Hazel Beeler Columnist
The visibility was relatively good and there was little wind, but it was a dim day, with a low, dark stratocumulus overcast. Temperature was in the mid-20s, but the forecast had promised mid-30s and some sunshine for later in the day. My potential companion had bailed on me, saying she needed to plaster her ceiling, so I loaded up bodyguards and gear and headed out to Craigs Creek to walk up the Appalachian Trail to the Audie Murphy monument.
That’s familiar territory to my friend KC and I. We walked to the monument three times, approaching from all possible directions, a few years back. But we never found the overlook, and I wanted to see the view so I can describe it in my trail guide, and also needed to verify road and trail mileages.
After the usual brief stop at the library in New Castle, we were on our way, out 311 to Upper Craigs Creek Road and then on, through open fields, with the knobbly spine of Brush Mountain to our left and the near-level one of Sinking Creek Mountain to our right, to the A.T. crossing about 7 miles from 311. Near the intersection with Millers Cove Road, there was a sign warning of a controlled burn, and farther along, a phalanx of white Forest Service vehicles passed us, headed in the opposite direction. There were no other vehicles in the parking area, and we dismounted, crossed the road, and headed out the trail. A low bridge just beyond crosses a little tributary of Craigs Creek, accompanied by signs: 3.7 miles to the Audie Murphy monument, 7.5 miles to Trout Creek, and notification that we were entering Brush Mountain East Wilderness.
The initial part of the trail crosses the floodplain of Craigs Creek through a stand of pines underlain by carpets of Lycopodium, then emerges into an open area of dry grasses. The Montgomery County end of the valley, which becomes Poverty Creek valley, is narrow, but here the valley is broad, and Brush Mountain, seen through the slot of a small powerline cut, seemed discouragingly far away. Decomposing dead trunks of trees that had fallen across the trail had been recently chainsawed away. Two high bridges cross Craigs Creek, one over the active channel and one over a dry channel that carries water during floods. Between and around the bridges, high water has scoured away the soil, leaving exposed tree roots; loose, uneven windrows of rounded rocks; and accumulations of leaves piled against the upstream sides of every obstacle. The steps on the far end of the second bridge were almost too steep for the poor little bodyguards, who were in danger of tipping over as they went down headfirst. Then we left Craigs Creek and wound our way under large white pines whose cones littered the trail. Over a rise where log-edged steps mitigated the climb, we descended to a small tributary and followed it upstream for a way, crossing it three times on low, gangplank-style bridges. Then we crossed another higher area, the base of a spur ridge that comes down Brush Mountain, and traversed another low bridge. A glimpse of the mountain told me we were still not very close to it.
Raven and pileated woodpecker voiced their encouragement as we started to climb in earnest along a spur ridge. The trail led laterally along its flank, crossed to the other flank, crossed to the top and followed that for a distance, then did it all again repeatedly. My face was cold, but my body was soon warm from the exertion and I unzipped my jacket. I stopped to pant and rest my legs numerous times. Was that light spot on the mountaintop the memorial? After we’d been walking an hour, we took a break to get some water and a bite from my cheese sandwich. Then onwards, with pine-dominated forest to our right and hardwoods to our left. This difference in forest composition, due to microclimate on the east versus west sides of the spur ridges, is very obvious from a distance, especially in winter when there’s snow on the ground.
The mountain crest loomed closer. If that horizontal distance were level, I could have walked to it in 15 minutes. As we approached our goal, the trail became steeper and rougher with outcrops of in-place rocks. In steep climbs, I count steps and try to take at least 30 steps between breaks. I wasn’t doing too badly—50-70+ steps between breaks. The drop-offs on either side of the trail were near-vertical. Frost heave had pushed up small ice columns that crunched underfoot. Behind us, the valley’s patchwork of fields and forest were spread out. Then we reached the wall, a rampart of scree where the spur ridge and its flanking ravines run into the bulwark of the mountain. The trail cut to the left, across the top of the next ravine. A few patches of melted and refrozen snow adorned that long last lateral run, and then we were up on the spine of Brush Mountain, where a bench, wilderness sign and the old road greeted us. It had taken two hours to get from truck to mountain crest, which pleased me very much—I had anticipated that it might take me three hours or more. The distance to the monument from where the A.T. reaches the crest is only a few tenths of a mile, over a few knobs. We took a little rehydration break and headed left, and soon met a pair of fellow walkers—someone who knows me, Donna who oversees the canning entries at the Newport Fair, accompanied by her husband. They had come up the easy way, driven up the road from the Roanoke County side, and parked at the gate just beyond the bench. We had a brief chat, they petted Addie, and I took out my maps and showed them the way we’d come, but the wind was up, and we didn’t feel like standing still for too long.
Over the second knob, we passed a small, ice-covered pond on the left and another bench, and beyond the third knob was the short side trail to the monument and yet another bench. Michael and I walked to the monument some 30 years ago, when it was hard to get to, by walking out the crest road, which follows the mountain all the way from Preston Forest subdivision on the outskirts of Blacksburg in Montgomery County. In those days, the road from the Roanoke County side was a near-impassable obstacle course of gullies two feet deep, and its lowest section, which passes through private property, was abundantly adorned with NO TRESPASSING signs. Now, parts of the crest road, which also passes through some private property, are gated and/or posted, and the Forest Service must have condemned or obtained an easement for the road to the crest. It’s in excellent shape, well-maintained and graveled, with a large sign at the bottom directing visitors to the monument. And the monument itself has gone from a virtually unknown, out-of-the-way feature to a well-maintained and accessible shrine. A flag flies from a pole mounted in concrete, and there are little solar-powered lights at the base. Visitors have piled up walls of small rocks around the monument and left all kinds of mementos there—flags, dog tags, testimonials, bandanas. The monument itself has a brief bio of Audie Murphy, a highly-decorated WWII veteran who became a movie star after the war and flew his airplane into the mountain in 1971.
I located the trail to the overlook, a short but steep descent behind the monument, and scrambled down, to get a view across Craigs Creek Valley to the horizontal crest of Sinking Creek Mountain, with the very top of Kelly Knob beyond, blue in the distance, to the left. To the far right, in the direction of New Castle, the mountains farther away are barely visible through the trees, not discernable enough to describe or make a sketch. There’s also a bench here, and below the main rock is another rock, lower and to the left, with some sort of smaller tribute. I climbed down; here were pair of moldering boots, some military items, and a little plaque: Matt Payne, 26 Jan 1992-23 Oct 2010, Our Brother and Friend, You Walk in our hearts, A Rocket City Rambler. Only 18 years old! The memorabilia and style of dates, plus picture on the plaque, suggest he was military. Who was this guy? If anyone can tell me about him, I’ll put something in my trail guide.
We didn’t linger at monument and overlook; the wind had stiffened, and forecasters had been mistaken—it wasn’t sunny or significantly warmer. We hastened back along the road, where large acorns had filled the gaps between rocks, and headed down past the wilderness sign. By the time we reached the base of the wall we were out of the worst of the wind, and it continued to diminish downwards. A broad column of smoke at the base of Sinking Creek Mountain was probably the controlled burn. Chickadees and downy woodpecker called as we descended over russet pine needles, almost exactly the same color as bodyguard Trey. Near the bottom, detached scales from pine cones were scattered on the trial, left by squirrels or chipmunks dismembering the cones to get the seeds. My legs were tired as we reached the first of the little bridges, its planks plastered with flood debris. I was surprised to note that it didn’t take much less time to walk down the mountain than it did to walk up.
My trekking pole did well by me, and I reached the bottom with only minor twinges in my knee. But other joints were complaining; both hips and both big toe knuckles felt creaky, and my wrist didn’t like taking the strain off my knee. If the other knee starts to go, which seems likely, I’ll be in trouble. I suppose I could sit at home and my joints would last longer, but inactivity has its own risks. To paraphrase the song, I’d rather burn out than fade away.