Springing for the North Bend Rail Trail

Last week somebody asked me if I’d done anything special for Easter, which seemed a bit presumptuous. The most Easter-thing I’d done in recent memory was pass along a joke a stranger told me last month:

“Why did Jesus die on the cross?”
“Because he forgot the safe word.”

Now if somebody had asked about Easter on the walk, my answer would have been significantly less heretical. And much more humbling.

Laura’s garage. Philippi, WV. April 3, 2015.

THE GOAT TROUGH

The day before Easter, we woke up inside our tent, pitched in a garage. The garage belonged to an exceptionally kind woman named Laura who had picked us up on the rainy side of the road the day before because she knew we had nowhere to go. While we slept, she chilled in the house with her ex-husband and several other friends, smoking and drinking the rainy night through. When we woke, they were still at it.

Laura invited us into the house (a separate building a few paces from the garage), so we accepted her hospitality again, taking our shoes off in the front hallway. Inside, smoke hung in the air, cans and bottles lay around, and everyone was alert. Sleepy, but alert. Red-eyed and hair-askew, the group of friends continued chitchatting about this and that, occasionally asking us questions about the walk before drifting into tangential conversations about whatever.

One thing that continually came up was the goat trough, and how we had to take a bath in it—something insisted on repeatedly not just by our host but her friends too. So we agreed. On the way down to the basement, I remember seeing flits of snow outside the window drifting down to the muddy earth.

In the basement, two things went on.

One: our host’s friends had drifted down a tangent in conversation ultimately leading to firearms, and so they passed a piece around, aiming it at nothing in particular. When they noticed Natalie and I observing, one smiled and apologized, saying he knew we probably weren’t used to guns just being waved around. But we were in West Virginia.

Two: we found Laura tidying up the bathroom and filling the trough with steaming hot water. What kind of trough? They kept calling it a “goat’s trough,” but it wouldn’t have been accessible to a goat unless the thirsty creature hopped inside. It looked like this:

You don’t get a good idea of scale looking at that, but to understand the scale of the thing is to understand the beauty of the trough as bathtub. Most ordinary bathtubs are too small. It’s just a fact. Let alone fitting two people, trying to fit one 6'2" human in a standard bathtub comes down to a game of compromise: do I want my upper half or my lower half submerged? Because both ain’t happening at once.

In Laura’s goat trough, however, it happened. Not only that, but it happened to both Natalie and me at the same time.

Outside, above ground, faint snowflakes flit across the yard in the slowly warming dawn… but that wasn’t in our minds. Nothing was in our minds. We sat spaciously in each other’s presence, blissful in a trough of hot water and steam, feeling wild and wonderful.

FRUIT AND BERRY

After thanking Laura for her double hospitality, Natalie and I hit the road around 11:00 AM. It was a late start and, for the third day in a row, we had no idea where we were to spend the night.

Thankfully, yesterday’s rain had passed, so we mostly walked under sunny skies. Not that the walking was all cake and sunshine.

Barbour County Courthouse. Philippi, WV. April 4, 2015.
Doughboy. Philippi, WV. April 4, 2015.
Philippi Covered Bridge. Philippi, WV. April 4, 2015.

Things started out easily enough, as we followed a major road through a small city called Philippi (apparently the site of one the Civil War’s earliest skirmishes). We grabbed a bite at a pub there and then continued on, eventually following our Google Maps route to a questionable trail, growing dirtier and wetter by the minute. By the time it was too late to pick a better route, we found ourselves slogging through foot-deep cuts of mud with ATV and motorbike riders whizzing around us. It was tough-going and seemed to get tougher every step we went; only fifteen minutes later did I realize the parking brake had snapped on. So not only had I been shoving the buggy through the mud, but one of the wheels didn’t even have a chance to spin.

At least Natalie didn’t care about mud on her shoes anymore.

And how did the men, women, and children consider the strange sight of us, muddied and buggy-lugging? The ones loading up their weekend-fun “off highway vehicles” back into the pickup trucks? Lord knows.

We found a decent road again, yet our comfort didn’t last long thanks to the rapidly setting sun, nothing but residences and private property all around, and still no place to stay. But we walked on anyway.

On and on and on we walked along the Old Philippi Pike, past big houses and small houses, houses close to the road and far from the road, houses illuminated and houses dilapidated. I’d resolved in my mind that we’d have to go knock on a door and ask a complete stranger if they’d be willing to let us camp in their yard, but I hadn’t quite figured out the best way of doing so. Exhausted after 19 miles of walking and weighed down by the unknowns lying ahead, one begins to find reasons for and against everything.

“Maybe we should try this house?”

“It doesn’t look like anyone’s home.”

“How about that one?”

“Too many cars in the driveway. We shouldn’t intrude on a family gathering.”

“Should we ask this guy in front of his house?”

“He’s with his kids. People with kids don’t want to deal with us.”

“There’s a woman driving toward her place. Let’s go ask her?”

“It’s too far down a private driveway. It would be a waste if they said no.”

And on and on the stress thickened as the twilight deepened. After a couple miles on the windy, narrow road, we met a T-intersection with a couple buildings on the corner. The place looked festive, with a small patio, well-groomed grass, and large colorful bulbs stringed this way and that.

“There’s a guy walking around there. Let’s try it?”

“Sure.”

I walked up the stone path leading to the patio and called out to the man. Maybe he didn’t hear me, so I called out again. This time he turned around with a look of wonder on his face, and came over to greet me. On the way over — crunch — he accidentally stepped on one of the light bulbs that had been lying on the ground, leaving a pile of blue glass. Off to an excellent start, I thought.

“How can I help you?” asked the man, apparently unfazed by his misstep.

“Hey there… sorry to intrude,” I said. “This may sound strange but my girlfriend and I are walking across America, and were wondering if we might be able to set up a tent somewhere on your property to get some sleep for the night.”

“Walking across America,” he repeated, while Natalie clumsily rolled the buggy up the driveway. “Well, sure. I don’t see any problem with that.”

The hours of stress that had been burgeoning in my body instantly transformed into elation. Natalie and I thanked the man profusely, telling him how much it meant to us. And when we found out that the property across the road belonged to him as well, we decidedly marched there so as to be as little a disruption as possible on the actual home.

For several minutes, we padded around in the dark looking for an ideal spot for the tent, but everything felt damp from rain the day prior. Eventually we would’ve settled on something but, before we could, Bob interrupted us with bottle of wine in hand.

“This probably isn’t the best place for you,” he said. “It’s too close to the water, so it’s probably the wettest spot around. Not to mention that the barn there’s on its last legs.”

“Where do you think would be better?”

“Come set up near the house. It’ll be a lot drier up there and we have firewood if you want to make a fire. And here,” he said, offering me the bottle and two plastic cups, “try some of our wine.”

They call it “trail magic.” An hour earlier, we had no idea what the hell we were going to do, probably wondering whether we’d have to set up a tent sketchily on someone’s private property or on the side of the road. Instead, we found ourselves on a dry patch of grass, cooking up dinner in perfect comfort while gulping down a bottle of wine complimentary of West Virginia Fruit & Berry (the business run by Bob and his wife Becky).

Before leaving us for the night, Bob had one more word: he told us that he, Becky, and most of their neighbors would be headed to the local church (just a five minute walk away) for sunrise service. Easter.

JESUS AND A BAG OF BACON

In the 6 AM dark, my phone started singing “Down to the River to Pray.”

It lifted me from unconsciousness into reverie, and then from reverie into fully conscious bliss. My love grumbled — Alison Krauss’ angelic voice be damned, Natalie Johal wanted sleep.

She enjoyed a few more minutes, and then we got up to pack our things in the early morning shadows. Without a word to Bob or Becky, we ambled on down the road to the church. We parked the buggy out front, and then found a place to sit inside.

Waiting for the service to start, I thought to myself how, if I had been in San Francisco, and my mother or father (or really anyone) had asked me to go to sunrise service for Easter, I would have laughed my ass off. And yet, where was I this morning? Sitting in a pew at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, West Virginia.

While I actually did enjoy waking and walking before sunrise — we had even slipped past our gracious hosts, who tried to bring us coffee but found us already gone (“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”) — I can’t say I enjoyed the service. The singing, the sermon… none of it particularly inspired this San Fran pantheist.

But the people. The people were so, so good.

Bob embarrassed us with a shout-out in the “Announcements, Joys, and Concerns” portion of the service, standing up and explaining how this strange couple had walked (walked!) here from New York City and planned to do so all the way to San Francisco. Instant celebrities.

Following the service, the congregation (mostly old farmers with a couple young’ns sprinkled in) slowly crossed the dusty parking lot to an annex for the free sunrise service breakfast, a tradition for this church. Several long tables lined with chairs stretched across the tiny room, and a team of men and women bustled in the back kitchen. Thanks to Bob’s shining the spotlight on us, everyone came over to shake our hands, to ask the usual questions, and to thank us for joining their service. Once things calmed down, we happily helped ourselves to bacon, eggs, biscuits, coffee, and orange juice — the works — while chatting with an ex-military guy who loved hearing about our trip. We offered him our sympathies since he had stood up during the service to voice his “Concern” in regard to a car crash suffered by his mom and sister. But he said they would be okay.

As we readied to hit the road around 8:30 AM, our wonderful new friends scrambled to equip us for the road, filling a couple large ziploc bags with bacon and biscuits. Had we not politely declined a thousand times, I’m sure we would’ve left with several complete meals.

RAILS TO TRAILS

Most of the actual Easter Day walking came easily.

Before we reached our halfway point (Clarksburg), a Harrison County deputy sheriff pulled us over — the first but absolutely not the last time this would happen on the trip. We told our story, he saw clearly we had no baby nor meth, and we went on our way.

Clarksburg itself felt like a giant, desolate slum, but with a population exceeding 16,000 it was the biggest city we’d seen in over a week. We celebrated by patronizing a Hardee’s, the Midwestern version of what my coastal friends would recognize as Carl’s Jr:

Yes, the walk even teaches one the nuance of fast food conglomerates.

For the fourth day running, we had no idea where we were to rest for the night, but we did know we could make it to the North Bend Rail Trail (NBRT). But making it to the trail would be about a 19-mile walk (i.e. a full day’s walk), and we had no idea what it would look like when we got there. When we finally reached it, it became clear there wasn’t an official campsite waiting for us… but that didn’t mean we couldn’t make one up.

Of course, first we had to walk through a 1,000-foot-long tunnel.

Tunnel #2. North Bend Rail Trail. April 5, 2015.
Tunnel #2. North Bend Rail Trail. April 5, 2015.
Tunnel #2. North Bend Rail Trail. April 5, 2015.

It wasn’t a flooded mess like that through the whole thing, just on the ends where the recent rains had formed pools.

Right outside the tunnel, we spotted a piece of turf carved on the side of the trail, perfectly-sized for our teeny tent. Immediately, our weary bodies wanted it to be home. Only worry, to my nervous and alert mind, was whether the occupants of a couple nearby houses would mind their new neighbors. The satellite shot below gives you an idea, with the grey pin where we hoped to camp (the tunnel’s mouth just east of it) and several residences not far northwest.

Bristol, WV. April 5, 2015.

We decided to play it cool by not setting up our tent immediately.

Despite being a wet week, Easter Sunday itself had been fairly dry with highs in the 60s — beautiful weather for West Virginians eager for spring’s arrival. In other words, people were actually on the trail. At one point, a father and daughter zoomed by gleefully on a four-wheeler straight into the tunnel, hurling mud across the decrepit walls. The engine’s motor purred as it dipped into the cave, and then reared back loud as ever on the way out.

Most likely, we would’ve been fine just camping there, but I had to be sure. I had no interest in a 2 AM wake-up call from the sheriff. So I left Natalie and walked further along the trail, and then up Flinderation Rd to see if I could catch anyone out and about. Sure enough, a few blocks up I spotted the same father and daughter having the time of their lives wheeling around on the ATV in their front yard. I hailed them, and the dad came over calm as can be.

“Hey there,” I said. “I think you saw us up on the trail near the tunnel.”

“Yup!”

“So, this might sound crazy… but we’re walking across America, and we were hoping to set up our tent for the night up there. Do you think anyone would have any problem with that?”

“No… shouldn’t be a problem at all!”

And that was that. Or so I thought.

I walked back to Natalie to deliver the good news. As we began setting up the tent, the sound of a four-wheeler zoomed up the trail. It was the very man I’d spoken to (Robert) and his wife (Nicole), foil-wrapped dishes in their laps. Seeing as it was Easter and they’d cooked way too massive an Easter feast, they decided to deliver us some of the spoils: a full plate of ham, a full plate of cake and apple pie, bread rolls, and a bagful of soda.

Natalie and I couldn’t believe it. We thanked them over and over and promised to return the plates (they’d brought the food on ceramic dishes), but they told us to just keep them as they drove away.

We gorged ourselves, adding the slabs of ham to the bacon already filling our tummies, and then passed out soundly.