…to the place I belong. Perhaps you can guess where that is?
Exactly two months after breaking my back the Weazel and Dr. Ann headed to the mountains of West Virginia to attend the 70th annual Old Timers Reunion, a gathering of cavers from around the world, and the place where Ann and I first met at the hot tub almost thirty years ago.
As with any proper adventure, getting there and back was more than half the fun. Our first real stop was at Hidden valley, Virginia near the famous Warm springs resort.
We were delighted to discover that the primitive campground was completely empty, and that the sounds of katydids filled the night air.
The scenery was superb. Mature forest fronted an unbelievably lush meadow along the trout filled Jackson river.
In the distance we could see the old Warwickton mansion which is now run as a bed and breakfast. The valley is indeed hidden, but it is hard to imagine how the gracious old plantation house survived the damned Yankees during the Uncivil war.
In popular imagination the Uncivil war was largely fought in the deep south, in places like South Carolina and Georgia, and even in far away venues like Shiloh and Vicksburg, but the real action was in verdant Virginia, a fertile land steeped in revolutionary war history that was actually worth fighting and dying for.
In retrospect we prefer to remember victorious campaigns like Sherman’s march to the sea in which Atlanta burns, slaves are set free, and plantation owners like Scarlett O’Hara rip their bodices in despair. Meanwhile, ex slaves headed north, and mercantile pricks like Rhett Butler, a fellow who quite frankly didn’t give a damn, were more than happy to get back to trading with the enemy. Die hard romantics may contend that, “Tomorrow is another day”, but I don’t think so.
The war took a hundred years to resolve. It wasn’t over until Yankee real estate developers, previously known as carpetbaggers, decided to reinvent the “Sunbelt” as a retirement community for rust belt refugees. With the election of Donald Trump, city centers devoid of commerce, sprawling suburbs, and a Walmart on the outskirts of every town, the northern victory is finally complete.
It is unpopular in some circles to celebrate the antebellum South, but as an agrarian romanticist I feel compelled to do so. As I have said elsewhere, a feudal system is the most natural form of government in that it mimics an extended family, accepts human frailty, accommodates the fullest range of needs and capabilities, and in the past provided the necessary structure for the advancement of civilization. Most importantly, a feudal structure recognizes that there is a natural hierarchy among people regardless of race or ethnicity.
Today we prefer to suppose that equality is a “natural” right, but in doing so we conveniently forget that every past human advancement in the arts, architecture, philosophy, and science was conceived by the few, but built upon the backs of the many. We are rightly appalled by the glaring inequality of enslaved Blacks on plantations in the antebellum South, but too quickly forget that the glory of Rome came at the point of a sword, that the cathedrals of Europe were built by peasants, and the music and literature of pre-revolutionary Russia was supported by toiling serfs. Had their unwilling hands not been guided by the wisdom of their masters we would still be living in tribal savagery.
There are too many who believe that history is just a story told by the victors, and that the wrongs of today can somehow be rectified by re-writing the facts of yesterday; but, as Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, so I, for one, will neither apologize for, nor forget, the deeds of our ancestors.
Back at the beautiful meadow Ann and I decided to follow the Jackson river upstream.
We eventually arrived at a swinging foot bridge where we crossed the river, then returned along the rugged west bank to the old mansion.
Across the mountain closer to West Virginia we discovered beautiful Back creek, a tributary to the Jackson river. The water quality was excellent, perfect for trout!
An old Hillbilly woman told us about her secret swimming hole about a mile down the creek; so, Ann, who likes cold water better than I do, did a bit of skinny dipping.
We stopped to pick fresh watercress, and in doing so discovered Blowing spring. It had been dammed and concreted in to provide a water supply, but there was no blowing involved. A day later we returned for more cress and wind was howling out of all the cracks! How could that be? Simple, a change in either temperature or barometric pressure can generate winds inside a cave, so there is surely a big cave hidden behind the concrete!
A delightful drive through the Monongahela National Forest brought us to the Old Timers Reunion near Dailey, West Virginia, a gathering of thousands of crazy cavers from around the world.
Imagine attending a party that has been held annually for the last 70 years! It brought back many wonderful memories, so many in fact that we began having the flashbacks we have so often been promised.
As for the rest, you’ll just have to guess, for clothing is optional and photography strictly forbidden! It is also mandatory to wear a name tag, a policy that has often brought me into conflict with the authorities, but at least it means access to unlimited free beer!
These, and the other few rules we have, are enforced by actual real life retired CIA agents, so have fun or else!
Some people, mostly young people and newbies, actually go caving, but all we did was to swill beer, soak in the sauna, and hike the Otter creek wilderness in search of salamanders.
Salamanders were once so common that their biomass exceeded that of any other vertebrate in the eastern forests of North America. Now, due to invasive exotic diseases, they have retreated to a few remote strongholds like Otter creek. I was pleased to find a dozen or so.
After four days of dancing and debauchery we broke camp and headed to Ann’s secret spot in the Dolly sods wilderness. Dolly sods is cold and high, a piece of the Canadian tundra perched atop the Allegheny front.
Our camp was well off the road, and not easily discovered whenever our car wasn’t parked nearby; nevertheless, we were robbed, presumably by bear hunters while we were elsewhere. They didn’t take much, just enough to make me wish I carried a gun.
Despite the fact that this is a protected wilderness area the damned bear hunters and their damned dogs have permission to chase bears through the forest 24/7/365 days per year while “training” their dogs (provided that they don’t carry a gun out of season.) When spring comes the Hillbilly sons of bitches are allowed to molest nursing mothers with cubs. That is why even though I have seen numerous bears this year in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee I failed to find even a pile of poop in West Virginia.
Bears may have been scarce, but every other indigenous life form was extraordinarily abundant, especially flowers and butterflies.
At any given moment a typical square meter of open meadow in Dolly sods hosted more blossoms and butterflies, along with other insects, than I could see in an entire year on my combined 46 acres in Florida. (Not counting mosquitoes!)
Herps were equally abundant. I searched for milksnakes and rattlers, but found other cuties instead. The open windswept plains were full of smooth greensnakes, a northern species that I had never before seen.
Frost shattered boulder fields yielded numerous garter and ringneck snakes. It was only a question of how many rocks I was willing to lift with my ruined shoulders.
We hiked the Red creek trail and found lots of sallies!
All of this brings us to a big question. Why has life not only persisted but even thrived in this cold, hostile, nutrient poor environment while entire ecosystems have collapsed almost everywhere else? How is it possible that it is easier to find snakes in Dolly sods than in warm sunny Florida, a place that just a few decades ago was snake capital of the world?
The traditional explanation for many biogeographical mysteries is to invoke habitat destruction. Those who visit Dolly sods today often suppose that it is an untouched wilderness, but the reality is that it has been altered beyond recognition. What now resembles open tundra was once a vast spruce forest until the advent of railroads enabled the extraction of the timber. Logging was followed by catastrophic wildfires that burned the peat down to bare rock resulting in a frozen desert. In other words, the place was utterly destroyed yet life persisted. It is true that snakes in cool temperate climates prefer open sunny places rather than dank dark forests. The same pattern of forest destruction happened throughout the east, yet the resulting fields and meadows display little of the richness of the sods.
It is currently fashionable to blame climate change for every conceivable environmental ill, and it is true that Dolly sods is warmer than it used to be, but don’t expect a python invasion anytime soon. Even in summer the temperature plummets when clouds obscure the sun, and the snakes would shiver if they could.
For lack of an alternative explanation I must fall back onto my pet theory that most otherwise inexplicable biogeographical mysteries can be explained by the spread of novel anthropogenically spread pathogens that are invisible to the naked eye and leave no trace in the fossil record.
Dolly sods is effectively an island of habitat disjunct from similar habitats many hundreds of miles away in Canada, but it is not isolated enough to avoid rampant disease that affects similar organisms in the surrounding forest. This lack of isolation is even more obvious when considering the extraordinary number of butterflies, all of which can fly, and most of which are in severe decline elsewhere. Insects not only fall prey to their own diseases, but also transmit diseases to the plants they eat and pollinate, so why are there so many flowers?
I don’t know, but I do know that I feel very privileged to visit such a wonderful place, and hope that such refugia will serve to re-green the earth in the aftermath of the biological holocaust that we have inflicted on every life form other than rats, cockroaches, and ourselves.
From the sods we headed down the mountain to Seneca rocks, a magical place where the north fork of the south branch of the Potomac river passes beneath the towering rocks.
As a young man beginning my exploration of West Virginia I would gaze in awe and terror at the precipice above. Even to this day I have never had the courage to climb it. For me the rocks symbolized not just the gate to the wilderness beyond, but the beginning of a new life as an adventurer.
It had been so many years that I barely recognized the place. We parked and walked down to the river.
When I saw the blue pool I realized where I was and the memories came flooding back. I almost broke into tears when I remembered my mother’s kiss, “Be safe!” as she gave me the keys to the Mustang, the snowy roads, the canvas tents, the roaring fires, the summer swims, the golden trout, the pretty girls, the near beer, and the braggadocio as we vain swains each tried to outdo the other in tales of caving, bravery and stupidity. It had all happened here. How could I ever forget such a place?
The Potomac river was my first true love, and it made me the man I am today. Most people know nothing of the river except that it flows past the fetid swamps of Washington, D.C., but for me there is no more beautiful place on earth. Is there a more stunning cataract than Great falls? A place in America more steeped in history than Harper’s ferry? As a youth I explored it all, and without the balm of its beneficent waters I fear that I would have become a stunted bitter man. Perhaps in a few years when I become too old to enjoy life I should build a pyre by the banks of my personal Ganges and let the turtles take me. That would be a glorious end!
But the fun wasn’t over. We headed back into Virginia to visit our caver friends Fang and Harny who own 330 acres of mountainside. There aren’t any cave entrances on their property, but the biggest caves in Virginia are all just around the corner. They received us like royalty, quartered us in the Love shack, a cabin better than their own, and prepared sumptuous feasts every night. Best of all, they took us on leisurely tours in their antique cars!
Here you see Fang and Harny in front of their 1939 Hudson. Behind that is the Thelma Dare cabin on the Bullpasture, a historic structure that was the original National Speleological Society fieldhouse, the place where the earliest cavers stayed while exploring Butler, Breathing, and other nearby caves.
I’ve never been to Butler cave, but many years ago I went on memorable trip to Breathing cave, so named for its periodic inhalations and exhalations.
It was a cold winter day. Our team consisted of someone I barely knew, Lema my future ex wife, and Tanya our old fat white worthless blob of a Samoyed dog.
Those were the bad old daze before electric lights had been invented so we used carbide lamps.
A small glacier had formed at the entrance to the cave, so I slipped, fell, and injured my arm. The whimpering dog slid helplessly to the bottom. The cave was warmer inside than the winter day was outside so instead of turning back we continued on. We left our poor dog Tanya behind at the bottom of a small pit from which she could not escape. She barked pitifully until we could no longer hear her. Eventually we reached the sand room where I decided that it would be foolish to continue, for my injured arm made it very hard to climb.
The way on required a difficult climb up to a narrow crevasse that had to be traversed for a long distance with nothing but a hundred feet of air below.
This required bridging the gap by placing one foot on one wall, and the other on the opposite wall. It is called “chimneying”. Someone had just slipped and died there a month earlier. The very thought terrified me, but Lema and the other caver were eager to go. If they could make it past the crevasse there were many miles of cave to explore.
So I turned down the water supply on my carbide lamp and sat there. (Carbide lamps run on rocks and water, so turning down the water reduces the flame.)
In the photo above note the pathetic little flame, the recycled army pack, and the denim jacket, a sure way to slowly freeze to death in a cave if you get wet, and cavers always get wet! Such primitive methods were considered normal in the late 60s, but would never be used today.
At the time I was madly in love with my future ex wife, so I brooded on the likely prospect that she would do something foolish and perish. Should I go in search despite my injury? Should I call out a rescue? How long should I wait? And especially, how long would my carbide last? (I had given most of mine to her.) So I turned the water supply further down.
How long had I been there? There was no way to know. That was when I began to hear the voices, faint burbles from far away. It must be Lema! She’s safe and will be here soon! But what are they saying? Why don’t they seem to be getting any closer? Are they lost in a parallel passage? So I began to shout, but no one answered.
I stayed perfectly silent and listened. The burbling voices continued, and occasionally I could hear the faint far away yelp of the poor dog. That was when I realized that I was actually hearing water dripping off the tips of stalactites into shallow pools below. So I waited.
After an eternity had passed the burbling voices began to make sense. I was sure that it was a sign of insanity, and it was. Lema really was coming back! Her light was blinding, and when she finally arrived she asked why I was sitting in the dark with no light. Only then did I realize that the flame on my lamp had been reduced to a tiny blue dot that gave off almost no light whatsoever. I had no idea that I had been sitting in near total darkness. The dog really had been sitting in total darkness and was very glad to see us.
To think that I used to do such things for fun! But now I’m an old man, and that gives me the perfect excuse to ride around in the backseat of a 39 Hudson sipping whiskey instead. As we drove by the entrance to Breathing cave I flipped it the bird. Find another victim you nasty old hole in the ground!
Then Fang and Harny asked if we would like to visit the Dragon’s lair? Of course! I had never heard of a cave by that name; so, Harny explained that it wasn’t a cave per se, but rather a private nature reserve owned by a fellow caver who was obsessed with dragons. Not only are there over 40 miles of known cave on his property, but he has also constructed beautiful trails complete with swinging bridges, all of which are adorned with dragons!
I was too busy socializing to take proper photos of the wonderful preserve and resident dragons until we arrived at the owner’s home and I beheld the stunning view from his front porch.
No such grand tour is complete without a libation, so we motored to the Homestead resort in nearby Warm springs, Unfortunately, we didn’t have reservations or money, much less proper attire, so we had to settle for a sip at a nearby brewery.
This extraordinary resort/spa was founded in the 1760s, so it is older than the United States of America, and proof that in the good old days we could still do things right. Try to imagine getting to such a place 250 years ago when there were no roads but still plenty of Indians, all just to take a dip in the warm sulfurous waters. Countless Presidents and dignitaries have come to wash away sins and improve their health. The waters are said to cure all known diseases other than avarice and overweening ambition, so Salud!
It was all a ton of fun, but immediately after returning home I went under the knife to get my right shoulder repaired. That wasn’t any fun at all, but it was all part of the plan to make the Weazel into a new man.
Two and a half months have gone by and despite nagging pain I’m getting stronger every day. By mid spring of 2020 I plan to be back in the saddle having more fun.
Until then I will regale my faithful readers with heretofore unpublished adventures in Thailand and Peru, so stay tuned!