There is something enchanting about the intersections between woods and fields; between bogs and meadows; between hills and streams. It is in these places of transition that the vegetation changes, or salamanders suddenly show themselves, or a snake freezes into absolute stillness, hoping against hope that you cannot see him there, right smack in the middle of the trail in his bright green finery.
The forest service road leading up to the Dolly Sods Wilderness is a tunnel of trees, giving no hint of the splendors that await. Suddenly the road opens up to sky, and on this particular early autumn day it was a piercing blue with plenty of fluffy white clouds, while the landscape was just starting to be kissed by brilliant early reds and golds.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness is an area of high elevation and windswept plains on the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia. The geography and flora resemble those found in northern Canada or Alaska, making it a unique world unto itself surrounded by Appalachian hardwood forests. The primitive trails of Dolly Sods are not designed for the casual hiker, as they are often rocky and poorly discernible. Much of the wilderness ranges across open fields, and the path is sometimes a mere suggestion in the high grass. This is a fantastically easy place to get lost. We entered the Sods by way of the Bear Rocks Trail, where signs warn that unexploded ordnance from World War II training exercises still dots the area:
Warning duly noted, we turned to the trail, which meanders through forests and over fields with minimal elevation gain. We’d planned a day hike of about 12 miles, which was equally divided among soaking up the incredible scenery, hunting down the trail over long fields of boulders, and hopping on rocks across the seemingly endless bogs. It was a day straight out of my childhood template, when long days were spent scrutinizing streams and ponds, counting tadpoles, and building trails and forts with my sister in the woods behind our house (my recollection is that we were really quite good at it, but alas no photographic evidence has survived).
There was no need to hurry away from such a magical place, so the sun had slanted a bit to the west before we turned back onto the trail which had led us in to the wilderness. I grew up near New York City, and my family often took day trips there when I was a teenager. We typically headed home from the city right around sunset, and I recall gazing with yearning into the streets as commuters hurried home and cozy apartment lights began to switch on. I longed to stay in the city and take part in its nighttime life, of which I knew little at the time yet to which I felt so keenly drawn. I still love cities, but now I am much more likely to experience that sense of longing when I am leaving the forest at the end of a day, and I yearn to stay into the night to partake of the forestlife. On this particular day that was not to be, so blazed into my memory are fields of gold, hedged by distant pines, and far beyond that the darkness of the forested hills that buffet these glorious plains. And that really is quite enough.