Off-Roading: March 2011

Posted: March 14, 2011 0:29:41 • 1307 words

For various reasons, I pretty much haven't been up to the mountains at all since autumn (I actually can't remember my last trip), so I've really been pining for the trees lately. Last week, which was miserably gross weather-wise, I saw that the morning clouds were extra-low, and decided to try driving up to a nearby peak to get above them, a waste of a trip. Not only were the clouds higher by that point, barely enough to make the road foggy 700 feet from the summit, but the upper road was covered in a few inches of snow, and I opted to take my car instead of mom's truck.

The trip may have been a bust, but the bit of scenery I could see reminded me of how much I love the forest, so I decided to head up on a day when the weather would be more cooperative. Today was the day I chose, and at the last minute, I decided last night to skip sleeping and take my trip in the morning, to catch a sunrise and have my fun before I got tired. Excellent decision.

I headed out around 6:30am, and started by ascending Reddish Knob, one of my favourite overlook points. It's one of the highest peaks anywhere around, the former site of a fire watchtower on the VA/WV border, and it offers a panoramic view of all the mountains as far as the eye can see. I reached my destination a few minutes after 7am, just in time to catch the sunrise and a few pre-sun shots. But it was more than just that, the view was truly breathtaking. The ridges to the east were a lovely shade of blue, highlighted by the sunrise, the clouds were just barely present, and there was a light layer of fog covering the Shenandoah Valley. To the west, the valley was still dark, with quite some time left before it would see sunrise. Simply stunning.

After getting a bunch of pictures, and nearly freezing my fingers off (the mountain tops were at least 20-30 degrees colder than the valley floor this morning), I started to leave, but turned around when I spotted something awesome; sunrise in West Virginia. From the top of the mountain, it was already pretty sunny, but the mountain hid the sun from the valley floor to the west, so there was a considerable delay in its sunrise. And I got to watch it from above. I'd never seen anything like it before, but watching the sunlight slowly work its way across the valley floor just might be the coolest thing I've ever seen :-D

Usually, when I do this sort of trip, I'm chasing sunset, which means I have to make sure I get to the end of the trip by a particular time. There was no such deadline today, since my big photo-goal was at the beginning, giving me a pleasant, relaxing freedom. So, I spent my day leisurely exploring off-road trails. I mainly stuck to the fire road that connects Reddish Knob to my other favourite spot, Switzer Lake, since it's a beginner-level trail; rough enough to pose an occasional challenge, but well-defined enough that I can take someone else's vehicle on it without worrying about damage. I did a bit of exploring, too, and found a nifty trail I'll have to check out someday when I'm not using a borrowed truck; as much as I love exploring, it's less exciting when it's someone else's property I'm risking by doing it. On the plus side, even though I've run that trail so many times I could practically do it without light, I don't think I've ever run it in reverse (peak to lake vs lake to peak), and it's been awhile since I was last on it at all, so it was far from boring. In fact, it was quite exciting! I was a little out of practice at first, but with the first mile or so of trail, I got my rhythm back and had an awesome time. It's always helpful to practice my snow-wheeling skills, too; as long as I have a 4WD available, snow on paved roads presents no problems whatsoever for me, because even last year's Snowmageddon posed no challenge compared to a snowy jeep trail :-)

That said, I wouldn't take just any vehicle back there, and the capabilities of mom's Blazer never cease to impress me. I never considered the Chevy Blazer to be a serious 4x4, or even deserving of the label "truck", but it proves me wrong time and time again. Its drivetrain and steering performance on the trail are top-notch, and while it's a bit lacking in ground clearance, it has full undercarriage armour, a fact that caught me by surprise when I slid the frame on some rocks on a freshly-eroded switchback turn. When I checked for damage, I was relieved and a little mind-blown to see heavy panelling covering pretty much the entire underside of the vehicle. I can't imagine that's factory equipment, not even the mighty Hummer H1 was quite as well-equipped in that area, but it's equally unlikely that the previous owner (a little old man who just drove it around town) would install such a thing. Either way, I was impressed and relieved to find that mom's suburban grocery-getter was equipped for severe boulder-surfing. The only area where it underperforms is the suspension; with leaf springs in the rear (*gags*) and pavement-tuned shocks all around, it's a pretty rough ride on a dry, rocky trail, though thankfully not as tooth-rattling as her Nissan Pathfinder was.

Despite my experience at this, there were a couple of close-calls, as there usually are. Unfortunately, two out of three were a product of rusty skills and mental wandering, problems made worse by a lack of sleep. So, note to self: If I'm going to do a morning/sunrise trip like this, get more than a couple-hour nap first. Aside from the aforementioned rock-sliding incident, a trouble spot I didn't see far enough in advance because I was thinking about other things, I also nearly rolled it in the same obstacle. When I came around the switchback straight into the washed-out section of trail, I instinctively aimed for the side to avoid the wheel-sized rocks in the middle, without seeing the muddy trench I was steering the other side of the truck into. Thankfully, I didn't roll, and probably didn't come close, but it was a very disconcerting sideways angle, and was a major reminder that this isn't normal driving. All the experience in the world doesn't mean anything if you're even a tiny bit distracted (it's probably a good thing that cellphones don't work out there, there'd be a lot more dead off-roaders). The other mishap was earlier in the day, and minor by comparison, I tried to turn around on a snow-covered trail (a familiar story for Dusk), and got stuck, a situation remedied by 4-Low combined with a braking trick I always try (which actually worked for a change).

The conclusion of the day was a peaceful visit to my favourite lake. The lower altitude and higher sun warmed the 23-degree temperatures to a more pleasant 39 by then, so I just sat on the tailgate for awhile, nibbling carrots and enjoying the natural beauty. Since it was about 11am, with a tired puppy and incoming clouds, I decided to call it a day and head home.

Overall, a spectacular day, which brought back pleasant memories and reminded me how much I love off-roading. I love hiking too, and while I've often called off-roading "hiking for lazy people", they're really nothing alike, nor is there anything "lazy" about off-roading. It's less physically intense, but the mental intensity more than makes up for it (for the driver, anyway).