Walking in the woods: a state specialty

(Charleston Gazette, Sept. 10, 1996)

By James A. Haught

West Virginia offers a blessing not available in most of America.
Mountain State people are never more than minutes away from lovely forest where they can follow shady trails, climb hillcrests, picnic on rocks, watch squirrels, hear gurgling ravines, and have their spirits restored by closeness to nature.

The "cathedral effect" under tall trees, with sunlight dappling through the canopy far above, is wonderful for the psyche. Seeing a deer or raccoon is exhilarating.
The magic of wooded hills is a West Virginia natural resource, just like coal, gas and salt brine -- and it's becoming more recognized and utilized.

Outdoors lovers want to expand the state's official hiking trails and hook them into a nationwide network. Backers predict that 50,000 people a year soon will be trudging along the North Bend Trail, an abandoned rail line from Parkersburg to Clarksburg. National backpacker groups praise West Virginia as ideal territory. On Saturday, several hikes are scheduled in Kanawha State Forest, the gem south of Charleston that began as a CCC camp in the Depression.

Organized outings are fine, but I prefer exploring on my own, just with my three dogs, or occasionally with grandchildren or visitors.

My house at Lake Chaweva sits amid boulders the size of vans. Beside one, I cut a trail up a hill, connecting to old paths, logging roads and right-of-ways that wind for miles. Without seeing a trace of civilization, I can travel on ridges from Cross Lanes to Institute.

The crests contain two huge rock formations like misshapen castles, where my clan has held many weiner roasts over the years. Recently, poking along a ridge, I found a third -- another mass of stone that was shoved into the sky when the Appalachians were formed, then left exposed as millennia of erosion cut away softer material. It's majestic.

In a shady grove, miles from any house or road, there's a homemade cemetery with a dozen graves hidden among trees. None of the markers date past the 1950s. Could the coffins have been hauled there by horses? Surrounded by nothing but forest, it's a serene place to be dead.

In the spring, sassafras leaves along the trails are tasty. By midsummer, blackberry vines provide a free treat. Deer tracks are everywhere.

One evening, my clan lingered overlong in the hills, until dusk fell. A grandson noticed that white fungus on a rotten log was glowing. Samples were carried home, and we learned that the phosphorescence is called foxfire.

One Saturday, the dogs and I left a crest behind Institute and descended into a Tyler Mountain hollow. We came upon a vine-covered ruin, a long-abandoned barn and silo that I later learned had been part of a farm once owned by the family of former state Supreme Court Justice W.T. Brotherton Jr.

All this is within the suburbs of Charleston -- yet there are great stretches of woodland, isolated from people. There are no fences or "Keep Out" signs. (The state's trespass law covers fenced, posted or cultivated land, but doesn't forbid entering unmarked, wild-growing, natural hills.)

Autumn is coming, a radiant time to hike in the hills. It's a joy offered by West Virginia more than any other state.

West Virginia logging has doubled in seven years, and soon may quadruple. That means jobs and prosperity -- but I hope the cutters leave plenty of forest, just for pure enjoyment.