April 24, 2011

Well, it's Easter morning now, and there's no one else around...

There's a mountain near where I live.  It's a small one-- only 12 or 13 hundred feet or so at the summit--  a monadnock created by the slow erosion of the land around it.  Most folks think of it as a single peak, but it's actually a curved string of peaked ridges.  Most people also don't seem to be aware that it's private land, despite the explanatory signs posted at the entrance and parking areas, nor of the fact that they owe a debt of gratitude to the graciousness and foresight of an early-twentieth century industrial magnate.  That man, the magnate, bought the mountain and much of the land surrounding it back in the 1920's or so.  He built a couple of mansions on it for himself and his family.  Before he died, he established a trust to maintain the land for the "recreational and educational use of the public".  The foundation that's supported by the trust has done just that-- building a trail system and overlooks, and monitoring the environment of the mountain and the wildlife that exists within it.  It's an extremely beautiful place.

What I thought was my first time on the mountain was a bit over 20 years ago.  I was still in my high school punk rock phase, with buzz-cut hair, Converse sneakers, and ripped blue jeans, and had just moved out of my parents' house in Virginia into my own apartment in Maryland.  I spent much of my spare time in the car, driving around exploring my new territory, discovering not only the lay of the land but also an abiding love for the semi-rural back-roads I found at the edges of the suburbs.  One day, one of those back-road drives brought me to the mountain.  Being in an exploratory mood, I parked at one of the overlooks near the summit and wandered onto one of the trails.  As I went along, it began to feel somehow familiar.  Flashbacks from buried memories began popping into my mind's eye until recognition finally dawned-- I had been there before.  At some point in my childhood, I remembered that my parents had brought my Girl Scout troop to that same mountain for a hike along that same trail.  Childhood in general and Girl Scouts in particular had not been a thrill for me, so I'd not held on to the memory.  But I got a kick out of the synchronicity anyway. 

And I fell in love with the mountain.  The beauty of the woods, the pastoral views from the summit and overlooks, and the solitude-- Combined with the new-found freedom of living on my own, the things I discovered on the mountain opened a new chapter for me and it wasn't long before the Converse sneakers were replaced by hiking boots.

Unfortunately, the population of the D.C. suburbs exploded not long after.  As the suburbs expanded and began to encroach upon the area around the mountain, a whole lot of other people began to fall in love with the place, too.  The picnic areas and trails began to be overrun.  It got to the point that you could sit at the summit and hear radios and loud voices in the parking lot at the base of the cliff.  So I stopped going there.  Began driving further out and finding other places that hadn't yet been discovered by the masses.  Though it didn't take long for those places, as well. 

At this point, I'm constantly on the lookout for out-of-the-way wildlife management areas, tucked-away nooks in state parks, or any old abandoned road I can explore in solitude.  But one day I wandered back to the mountain via an old road that comes in from the back, all the way around the other side from the main road that heads up towards the overlooks.  One of the longer hiking trails swings down and crosses over the old road and there was, at that time, just enough space for a car or two to park along the side.  Amazingly, the spot was empty.  So I figured, what the hell?  I'd visit the mountain for old time's sake.  To my surprise, I only passed a few other folks on the trail.  I've learned since then that it's a matter of timing--  early morning, late in the day, crappy weather--  and of sticking to the newer trails on the backside of the ridge, away from the main summit. 

So, on this Easter morning, while the majority of people were either hunting for salvation in church or for colored eggs in the backyard, I was out in the woods at the mountain,
by myself, hunting for a skull.  I swear, there are times when I feel like the kid in The Sixth Sense-- He saw dead people everywhere, I see dead animals everywhere.  Along the side of the road, out in the woods, if there's an animal carcass around, chances are I'll see it.  The one I was checking on today was one I'd seen late-fall/early-winter of last year.  I'd wandered off the trail looking for a spot to sit and take a break, only to find a recently deceased white tail deer lying a dozen feet from the fallen tree I sat down on.  A buck with four-point antlers.  I won't deny it, I coveted the idea of that skull and antlers.  It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last.  Funny thing is, much as I love skulls and bones, I'm almost phobic-ly squeamish about decaying flesh.  And skulls are surprisingly rare finds for some reason.  I couldn't tell you how many headless skeletons and carcasses I've found in the woods, way out-numbering the handful of skulls I've found. Where do they go? Can't all be hunter's trophies, because most of the time I'm in parkland where hunting is prohibited (doesn't stop the occasional poacher, of course).  Are they found and taken by people like me?  Dragged off by predators so the brain can be picked out and devoured in peace? I dunno, but they are definitely a rarity.  So I made plans to come back for this one, after nature'd taken its course and stripped it bare and clean.

Wandered back a few months later to check on it, but it was still half-covered with skin and tendon.  Well ravaged, though.  The hind legs were still attached to the torso, but the front legs had been strewn several feet away, and the lower mandible was lying behind the carcass.  The skull, antlers still attached, had been dragged down to the edge of a nearby small stream. Still not clean enough to pick up and bring home, though. 

With all the snow and rain the area had through the end of winter and beginning of spring, I figured the thing had to be bare by now.  So I headed out this morning along the blessedly empty trail, back to the fallen tree by the little stream.  Found the carcass almost in the same state I'd last seen it, now almost entirely clean, except for... the head.  The thing was gone, antlers and all.  I crossed the stream and tromped around through the trees, scoping the ground for any glimpse of white bone.  Nothing. Where the hell could it have gone?  The largest omnivorous and carnivorous wildlife in this area consists primarily of raccoons and foxes and neither of those seem big enough to drag a skull with antlers through undergrowth.  There've been rumors of coyotes coming in closer to the D.C. suburbs, but I've not heard of any being seen near the mountain.  And the foundation that maintains the area has posted signs warning visitors to stay on the trails (signs I ignore, obviously) because of a black bear and cubs in the area, but those signs have been up for a few years now and the bears have likely moved on.  It crossed my mind to wonder if some other explorer like myself had also found the thing and beaten me to it.  I ended up baffled but resigned. 

It got me thinking, though, as such things always do.  The sight of the white rib cage and spinal column surrounded by little white wildflowers was striking.  Some might consider the image morbid, but to me it was a beautiful contrast between decay and growth, a gorgeous reminder of the cycle of nature that we forget about in day-to-day living.  All around me in the woods were indications of that cycle--  The sun shining through new leaves, casting a green glow on tree trunks that were bare, dreary grey and brown just two months ago.  Along the trail, little baby ferns were unfurling next to violets.  Puddles created by all the recent rain were full of tadpoles.  But winter wasn't over long enough ago for me to forget that it'll all turn back to grey and brown in another handful of months, as the cycle continues and the tender growth now bursting forth dies off. 

This is the most profound sort of thing I've learned from the mountain-- that life is a series of cycles, but that in the end we all come to the same state as that headless deer.  It's a good thing to remember when we feel that life is a constant battle.  The problem is often that
we don't pick our battles wisely.  So many of the things we fight for and against are really just us banging our heads against a wall.  And no matter who we're fighting against, both we and they will die and come to that state.  What difference do so many of those trivial battles make against the knowledge that we all will end up in the ground, our decaying remains becoming food for new life?

Unless, of course, we decide to have those remains turned into a vinyl record instead.  

April 2, 2011

Random babblings: Abandoned but found

So I learned over the course of this past winter that my old place along the river up in West Va is now off-limits.  The land was apparently acquired by a local rafting outfitter-- On the plus side, they cleaned up the burned-out trailer and  garbage along the riverbank.  On the negative, though, they also put up a passel of 'no trespassing' signs all over the place, including at the beginning of the dirt road that heads upstream. But never fear, I've found a new spot.  Same river, different state.  And closer to home, to boot.  And just as solitary,  despite it being adjacent to one of the most popular parks in the area. 

Ma Nature was in a mercurial mood this spring day.  A gloomy, chilly overcast in the morning suddenly began alternating with teasing patches of blue sky as the wind blew banks of clouds from west to east.  One such patch was overhead as I drove down the road and through the tunnel under the railroad tracks, splashing through puddles left by a just-passed rain shower.  There's enough graffiti in the tunnel that it's a surprise the old farm farther down the road hasn't been taken over by the marauding vandals.  Apparently the locked gate and all of the CSX and NPS property signs are enough to keep them out.  Either that, or it's just too far a walk for them beyond that gate.  Their loss, my gain.

The old farm gate, not the newer Park Service one at the beginning of the road
My guess is that the old homestead is used for Boy Scout campouts-- There are a couple of porta-johns up near the empty, locked house, and the first time I wandered back and found the place there was actually a portable sink nearby.  One of the old barns, a shed-style structure open on both ends, has been maintained by the NPS for storage of picnic tables and such.  On a day like today, the shed makes a perfect spot to sit and smoke and ruminate.  It looks out on the old house on one side, and an almost-collapsed livestock barn and empty cornfields on the other.

What is it that draws me to spots like this? It's more than just the solitude, certainly. That's something that can be found fairly easily-- along a trail in the woods, in a kayak in the middle of the river, in my car flying down a country road, hell, at home in my apartment if I'm desperate enough. But there's something to these abandoned places that were once lived in, an inexplicable something that I find comforting despite the eeriness of their emptiness. It has to do with the history of them, I think, and the time period in which they were inhabited. It's an easily romanticized time, that era that ended six or more decades ago, a time that was in many ways more full of hardship than now, but is always cast with a nostalgic glow of authenticity and simplicity that so often seems lacking these days.  It was a time when one of the most important things people strove for was survival-- not just day-to-day, but of the spirit.  Something that I have a hard time finding in the crowded hustle of today's society. 

One of the first times I visited this place, I was stopped on the way in by a young park ranger who first informed me that "this is Park Service property", which didn't fool me for a minute, and then warned that the nearby woods were full of hunters. Which also didn't faze me, seeing as how hunting is illegal on Park Service property, but random wandering isn't. I played dumb and stayed at the car, though, pretending that I had just been looking for a quiet  place to sit and read and didn't realize that there was anything worthwhile back there. Today, though, I was caught all the way back at the farm when a pair of rangers drove back to check the place out. Dark clouds had rolled in again and I was just heading back to the road when they pulled up next to me and the older of them very courteously explained that they were looking for "sheds" and had noticed the turkey feather on the dashboard of my car back out by the gate. He asked if I was looking for feathers and I realized that "sheds" was a reference to feathers and probably, in their lingo, a sign of poachers. I grinned at him and said that, no, I was just looking for a place with no other people around. He smiled back and apologized for interrupting me in that pursuit, then they drove on down to the barns. He must've taken me at my word, because when they passed again on their way out, as the rain began falling, they waved and kept going. Which was fine. A lonesome walk in the rain ain't ever a bad thing.