Friday, December 15, 2006


Idly Googling on a deadly slow day at the shop, I punched in Dolly Sods, then Roaring Plains, two places in which I began my backpacking education.

The Sods was little known when two Sods regulars initiated a couple of us to its mysteries. Most DC area hikers only seemed to go as far as Shenandoah National Park, or perhaps the George Washington National Forest.

Preparing for our first trip, a field trip from the bike shop in Alexandria where we more or less worked, Art and Scotty primed us with tales of a weird landscape, scoured by the wind as the bones of deer and free-range sheep bleached in the weather. We would be far more likely to see animals than people, they assured us. They had been going there since high school, and only saw the people they brought with them on any particular trip.

They were as surprised as we were when we found quite a few people out there on a harsh October weekend. Maybe it was Columbus Day Weekend. I didn't pay much attention to the holidays back then. I only knew that I had a couple of days off and we were going to have an adventure.

By bushwhacking, as was Art and Scotty's habit, we managed to go most of two days without seeing anyone but each other. The landscape certainly lived up to their description. The spruce trees were all flagged by the incessant wind, so they had branches only on their leeward side. Sandstone formations jutted up from the hillsides. We bounced over sphagnum bogs like kids jumping on a giant bed. No water showed. Only the springy mat of thick moss revealed that we weren't on solid ground.

As years passed, I learned more about the disciplines of hiking and met more people who explored the lesser-known areas. One of them, a guy named Jack, pushed into the plateau next to Dolly Sods, an area called Roaring Plains, and discovered many hideaways only an intrepid bushwhacker would find.

By the beginning of the late 1980s, ATVs had arrived out there. The locals laid tire tracks on a lot of what had been pristine and peaceful knolls from which to survey the rumpled mountainscape in quiet contemplation. At the same time, the small numbers of the intrepid grew and grew. It appears from the internet results that this may have generated some efforts to preserve the peaceful beauty against the onslaught of vehicle ruts. The cost, of course, is that none of it is a secret anymore. You don't have to look at a topographic map and deduce for yourself what you may find. You can look at a website and know for sure. I recognized some vistas, now named, with trails, that we found for ourselves with map and compass. There are names, personal and commercial, associated with the things we used to do out there just to do them.

When you visit a place often, or if you live there for a while, you develop a sense of territory. So it was with Roaring Plains, where I spent much of one whole day adding rocks to obstacle walls someone else had started, to try to fence out the ATVs. My companions urged me to give it up and just keep hiking, but I couldn't surrender without a statement. Ultimately, though, I left, and gave the field to them.

Twinges of territoriality return as I look at the pictures on the web. But the only way to hold claim to your territory is to be on it. If you're always on it, no one else can be. The need to possess it or be known for its discovery destroys what made it good in the first place.

But I was there. I peed on a bunch of trees. It's the natural way to claim.