Almost heaven

The bi-weekly Ecotone topic is Energy of Place. “What the hell am I gonna write about that?” I thought. But a weekend jaunt in West Virginia gave me plenty of material, as it turned out.

It was a cold, windy night. I had a knit cap pulled down over my ears, but several times an hour I was awoken by especially strong gusts that made my jerry-rigged tent fly flap violently, like a large bird trying to gain altitude. I dreamt not of flying, but of walking through endless, enclosed spaces where some sort of conference was in progress. I also dreamt that all the other tents but our two had blown away, and we woke to find ourselves alone in the campground.


I get up at 5:30, brew coffee in my tent, get bundled up and sit outside to drink it, gazing at the stars. At ten after six there’s still no sound from the other tent. I’d better start walking if I want to stay warm. It can’t be more than a mile and a half to the trailhead at Seneca Rocks.

The highway passes a couple of small farms with yard lights. I wonder briefly if people who install yard lights are more likely to vote Republican? I’m heading northeast, more-or-less, which means that Venus is a little to the right of straight ahead and the big dipper a little to the left. Just after I pass the last farmhouse, a meteor streaks through the bowl of the big dipper. Fire in the hole!

I cross the acres of empty parking lot and reach the bridge over the North Fork at 6:45. All but the brightest stars have faded, and the jagged outline of the huge stone fin known as Seneca Rocks looms above the trees. I decide to follow the trail a little ways into the woods, pausing at a bench that affords a good view of the Rocks through thinning foliage.

At 7:05, ravens start calling from the vicinity of the Rocks – I presume they must have a nest somewhere on the ridgetop. Their first cries are high, like the wails of lost children. It’s now light enough to distinguish yellow from green in the trees around the bench.

The wind up on the ridgetop must be terrific – the pine tree growing out of the cleft in the middle of the Rocks is dancing wildly against the lightening sky. Now the ravens are calling hoo HAH, hoo HAH.

7:10. The red from the red maple trees is now visible, along with dark patterns on the cliffs – patterns that will, I know, soon resolve themselves into ragged files of table mountain pine trees, growing from cracks and small ledges. It amazes me that these trees can grow without any soil, other than what they bring with them. If anything ever killed all the pines, I wonder, would Seneca Rocks get more than a small fraction of the visitors they attract now?

It occurs to me that this bench was situated solely for the long-range view; the foreground view of trees and boulders is more impressive a little farther along, I recall from the day before, and decide to walk on.

I pause to admire the fur of miniature shelf fungi on the north side of a monstrous dead tulip poplar beside the trail. Just as I look up, a raven circles through the window of sky above the bare limbs. It lets out a series of ruarks – the sound ravens make when they’re enjoying themselves, surfing in a high wind.

Small cumulous clouds are sailing rapidly across the otherwise clear sky. From my perspective, each cloud disappears behind Seneca Rocks, as if dropping into a toothy maw. At 7:30, the sunrise turns them pink. The first sunlight glows along the crest of the Allegheny Front.

7:40. I’m back on the bridge with its unobstructed view of the Rocks. Now all the clouds’ bellies are golden, and I notice that each has a backspin. That is, they’re rolling on their axes as if to travel west, but the wind pulls them rapidly to the east. Yellow sycamore leaves ride the wind above the river. Since this is the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, I think, I could spit in the water and it would get to Washington.

At 7:45 a blue jay calls; at 7:50 I hear a flock of white-throated sparrows in the thickets along the river. It’s time to head back.


By 11:30 we’re at the parking lot at Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest point in West Virginia. We might have gotten here sooner, but kept stopping to admire the snow. When it rained yesterday afternoon at Seneca Rocks, some two inches of snow fell above 3,500 feet. It’s especially striking against the orange and yellow leaves of sugar maples, but here on the crest of the Front and on the rolling plateau beyond, most of the trees have already lost their leaves.

The short trail around the summit is called Whispering Spruce Trail, after the almost-krummolz forest of wind-buffeted red spruce. But today, the spruce aren’t whispering so much as roaring. We have a hard time standing upright in the strongest gusts.

On the southwestern end of the summit, we look down across open talus toward the brown, Novemberish hills for a few minutes, then retreat to a large grove of spruce where the wind immediately dies and yesterday’s snow, sheltered from direct sunlight, still lies deep. The contrast between the fury without and the stillness within points toward something deeper than words.

We find a seat overlooking North Fork Mountain and the other ridges of the folded Appalchians, still a mix of green and orange and yellow. On the northeastern end of the summit, the Forest Service has tastefully situated picnic tables among the trees and patches of open rock. Each table is invisible from the others, and each is spread with its own serving of snow.

A small tower gives an unobstructed view in all directions, but after a few minutes I climb back down, find a nice, sunny spot out of the wind and take a brief nap. A., wearing a wind-proof parka and lined pants, enjoys the experience of being rocked and buffeted by the wind far more than I do in my quilted shirt and jeans. But I understand the attraction. One can get almost drunk on a wind this strong. Between the wind, the snow cover and the strong sunlight, the overall effect is mind-altering – especially for minds still attuned to the look and feel of mid-October. Theories of aesthetics err, I believe, when they ignore the connection between the experience of beauty and the experience of power from outside or beyond the self. That connection, and the joy that accompanies it, is one experience denied to the powerful themselves, I think. But I could be wrong.


This part of West Virginia is exactly like central Pennsylvania, only more so. The same geological formations cap the ridges, but they’re much harder farther south as a result of being more tightly compressed during the main Appalachian orogeny, 210 million years ago. Thus, the Tuscarora quartzite that forms talus slopes of smallish boulders along the crests of mountains in central PA, such as the one I happen to live on, can produce spectacular fins in West Virginia, most famously at Seneca Rocks. In other words, some of the mountains in the Mountain State have so much attitude, they actually sport mohawks!

We take a roundabout route home, driving first northward on the Allegheny Plateau, past Canaan Valley and the town of Davis. A line of giant wind turbines looms over the horizon like the invaders from War of the Worlds. Their triquetra-shaped blades are spinning merrily, though a bit more slowly than I would’ve expected. I think about the conservationists I know who are contesting plans to situate wind turbines along nearly every ridgeline in the area, posing unknown hazards to migrating birds and bats. Now, seeing a large wind farm for the first time, I want to cry: Hand me my lance, Sancho! But the things do have a bit of grace.

We follow a long, lonely road to the east. “INDUSTRIAL PARK – FOR LEASE” says a sign just outside Davis. There’s nothing there but trees and little wetlands. But after a few miles, we begin passing active and abandoned coal strip mines. Just west of the Allegheny Front, we are startled by a high wall along the highway that turns out to be the breast of a dam for a large reservoir. Smoke billows from smokestacks in what we presume to be the power plant.

There’s just enough daylight remaining for one last swing through the ridge-and-valley section before heading home on U.S. Route 220 – as it happens, the same highway we returned from the Adirondacks on two and a half months before. If we had had more time, a longer hike would’ve been nice, but it’s enough just to drive in a place where virtually every bend of the road discloses another stunning view: a rocky gorge filled with long-legged rhododendrons, sunlight glinting off foaming water. An unpainted house flanked by apple trees and a clothesline flapping with brightly-colored scraps of laundry – or are they prayer flags, transplanted from Tibet? A high, steep pasture with a white horse grazing halfway up it, and a black horse immediately below. One faces north, one south. Both raise their heads to watch as the car speeds by.

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