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Shell Falls Gorge, Bighorn Mountains, Wyo
Wyoming is a flat grassy state interrupted by some of the most beautiful mountains in the country.

That includes the Tetons on its western edge, looking like mountains ordered out of central casting, with the perfect features of a Hollywood star. But there are also the Wind River range that seem to extent forever and the thorny Absorokas, high to the east of Yellowstone.

In Wyoming’s east, you find the Laramie and Medicine Bow ranges.

All of them high, stony, craggy, pine-sided cordilleras rising over the high plains like the abodes of gods.bighorn mountains 9

And in north central Wyoming, the Bighorn Mountains divide the state in half. Approached from the west, they are a dry range, not rain-forested like the Olympics; you see a sedimentary ridge, not a wall of frozen lava like the Sierras. They are not green or gray or blue, but are a rich orange and yellow, stratified and striped with darker reds and browns. What you see are the Cambrian, Ordovician and Carboniferous sandstones and limestones. They surround a central core of granite that you only see as you climb to the high plateau and cross Granite pass at 8950 feet.

Along the way, traveling from Greybull, you drive up the Shell River Canyon and its waterfall. And when you reach the top, you don’t find a peak to descend from, but a 30-mile wide plateau of trees and lakes, unimagined from the grasslands below.

As we followed the plateau top across the range, we passed a cattle drive. Slow, lurching cows wandered distractedly across the narrow road. The look in their eyes gave me a new etymology for “vacant,” from the Spanish “vaca” for cow.bighorn cattle

The kine stumbled off the road on both sides, some climbing the rocky hill to our left and some dangerously nearing the edge of a cliff that dropped into the wide canyon to our right.

Cowhands on horses herded the cattle back onto the road — all an extremely slow process. Traffic was snarled and it was almost like being on the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour. Well, not quite. There were only two or three cars, bumper to bumper, but the thick cattle traffic was nose to tail.

The road was a bakery display case of cow pies.

We wondered about the men on horses, how they had their bedrolls tied to the back of their saddles, and whether they really did have to spend the night under starry skies boiling coffee in tin pots and sleeping to the sounds of lowing cattle.

Among them were several small children riding horses and watching their daddies at work.

One blond, tow-headed youngster in front of our car was hardly bigger than the saddle horn on his saddle.

There was a relaxed, even lazy festive air about the job at hand, as though it were a community project forced to work at the cows’ pace.

The men were dry-faced workers with oily hats and tattered shirts, the extreme opposite of the drugstore cowboy. There were no shiny 10-gallon stetsons, no arrow-ribbed shirt pockets, no fringe, no buckskin, and no shooting irons on their hips.

What there was was flies, horse sweat, the squeak of leather saddles and the muffled clop-clop of hooves on pavement.bighorn mountains 2

When we asked, we learned that the cows were being herded up the mountains to their summer pastures on the plateau.

The mountains that were so rocky and rugged seen from the west, in fact did become a plateau and we drove for nearly an hour across the summit of the Big Horns, past those forests and lakes.

So, when we reached the eastern escarpment, it was a shock to see the land stretch out under us as flat rangeland, semi-desert again for as far as the eye could see.

coal town wv
The view from the top of the mountain gives you the conventionally Romantic view of the landscape, the long view, closer to heaven and further from the streets. The view is pristine, and the tiny ants below, with their Ford Pintos and 7-Elevens, hardly muck up the scene.

It is the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, of Frederic Edwin Church, of Albert Bierstadt and the landscape stands in for a kind of vast, sublime Eden.

This is the view of West Virginia promulgated by its official state song: “Almost Heaven.” And it isn’t that such a view is false. It isn’t false — there really is great beauty in the mountainscape of the state as seen from its peaks — but it is partial. Conversely, it is easy to see the bottoms of the mountains as some sort of dystopia: the epitome of Appalachia and its poverty, meth use, grime, coal-mining eco-disaster and educational malaise. coal tipple wv bw

But there is a Romanticism of the hill-bottoms, too. I don’t mean a nostalgia for the black-and-white WPA photographs and the “simpler, old-timey folksiness.” That kind of Romanticism is a refusal to recognize reality. That isn’t really Romanticism, it is escapism.

No, I mean that the soot, the coal trains, the sludgy stream in the mountain cove, the old homes, with their collapsing porches and front yard full of automotive detritus can elicit their own sense of the sublime.

You drive through the valleys of West Virginia coal country, around the impeding hills to the next valley and you pass grade crossings, coal tipples, rusting car frames half submerged in the streams, and lines of houses just up the hill from the road. Next to the road is the railroad track and next to that is the stream, all following the same geography. appalachian plateau BW cropped

The central part of the state, the Appalachian Plateau, is a weathered peneplain, where all the mountains are rounded bumps all about the same height, like the mountains children put into their tempera paintings, one seen in between two others.

It is primarily in these mountains that coal is mined. And in those valleys, crossed with a braid-work of streams, railroad tracks and roads, that most people live and work. Pocohontas wv

In the south, you have McDowell County, a center of coal production country spreading into Kentucky and western Virginia. The collapse of the industry means that the population is one-fourth what it was in 1950, poverty is rampant, and for those men that remain, the average lifespan is the lowest in the U.S. — 12 years shorter than the national average.

In the plateau region, which is what most people think of as “typical” West Virginia, the roads meander through the V-notches between the hills; it is impossible to drive in a straight line anywhere. You are always curving around some mountain into the next valley and around the next mountain.

Until the opening of the West Virginia Turnpike and I-77 and I-79 (work not completed until 1987), traveling anywhere in West Virginia was a slow and tortuous process, and locations not a hundred miles apart as the crow flies, could be more than 250 by car. Aside from the chute-the-chute of the Interstate system, driving in the state is still pretty much a slalom. bradshaw wv

In the small towns, smeared longways along the streams and tracks, the hardware stores and groceries have largely been supplanted by Dollar Stores and coin laundries, and the largest private employer in McDowell County is the Walmart. There are satellite dishes — many dangling and unhooked. The macadam at the gas station is potholed and the store sign advertises prices for cigarettes by the carton.

But, despite this triumph of entropy, the landscape has significance. It has meaning: Just ask any who live there. They may be needy to escape, but if they leave, they pine to return. It is a landscape that gets under your skin, like coal dust gets under your fingernails. keystone wv night coal mine bw

It is a mythic landscape, not a pristine one. It tells us things about the universe and about life.

It is a landscape with its own hell: underground fires that can last decades and at night glow red and orange like the combustion of hell. Some count over 500 such fires in West Virginia. Avernus may be the gate to the underworld for the ancient Romans, but it is West Virginia in the New World. coal train and house

The slow rusting of old refrigerators and Chevys, and abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds and vines, their glass broken out and now enameled with spray-can art, and the closed factories, with lines of smokestacks — these all tally the losses, the sucking down into the past of the present, spinning like water around a drain before disappearing into oblivion. This, too, is sublime. We feel it more in places like West Virginia; it is instantly visible.

Also, because the land is littered with the obsolete and abandoned, you can see them, can pay attention. In suburbia, familiarity has dulled our senses and we hardly notice the clapboards, the street curbs, the cars in the shopping center parking lots, the school buildings, the very trees that line the roads. They are there to be seen, but who actually looks? coal train in rain bw

In this moonscape of detritus, waste, loss and forgetting, the details are burned once again into us, made unfamiliar by rot and decay, so we can see them again. The very “thingness” of each chesspiece on this gameboard of depletion makes them palpable and gives them presence, and presence imbues meaning — significance.

There is a difference between the pretty and the beautiful. Postcard sunsets and green mountain vistas are all pretty enough, but they distract us from the essential facts; they are a magician’s misdirection, keeping our eye from the real thing. As Tom Robbins wrote, “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.” The real thing is our gaze into the eye of eternity, and you get that from contemplating anything bigger, vaster, scarier, more overwhelming than yourself. coopers wv grad crossing

Yes, you can look at the old tires and relic houses and see only a failed economy, but you look instead at the passing of time engraved on those same objects and you see intense beauty.

Appalachian Plateau wv 1I am standing on a peak in West Virginia. It is New Year’s Day and it’s 6 o’clock in the morning; the sun has not quite risen and the moon has not yet set. All around me on the ground, a rime has crusted the brown grass and it crunches under my foot. My breath fogs the air in front of me and congeals on my beard. The cold burns my trachea and numbs the flesh of my nose.

It is an experience that is etched by acid into the neural paths of my brain. It is one of those “peak” experiences that seems somehow more real than real, more alive than the light of day.

As the sun rises in the icy cold, streaking the mountain landscape with long morning shadows, I recognize that this is why I travel.

There is a “nowness” to this particular now that does not attach to any other. A placeness to this place. And my recognition of that nowness is a stronger stimulant than caffeine.

I am a traveler; I have been all my life. When I was a little boy, I couldn’t wait for my father to pull the keys to the ’50 Chevy out of his pocket and ask if I wanted to come with him. When other children slept in the back seat, I was always awake and wide eyed.

As a college student, I took the time between semesters to hitchhike to places I had never been. I wanted to know the planet.

And ever since, I am mad to find where the road goes next.

And the reason is the nowness of it, and the placeness.

You can see pictures in coffeetable travel books and watch PBS travel shows, but nothing compares to the physical, sensuous actuality of being there.

Travel is more than just dates and destinations, more than admissions fees and show schedules. Travel is about being somewhere, and that somewhere is always more alive than the place you have grown accustomed to.

It is the particular neon red color of the dirt in northern Mississippi; the waterfall of clouds over the crest of Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa; the whoop of a loon on Daicey Pond in Maine.

Each of these is a dart that deflates the complacency of everyday living, which insulates me like a skin, and brings my bones into direct contact with the air.

I have known people for whom travel is a mere change of venue: the same show every night in a different city. For them, getting in a car is like getting in an elevator. They are impatient for the movement to stop so they can get on with whatever task drove them in the first place.

But it is not that way for me, or for anyone else who loves travel. I don’t mean “vacation” and I don’t mean mere tourism, though they may be aspects of the travel.

I mean the buzzing of the neurons that comes from pulling in to Kayenta in the late afternoon to see shadow-black excite the texture and sunlight-red excite the color of the bluffs, so that a small patch of green grass where some horses graze seems electric under the ruddy rock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is the early morning dew dripping from the pistils of a rhododendron along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia where the path is lined with geraniums, maypops and pinks.

It is also the bus fumes at the 175th Street bus terminal at the end of the George Washington Bridge, and the quickened pace of life in New York City.

Habitual life desensitizes us. We wake, we go to work, we eat and sleep. We wade through a week that is much like the last. Travel awakens us and reacquaints us with the pinpoint accuracy of the now and here.

And being there, wherever it is, is the very point of being alive.

NEXT: West Virginia, Part 2 — At the bottom of the mountain

Appalachians Part 2: In which the author eats a persimmon

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On a late October morning, after a solid frost, you can find a bushel of brownish mottled balls scattered on the ground in the rime under the persimmon tree. They look spoiled and perhaps their thin skin has cracked.

You pick one up and tear its skin wide, forcing the orange flesh through, against your teeth. You push the soft, puddinglike flesh against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, separating it from the hard, grasshopper-size pits that you suck on for a few minutes before spitting out.

There are few wild foods sweeter and more delicious than the ‘simmon you find for yourself on an old, deserted farm in the mountains of North Carolina.

The farmhouse has lost most of its paint, there are spider webs on the dusty windows, and a few boards have fallen through on the front porch. The house sits at the bottom of a hill, where hay still is mown in the summer. At the top, there is the edge line of a hardwood forest. At this time of year, along the creek at the bottom of the slope, the red maples are scarlet and the sweet gums are yellow.

And the ubiquitous zigzag rail fence will seem to outlast everything in the decaying farmhouse but its chimney. ashe county back road

It is the Blue Ridge, the first range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It rises as low hills in northern Alabama and continues north, growing higher through Georgia, South and North Carolina and Tennessee, then thinning out and shrinking again in Virginia, only to sink below the soil once more in Maryland.

The Blue Ridge is what we think of first when we consider the Southern mountains. Its people, its wildlife and its landscape are distinct: black bears, porcupines and possums play in thickly forested hills interspersed with valleys, or ”coves,” where leather-skin farmers grow feed corn and burley tobacco and pasture their cattle.

These Eastern mountains are very different from the higher, wilder, but simpler ranges of the West. They are lower for one thing — the highest is Mount Mitchell, at a mere 6,684 feet. They are round, soft, fuzzy with trees. road up Mt. Mitchell copy

And they are inhabited.

There are wildernesses in the Blue Ridge, accessible only by serious hikers, but you can’t really think of the Appalachians without thinking of the people who live there. Every creek-filled crease in the folded rock has its two-story clapboard house, its barn, springhouse and root cellar.

In the cool fall days, you can see the blue smoke rising from stone chimneys and hear the distant sound of chain saws bucking another cord of wood.

Times have changed some: You also might find a satellite dish in the yard. Because these old houses — some a century and a half old — are so hard to heat, the descendants of their builders sometimes have moved into a mobile home parked right next to the noble old house.

However, you will always find the woodpile, the kitchen garden and the pickup truck on the dirt driveway.

The people of the mountains, however, are not mere stereotypes.

By and large, they are comfortably in the 21st century. There are fast foods, hardware stores and Kia dealerships. High-school kids wear Nikes and everyone waiting for the schoolbus seems to have an iPhone.

However, there is something different about them, their clipped dialect, wary sense of humor, flat-pitch singing, white-clapboard religion and, above all else, an unbreakable attachment to the land. Those who leave spend the rest of their lives pining for it, dreaming of going back.

”I lied to my God when I left the mountains and kem to these devilish cotton mills,” said one old mountaineer, quoted by Appalachian historian Horace Kephart. ”Ef only he’d turn me into a varmint I’d run back tonight. Boys, I dream I’m in torment; and when I wake up, I lay thar an’ think o’ the spring branch runnin’ over the root o’ that thar poplar; and I say, could I git me one drink o’ that water I’d be content to lay me down and die.” snow

For nature is so insistent, both for the brutality of its winter and the beauty of its summer, that the mountain population grows right into the rocks and soil of the hillsides. Pull one out and his roots remain in the ground.

I know. I have become one of them.

Everything about the Southern Appalachians sticks in one’s innards.

So that when the midwinter snows close the schools for weeks at a time and the white tufts gather in the pine needles, deadening all the sound of the landscape, you might hear in the distance the county plow scraping the pavement and the clatter of tire chains. catawba rhododendron

The hillsides are scratchy with gray branches and beech trees with smooth aluminum bark, and last year’s dry papery copper leaves rattle in the breeze.

Then the spring: It is spring when the Appalachians are most themselves.

The cool humid air hangs as fog in the river bottoms and the dew hangs on the stamens of the rhododendron, which snake out of the flowers like a lizard tongue.

Witch hazels spread over the ice-water stream.

The area’s waterfalls are at their peak, spreading water like a coat of varnish over the gray, lichened and mossy granite. Trilium

There is color under your feet and over your head. The redbud tree spatters the forest with a spray of reddish purple; the wake-robin grows pinker by the day. There are buttercups, columbine, maypops, geraniums, trilliums, mayflowers, fire pinks and yellow lady’s slipper.

Everywhere, low under your ankle, there are the leaf-whorl and drooping antenna-flower of the common humble violet.

The mountain winters are frozen solid, so when the spring thaw comes, the whole landscape pops open.

And no matter where I was living, when spring came, I thought of it in these mountains.

Next: Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Craggy Gardens

The East Coast of North America varies more widely than any other region of the continent. Westerners are Westerners, but no one could confuse a Manhattanite with a Cajun, a Down Easter with Virginia gentry.

There are drawls in the South, missing R’s in New England, even French in Quebec.

But there is one thing that ties the East together, a kind of central nervous system that defines both its history and emotional core: the Appalachian Mountains.

Running from southwest to northeast for 2,000 miles from Alabama to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Appalachians are a true cordillera, not a single mountain range of peaks but a chain of ranges that span a continent.

There are the Unakas, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, the Green, White, Black, Blue and Brown mountains, the Berkshires and Catskills, the Notre Dames and Shickshocks.

They were this nation’s first frontier, a physical barrier to continental expansion in the 18th century that helped define the original 13 colonies.

It took an unusual sort of pioneer to settle the green stony hills, and their inhabitants to this day maintain much of their independent nature. It is one of the strengths of the Appalachians.

They are among the oldest mountains — parts are more than a billion years old — and they are also structurally complex. Appalachian map

They can be divided into three very different sections from east to west. This structure is clearest in Virginia.

There in the front range of the Appalachians are the old, volcanic Blue Ridge, rising abruptly from the Piedmont. Behind it lies the broad, fertile Great Valley — a kind of cordillera of valleys — best-known in northern Virginia as the Shenandoah Valley. The Ridge and Valley Province comes next, fronted by the Alleghenies. It is a long series of low sedimentary ridges, like a line of breakers at the shore. In these loaf mountains are some of the nation’s early iron and copper mines.

Behind that is the Appalachian, or Cumberland Plateau, the wide belt of rocky bumps of almost equal height extending through most of West Virginia and into Kentucky. In these hills, miners still dig out the soft, bituminous coal that is the nation’s greatest single natural resource.

But the Appalachians are also partitioned from north to south. It is traditionally divided into the southern, central and northern sections: The first, from Alabama to Maryland, includes the highest peaks in the East. The second, running through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, are mostly long ridges. And in the north, encompassing New England and Atlantic Canada, the mountains grow once more in height and ruggedness.

For the several blog entries, we will look at the Appalachians and the people who live in them, taking them section by section.

NEXT: The Southern Appalachians

LIttle Tunk Pond, Maine

LIttle Tunk Pond, Maine

I’m big on climbing small mountains. From coast to coast, I’ve managed to hike my way up mountains large enough to have names, but not so imposing that special equipment is involved. It’s become something of a specialty.

Those that are big, I drive up: Colorado’s Pike’s Peak; New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington; North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell; Washington’s Hurricane Ridge. The views are sprawling, the air is thin and you can sometimes find snow even in June.

But the greatest pleasure comes from what you can climb on foot. I’ve “conquered” Roden Crater in northern Arizona, Humpback Rocks in Virginia — give me a mountain climb under 1,200 feet and I’m Edmund Hillary.

Others may dream of K2 or Aconcagua; I fancy the mighty Watchungs of New Jersey.

But just because my ambition is small, don’t think there is no challenge. Some small mountains are quite rugged, and when climbed in the proper nasty weather, you can work up quite an appreciation for their wildness and tenacity.

I’m thinking in particular of Schoodic Mountain in Maine. At 1,069 feet, it qualifies as my kind of mountain, but it is no pushover. Even to get to its bottom requires either a 4-wheel drive or long hike on shank’’s mare from the spot where you finally decide the road has gotten too primitive for your car. On a cool, humid day in July, the mosquitoes are thick near its foot and the foliage is dense and close over the path. Higher up, it’s all rock.

Summit, Schoodic Mountain

Summit, Schoodic Mountain

Of course, there is great breeding in its name. “Schoodic” is a name you will see elsewhere in these climes, most notably in Schoodic Point, which is a detached portion of Acadia National Park. Most of the park is on Mt. Desert Isle, with smaller sections on Isle au Haut some miles out to sea off Stonington, and at Schoodic Point, a rocky peninsula across Frenchman’s Bay from the main part of the park.

For many, Acadia National Park has become synonymous with the tourist development in Bar Harbor, with its T-shirt emporia, cappucino bars and Cap’n’s Table restaurants. Like many national parks, Acadia in the summer has become crowded and intolerable. But Schoodic is different. Fewer people make it out to the peninsula; although it is only something like eight miles across the bay from Bar Harbor, Schoodic Point is closer to 40 miles by road and with no shopping, it doesn’t attract the vacationers.

The main section of Schoodic Point is a pile of cracked and weathered granite jutting into the sea waves at the end of the peninsula. On a good, mizzly day, the gray of rock, sea and air all mesh in a uniform mood that is the essence of the Maine Coast. You can stand on the precipice and watch the churning ocean rise over and drain from the kelp and barnacles on the rocks below, wrenching the green seaweed this way and that.

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine

What must be millions of gallons of salt water, beaten into a white seafoam, collide into the granite with each swell. In some crevices, the surf traps air which explodes like a rocket, sending spume high into the air and leaving the whole rock perpetually wet with the descending mist.

The same craggy spirit built Schoodic Mountain, about 15 miles north of the point. Locals pronounce the name with its double-“O” matching that in the word “good.” It is an Indian word said to mean “Place near water,” but in Maine, it is hard to find a spot that isn’t. Schoodic Bog at the bottom of the mountain, for instance, is soggy underfoot and thick with birch and alder.

The trail up the south face of the mountain crosses the col between the summit and Schoodic Nubble, a secondary peak to the west, and then continues east till it reaches the top. The broad mountaintop is smooth with weathered granite and decorated with scattered erratics, boulders that are the leftovers of the glaciers that ground the mountain down to its present size during the last ice age.

A tower is anchored in the rock with guy wires that hum in the wind.

It is a fine time to sit down and enjoy the view. To the north, there are other similar drumlins, with their gradual north slopes and abrupt southern precipices — Caribou and Tunk mountains and further, on the horizon, Lead Mountain.

To the south of Schoodic, just below the peak are several small lakes and the unused railroad trunk line, which looks like it is sinking in the bog. Further out, you can see Frenchman’s Bay and Mt. Desert Isle, topped with the imposing dome of Cadillac Mountain, said to be the spot where the sun first hits the United States each morning.

In the winter, my friend Alexander, who lives nearby, likes to ski up Cadillac Mountain. That’s right, up the mountain. Cross-country skiers are a strange lot.

As for me, I’ve driven up the summit road.