Despite the fog and light rain falling, I would not be denied a hike on this day.
I was born on December 24, about four hundred and fifty-five dog years ago. The ceiling was lifting, rain diminishing and temperature rising, and as it reached 40°, the bodyguards and I were heading out the door.
My Jordan Mines topographic map shows a potential road or trail leading up Bald Mountain, starting across Barbours Creek Road from the far end of the Potts Jeep Trail. A promising-looking, well-graveled road leads up, and we parked at the bottom and went up around the first bend, only to find what appeared to be a parking lot, just above the paved road. Was that a road or trail heading up from the far corner? It was an inviting, mossy trace, with a stream coursing downwards just to the left, its music muffled by a cover of fallen leaves. Trickles of water were running off the edges of moss-covered rocks, and we didn’t get far. The trace quickly deteriorated into a rocky ravine, clogged with slimy wet leaves that concealed treacherous footing underneath, and we gave up within sight of Old Blue’s white camper shell.
Now what? I always leave Michael a note to tell him where I’ve gone, so he knows where to send a search party if I don’t come back. I have no cell phone, so no way to tell him of a change of plan. I tore a page out of my little notebook, wrote “Hazel has gone up South Prong Road”, hung it on a twig in a visible place, stuffed gear and bodyguards back into the truck and drove back down Barbours Creek Road.
South Prong Barbours Creek Road is a Forest Service road that climbs the notch between Bald and Fork Mountains, following the South Prong of Barbours Creek, which tumbles down through a defile so deep as to almost be a canyon. Bodyguards and I walked up this road, a long but relatively gentle climb, in the fall of 2015, and only when we reached the intersection with Lignite Mines Road did I realize how far we’d come—the sign told me we were 5.3 miles from Barbours Creek Road. Fortunately, the return trek was almost all downhill. This time, I decided, we would check out another side road, one that continues up the flank of Fork Mountain when South Prong Road hooks to the right to climb the unnamed connection between Fork and Bald Mountains. Ironically, this road doesn’t appear on my map. We were in Botetourt County; the Craig-Botetourt boundary follows Fork Mountain southwestward, then turns to the south-southeast, crosses the end of Bald Mountain, jogs eastward a bit, and heads for North Mountain.
The rain, which had stopped, began again as I shrugged into my pack and we started up, but it wasn’t heavy enough for me to put on my poncho.We soon reached a closed gate and could see the road straight ahead, climbing the mountain’s flank at a modest pitch. It was good walking, well-trodden leaves and mossy, rock-strewn wheel traces underfoot, slopes of lichenous boulders on the downslope to our right, with the swell of Bald Mountain beyond. There was no wind, and it wasn’t cold; I was soon overly warm from the exertion of climbing, having worn wool shirt and wool jacket in the anticipation that I might get wet. Numerous deposits of bear and/or coyote scat attracted my bodyguards’ attention. The climb stiffened a bit, and we ascended into the clouds, as a deer bounded away ahead, flashing its white tail. Upslope to our left, patches of tall, dry weeds hinted at open areas. A bit of wind came up, and it felt good.
In less than half an hour, we reached the crest of Fork Mountain, an open, rocky clearing which might allow a vista on a clear day.
I paused to eat a snack, give us all a drink, and consult my map. We’d walked the Jordan Mines topo into unknown territory and were now on the Strom one, which I don’t have. But the road continued, so we did too. Having touched the crest, it descended a little to run parallel, was hard to follow through an area where the crest broadened, and then petered out. On a better day, it would have been easy to follow the crest farther, but this would have violated my self-imposed mandate of not bushwhacking solo, especially iffy since I wasn’t where I told Michael I would be; furthermore, I had no map, and the clouds and fog were disorienting. That hadn’t been much of a walk, but I can explore the mountain on another day when I have company, map and better weather. On occasions like this, I miss my good dog Blue, who walked so many trails with Michael and me three decades ago. No matter where we went, when we turned around, she would take the point and lead us right back to our vehicle. We could go anywhere and never get lost. She was nothing in particular, a medium-sized, scruffy, Benji-type mutt.
Anyway, I GPS’d our turnaround point, zeroed my pedometer, and we retraced our steps. I had no trouble finding the road again, and Addie vainly chased a titmouse as we reached the crest and started down. We descended below the cloud bases, and I found a rock to sit on so I could remove boot and sock and see what was pricking my foot—it seemed to be a chestnut-bur spine embedded in the foot itself, which I pried out with the tip of my pocketknife. Wet mountain laurel leaves glistened as we passed, and there was patient Old Blue, who never gets tired of waiting. GPS said we were 1.5 miles, straight-line distance, from the turnaround point, and pedometer said I’d taken 5023 steps.
But our adventure wasn’t over yet. I wanted to drive the length of Bald Mountain, which I had previously covered on foot, to note mileages and road conditions for the next edition of my trail guide. There are several vistas that look southeast to south, towards North Mountain and the surroundings of New Castle, and an overlook that gives a view in the opposite direction, towards Potts and Peters Mountains, plus the bases that once supported the legs of a fire tower and an intersection where the road from Fenwick Mines (F.S. 181) comes up. So, we thumped, bumped, splashed and squished our way along, and I recorded odometer readings. The road is a mixed bag; parts would be no trouble for a passenger vehicle, and others might be problematic. There are well-graveled, recently repaired sections, including the climb up from Peaceful Valley Road, which was a gullied mess when I walked it. Then there are rough sections full of embedded rocks, and greasy runs where the mud, although not deep, is very slick. I turned Old Blue’s hubs in and put him in 4WD about halfway along, as a precaution; some of the puddles were wide and imposing, although not terribly deep. We reached Peaceful Valley Road without incident, unlocked the hubs, and were on our way home.