Ruminations, Romance, and the Lives of a Family Long Dead
Story and Photographs by William Dudley Bass
In late May 1991, almost three months into our odyssey along the Appalachian Trail, my wife and I planned to sleep among ghosts. Old-timey Virginia ghosts. It seemed like a fitting thing to do while walking across our home state, a journey as rich with rumination as it was with hardship and joy.
Gwen and I had embarked on the first day of spring from the top of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to backpack the whole Appalachian Trail end to end. The AT, as we hikers called it, or simply “the Trail,” stretches more than 2,000 miles northwards across 14 states to the summit of mile-high Mt. Katahdin in north-central Maine. Almost a quarter of the Trail passes through the Old Dominion, making Virginia home to the longest section of the AT, more than any other state. Gwen and I took six-and-a-half months to backpack the whole Trail, climbing Katahdin in early October on the day after our third wedding anniversary.
Rich in both history and wildlife, the Appalachian Trail is an intersection of people and wilderness. Those who backpack end-to-end in one push are known as “thruhikers,” while those who attempt to complete the whole thing in stages are called “section hikers.” Most take on trail names. Gwen and I were thruhikers, as such a distinct minority among the day hikers, weekenders, and picnickers. We called ourselves the Pregnant Rhinos.
Our trail name arose from a backpacking trip out West the previous year, when we got teased about the huge new internal-frame expedition packs bulging from our backs. “Damn, y’all look like a coupla pregnant rhinoceroses,” exclaimed a teenage boy, his own rickety, external-frame pack jangling with pots and pans and sloppy blankets.
I was annoyed at our brand new backpacks being so ridiculed, but then I got it – our trail name for the AT: “The Pregnant Rhinos!” I told Gwen. “In Labor to Maine.” And that’s what we called ourselves as we trekked along the Appalachians.
That May, Gwen and I pushed north in a vast arc around Blacksburg and Roanoke, weaving across rugged mountain ridges toward the Shenandoahs. After zigzagging through the Mountain Lake Wilderness, we continued into the Jefferson National Forest, crossing valleys and trekking along ridge tops.
We clambered up the flanks of Sinking Creek Mountain. A long, knobby ridge graced with a grove of kingly trees evocative of the region’s past, the mountain rolled northeast with the Blue Ridge. As we began to descend a long, steep hill, Gwen and I encountered crumbling pyramids of stacked rocks and rotting remains of split-rail fences, all part of the old Sarver homestead dating back to the 1800s, according to our guidebook. We paused to reach out and touch the old stones and ancient wood.
What was it like, I wondered, to live way up here on the flanks of a big, steep ridge? What was it like to sweat and cuss and cry and laugh as one painstakingly picked stones from the land and piled them high? To hunt and clean game and fish while gathering roots and berries and trying to plant crops on the side of a hill? Gwen and I stood there contemplating what life could’ve been like. In quiet awe, I stooped to claw soil from the earth as I imagined farmers must’ve done and probably still do.
What was it like to stake a claim to one’s own farm so high up and gaze out over the valleys below? Did these farmers continue to dream, or did their dreams die and wither away, to eventually be forgotten altogether? I didn’t know. There was no way to peruse old courthouse records way up here. Besides, county deeds couldn’t tell me how these people felt. What I did know, however, was that a cemetery of dead Sarvers was somewhere around here. The old ruins were haunted by ghosts, and we were going to camp with them.
Tired, we trudged down the steep trail to the old Sarver Cabin. Gwen and I had backpacked 21 miles that day, accompanied by a fellow thruhiker, the eccentric and anarchistic Weathercarrot. It was a relief to come to a spring blessed with plentiful water, but the old farm itself was spooky. Ruins lay hidden in shadows of dusk and vegetation run amok. I imagined snakes slithering among decaying buildings and coiled around rotten beams.
To our great surprise and happiness there sat the Texas Birdman, another one of our merry trail gang. He’d been thruhiking alone lately, enjoying solitude for a change, though tonight he was pleased to see us.
We chose to camp in an overgrown clearing. The “cabin” mentioned in the guidebook as “rehabilitated” was too snaky, leaky, and ringed with poison ivy for comfort. I imagined it full of plump black widow spiders that would crawl out from crumbling floor beams into our sleeping bags.
Weathercarrot was afraid of ghosts and imagined dead, angry Sarvers casting about in the dark. According to the trail guides, one of the ghosts was named George Dickel from the whiskey bottles someone found in the old corncrib. I wouldn’t have minded having a conversation with a ghost. The Birdman just laughed.
Evening fell fast. Another hot, muggy Virginia night. Stars filled the skies, but paled in the glow of a rising moon. In the distance an owl hooted, or was that just our imagination? Gwen and I refilled our water bottles by flashlight, pushing aside newly-spun spider webs to dip into the cool spring. Little frogs jumped out of the way. Slabs of stone lined the well. Texas Birdman joked about spending the night in there. We were all so exhausted we gave up looking for ghosts and turned in. We slept with ghosts, and the ghosts must have slept, too. None visited us that night. Or if they did, they failed to stir us. Perhaps they were invisible beneath full moons. But they entered our imaginations to dwell within our memories.
Gwen and I luxuriated in deep sleep and woke up late to another fine day in May. We spent a good part of the morning hanging out with Texas Birdman and Weathercarrot, prowling and exploring the ruins of Sarver Plantation. From where we camped we could look out over treetops into the valley below. More prosperous farms lay down there. The Sarver homestead was situated on a bench partway down the ridge. We hiked a yellow-blaze trail down the side of the mountain for a good quarter-mile, beating the bushes for old gravestones. We never did find the cemetery, only to find out later we passed it right at the spring.
What a spring that was. One of the best on the Trail. By day we saw what we had poked around in the night before. Clear, sweet-smelling water welled up deep in an old springhouse. Tall weeds and flowers grew against it as climbing vines snaked over the top. Ferns clustered about the entrance. I kept an eye out for giant spiders. Well, even little spiders. Don’t mind looking at ‘em, but I don’t like ‘em crawling on me, thank you very much. I remembered Gwen’s brown recluse bite from Blood Mountain and the big wolf spider inside my sleeping bag in the Smokies. Spiders aside, however, the spring box was nice and cool. A natural air conditioner. I could have sat in it all day.
Texas Birdman and I wandered among the ruins identifying trees and birds. Allegheny chinquapin, bare oak, rufous-sided towhee, and the snout-shriveling pucker-upper lips fruit tree, or persimmon. We tried to get Weathercarrot to eat a persimmon.
“Nope.” He shook his head. “They grow in Pennsylvania, too.”
Finally it was time to say goodbye to the Sarvers. The rocky spires of Dragon’s Tooth lay ahead, and as always, the summits of Katahdin beckoned.
“Goodbye, ghosts,” we said, but it was really our imagination of how life must have been for the Sarvers that haunted us. Was Christmas a magical time for them, nestled in a cozy cabin and deep snow with a hot fire in the hearth? Were their babies strong and healthy? Did the mother and father ever dash hand in hand through spring flowers and make love on the side of the mountain? Or were they all hungry and too worn out?
Endless questions spiraled through our minds, but content to ruminate in the moment, we turned and pushed uphill. Late morning found us upon the crest of Sinking Creek Mountain back on the Appalachian Trail. Our gang moved north beneath the traveling sun as all thoughts of ghosts faded with the approach of noon.
While You’re There
How to get to Sarver Cabin: Unless you’re already hiking a long section of the AT, you can access the Sarver ruins from road crossings for a good overnighter. From 460 west of Blacksburg, turn onto 42 North at Newport. Drive about 8 miles to where the Appalachian Trail crosses Sinking Creek near Level Green Christian Church. Hike following the white blazes up Sinking Creek Mountain into Jefferson National Forest for about 10 miles, and then follow a 0.3-mile side trail down the hill to the east. The shelter and ruins are obvious. Consult the Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer and an AT map of the Blacksburg Ranger District for greater detail. Who knows, you might just dance with ol’ George Dickel.
Doing your own Thruhike: I recommend starting with the following organizations and their websites: the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) at www.atconf.org (in 2001; now its www.appalachiantrail.org) and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) at www.aldha.org. Talk to lots of people. Those who’ve hiked the trail can’t stop talking about it. For many, their experiences were transformative and worth sharing. From my personal experience, less is more and knowledge is power, so go light on gear and heavy on knowledge.
Bio from the “Contributors” section of Virginia’s 64 Magazine:
William Dudley Bass grew up on a farm in Central Virginia. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 1981 and later earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. After years of outdoor adventure, Dudley settled down in Seattle with his wife, Gwen Hughes, also of Virginia. In 2002 they plan to move back East and settle in Charlottesville with their two daughters.
Notes from 2013: My article first appeared in the October 2001 issue of 64, one of Virginia’s top and most sophisticated magazines. It declared itself “a nonprofit magazine supporting the art and culture of Virginia.” The specific magazine my pictures and essay appeared in was 64, Vol. 2, Issue No. 8. It was an honor. After about two and a half years in publication and despite aggressive fundraising, Virginia’s glossy art magazine folded after its last issue came out in July 2002.
Christine Ennulat, one of two Associate Editors at 64, guided me through the process of crafting this story and selecting photos from my collection of slide transparencies. She and her husband David Wilson are dear friends of mine from my Richmond years. They called me “Dudley,” back then while I called them, “Dave & Tina.” I am grateful for her support and editing. My article was bundled with seven other wordsmiths in a section titled, “Eight Writers Search for the Heart of Virginia.”
Click on the photos to enlarge. Click again for even bigger! Go back to return.
“Sleeping with Ghosts on the Appalachian Trail” is reproduced with little revision. Certain things popped up at me in 2013 that seemed innocuous twelve years earlier. I chose to leave the 2001 directions in “How to get to Sarver Cabin” as they are. Plan anew each time as roads, trails, property lines, and boundaries sometimes change. I also broke long paragraphs into the shorter ones more appropriate these days for the World Wide Web, which is itself a commentary of sorts on the evolving dance between language and technology.
My original color slide negatives were all destroyed when my house at the time burned up in March 2010 in Edmonds, Washington. The photos here are my photos I digitally scanned in 2013 from a surviving copy of the October 2001 magazine issue. My Aunt Helen, to whom I had long ago give a copy to, mailed it to me from Richmond, Virginia after the fire. These scanned shots were then cleaned up and enhanced on my Apple iMac with iPhoto. The loss of so many thousands and thousands of pictures, not just from my AT thruhike, was the hardest loss to bear than the destruction of so many other belongings.
Three last little strange side notes remain in regards to this issue. The Internet was still relatively new in 2001. Already magazines were succumbing to the Web as speed, graphic capacity, and ease of uploading, watching, and downloading video increased exponentially. Now there are thousands of online websites, journals, blogs, videos, and photograph collections about the Appalachian Trail.
Another is the cover of this particular issue was graced by May-Lily Lee, a beautiful and dynamic Chinese-American who catapulted PBS’s Virginia Currents into the national limelight as a multi-award winning show. I kinda had a secret crush on her just from seeing her photo on the magazine cover. Then I discovered she was unceremoniously fired last year in 2012 by her “bosses.” It was a controversial, bewildering, and greatly unpopular move. Her termination provoked outrage among her fans and supporters of PBS. I felt incredibly sad learning of such an ugly public dismissal of someone so vibrant and talented who gave so much of herself to so many people as “Virginia’s Storyteller.”
Third and last is about Gwen and me. We never moved back to Virginia in 2002. Many changes occurred, and we eventually divorced. We both remain in Washington where we maintain a close, healthy friendship as we coparent our daughters. We had planned to thruhike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1993, but we embarked upon the journeys of raising children amid finding careers instead. Aye, indeed, life goes on for the living.
* * *
Notes from 2015:
My oldest daughter, Morgan Bass, is thruhiking the Appalachian Trail right now. Her birth back in Seattle in March 1994 led Gwen and I upon a totally different Long Journey. She hiked up to the top of Springer Mountain from Amicalola Falls, Georgia with her partner Margaret, also of Seattle, on the 21st of March 2015. The next morning they set off down the Appalachian Trail for Mt. Katahdin, Maine.
As I write it’s late May of 2015 and Morgan has headed out of Pearisburg, Virginia and heading toward Sinking Creek Mountain and the old Sarver homestead. It’s a strange and emotional feeling. Morgan hikes her hike for her own reasons, at an earlier age than her mother and I did, and carrying far less weight, too. It’s feels a bit weird to consider the passage of time, growing older and wiser, and raising eventually three girls. My thruhike was 24 years ago, and my article was edited by Christine Ennulat and published almost 14 years ago. Wow, doesn’t time fly…
Curious, I did an online search on the Sarver Cabin. My goodness, there’s so much information at my fingertips. I didn’t have access to such information so quickly back in 1991, of course. The Internet, while it’s been around since the 1960s, was just beginning to emerge into public consciousness. Now there’s YouTube videos, news reports, hiker blogs, online histories with interviews of the Sarver descendants, and photographs both old and new regarding the Sarver family.
The American Civil War of the 1860s had an enormous and traumatic impact upon them, as it did, of course, among so many other people both North and South, Black and White. I even felt a twinge of envy seeing photos of the ruins taken in Winter. We missed seeing so much as dense, lush vegetation was all greened out by late Spring. The homestead was much, much larger than we thruhikers thought back in 1924. It apparently was last inhabited in the mid-1950s.
Below is a photo of the Sarver Homestead from long ago by Earl Palmer (1905 – 1996), an astonishingly incredible, prolific, and yet little known Appalachian photographer from the mountains of Virginia.
Hikers today now have a relatively new shelter, per 2006thruhiker, photographer, and writer below:
My daughter Morgan and her thruhiker comrades may or may not venture off-Trail to explore these snakey ruins. They’re on a roll and not given to side-hikes unless there’s food to wolf down. I’m proud of her, though, as she hikes north to Katahdin. You can follow her own ruminations and adventures on her blog Chillin’ in the Woods (from Georgia to Maine) at https://morgleborgle.wordpress.com.
Sources for 2015 Notes:
“Appalachian Trail Through Hike 2006: Sarver Hollow Shelter,” by John Mogilewsky, Publicly Shared, February 2007.
Palmer, Earl (Appalachian Photograph Collection) , VTechWorks at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia. <http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/10725?show=full>
“Sarver Homestead Cabin, Gap Mountain, Montgomery County, Virginia,” by Earl Palmer. <http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/10725/ep232.jpeg?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.
NOTES from 2016:
Morgan backpacked over half of the AT in 2015. She injured one of her ankles, unfortunately, coming down out of the Great Smokies in a ferocious storm. Morgan took ten days off, and continued eventually into Central Virginia. There she and two of her trail buddies flip-flopped to Maine to hike southwards. They climbed Mt. Katahdin, then hiked south thru Maine into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She reinjured her ankle, took time off, then got back on the Trail. Damaged it again, took even more time off, and returned to the AT in Vermont. No go. After much internal struggle, she chose to leave the Trail to take care of her injuries. It was a painful decision, and the best one. I remembered from my own thruhike the majority of thruhikers who left the AT did so because they either ran out of money or suffered a major sprain-strain injury to their knees or ankles. After resting up for about a month back home in Seattle, Morgan joined some friends to backpack about a hundred miles of the PCT, the Pacific Crest Trail, before widespread forest fires with extensive smoke pollution forced them out of the mountains. Life goes on.
The following pictures from her parents’ 1991 thruhike, however, were given to Gwen and I as gifts by friends from our AT adventure. These fotos were lost in the house fire of 2010, then recovered from digital cards rescued from the ruins and enhanced by the author in iPhotos. Each foto’s fotografer is credited for the image used. Much gratitude they took the pictures as all of mine and Gwen’s were, unfortunately, burned up.
Twenty-four years later…
Life goes on for the living, and so it does with the demands of everyday responsibilities. I still intend to finish my book about Gwen and I as The Pregnant Rhinos in Labor to Maine. Got as far as Virginia in the writing of it when I had my first daughter, Morgan. Wrote a little bit here and a little bit more there before the business of career and family as well as a series of challenging life circumstances stopped me. The loss of all of my slide transparencies and my three-volume journal presented a loss of information I’m not able to fully overcome. I’ll find another way to finish my book. It’s long overdue. Once thought it’ll be done by 1993 or maybe 1995. It’s 2016 now. Never too late, y’know. At some point, however, we all die, and, eventually so shall I. In the meantime, live full out! Have a dream? Go for it!
All the best to all of you. Big Love, Merry Blessings, and Big Growly Hugs!
William Dudley Bass
Updated in 2015 & 2016
Fotos of Morgan thruhiking added in 2017
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Copyright © 2001, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.