Tender green leaves were expanding on the trees, dogwoods were blooming, and the sun was shining after the previous night’s rain. I had called the Forest Service and verified that Mill Creek F.S. Road was open, and the bodyguards and I were off to finish Little Mountain NE, the one between Bald and North Mountains.
We had previously walked the entire length of Mill Creek Road to its northern terminus on Lignite Mines Road, and had walked much of the F.S. road that climbs Little NE and runs along its crest. This day we would follow that road and see whether, as I expected, it reaches Mill Creek Road, and if so, where. Most of the mountain is in Craig County, but its very northeast end is in Botetourt County.
We bumped our way out Mill Creek Road under tree canopies barely beginning to make shade, parked at the gate to the road up little NE, and saddled up. To our left, pine saplings scorched by the controlled burn were shedding russet needles; to our right, dogwood crowns shone white, mountain laurels were sending up new growth, blueberry plants were leafing out and pinxter azaleas opening pink flowers. Green shoots were poking up from the blackened ground, fern fronds unscrolling in clumps and bird foot violets with pale purple flowers. Blurred horse tracks patterned the road, and there were fresh tracks of tires and a human with large feet. I was taking my new boots on their inaugural walk, and they were heavy. A blacksnake, at least four feet long, new scales shining, caught my eye; the bodyguards had bounded past and missed it completely. A small grasshopper sprang up and buzzed away. Some of the burnt pines had new candles of growth on their higher branches. My camera was acting up, not always taking the picture. Blue jays called, a musical queedle-queedle. Gnats bounced off my glasses. Low-growing dwarf iris were raising their standards, oak seedlings sported fuzzy, salmon-colored leaves about an inch long, a red-eyed vireo slurred his lazy song, and we continued up the modest gradient, having completed the initial climb.
Little Mountain NE is a whaleback, climbing gradually to a high center, then descending at an equally gentle slope, so we went up and up. A glance over my shoulder through a window of trees showed the crest of Bald Mountain and the hill, 5038, from which one gets a 360-degree panorama. Open areas in the burn were grown up in lush grasses; in a year, the only signs of the fires will be standing dead trees with blackened bases. A tiny blue butterfly danced over common violets with dark purple flowers. As we gained altitude, the dim crest of Potts Mountain became visible in the saddle of Bald Mountain, and Little SE (the one above New Castle) and Nutters Mountains stood behind us. Stands of bird foot violets were pools of sky-at-dusk purple spangled with a few bicolored individuals. We entered a grove of mature pines where iris and violets, nearly the same color, made bright spots in the understory. I was pleased to find that my boots were not chafing–it was a long walk for their first outing, but my old boots were so badly split that I was afraid they’d fall apart. As we went, darker iris made an appearance, raven or crow passed overhead, towhee called and brown thrasher sang, and a pleasant cool breeze came up to carry away the gnats. We took a water break, then went on, as the road became rougher and steeper. The boots began to chafe my heels. It was about 12:30 when we reached the clearing where I met a Navajo from a Forest Service crew last fall, and my GPS said we were 1.5 miles straight-line-distance from our starting point. We took another break, and I photographed the mountains: Bald, Potts, Little SW, Nutters, Johns Creek, Aps Knob, Sinking Creek and Brush are visible from this spot.
Beyond the road is not steep but rougher, studded with large rocks, and we continued to climb, but we were soon at the highest zone, a level stretch1.8 miles from our beginning, and headed down. A honeybee was checking out reddish blueberry flower buds, not yet open. The twisted skeletons of mountain laurels killed back by the burn spread above new shoots coming up from their bases. The downslope pushed my feet forward in my boots, easing the friction on my heels. Gnarly trees were leafing out, but there was little green coming out on the forest floor–either there was little herbaceous understory here, or the plants that had been present were not fire-tolerant. Cryptic symbols were painted on some trees in red, and I observed a tree flagged with pink plastic tape, lettered ESCAPE ROUTE. Turkeys had left tracks in muddy low places, moles had humped up tunnels, and unburned yellow acorns littered the ground. Ahead, the northeast end of Bald Mountain and its connection to Fork Mountain could be seen through the trees. The road became a track of loose, smallish rocks that rolled underfoot. A white ribbon, hung on the shrubs, was attached to a disintegrating balloon. More dwarf iris cheered our way, and a single star of yellow-eyed grass shone brightly. Down and down we went. Addie plunged into a mud puddle, dunked her face, and came up dripping, fur plastered over her eyes. To our left, small trees had been felled, some of them across the road. I’d begun to limp, and I sat down to take boots and socks off and put band-aids and tape on my heels. Addie took off in pursuit of a turkey, which flew up and vanished, and a good thing too. A turkey would kick Addie’s butt like an ostrich would trash a person. I was beginning to wonder where that road came out; it really seemed like we’d gone a long way, and the mountain isn’t all that long.
Then the road hooked to the left and went down abruptly, and there was a berm, the road’s end, and the end of the burn. But it looked like a very steep, rocky trail continued downwards, so I deployed my trekking pole and made my way downwards carefully, hoping that it did lead somewhere, since I had no enthusiasm for climbing back up. I began to hear running water, and the slope on the other side of the creek became visible. The current was from left to right, so it was Wilson Branch, not Mill Creek, and where was Mill Creek Road? Ah, there it was, 40-50 feet above the creek, up a near-vertical slope. We made our way down to the stream, which had a shelf of rock on the other side, so high that I had to lift the bodyguards up. Then they scrambled nimbly to the road and stood waiting, as I clambered on hands and knees, digging my boot toes into the slope. That connection obviously gets traffic, but maybe it is a horse trail. It’s not good walking for someone on foot. Now we had a 3.5 mile walk back to Old Blue, and I was tired. I knew where we were, but I’d forgotten that the way from Lignite Mines Road isn’t all downhill–one must ascend from the valley of Wilson Branch to the divide between it and Mill Creek valley before going down.
So upwards I slogged, over a series of berms to a left turn, through mud wallows that were frozen solid when we explored that route last winter, then up a long, straight climb, past little streams descending from the right and plunging down the slope to Wilson Branch. Fresh horse manure was attended by little black-and-white skippers, insects related to butterflies and moths. Glassy chunks of slag lay on the road. The climb wasn’t steep, but it was long, my back hurt, and I was tired. We reached the series of curves that lead into a maze of sinkhole-like mine pits. The gradient lessened as we reached a murky puddle dimpled by water striders. Then a short but steep last climb up a cut of loose red rocks took us up the divide. A fresh deposit of laminated sand was marked by worm trails, and a low spot formerly occupied by a puddle was ringed with a yellow deposit of pollen. Someone with big feet had been this way. I took a brief side trip to look at a pile of rocks to our right. Just beyond it, a bluff overlooked a huge excavation.
Finally, we started down. Turkey footprints marked muddy spots. Bluets, tiny flowers with four petals, stood in clumps on the road and the bank to the right. Many trees had marks on them in various colors. Mill Creek became louder as we descended, and a cloud of dusky butterflies sprang into the air as we passed another horse pile. Clusters of galax clung to the banks, their rounded leaves like little lily pads. The sky ahead was dark, and I wondered if we’d get rained on. Here were our old friends the iris and violets. A frog called from the creek, beek, beek, beek, and we reached the lower edge of the burn, about a mile and a half from our starting point. As we went down a long straight stretch, the rock barrier that prevents vehicle travel showed up in the distance. In some paces the burn stopped at the road and in other places it ended at Mill Creek. The pale pink flowers of a wild crabapple were just opening. The banks of a little tributary to the right were cloaked in bluets. I noted side roads to check out some time. A black swallowtail with iridescent green hindwings floated ahead, white flower clumps on the banks might have been phlox, and a lovely cluster of deep-blue lupines clung to the slope. Crickets stridulated, and the air smelled like rain. Then we were approaching a last ford, and Old Blue was just beyond. I was disgusted to discover that my new boots leak. They are supposed to be mil-spec, and I will complain to the manufacturer.