Imagine a cookie sheet 30 square miles in size laid atop the mountains of West Virginia. At a 4,000 foot altitude, it cools rather than bakes. That’s the basic geography of Dolly Sods Wilderness.
Sounds idyllic, however, it has a brutal history. In the 1900’s, during the lumber boom, Dolly Sods’ virgin timber was clear-cut and the undergrowth torched. During WWII it was pummeled with mortar shells by pilots in training. Chopped, burned and bombed - Dolly Sods has been abused. But in the 1960’s, awareness of its geographic uniqueness became apparent. The preservation wheels started rolling and it’s now a federally protected wilderness area.
This morning, I couldn’t contain a yelp as my car leveled off onto the Dolly Sods plateau. After twenty years of curiosity fed by the likes of National Geographic and Backpacker magazines, I had finally arrived. But it wasn’t easy. Three hours of curvy driving dodging deer, dump trucks, and forest service road ruts made for an interesting ride, adding to the charm of Dolly Sods. An SUV should have been the vehicle of choice, but my 12 year old Volvo with 156,000 miles on it performed like a champ.
In an instant, I was amazed by this place and immediately aware of the powerful way wind and water carves the landscape. From the small parking area, it was a short walk to the precipice – where the plateau dropped steeply to the valley 2,000 feet below. The outcroppings were innumerable, and the views stunning. I could have spent my whole day on the edge, but the interior was calling. I headed west on a washed out trail across a high plains sea of blueberries and huckleberries. A handful of fresh-picked fruit was impossible to resist; like Dorothy walking through the Poppy field.
The interior felt more Western and Canadian than Appalachian. Trees were weather-stunted. Others were in clusters, rather than the pervasiveness typical of the East. The altitude thwarted the summer heat, and brought a touch of dizziness when I stood up too fast. Dolly Sods is the big sky country of the east.
After a few miles, I crossed Red Creek and its tannin-stained waters. Here, under a stand of spruce trees and upon a moss softened seat, I took a long break. Alone, up high, and beside a trickling stream - as peaceful a resting place as I’ve ever experienced.
Before leaving Dolly Sods, I spent another hour back on the edge,
Sitting ruminatively with legs dangling,
Staring out over the valley,
Enjoying the altitude,
Lingering in the moment,
At one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.
I chose a different route home, completing a circuit, along equally curvy roads. The temperature soared as I descended in altitude. Back to reality… but now with one less item on the bucket list. Life, as always, is good.