We picnicked on cheese and bread, chocolate muffins and fruit, washing it all down with power punch, gear spread out on a huge flat rock in the center of the river, watching eagles and buzzards, hawks and ravens soaring on the updrafts around the North Fork cliffs and the numerous crags that dot the western slopes of the valley between Seneca Rocks and Smoke Hole Caverns.
After an initial hand washing in the cold river water, Cindy wandered around barefoot, like the child she is at heart, looking at interesting rocks and fossils and watching native trout and bass with the avaricious eye of a fishing woman denied.
After a pleasant hour spent in leisure, without a single human sound save our own voices, we packed up and headed back upriver, to see some old lines on the adjoining parcel of private land. Imagine our surprise when we found fresh chalk and evidence of several recent visits by climbers unknown. No surprise... private property counts for little or nothing among the climbing community's members in this present age, and the landowner was fairly affable- the chance remained, no matter how slim, that these folks had, like me, actually asked to climb on private land.
Finding sign of intrusion into this private little corner was a slightly sad experience... I have been climbing and developing climbs here for well over twenty years, some with my incredible friend and climbing partner Mike Fisher, and in all that time, only a handful of folks had ever found the spot. As far as I knew, no one besides me had ever bothered asking the landowner for permission or even considered that something in West Virginia that had huge trees on it and a river running through it just might not be Public Lands.
Whoever the visitors were, they weren't well-behaved. My rope had been unwrapped from where it hung under a steep project and left to lay in a tangle in the dirt. chalk had been used to write obscenities on the rock adjacent to one of my favorite lines.
While erasing their chalked graffiti at the base of a tall, overhanging and slightly run-out 5.9 I bolted almost 20 years ago, Cindy was struck at by a copperhead, one of the largest we have seen this year. Her new heavy boots diverted the blow and the reptile slithered off under the leaves while the human screamed, beat the ground and made a hasty retreat and her mate experienced a deep wave of deja vu.
I have to hand it to my wife... for someone that spent a week in hospital (and almost lost a leg) from a copperhead bite, and that within the last five years, she handled it amazingly well. In her place, I might well have ran shrieking from the forest; pack shed, arms waving, frightening forest creatures and small children for miles around. As it was, we both spent several minutes pushing along the old trail, through new-fallen storm debris which made every step a likely encounter with another specimen, eyes darting and hearts pounding.
Back down at the old road, we trudged the last mile or so back past the gate to the car in relative silence, stopping once for a smoke to calm still-dancing nerves; five minutes that passed in silent introspection and memory.
Once in the truck, we laughed, again, and all the tension drained away as we held hands and smiled into each other's eyes. Snakebites, crazy landlords, corrupt powers of government, silly climbers, and insane employers... it all fell into perspective. Fall colors fell in showers of red and gold through the afternoon sunlight, squirrels and chipmunks dug madly through the leaves preparing for the coming winter, geese flew in staggered V's across the clear skies of West Virginia, and Cindy's hand was warm in mine.
All was well with the world... as well as we could make it.