Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Things You See in Traffic

Yesterday I’m heading home in light Friday evening rush hour traffic, minding my own business, when a raptor of some kind (really didn’t get a good look, what with the driving 70 mph in rush hour and all) lumbers across the sky just a hundred yards or so ahead of me. 

That’s not what caught my attention; what caught my attention was the fluorescent-orange koi gripped in its talons, easily the same size as the bird itself. Somebody’s pond is down one, I suspect. And that hawk (or whatever) is gonna dine well for a day or two.

The alternate explanation, of course, is the children's book version, where the hawk is simply letting his water-bound little buddy have a chance to finally see the whole world from a different vantage point. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what was going on.


On December 1, 1974, TWA flight 514 en route from Cincinnati to Washington National Airport was diverted to Dulles Airport due to strong crosswinds in Washington. Because of miscommunication between the flight crew and air traffic control, it began its descent into Dulles before it had cleared the Blue Ridge Mountains. At ten after eleven in the morning, Flight 514 struck the western flank of Mount Weather at about seventeen hundred feet above sea level and was destroyed, killing all on board.

In July of 1975, I set out to section-hike the Appalachian Trail southbound from Snickers Gap (where Route 7 crosses the Blue Ridge and A.T) to Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park, a distance of about 140 trail miles. At this point (and at that time) the A.T. was a notorious and reviled road-walk section, white blazes on telephone poles.Within an hour or so of setting out, pavement under my vibram-soled boots, I walked into the crash site of Flight 514, barely seven months after the fact. It told a very simple, very detailed story.

The point of impact was squarely on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, Virginia Route 601. There was a clear vista westward across the shattered treetops, revealing the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester and South Mountain. To the western edge of the brutal clearing, trees were neatly cropped; each successive rank eastward was increasingly shattered and splintered. There were clearly defined notches at the western edge where the engine nacelles ate into the trees; they faded and disappeared midway, as I suppose the engine pods had. It displayed the cross-section silhouette of a gently banking airplane. I have pictures of it, somewhere.

On the very west side of the road, forming the road bank, was a large outcropping of metamorphic rock. This is what stopped the forward movement of Flight 514 that bleak December morning. The rock was shattered, but beyond the road the trees remained intact; there was no undergrowth. The earth, even seven months later, was scoured. At that instant in time and space, the airplane became a mass of shrapnel too small to take down the trees but massive enough to scythe the forest floor for hundreds of yards up the hillside. It looked like a park. I don’t recall from the news at the time whether or not there was fire, but since the plane was near the end of its flight, most of its fuel had been consumed and the weather was cold and snowy, I don’t think it was a fiery kind of crash. The forest in that next July was not marked by the scars of a large fire.

In July 1975, I was young and impressionable, and modestly observant. I took a short break at the endpoint of Flight 514 to pay respect and take in the image of that moment, captured indelibly in that ravaged landscape. I still go down Blue Mountain Road from time to time; it is a favorite motorcycling destination, and the rock outcrop has become an informal memorial to Flight 514.

The woods to the east and west of the road have largely grown up to hide the scar, but forty years on, the weirdly tortured trees still bear mute testimony to the damage they both bore and caused. Trees grow from their tips; once damaged, they don’t grow them back. They find other routes to the sunshine. It will be generations before the woods fully conceal their secrets from us again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Snows of March

At twilight—mercifully longer by this time of the year—we decided to take the dog and walk the river trail. The unbroken snow rose to my boot tops, and Schroeder bounded ahead in great arcing leaps like a porpoise. The grey skies, dwindling daylight and slowly diminishing snowfall conspired to smudge and blur the boundary of ground and sky until it all appeared as one great sweep of cold.

We strode down the drive to the pines, where the fresh snow lay treacherously uneven on the trail—one moment ankle-deep, then a calf-deep drift the next. Unabashed, Schroeder led the way manically. He punctuated his progress by briefly laying down in the snow every fifty yards to lick the snow and ice from his front paws, then standing up and looking back towards us expectantly.

The steep road through the woods down to the floodplain was deep with drifted snow that obscured the rough and eroded surface; we lurched and stumbled our way down to where the way levelled out and our passage was easier. With Schroeder in the lead, we began to make our way to the west and the upstream end of the floodplain. But the going was slow and difficult; in the shadow of the great looming hillside, the weak March sun had done little to reduce the prior snow, and today’s fall built upon it to where it seemed like a real challenge in the fading light. Within just a few dozen yards, we turned around and headed downstream and towards the stream trailhead.

The river beside us ran fast and loud. It was brown as mocha and churned not so very far below the banks; the familiar rocks and landmarks were obscured by the roiling waters. The eddys and backwaters and shores were bound with a milky, opaque layer of slush and fallen snow that slowly became ice. The same waxy-looking mix grew off the shores of the stream until just a modest channel of open water remained; the clear waters of the stream mixed reluctantly with the murky waters of the river in clouds of diminishing whorls and vortices that gradually drifted away downstream and merged into the heart of the river.

We turned from the riverside and made our way into the deep snowy woods. The trail, well-worn and familiar, was plain to follow even with the layer of untracked snow upon snow. We paused for a moment to dwell in the dwindling light of evening, then made our way along the stream, beneath the lone hemlock bent low beneath its burden of fresh snow, to the lower stream crossing.

Our familiar stepping stones were hidden beneath tall caps of icy snow; the stream, flush with recent rains and melting snow, found new and unexpected channels to follow. Deeper than we imagined, the icy water was daunting to consider fording. Tentatively at first, then with a degree of abandon, we made the crossing without mishap or incident while Schroeder watched on disinterestedly from the woods on the far side.

We wound our way upstream with the icy waters to our left, the deep snowy forest silent but for the sound of the rushing stream. Schroeder chose the switchback trail for us, and we followed his lead up the steep path, slipping from time to time on the snow. We make it to the house tired, a little bit sweaty, as darkness finally embraces our little hilltop for the night. Schroeder is happy to be home.