered up to the site.
I was shocked to find the situation entirely unchanged. Where we had left the Frontier on the side of the trail, it still remained, but where a single strap was all that had been necessary to hold it from certain doom, now four vehicles strained to occupy the task. The tow strap provided by the slate Tacoma had been cut, while my loaned tree-saver strap was now firmly wrapped and knotted under the Frontier’s front differential. At the far end of the trail, the two JKs were positioned facing back down the trail towards the Frontier, while the slate Tacoma was positioned beyond them pointing up the trail, its rear strapped to the rear of the two Wranglers. The Wranglers were engaged with the Frontier by means of their winches, they attached to the Frontier’s front bumper, while the XJ took up the rear with its own winch attached to the Frontier’s rear. Before our eyes, they proceeded then to begin pulling the Frontier, hauling it first forward, and then back, straining the motors on their winches as they each fought to pull the Frontier. A moment later they each began to buck and shift as their respective drivers accelerated in reverse.
Angel stood amid the flurry of activity, shouting and waving his arms, directing first the Wranglers to pull, then for the Cherokee to pull. The Cherokee tried with all its might, and at times looked like it might overheat as a small cloud of white smoke would accompany particularly straining attempts. Having personally witnessed an AMC I6 explode, visions of a rod thrown into the stratosphere began to surface in my mind as I watched the Jeepers try and try, and try again. With each pull, with each buck, with each shift, the Nissan Frontier continued it inexorable losing battle with gravity, however; for in inadvertently or otherwise pulling from both directions in a back and forth manner, they were bodily dragging the vehicle across the rim of the trail, and in so doing converted the pickup truck into the abrasive teeth of an “earth saw” — in imitation of the motion of a two-man saw — a point made all the clearer when it was revealed that the Frontier’s owner had left the emergency brake on in the first round of attempts.
The varied underside of the Frontier’s chassis raked and dug at the loose Appalachian soil, in the process eroding more of the support which held the driver’s side in place. The more and more that they moved the truck, the more it began to tip over on its side. In order to compensate sufficiently from keep such an eventuality from happening, the Wranglers released slack by rolling forward towards the Frontier, but the process allowed the Frontier’s front end to go over the edge. The heavy 3.8L V6 swung the front of the truck down like a pendulum and over the side entirely, restrained from going completely only by the restraining weight of the XJ attached to its rear. It is worth noting at this juncture that the Frontier had progressed from first one, then two, to now three tires firmly over the side of the trail, with only the rear passenger tire now remaining on the roadway. A scramble then began for straps to secure the Frontier from falling in order to save the Cherokee from being pulled with it, and it is worth noting that the strap which our convoy set up when we first came across them — which had been keeping the Frontier from ending up precisely where it was now situated — was now the only available strap remaining, notable in particular for having been cut.
Zane and I suggested perhaps lowering the Frontier to a pair of large trees in order to rest its weight against it, but the idea was dismissed as Angel, who proceeded to scream for more tow straps. I was even asked if I had more, which I did not — and after which I decided that would be, for whatever stupid reason, the right moment to take my tree-saver strap back, something which was not especially appreciated by the group presently engaged in trying to save the Frontier from the doom it had already once been saved from. Seeing that I would be incapable of undoing the knot now holding the pickup from going over, I left the strap as a parting gift. It was very ridiculous of me to go in and request the strap as they scrambled to keep two vehicles from going over the side — this I will admit readily and it should not have happened.
But it did, and you should laugh about it.
We left the other three parties — the Frontier/Tacoma, the motorcyclists, and the Jeepers — to the chaos of their collective fate and returned to our vehicles. Perhaps we should have stayed to try to help more, perhaps we should have stayed longer, or perhaps it was better to stay out of the way altogether. In the collective agreement of our convoy, the solution had been presented long ago — one which they were now, notably, settling on. The Frontier would be abandoned in place, secured once more by tow straps spanning the trail to trees on the higher side of the mountain (mountain side!) and the National Forest Service would be contacted for a heavy-duty tow out. As we prepared to depart, two of the Jeepers came running down the hill, boarding the two Wrangler JKs and rushing them up the trail in reverse to, presumably, attach themselves to the back of the Cherokee as a measure against keeping it from going in the event the strap holding the Frontier suddenly gave.
The absurdity of the situation cannot be understated: What had begun as one vehicle just slightly over the edge of a drop had devolved into the off-roading equivalent of a life-or-death struggle involving SIX other vehicles, all straining to hold up a vehicle that should long have been let go. As one person put it, the owner would have better served just letting it go over and reporting it stolen in the morning
With much of the day now gone and a drive of three hours awaiting us, we began our respective journeys home, during which rain would greet our dusty vehicles. What became of the Frontier and the Jeepers remains a mystery to this day. Legend has it that on humid, overcast days, you can still hear Angel shouting at people to turn fucking around.
27 June 2021
WE SHALL RETURN . . .