Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 20, 2013

Dolly Sods in West Virginia: Camping delivers a cool reception

— — As we grow older, we have a finer appreciation for things that once we took for granted — for example, plumbing.

There’s nothing like plumbing, in all its porcelain majesty, to give comfort to a person whose tolerance for anything less has been flushed away by the passing years.

But sometimes on a whim, we leave our comfort zone to experience life in the rough, where conveniences are inconvenient. Which brings us to the subject of camping in the wilderness.

This story starts with pizza and wine — apparently too much wine — in a suburban backyard on a recent evening. It may be that the idea for the Titanic was similarly conceived.

The night was still warm and a group of friends, all parents and empty-nesters, were lamenting the passing of summer and casting about for one last summery activity. And someone said, “Let’s go camping!”

And so we settled on Dolly Sods — a place, not a person, in West Virginia. The Dolly Sods Wilderness is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

It is a spectacular place of great views, rock fields, bogs, forests and alpine meadows. The name came from a German pioneer whose name was Dahle, which became Dolly, because this is America and people don’t cotton to foreign names. (Tell me about it — my name is Reg, which is not short for Regular.) Sods just means grass with roots holding together dirt.

The camping trip was approved for the following weekend. Any warnings that the high-elevation Dolly Sods had notoriously fickle weather were ignored. Apparently at 4,000 feet, one side of your face can be in a blizzard while the other side can be hot and sunny.

The next few days were spent borrowing various bits of camping gear, because it was many years since any of us had been in the Boy Scouts but we knew to Be Prepared.

What could not be borrowed was bought at one of those specialty outdoor stores. I think ours was Hiking Geezers R Us. Everybody had an assigned task on the trip — Map Reader and Guide, Water Purifying Technician, Food Carrier and Cook, Chief Complainer, Dog Minder, Wood Gatherer and Entertainment Officer (me). Some duties overlapped. For example, I did some complaining.

We left Saturday morning at exactly 7 a.m. It took us a little under four hours from Pittsburgh to arrive at Dolly Sods, Middle of Nowhere, W.Va. Camping is limited in the park to parties of 10, which we were: Reg, Priscilla, Dennis, Lisa, Jay, Holly and Judy and three dogs, Sailor, Ned and Molly.

Judy was recruited only the night before we left. It was Judy who had the definitive statement upon viewing Dolly Sods for the first time in all its sod-ness: “I am never going out to drink with my friends again!”

Indeed, it was a bleak sight at first on top of that mountain, a blasted heath reminiscent of Scotland or Wales with a glowering sky threatening trouble. I have seen that glowering look before, but usually I have been married to its source. It was also freezing cold.

There was nothing to do about it but pick up our packs, which contained only essentials, and start hiking into the wilderness, expecting at any moment to see wildlife such as a woolly mammoth. Then something remarkable happened: Blue sky appeared and the sun came out to warm all sides of our faces.

It is easy to forget what hiking is really like. It’s not all like the old song, “I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track/ And as I go, I love to sing, my knapsack on my back/ Valderi, Valdera, Valderi/ Valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”

I wasn’t laughing so much. My knapsack weighed close to 44 pounds. We passed many beautiful vistas, but what I mostly saw, doubled over with essentials, were my boots. But that’s just me complaining again. We had a great time. Really.

The best part of hiking, of course, is stopping. We found a beautiful campsite beside a babbling brook. We built a fire. We had a fine dinner, but somebody forgot the parmesan. Everybody went to bed at 9 p.m., confirming my failure as Entertainment Officer. As always on camping trips, the babbling of laughter erupted in the middle of the night.

Fall starts this Sunday. Goodbye summer. Hello plumbing.

Reg Henry is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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