Getting to Monongahela National Forest
The sun began its descent, closing in on the mountaintops off in the distance. Shadows lengthened, and the interstate median whizzed by. I was attempting to secure a spot at a campground in one of the many parks in central West Virginia.
The aim was to get to Blackwater Falls State Park. I called around lunchtime asking if they had free spots; they had only five left and predicted none by nightfall. I drove further still and called about 90 minutes out from the giant green area on the map that is central West Virginia.
I looked up Spruce Knob Lake Campground on The Google and gave them a buzz. She informed me they would have something open by seven o’clock at night when I arrived. Just pull up to the amphitheater and I was golden, she said. Perfect.
I pushed my Chevy Cruze’s meager engine over increasingly steeper roads. Wind turbines dotted the ridge up ahead, a particular view you can see from the many roads that circumambulate the foothills of those peaks.
My cell signal plummeted from four bars LTE to an unholy 3G. I knew I would need to find a campground in the next hour, otherwise I’d be wandering a park in the dark with no guidance—no GPS, no map, no compass, no moss on rocks.
Darkest Place in West Virginia
I discovered one day in Paris a few years ago, that Google Maps will save local maps for you. Nowadays you can literally save a huge chunk of information and store it locally on your phone (map data, street names, restaurants and their ratings, everything). You can’t do it all the time like in Seoul for instance, but it works in many places. Back in the dark ages of 2014, I hadn’t known that yet and stumbled upon a work around.
I had zoomed in on Paris in the app a few days before, and my phone saved it in the short term, meaning as I roamed around the City of Lights without service, I could still use maps.
This has come in handy a billion times in my travels and trying to find a specific campground in rural West Virginia, it was reasonably handy knowledge. I would watch a video a few days after my trip, outlining that, indeed, this area has minimal cell signal and WiFi access by design. I wasn’t crazy.
As I got to the northern part of the enormous national park, the signage jived with my app’s direction. After about an hour, they deviated, with Google Maps saying A, and the wooden notices saying B. As much as I was weary about dirt roads abutting brooks at dusk, I trusted the rangers at Monongahela. Surely they know their stuff.
I kicked up dust and gravel for the better part of 45 minutes, on a half-downoaded, crude outline of the park on my phone and trusting arrows on signs like it was 1999. Eventually I turned up at the camper van of a ranger in front of a camp ground.
I pulled up and told him I’m the one who called earlier that day. Umm, no you didn’t.
Yeah, I’m the one who you told to go to the amphitheater. Buddy, you couldn’t have called me. This is one of the most remote places in the park. There’s no cell up here.
Then he proceeded to tell me about his days traveling the country, checking out all the national parks coast to coast. He found out I was Portuguese from Massachusetts and recounted a story where he and a Portuguese fellow were camping “somewhere west of Boston.” (That phrasing always gets me, because that only leaves 90%+ of the whole state. I digress.)
While in the woods, a fugitive escaped, and the police force searched the woods for the perps. They left the two alone as they didn’t match the description. The other guy was sweating his stuff, though, as he apparently had an unregistered gun and drugs in his tent. (Privilege.) The ranger even detailed, “He was the most red-neck guy I ever met, and I’m from West Virginia!”
After reeling off a litany of anecdotes, he brought me to my site where I settled in for the night. By this point it was dark, dark enough to strain your eyes while you read.
With just enough light, I set up my four-person tent for myself. I live a life of luxury, I’m told.
In my fury to get here before the sun went to rest for the day, I forgot to snag fire starters. After a few days of rain and with no wood or dry kindling, a wet layer of leaves and sticks wasn’t getting a fire going. I went camping and couldn’t get my fire going.
I snagged a granola bar and an apple for dinner and made the most of what I had in front of me.
This wasn’t hard, though.
Nocturnal insects large and small could be heard zooming and (probably) mating in the night air. A thick layer of DEET kept them at bay where I could enjoy all the audial activity. An opening in the trees revealed a smattering of stars, as if a kid tapped a sharpened pencil to a sheet of paper as fast as he could for minute. There were that many stars. My belly sated, my mind at ease, a peacefulness lowered onto the campground and I felt content.
I zipped away from Massachusetts at 6am that morning and settled in at night in Nowhere, WV that evening. It was fantastic being away from everything.
I usually have a design for trips I take: a purpose, a central question or goal. For this one, I just wanted to find myself deep in the woods on my own with the stars. Check.
This is a multi-part series on a road trip to West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Check out the other pieces here.
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