Dolly Sods

Dolly Sods has been there a long time.   I’ve seen the pics.   The spooky barren ridge top. Trees bent to the winds current, and rocks making way where the brush can’t get.

After six years in Lost River I should have experienced it by now but hadn’t quite stretched far enough.  The volume of DC car back and forth means when in WV most travel is by bike.  Dolly Sods is just on the perimeter of a big ride.  I have studied the map and come close, brushing up against the edges in Smoke Hole and Cabins.

Until recently I thought only one road went over and going over would mean landing close to Davis 65 miles away.  Some kind of cruel out and back and not a loop.  There is a psychological advantage to a loop.  This is my preference but I was resigned to retracing steps if that is what it took to see what I wanted to see.

Coming back from the brutal and phenomenal Tour of Tucker County Saturday I drove the approach over Dolly Sods from the Canaan Valley side.  The pass is beautiful but for my money not much fun in a car, yet all along I’m thinking how much better by bike…..

Funny how that works.

With winding, twisty, steep and poorly surfaced roads you are relegated to slow travel anyway.  In the car no breeze no flow, just bumps and maneuvers.  May as well be pedaling and in the damn thing, in this case that being the mountain itself.

The ascent took a long time and toward the top the road split.  It was unmarked.   One road went down and the other continued flat and straight out across the ridge.  At this point I wanted to get off the dirt and off the mountain, and a National Forest pull off area gave some clues.  The road down is the way, but the other road carries the ridge north and drops on the same side further up.  All of the sudden I saw my loop.

As soon as I got home I checked the county maps and confirmed the math.  It had never jumped out at me.  The small thin lines hid their depth.  Also seeing the road I didn’t go on, while being a lure, more importantly was now a sure thing.  Passable albeit unpaved and bumpy.  The ride would be hard but was definitely doable.

I chose a good weather day to roll it out.  Start early with plenty of time and no big agenda.  It was warm, closer to hot which I like, with a chance of late day thunderstorms. From the barn ridge top the sky was clear.  The degrees were so up at 10 am that I didn’t bring additional gear.  Worst case scenario is I get a little wet.  A warm summer rain…..

I drop off the backside of the barn into Moorefield heading west on Kessel Road to the sprawling Fairfax Gravel Pit climb.  As I descend toward Patterson Creek Road I can see the long and growing string of windmills a couple of ridges further in Mt. Storm.  I can also see the dark clouds.  Closer then I expected.  Still, I’m thinking my odds are decent.

Passing through Mayesville I follow a valley road that parallels the looming ridge to my right.  After several miles a turn off says FR 75, Dolly Sods Scenic Area five miles.  The road is paved for a few sweet foothill strokes before asserting its dirtness.

While the climb is graded reasonably it offers no plateaus.  A continuous up hill to reach the top.  The surface is below average.  Rideable but not fluid. I keep moving while tacking and angling for the better line.

The entire way up is in the woods.  Deep green with bordering rain run off.  Quiet and tranquil. There are no overlooks and it takes a long time.  I can see through the trees enough to know I’m heading straight into the storm clouds.

When I top out the payoff is big.  From out of the woods onto a rocky wind burnished flat.  The forest road is a long straight shot.  No curves at all.  Some slight gentle up and down.  It is visible as far as the eye can see.

I also get the first rain drops.  No more dodging it.   The wind picks up and the air cools.  I’m at 4000 feet.  It occurs to me that this won’t be a wispy agreeable June storm.

I’m in for the count.  Not many options but to ride.  There are no welcome stations or park shelters.  Just pure unbridled wilderness and the occasional car with jersey plates and passengers wondering what I am doing, and I imagine, why.

This would be when I have those same questions.  The idea was to catch this long section of dirt in favorable conditions with minimal urgency.  Instead I am picking up the tempo in an effort to raise my dropping body temperature, as the rocks and bumps move toward me at video game frequency.

I’m lucky to have one brief break in the converging systems and the sun breaks through.  I stop in what feels like a spot light of warmth.  The dark clouds surround.  If I continue I am right back in them, but they are coming from behind too. With a slight rejuvenation I am back up but the next fronts are hitting harder.

The total Dolly Sods section is 17 miles of dirt.   Five up, seven across and five back down.  It is very symmetrical. Check the route.

I’m more then halfway through it but know if the rain continues the descent is going to be a bitch.  There will be no more warming and even in moderate temperatures cold and wind can kick the body’s mechanisms.

As I start descending the rain picks up.  It is hard to see and read an already hard to read surface.  I’m picking my way down.  Not very smooth.  I want to just get it over with but the faster I go the colder I get.  I’m already shivering but try to stay relaxed and keep some circulation going.   This is tough when you’re not pedaling.  When you’re just steering.  My pinky finger tips are the first to numb up.  Five miles right now is an eternity.  I’ve gone only about two.  At one point I go under a tree for less of a deluge but realize it isn’t helping and is only prolonging the ordeal.

Calm and centered (or some approximation of) I proceed.  Just trying to move forward and keep it upright.  One by one my fingers are getting weaker and breaking is getting tougher.  Numbness and tingling.  A mile and a half to go.

It is just a basic bike ride and I’m not really in the wilderness.  Towns are nearby.  On the other hand I haven’t seen any cars or people for a long time.  Outcomes are percentages and averages and are generally constant and predictable, yet the ingredients can change in a flash and turn the data upside down.  This doesn’t usually happen but it easily can.

By the time I get to where the dirt joins pavement my fingers are totally numb and I am shivering.  It is a relief to leave the dirt but the down hill continues.  I am pinning my hope on getting to the valley so I can finally start pedaling.  I think I can knock out this last part of the descent but I can’t.  If I go faster then fifteen the bike starts to shimmy as my cold body vibrates.  I ease down until I’m there.  A flat surface heading home…..

Thirty five miles up the road.

Though my hands are tingling I can turn my legs.  They don’t hurt.  They just don’t feel right.  I pedal gradually with the idea of a regrouping stop, but as I ride I don’t feel any worse.  The legs start to loosen.  At first they were reluctant.   Now they are spinning.  Enough so maybe if I make some efforts my hands will return.  The blood starts flowing.

I maintain momentum and sit up with my hands off the bars to stretch my spine and open up the internal moving parts.  It is all starting to come back.  Relatively speaking.  I am in survival mode and will be able to make it back.  Forget about race fitness or anything near that.

Going from Cabins to Petersburg I actually get into a decent tempo.  The first and only stop I take is there.  Sixty five miles in with twenty and the backside of the barn climb to go.  It is still raining but now a soft drizzle.  The valley temps are ok and the road water rains splash is warm from early day heat.

With some fuel and fluids I bust out the rollers into Moorefield, zig zag through town, and get on to South Fork for the four mile straight before the big finish.

Though humbled and pedaling conservatively I rally for the back side climb.  Steady.  Motivated that I’m near the finish and that there is a finish at all.  A new loop.   A complete circuit.  Maybe some things happen along the way but there is a beginning middle and end.  Complete.  Uneventful  (85.34 miles – 9,340 feet – 6.23 hours).   In the books and on the register. The sun is creeping back in on Mountains Meadows.   So who’s up for the Dolly Sods ride?

Banner photo courtesy of Darren McNeil photography

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