Into the Woods

[info]Updated 5 March 2014 – This post originally included numerous images, but most have been removed through cleanup efforts of my portfolio. Some of the writing has also been updated.[/info]

As each summer draws to a close, my family typically takes off on a final, short weekend trip. One of my favorite places to visit is Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, deep in the woods of eastern West Virginia. On realizing it had been five years since my last visit, I suggested this remote location as our destination. This would be simple enough, except that the nearest town with any decent lodging to speak of is 60-80 miles away and all three of the Railroad’s routes depart around noon.

Cass Scenic Railroad

In the absence of photos, allow me to take you on a virtual trip up the mountain as best as I can:

Staying in Summersville, WV, we leave for Cass by 7:30am Sunday to catch the 11:00 Bald Knob run. After twisting our way up and down the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest for hours, we arrive in the historic town of Cass, WV to watch our train back toward the platform for loading. This whitewashed, unassuming town has a fascinating history with logging and as a railroad, even providing lumber to the Wright brothers for their flyer. (To learn more about the history of Cass, visit http://www.cassrailroad.com/history.htmlToday, Shay #6 is assigned to the Bald Knob run. One of six operational logging locomotives at Cass (as of 2010), Shay #6 was the last of its kind built and is the largest still in existence, weighing in at 162 tons. At 11:00am sharp, our train begins its slow ascent up Cheat Mountain.

At mile marker 2 we arrive at the Lower Switchback, climbing with an average grade of over 6% (meaning a 6 foot change in altitude for every 100 feet of travel). To put that into perspective, a 2% grade is considered steep on a conventional railroad. Just one mile later awaits the Upper Switchback.

In the next half mile, Shay #6 pushes our train up a nearly 9% grade to the former Whittaker logging camp. Here, we’re given a 15 minute stop at this partially recreated logging camp to learn what life was like as a logger in the early twentieth century. The exhibit includes one of only two tower skidders left in the world, as well as several representative lodgings for loggers.

Leaving Whittaker, we begin the steep 7 mile climb to Bald Knob, the third highest point in West Virginia. Along this stretch, the grade varies from 3% to 9% and requires a stop for water. At last, the train approaches the end-of-line at mile marker 11, approximately 4,700 feet above sea level.

With the refreshingly cooler temperatures at this elevation, many plants typical of Canada can be found here, and two states and the Green Bank Telescope (more on that later) are visible from the overlook. After about half an hour we begin our return trip to Cass. Descending the mountain doesn’t take quite as long as the climb since the train is able to coast down the steep grades, but the locomotive rarely eases off the brakes. Partway down the mountain we must once again stop for water. Two repurposed water tenders are kept filled by a natural spring to supply the 6,000 gallons of water needed to make the round trip. As for coal, the fireman will average a shovel of coal every 30 seconds throughout the entire trip.

The Overlook at Bald Knob

Arriving back at the Upper Switchback the train stops short of the junction. The Whittaker train is on its way up the mountain, and with no passing sidings, we must wait for them to back down to the end of the switchback. We will then back down in front of them, proceed forward down the mountain, and they can then move on toward Whittaker. Cass’ newest addition, Shay #11, is powering the Whittaker train today. She is the second largest in existence, weighing 103 tons, and was brought to Cass all the way from Campo, CA.

After exchanging tracks we proceed to the Lower Switchback and finally return to Cass. The 22 mile round trip has taken just shy of 5 hours, but truly no other journey exists like it.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Partially visible from Bald Knob is the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. With my classes on signals and general interest in astronomy, we made our way over to the telescope to catch one of the hourly guided tours.

Arriving at the visitor’s center, we are directed to an auditorium for a briefing on the facility and rules. As it turns out, the GBT sits in the middle of the 13,000 square mile United States Radio Quiet Zone and in a more strictly controlled, state “quiet zone” covering Pocahontas County. The GBT is not a visible light telescope; instead, it detects radio frequencies that can penetrate gaseous clouds in space and provide details as to the chemical make-up of various bodies in the universe, unlike visible light.

Beyond the visitor’s center cellular phones, digital cameras, and gasoline vehicles are strictly permitted. The equipment here has to be so sensitive that even the minor radio frequencies from these devices can interfere with detection (in the case of gas engines, it’s the spark plugs). Within this state-controlled “quiet zone,” scientists can use a special RF tracking vehicle to find sources of interference and order them corrected. Usually the culprit is a malfunctioning microwave oven (in which case a new one is provided to the homeowner) or a faulty power line connection.

After the short presentation, we board a diesel shuttle and enter the facility. The GBT is one of at least six telescopes of varying sizes on the grounds. Finally we arrive at the base of the GBT, where the astonishing scale of the equipment can truly be appreciated. The GBT is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world and the world’s largest land-based movable structure, weighing a staggering 16,000,000 pounds. Two and a half (2.5) football fields can fit on its 100 x 110 meter surface, which is composed of 2,004 individually-adjustable aluminum panels. Since I couldn’t bring my digital camera into the facility, the best I can provide is an image from Wikipedia:

NRAO GBT (from Wikipedia)

NRAO GBT (from Wikipedia)

Peaks of Otter Lodge

For our final night, we stayed at another of my favorite locations: Peaks of Otter Lodge. Nestled at the feet of two mountains near Bedford, VA, the Lodge provides a wonderful means of truly “getting away.” There are no televisions, radios, or even clocks in the rooms, and cellular signals are highly unlikely. Individual porches look out on the man-made lake at the base of Sharp Top Mountain, and at dusk numerous deer can be spotted around the Lodge feeding in the open fields, or sometimes practically wandering onto some porches. Seeking solitude, that night I went out on the porch alone to read. To my surprise, a storm was passing in the distance behind Sharp Top Mountain. What caught my attention was being able to see the lightning inside the cloud, but I couldn’t hear any thunder. I quickly put away my book and for more than an hour I did nothing but watch the beauty of nature in utter silence, interrupted only by the soothing sounds of creatures of the night. It was well past 11:00pm before the storm had passed from sight. The path lights along the lake had turned themselves off and, left completely in the dark, I turned in for the night.

It’s so very difficult to describe such an experience. I love history and science, and thus I thoroughly enjoyed the day’s experiences, but to put all that aside and find such a personal experience in a purely impersonal natural phenomenon… It’s a feeling impossible to convey to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. Each person should find themselves alone among Creation at least once, completely absent any worldly concern, acting solely as fortunate witness to its extraordinary beauty and perfection.

If you’re ever in the Bedford, VA area, I beg of you to stay at least one night here… I promise you won’t regret it. Like me, you may even walk away a changed being.

Sharp Top Mountain

Sharp Top Mountain

Peaks of Otter Lodge

Peaks of Otter Lodge


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  1. […] and climbed the hills to the Peaks of Otter Lodge. I’ve written about this oasis before (“Into the Woods”) and it has yet to disappoint. Mind you, the facilities are in increasing need of remodeling and […]

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