We woke up and got the Ark ready for departure and headed out of Charleston to Seneca State Forest. Things were going great for the first hour or so, then we got side tracked and the fun began.
I did not realize we were going to be going by the New RIver Gorge until I saw a sign for it. It had been years since I have driven up this way. I was excited to show Sharon the bridge as it is a monster arch bridge over the gorge where one day each year it is shut down for Bridge Day, a day where base jumping is allowed off the bridge.
Just on the other side of the bridge was a welcome center with a scenic overlook. We decided to stop and get out of the van to stretch for a minute and check out the view, which turned out to be pretty incredible as it was a very clear day and we were able to see the class V whitewater New River flowing at the bottom.
While in the welcome center we got the idea to take the scenic route down into the gorge on route 82. We could eat lunch down in the gorge and get a closer look at the river. It was 11:30 at this point so timing was perfect since I had an important conference call at 1:00. 30 minutes down into the gorge, 30 minutes to eat and then 30 minutes back to the welcome center where I knew had cell service as that can be a tough thing to find in the mountains of West Virginia.
However what I did not plan on was taking the wrong turn out of the Welcome Center. I realized it pretty quick and was going to turn around, but from looking at the map I was certain that road I was on connected with 82. What I did not realize is there are two route 82’s. One is a scenic route the other a normal route. And we apparently got on the other route. Now I admit I am still not sure if that is correct, but that is the only explanation for why there were route 82 signs on this road and even my GPS confirmed we were on route 82. But we were for sure not on whatever road was to be the scenic route to the gorge.
We winded around and down a narrow road descending deeper and deeper to the river but none of the landmarks were matching up to the guide we had grabbed at the center. We knew we had gone the wrong way for sure when we were at the bottom and the road headed south instead of north like it should according to the map. It was time to turn around and cut our losses.
Had we been in a normal vehicle and not an older, over-sized camper van it would not have been a problem, but I worried about the strain the steep long climb back out would be on the engine. Already coming down I could smell the heating of the brake pads as they labored to slow the heavy van from speeding out of control. I was pretty stressed.
Surprisingly the Ark grinded its way to the top without a problem. The problem was that we did not realize the road we came down was one-way at some points so we had to take another route out, and those roads were too small to be found on our atlas. And our GPS we use is my Droid X phone which requires cell service to update the maps, and there were zero bars. I was now at the point of having to rely on the compass and my view of the top to know which way to head.
I was now getting stressed to a breaking point. There is nothing I hate more than being lost and burning gas for no reason. After a couple of turnarounds from wandering down the wrong way because the road we were traveling suddenly turned a 180 degrees in the wrong direction, we finally made our way to the top and got cell service so my GPS could show me a way out. We emerged around 11:45 from the maze of small mountain roads to the main highway about 15 miles from the welcome center, but at least in the direction of our final destination of Seneca State Forest.
But now I had a dilemna. Do I take off and head to Seneca State Forest? Or do I back track 20 minutes to the Welcome Center and eat lunch and hang out for an hour where I know for sure I can do my conference call? To add to it, Nora had fallen asleep so that meant she would be awake for the 2 hour drive to the forest if we went back, and that can make for a rough drive.
I decided to chance heading onward. I knew there was a town that would probably have cell phone service on our way that we would reach at just around 1:00. It would be close, but I was confident we could do it. This turned out to be one of the only correct decisions I would make that day :) And while I did make it to cell coverage in time and called in, the client was not there. I waited for 15 minutes on the line with another colleague and upon mutual agreement we cut the call off. I figured I would call her when I reached the next town of Marlinton in an hour or so, and off we went.
Arriving just before running out of gas at Marlinton, I was greeted with no cell phone service yet again. I did not expect that as Marlinton is at the base of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, a popular recreation hub for skiing and mountain biking. It was late in the afternoon on the friday before the 4th of July weekend so I hoped my client had already called it a day and it would not be an issue. Because I knew if there was no service here, there was no way we had service at the forest which was still 30 minutes deeper into the wilderness, putting our arrival at our destination around 4:00. 2 hours later than I had anticipated.
I was correct. We turned into the forest campground and there was no service, just like there had not been for the last 2 hours. The campground is located in a deep wooded hollow that was already looking dark 4 hours before sunset from the thick canopy of trees and steep mountain sides that were so close it felt almost suffocating. Coming into the campground we knew it was first come first serve, and there were only 10 spots in the campground so it was a possibility there would not be any available this late in the day.
Fortunately 2 spots were still open. It was then we realized the campground had no electricity, and no running water at the campsites. Not horrible as the Ark does have a generator, just a little inconvenient to burn gas to run it. The brochure did say the office which was just a mile back down the road had a bath house with running water and hot showers, again just a little inconvenient.
There were 2 reasons why we chose this campground to stay at. Its location on the way to Maryland and its proximity to the Greenbriar River Bike Trail. The trail is an 80 mile gravel path along the scenic Greenbriar River. It was once a railroad that has been removed but still has tunnels and bridges along the way, and one of those tunnels was 2.5 miles down from the forest. And from what we read in the brochures the trail was easily accessible from the campgrounds.
We set up camp fairly quick. Jack and Jinny needed to get some exercise so we leashed them up and threw Nora on my back with the Ergo. The problem with looking at trail maps in West Virginia is that it does not show the steepness of a trail just mileage and length. This trail was to be only 1.5 miles. As we hiked up the side of a cliff for a 1/2 mile I began wondering if this was a bad idea. When beyond comprehension, it kept going up, I KNEW it was a bad idea. Jinny was starting to walk very slow due to her bad knees. And Nora, after being trapped in the van for 6 hours was antsy to get out of the carrier and began to whine.
Foregoing the rest of the trail we concluded we should once again cut losses and head back the way we came, because there was no end in site to the ascent had we kept going. Jinny now was hurting and not wanting to walk. I scooped her up and carried her. Now I had 50 extra pounds on my legs, which were still tired from the hills at Kanawha State Forest the day before. So here I was. Crying baby on my back, content dog in my arms, irritated wife behind me, and a steep rocky descent awaiting me to fall disasterously down. Somehow I managed to negotiate it all without incident. I was now worn out, but could just relax for the rest of the evening with nothing to do except maybe get caught up on my blogging. Or so I thought, and as I so often did that day, I was thought wrong.
After just getting back to the campsite Sharon mentioned something about wanting to leave early the next day to get to Maryland sooner. I had not planned on leaving until 1:00 the next day so that we could have the morning to explore the Greenbriar River Bike Trail which was easily accessible from the campground. I really wanted to check out the tunnel which was only a short ride from the park.
Sharon suggested we should just do it that afternoon, since without electricity what else was there to do but explore. How can I not agree with that logic other than my body was slightly fatigued. But I have pushed myself before, and this was not that big of a deal. And making the last right decision I would make for a while, I decided it would be easiest if we drove the van to the trail since on the map it looked like it was only a mile or so, but as we just found out, that could be deceiving.
Upon further inspection of the map, getting to the trail actually required us to leave the campground. Also while looking at it I noticed it was not drawn to scale, so the distance to the bike trail was somewhat unknown. But we were driving so no big deal. The road to the trail began paved but shortly turned to loose gravel. We headed up a fairly steep hill but it only lasted a bit before we started heading downhill somewhat. The road progressively got steeped and curvier as we went. The brakes were starting to smell of heat and got me worried. I put the van into low gear and let the engine do the work for the most part. A mile went by, then another, and another, we were going a lot further than i thought and somehow it continued to drop down and down. This was going to be a beast to come back up I thought to myself. but there was no turning back. I was determined to make it to the trail, or what I referred to as my Wally World.
We did eventually come to a pull off for river access parking. I stopped and got out to inspect the trail. It was not much of a trail, but rather a tiny path worn in by small woodland creatures as they braved the treacherous rocky slope in search of water. There was no possible way we could navigate down on foot, let along with bikes and Nora. I was getting angry. I was going to get to my Wally World dammit!
I got back in the van and told Sharon, “There has to be a more easily accessible way to get to the river.”
At last after traveling down another half mile or so we got to the bottom and could see the river. We jumped out to survey the landscape.
We saw a wide, shallow, and clear river, but no trail! Where was the damn trail?! Then I spotted it, it was across the river and no bridge to get over there was in sight. But there had to be a bridge right. After all it said easily accessible right? WRONG! Lies, all of it LIES!
But like I said, I was going to get to my “Wally World” and have some damn fun. And to quote the great orator Clark W. Griswald…”I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun, we’re all gonna have so much f@#$#%g fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah out of your as$$h*le$!”
Somehow I knew this was one of those debacles where people always say, “We will laugh about this later.” I was in no mood to laugh at that point.
I went and crossed the river to see how hard it would be. It never got above the knees but it was slippery. I made the decision to go for it. I do not think Sharon thought I was serious at first. One look at my face though told her I was serious. I was getting to that trail!
I strapped Nora to my back, grabbed my bike and headed across the river with Sharon closely behind with her bike. As I plodded across, carefully choosing my steps careful, looking for flat level rocks to step on, I kept thinking in my head how crazy this is. And how this is the most unaccessible, accessible trail, I have ever encountered. How could driving straight down a mountain for 7 miles, then crossing a river holding your bike in the air over slippery rocks be considered easily accessible!!
Okay, so we made it across, no falls, all good. Then when we climbed up the steep embankment to the trail I noticed something bad. My front tire was f#%^$&g flat! I lost it, I threw my bike, cursed, basically melted down. I did not want to make any more decisions so I asked Sharon what to do. She suggested I go back and get my bike pump and pump up the tire so we could at least ride to the tunnel just 2.5 miles down the trail.
I pulled myself together and made the long agonizing crossing over and back. I pumped up my tire. Once again we were ready to ride. At least Sharon and I were, Nora was saying “all done, back to the van.” but oh no, “we are going to ride this trail” I told her.
I was not having it, so we just started pedalling. She did stop whining after a bit and sat back and enjoyed the ride. I must admit it is a beautiful trail through a picturesque setting. Almost turning around at one point, as it seemed longer than 2.5 miles to get to the tunnel and we have not been having the best luck. But we caught a glimpse of the prize ahead. We could see the tunnel. We started into the tunnel and realized it was dark, really dark, so dark we could not see the ground in front of us, all we could see was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Upon exiting the tunnel we were met with a long bridge spanning the river. We figured we would ride to the end and then turn around, take in the view and head back. Well just over halfway across we heard a car motoring out from the forest behind us. It was a small compact car, I think a honda, carrying 5 shady characters in it, loaded down with stuff. I assume camping/fishing/hunting stuff, but hard to decipher as it was jammed in overflowing olive military bags. The back end was sagging to the point the top of the rear wheels were under the fenders. They were driving down a road running parrallel to the river and stopped at the bridge. I got a weird feeling from the situation and I think my mind was playing tricks on me as I swear I heard the banjo song from the movie Deliverance coming from the vehicle.
Sharon must have gotten the same uneasy feeling because as soon as they went out of sight she wanted to immediately turn around and get out of there. They stopped for a brief moment and stared at us, as if it was weird seeing us there, like what they were doing was just normal. Then the little engine of the car revved and they sped off, bouncing and sliding from mud puddle to mud puddle. We heard them for just a few minutes before they either stopped or got too far off in the distance. It did not matter, we were not sticking around to find out.
Once on the other side of the tunnel, Nora started up again, wanting to be “all done.” It broke my heart that I got her into this but there was nothing I could do but just ride and get us off the trail as fast as possible. We had marked where we came in with a stick and it was thankfully still there. I offered to make the trip twice, once taking my bike over, then coming back and getting Nora on my back and push Sharon’s bike for her. I had to do something to make her accept my apology for getting us into the mess.
I was so happy to be finished crossing that river, but we still needed to get back out of that river valley, and I was worried. I knew it was longer and steeper than what we did with the van in the gorge, and it got a little hot with that climb, so I didnt know what to expect this time. It was a lot to ask of the Ark. I told Sharon to settle in as this may take a while, I intended to go slow and not push the Ark at all.
The climb started steeply, not giving any type of warmup. I just creeped along, up and up and up. It seemed so much longer going up than down.I would have to let go of the steering wheel sometimes to work my hands in order to work out the numbness from gripping so tight. My heart raced with the anxiety that I would here a loud bang or clunk and that would be it for the Ark. Just like I heard those months back when that Safari Trek I had just bought crapped out in New Orleans. I just prayed that my decision to come see that damn tunnel would not cost me everything.
After about 3 or 4 miles the Ark was handling the hill like a champ. I started to cautiously relax a bit as I felt I could see the end in sight. As we crested I could could feel the weight lift off my heart. We had made it back to the top. The rest of the drive was short and easy back to the campsite.
The bath house was on the way back and I was dreaming of a hot shower, only to find out it was $1.50 to use the showers and we only had $1.78. One of us would do without. I told Sharon to go ahead and while I hung out in the van I noticed a guy sitting nearby with a laptop open. Perhaps they had wifi in the area. I was in luck. I got to get online to only find out my client had gotten on the call just after I hung up and had been trying all day to reschedule the call as the project had a very tight deadline. I did email her to tell her what happened and hoped we could just talk tomorrow.
The evening got progressively better. We got a fire started and heated up pizza leftovers. We also had a few beers which really hit the spot. Nora got to play and tire herself out. We packed the van for a 4-5 a.m. departure and got to bed early as we were really tired, and wanted to assure getting an early start the next day heading to Maryland.
I slept pretty hard. I woke up to total darkness. And I mean total darkness, there was not a hint of light anywhere. Like being deep in a cave with only a hole at the top where some stars were visible. I looked at my phone and the brightness caught my eyes off guard. And in the brief time I turned it on, so as not to wake Nora, I thought I saw it read 4:45, but in reality it was 2:45. Thinking it was time to get up and drive, I drug myself up into the driver’s seat, and motored out of the park. I was feeling pretty rough and dying for a coffee. I thought surely there would be somewhere to stop and get gas and a coffee. But once I got another look at the time and saw how early it really was I knew that possibility was slim.
The road started out fairly straight and level. Good, I was sick of driving up and down windy roads at that point. Then it all got ugly.
Not only was I having to navigate the small back roads without a GPS, the atlas map for West Virginia was torn right down through where I needed to look. And it was not an easy route as I had to turn unto several different roads to make it to I-64. But it was only 36 miles away so how bad could that be. Well those 36 miles took me almost 2 hours to navigate through the steepest, curviest roads I have maybe ever driven. Not to much the dense fog and the numerous deer hanging out on the side of the road. Their eyes would light up as I rounded a corner making my heart jump as I drive by inches from them. One literally jumped over the corner of the van when I came around one hairpin turn. I also almost hit a cat, several racoons, a possum, a woodchuck, and something black and round waddling off into the woods. It was like I was interrupting a wildlife secret rave party.
The windshield was fogging up and the dust from the gravel road yesterday had caked on and was not coming off with the windshield washers. Just smearing and getting worse. Eventually I had to stop and wash the windshield off by hand. Visibility got better, and when I finally turned on the high beams, visibility got much better. But it did nothing to calm the terrain into flat, straight roads. It was brutal. Seemed everytime I thought we had to be finished another mountain would show up in front of me.
All the while I was driving I knew I was carrying precious cargo. I thought my hands gripped the wheel hard the day before, but that was nothing to compared to this 2 hours of white knuckle driving I endured over those Virginia mountain roads. To be exact, it was Shenandoah Mountain Road that was the worst of it all. Eventually I came out to the town of Staunton, and it was the where I got to hop on a major interstate and cruise out of the mountains.
I was blessed with a gorgeous view of the Shanandoah Valley at sunrise, the sky lit up a light pink and ornage and you could see the rolling hills of shades of light purple and blue disappear into the the distance. It was postcard perfect. But I was not at a place where I wanted to stop and get a photo. Nora and Sharon were still sleeping soundly.
The next 6 hours went by without incindence. It seemed we survived the stormof bad luck and hopefully come out on the other end now, tired but not broken.
I love driving over the Bay Bridge Tunnel and up the Eastern Shore. It feels so much slower paced and laid back. It felt nice to be back. Next destination, Deal Island, Maryland.