Some sirens whisper not of proximity but frequency, and so it is with the view from the parking lot of the LaVale Wal Mart.
Not of carts, corralled and herded to endless task like the working men and women of the store and the working men and women who shop there, nor of humanity’s wide slice of taste and fortune affixed betwixt white lines, but of the heights that call out every time I push a loaded cart outside. Westward bound I lift my eyes to sunset side, and thoughts fly where heart resides.
The peak of Dan’s Mountain at power line cresting gives little cause for pause, until you’ve been up there, looking down. Not only of another day, the view speaks to better times, for just as the worst day fishing is better than the best day working, hiking the hills of Mountain Maryland is better every single time than the hour that finds one in that parking lot, gazing up.
There’s have-to and want-to, and way too much no-time-to, but it is the best of times upon a mountaintop, about as high as a man can get in these parts, perched before a heaved and folded horizon conjuring eons unimaginable and instructing how small and temporary we are.
Fifteen years or more since the last time my steps carried me up that way, The Boy who was not even born then accompanied me on a long-overdue pilgrimage to the heights above Country Club Mall. Along as well to sniff out trouble and bound over brambles Raven, the puppy of the Progeny Three.
Off of Md. 55, cruise all the way up and around to the top of Harwood Drive, pull over beside the No Parking sign beneath the power line, and set out along the right-of-way ascending.
It’s an outlaw hike, to be sure, for the No Parking sign violated, and the lone No Trespassing sign ignored three-quarters of the way up, where old coal road gives way to Potomac Edison access trail. Required is not just the get-up-and-go to hike among the hills of home, but the Thoreau-ian will to defy misguided authority in doing so.
We who are of the mountains have a right to walk among them.
The road sign is mostly to prevent night-time partying, as I believe the State Trooper living next door would agree, while the power company has far better things to do than keep a few mountaineers off their isolated rights of way. Those towers couldn’t be damaged by the most determined of vandals, while hunters on ATVs regularly traverse the grassy swaths like highways.
Why not we of boot?
The Appalachians largely lack the manicured meadows of the Alps and Julie Andrews, but power lines open the forested canopy to views equally inspiring. (While I’m generally averse to logging, the Highlands bike trail that runs beside Frostburg could use an occasional strategically sited timber cut to showcase views barely perceptible for all the branches and leaves.) Private land borders both sides of the right of way but the hike doesn’t require a single step off the wide trail.
The drive hacks off maybe two-thirds of the climb, so that within but a few hundred yards, money shots open to the west, down the bowed power lines off toward Midlothian, a break in the Big Savage tree-line marking the path west to God’s Country, and grid network beyond.
The hike features briars aplenty, but low-lying and generally inconsequential, unless your dog stands barely a foot tall, which can require puppy portage at a few points. To either side of a right of way that runs 50 yards or so, the woods is open, with rocks dotting the leafy-layered floor, and fallen deadwood all about, but little undergrowth. Long sections of the trail follow a two-lane track for pickups and ATVs, but where road fades, foot trails weave through the briar patches. While persistently upward, the grade is relatively gentle. The view over your shoulder opens up with the climb, so that Frostburg emerges and Piney rises to the north, foreground to Big Savage ridgeline running to Keystone State.
While the nights had been cool before the hike, I suspected not cold enough to send the serpents underground, so I kept a close eye on the trail, and scanned the wooded edges for that big garbage bag I’ve seen on Highlands bike ride, which upon a bit more peddling becomes a black bear that gets up and moves. On Garrett County hikes, I strap on a web belt with a K-Bar and a .45 for just such a chance encounter. I figured it would be a bit too much for the mall trail, which borders pricey Harwood houses at the lower end. A stout stick picked up along the way would have to suffice to avert potential bruin ruin.
We’d stopped at Mom’s place at the base of the hill, and there Will acquired a handful of Dove chocolates for the upcoming trek, supplementing the apples I’d stashed in my blaze-orange vest. We forgot water, and managed fine without, while Raven hit a lone puddle that trickled trailside about halfway up, proving the perfect watering hole for a thirsty pup.
Reflecting the refinement their marketers wish to project, Dove chocolate wrappers are decorated with sayings a step up from fortune cookies, and The Boy shared his on a break: “The wind tells a story,” the wrapper advised. “Listen.”
Fortunately, the wind had little to say last Saturday afternoon, a rarity for the mountain and a blessing for our trek. I’d started out bundled up against the chill that beset the Hut that morning, but stopped along the way to shed a hooded sweatshirt.
“Now what are you going to do with that?” The Boy inquired with the edge of a borderline teen.
Layers lost are tied about the waist, I advised the lad, imparting another nugget of fatherly wisdom.
But there was nothing to say of the view that rewarded our hour-long climb, no words to embellish a silent expanse surpassing intellect and reaching to the heart of things.
A readily navigated boulder field announces the top, as well as that last tower you see from the parking lot, which features power lines not looping out horizontally, but plunging vertically.
Consistent with Allegany County tradition, the site includes graffiti, but unlike Dan’s Rock, somewhere off to the wooded right a couple miles or so as flies the crow, the mall overlook doesn’t have a speck of spray paint. Initials and dates are etched in the paint of the tower’s steel legs.
Country Club Mall dominates the valley floor, with I-68 curving up Haystack, Sacred Heart off to the left, and Cumberland just beyond in the eastward distance. Cliffside gap at the Fairgrounds opens Knobley Mountain to perfectly frame the Warrior Run power plant.
Will and I picked out landmarks and took pictures to record the moment, but lacking a pack and picnic lunch we didn’t stay around that long.
It wasn’t for the day alone that I dragged myself from latest household chore to go hiking with my son, who has known far too few such occasions. Beyond the up and back sandwiched between dawn and dusk, I sought tomorrows distant as the mountain ranges melting away to blue and gray.
Unlike the works of Ozymandias, Wal Mart will endure as long as man seeks a bargain, and so The Boy in years to come, whether he resides among the mountains or returns to visit, will look up from that parking lot to metal tower crowning Dan’s, and recall a long-ago fall hike, father, son and family dog, and determine to make it again….
First: As close to Wal Mart on a Saturday afternoon as any sane man wants to be. Mall in the center, I-68 to left winding toward Cumberland, and to the right beyond Haystack at the Knobley Mountain cliffs by the Fairgrounds, Warrior Run is the white building in the distance.
Second: The Boy and Raven at the crest
Third: Fall grasses decorate the trail
Fourth: The view to the west, Frostburg at the right