Into the Woods: Allegheny Front

In 2012, my wife and I spent our anniversary exploring a corner of the Eastern U.S. that we’d never visited before. We found it so delightful that we hoped to return soon. A few years (and a couple of kids) later we were able to return this month with the whole family to Tucker County, West Virginia.

I’m sure this place is beautiful in other seasons, but having only ever visited in October, I can confirm that it is positively magical then. The quality and quantity of fall foliage is blinding—thick forests of maple, birch, and aspen punctuated with the deep green of spruces and firs, or open plains of knee-high blueberry bushes, each outstretched leaf turned to a crimson candle in the setting sunlight.

This time around, because we had a toddler with us, the hiking was limited in both speed and distance, but we still spent plenty of time outside. A few of our favorite spots are listed below.

Canaan Valley State Park and National Wildlife Refuge

This is where we landed when we first visited the area, and we were still taken by it this year. Canaan Valley is a geological curiosity, a nearly perfectly flat depression (give-or-take, 8 miles long by 3 miles wide) on top of a high plateau. Given this, the valley floor is still over 3,000 feet above sea level, which, coupled with its location at nearly 40° north latitude creates a biome more akin to Minnesota than the Mid-Atlantic. Its flat topography lends itself to swampy terrain, with numerous ponds, sphagnum bogs, and tall-grass wetlands lining the meandering headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The state park has a fine network of trails (and cabins and a nice hotel, to boot) along the river and into the hills on the west side of the valley. In the southeast corner of the valley, the park also operates a small ski resort with a respectable 1,000 ft. vertical drop and an average of 200+ inches of natural snow each winter. If you’re there in October, you can ride the chairlift (which we did) to look at the leaves and enjoy great views of the valley.

Much of the remainder of the valley, apart from one other privately owned ski resort and scattered houses and farms, is occupied by a national wildlife refuge, preserving the boggy wetlands for migrating waterfowl. There is an excellent boardwalk for birdwatching in the heart of the refuge, circling through a fir forest, meadows of cotton grass and swampy tangles of wild spiraea. Quiet gravel roads snake through the refuge into Monongahela National Forest, with opportunities for hiking, wild cranberry picking, camping, or just country driving.

Blackwater Falls State Park
If you follow the Blackwater River to the northwestern end of the valley, it drops over a lovely 50′ waterfall and then dives into a canyon on its way down to the Monongahela River basin. The spectacle of fall foliage in the canyon rivals any show I’ve ever seen anywhere (and, seeing as our anniversary is in October, we’ve witnessed peak fall color in quite a few parts of the country over the years). You just want to sit and soak it in for hours.

We didn’t do any real hiking here this time around, though there are plenty of trails. The kids found some trees to climb and made leaf piles to jump in and throw at one another, and we enjoyed the (rather crowded) walk down to the falls.

Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve
The thing that drew us to WV in the first place was Dolly Sods, which I’d read about on other hiking blogs—a place of mystery (including unexploded WWII training bombs!) above the clouds, a vast plain where the virgin forest was clearcut and fires seared the soil so that the trees may never return fully. Whatever the origins, the current state of the place is sheer, inexpressible beauty.

We only had a fleeting moment to visit this time (due to a sewage issue that forced us out of our AirBNB and cut the trip short, another story altogether—par for the course on our family vacations!), but happened to be there near sunset. All I can say is that the pictures speak for themselves. For someplace so close to civilization (ca. 2.5 hours from Washington, D.C.), it is as otherworldly as any spot this side of the Rockies. There are dozens of miles of trails zigzagging the wilderness, some of which we hiked last time, but we took a toddler-paced, restful amble this time.

Seneca Rocks
The only spot we hit on this trip that we didn’t last time was Seneca Rocks, a tourist photo-op standby and rock climbing Mecca. We managed to hike to the observation platform (a steep trail gaining 600+ feet in 1.3 miles) with the whole family, and then the older two girls coaxed me up to the knife-edge ridge for a better view and a dose of adrenaline. Well worth the visit.

We’ll be back again sometime, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with one obligatory New River Gorge Bridge shot to invite you to try it out as well. This is a state hard hit by centuries of environmental destruction and decades of economic devastation (it’s the only state in the U.S. with fewer people than it had in 1950), but there is a wealth of beauty and sparks of resilient community around the state. We’ve grown to love it, and hope others will, too.

The Ground Knows

A week of rain swells the runoff creek,
Its muffled roar suffusing the woods
As the blank-blue sky of Northern air
Sidles down the plateau to cradle
Our valley in momentary chill
Fixing in time every splashed droplet.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Ice grasps rocks and branches, layer by
Layer accreting into crowds of
Overnight stalagmites and a lone
Ephemeral agate at the end
Of a string dangling from a footbridge
That sways with each splash, marking the time
Till warmth rushes back, which the ground knows
Well, watching an Iris bloom too soon.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum

Yellow light bursts from a stem, calling
January’s bluff for a moment,
But it dies—a raisin in the frost,
Hoping for a slice of spring before
The long flat note of summer goads it
To try for glory again next year.

Life in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Image: Ice pendulum, Glen Falls, Hamilton County, Tenn., January 2020

Into the Woods: Snake Mountain

When my family moved to North Carolina, in the summer of 1998, I was fourteen with an endless imagination for the adventures these hazy blue mountains would hold for an erstwhile Georgia flatlander. I moved away after a short while (to Dayton, Tenn., for college in 2002, and I’ve lived in Chattanooga since 2006), but these hills have always felt like home. Fortunately, my parents still live in the same county, so I get to come back and stay often.

Of all the mountains, perhaps none captured my fancy quite like Snake Mountain. It was due north from the back deck of the house we first lived in up there, its silent, volcano-like visage staring at me every morning. Unlike many other peaks around the area, it was also inaccessible—private property with no marked trail or easy access to its 5,555′ rock-strewn summit.

Some years ago, the property owner allowed for a hiking easement, but I’ve not found the time to check it out. Most hikes with family opt for more easily obtained objectives. This Christmas break, though, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I decided to give it a go. As a bonus, we even talked my dear wife and our oldest two girls into tagging along. Were we ever in for some fun.

The trailhead, such as it is, is a metal farm gate on the southbound side of Meat Camp Road, across from a gravel pull-off just big enough for three or four cars. It’s about 1/2 mile past the entrance to Elk Knob State Park (which is a worthwhile hike in its own right). There are several gates on the same side of the road, so look for the one with the “Practice Leave-No-Trace Hiking” sign on a telephone pole next to it. A quick hop of the gate (if it’s closed) and you’re off.

The first mile or so is a wide (if quite steep) unpaved road—whether for logging or access to utilities. The steady ascent moves between woods and fields, and opens up some fine views of nearby peaks.

After nearly 700 feet of elevation gain, the trail splits off the road and becomes excruciatingly vertical, navigating a narrow way through grass, rocks, and mud. Passing some impressive cliffs, the sweeping view to the north and east begins to take shape—taking in much of Ashe County and on up to Mount Rogers and Whitetop in Virginia.

The ascent slows at a sub peak, with a semi-level stretch along a narrowing rock-ledged ridge. At this point, off to the right, you might notice a road and parking lot, which is part of a failed housing development accessed through Tennessee (at this point, the ridgeline—and trail—follows the state line). I think you can access the trail from there, making a shorter approach. The easygoing stops abruptly when the trail appears to dead-end into a small cliff. We made the mistake of following some trodden ground to the right, but the trail actually goes straight up in a tough scramble (because it is private property without an “official” or maintained trail, the whole route is unblazed).

Because of the error, we ended up sidehill in thick woods as the false trail petered out. Rather than going back, we made a tree-to-tree sprint back to the top of the ridge to re-find the trail and made it to the north sub-summit for lunch. The view west and south (encompassing the Holston Valley, Grandfather Mountain, the Roan Mountain massif, and the Black Mountains) opens up. On this well warmer than average day, the wind was low, and ravens were circling the cliffs (likely eying my kids’ cheetos).

After a knee-busting descent down a stair-step of amphibolite outcroppings, a look back shows the difficulty of what you’ve accomplished.

The rest of the descent back to the road portion is a nice mix of deft, ACL-preserving maneuvers through leaves and mud and step-downs with some good, old-fashioned butt-busting slides. Once you hit the walkable section it’s a quick hustle back to the car. The whole descent from the summit barely took 30 minutes (covering nearly 2 miles). An afternoon well spent, with views as good as I’ve seen anywhere. My oldest daughter said the rock climbing work was harder than what we did at Joshua Tree this summer, which did my Carolina heart proud.

A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019