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Family bonding. It’s necessary to take time and come together. Generally, we are bound to do so with holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations. My siblings and I are forevermore bound to an annual backpacking trip.

***

It began two years ago with my oldest sister, Giulietta, and her husband Nate. Jamie and I had only been dating a few months, and this was the first family meeting. This excursion was a whole weekend long, in the Wilderness of Roaring Plains – during a hurricane.

It was a wet miserable blast. We learned a few things and decided to make it an annual trip.

October 26th the Pinna siblings came together and decided to re-enter the Monongahela National Forest.

This time the troupe totaled 7 of us: Giulietta & Nate, Sabina & (new boyfriend) Pat, Nadia & Jamie, and Gianclaudio.

This would be a new experience for Sabina and Pat who have likely car-camped or “glamped”, but never an overnight backpack. My brother, Gianclaudio, is a man of the outdoors. Ever since he was little he’s been whispering to the fishes and watching the deer. But. Never a long hike or overnight.

We were all a bit nervous, I certainly was. I probably overpacked 15lbs in food and extra socks, just in case my sister or brother needed for anything.

****

The gang arrived in Morgantown for some obligatory shepherds pie. (One must never call Nadia just a few hours before arriving to say you will stop somewhere to eat. One must always assume that Nadia has been prepping you a meal for days and slaving away for an entirely locally sourced meal to bring the best of WV to your belly. Just a warning)

After conquering the Blancmange and Romey Peach cobbler, we all began to settle down for bed with a vigorous dance battle in Virtual Reality, followed by some light killing in the VR coliseum.

By this point in the night we had our share of prosecco, beer, whiskey, and other smokey libations and really began to enjoy each other’s company. The thought of waking up at 5am the next day lingered in the back of our mind like a small troll, but we carried on. Sabina, accidentally punching my poor pup Fred, hoping to really kill a roman goon, put a stopper in that celebratory bottle and we all hunkered down for the night.

At about 5-ish A.M someone’s alarm goes off. Signaling to everyone that now is the pre-planned time to wake up! And it keeps ringing, and ringing…. About 5 minutes later I am convinced that it must be Gianclaudio’s alarm. Young kids can sleep through anything!

The alarm gets turned off and I make the sacrifice to get out of bed. With the level of hangover and exhaustion of shepherds pie prep, it was a miracle that I made it out of bed at all.

Knowing full well the ability of my siblings and husband of getting up early, I return to bed knowing that the battle of waking would not be won for at least another hour, probably two.

***

Around 7:30 I come back to life and decided to make a ruckus and get the gang going. With rain in today’s forecast, I wanted to get the best hangover start on today’s 6-mile hike.

We chose to explore Big Run – Leading Ridge loop in Monongahela National Forest, very near Seneca Rocks. It was intended to be an easy 3-day hike. Day 1 – 1.9 miles, Day 2 – 3.9 miles, Day 3 – 5.8 miles. Knowing that we would not be able to start Friday night, we combined Day 1 and Day 2 hikes for a brisk 5.8 miles with only about 700 feet in elevation climb. Easy.

 Around 9:45 a.m. I am starting to get anxious. Everyone was getting situated… slowly. This is always expected in a large group. I watched my brother pack and unpack his bag three times and I think everyone else just wandered in circles. We get everything out to the car, kiss Jack-pup goodbye, and start off! It is now about 10:30 a.m., Jamie informs me that Nate didn’t want to take Interstate 68 back to Maryland so we were going to take back roads. Our trip now became a 2-hour scenic venture.

The fall colors were beautiful. The thick fog made everything look quite eerie. I was only guessing at what Pat was thinking of my new-home state as we pass “Hillbilly Services” through Gladesville, or when we drove by the hunched grandma with a Pepto-pink rain poncho in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was hilarious. It what an outsider might expect to see, but is not always the only version of West Virginia.

Through Kingwood, Aroura, Harman, and finally to Seneca for a quick leg stretch and potty break. The fog was still so thick that you couldn’t even see Seneca Rocks from Yokum’s Grocery & Deli.

We pee, we load up and go. Now we are following directions from the hike guide book . First directions say to drive 13 miles from the Town of Seneca. We begin from the base of the rocks and head on for 13 miles, looking out for our first right turn.

Soon we are headed up a mountain where right turns become more and more sparse. We begin to sense as if we are lost and before we know it our phones are out of service and we have no map. We stop and decided to turn around, feeling certain we had missed it just a short while back.

It had occurred to me that we didn’t start from the city proper when we began measuring our 13 miles, so we had to trek back a bit and eventually found the turn. Phew! Okay, back on track.

Or so we thought….. At this point, we are in the middle of the middle of nowhere and all there is are trees and gravel roads. My brother began to express his concern for my sister’s new beau’s truck. Gianclaudio let us know it was brand new and has never had dirt on it. Until he came to WV.

Besides backtracking about 5 times with tight and scary U-turns on curvy roads, we did a little off roading as well.

I was getting anxious about possibly picking a terrible location for a hike, all of my self-consciousness was beginning to come through and my brother was getting scared. I was trying desperately to keep my cool, but daylight was now starting to dwindle and we still had 6 miles ahead of us to walk– and we still had to find the trailhead!

We took what we thought was the correct turn, only to find that our road had been blocked by a farmer’s cow circle gate thing, but we had to find the trail! We went around it. After driving on what was apparently private property, we did yet another cliff-side u-turn as all the sheep watched.

After much tension, hard-boiled eggs, and a pee break we all put our heads together and found a park map to match our book. Eureka! We now know where the hell we are! We are about 85% sure we know where to find our trailhead… about ¼ mile of where we were an hour ago.

With more confidence this time, we arrive at the parking lot for our hike!

All we had to do was put on our shoes and head off! However, we are in a large group. I’m not sure why, but my brother’s pack wasn’t even packed up yet. He had no idea how he was going to fit the sleeping bag or tent onto his pack. This delays us about 20 more minutes and I know at least I was ready to stomp off into the woods. SO READY FOR NATURE!

The Big Gandy was the stream we were to hike alongside that day, and the water was gushing! The forest was a beautiful pale green, the trees all beginning to turn, the grey cloud cover made all the colors vibrant and lush.

Very quickly we arrive at our first stream crossing. At this point we are all little girls; nobody wanted to cross in fear of getting wet feet. We pace up and down the stream bed, looking for a shallow cross. We tip-toe our way to the other side and all make it dry.

Just a few moments later we arrive at another stream crossing. Scratching our heads in bewilderment, we again take time to locate the best, driest crossing. We cross and head on.

Again, we encounter another crossing just a quarter-mile later and we consult the guide book.

We look down at the map (probably for the first time) and we see that our entire first leg of the trail crisscrosses over and over this ever-flowing stream of wet.

At this point, I find a shallow-ish place to cross and just stomp across. My shoes are pretty awesome and I wasn’t worried about getting wet.

I got wet.

Though my wool socks were beginning to take on moisture, my spirit had not been dampened.

The men helped my sisters cross and we went on. Stopped for another crossing. Went on.

Eventually, we came to a crossing that was just a little wider and deeper than the others. I went ahead stomping through as my feet were entirely soaked and I lost care.

Sabina pointed out a large log that was pinned in the stream and sarcastically asked for me to make a bridge. Looking at the soaked wood, I figured this wood would be too big for me to handle.

When my brother in law, Nate, asked if I could budge the log I decided to at least give it a go. I took off my pack, squatted really low and pressed energy down through my heels and lift!!

Well, that soaked stick was not as heavy as it seemed and I scooted the log like a perfect footbridge and allowed the safe crossing for the rest of my family.

****

When we approached the inevitable next crossing it was much to my amusement to watch my family skip gaily across the stream. They were all doing their best to channel the powers of walking on water, hoping their swift footwork would levitate them across unmoistened.

We continued on our journey and came to our first trail junction at the old apple tree, just like the book said we would. With a little speculation as to which was the signs and trails were all going, we picked a direction and headed forth.

With 1.9 miles done, we had 3.9 miles left to go and it was already 3:00 p.m in West Virginia woods. We had to keep a good pace if we wanted to get camp set up while there was still light.

Passing the beautiful red pines and lush grasses and dead summer flowers, it felt like we were in a world of magic and fantasy. The brooke to our right babbled on, telling stories of upstream knowledge. The woods were quiet. Heavy with fog.

The woods were beautiful, but our boots started to become heavy with the extra water saturation. I could see my brother slowing down at the first leg of our 700-foot climb.

I was surprised to see him already slowing down as he is the youngest of us all. He spends all day in the woods, but I could see this hill was a challenge.

After some time my brother says he going to stop. Knowing we have to keep a steady pace if we wanted to make it to campsite 2 Jamie and I go to assist him. Poor guy didn’t even know to put on his waist straps! My brother was trampling through the woods for four miles wearing his pack as if he was in high school. Slack as it can go and no chest or waist strap to support! He says his shoulders were dying, I laughed and tightened his straps all around and he suddenly felt relieved.

Just after that, about halfway up the mountain (or so it felt like to my siblings) Sabina begins to emote her distress. Her face is red and you can she is running out of steam. I offer to take her pack, just for a moment, but she’s a Viking woman and she continues on.

I assist her by pushing her uphill, to lighten the load off her legs and this helps, but we still have more hill to climb.

Just as I thought Bean (Sabina) was going to give up she beings shouting “I fucking hate this!!!! Why the HELL would anyone choose this!!! AHHHHHH”. Apparently, all she needed was to let off some steam. When we reached a nice stopping point we all took a water break to rest.

We still had some hill to climb, but we were about 2 miles left to victory.

Directions say that our landmark is a wildlife pond and then tomorrow’s trail mark, then tonight’s campsite just beyond!

When you are walking in the woods in unknown areas it is hard to know exactly how far you have walked. We kept calculating only half a mile left. Then only a mile left. Nope, only a quarter-mile left to go!

Sabina’s rage was ensuring that we did a better job at calculating exactly how much further we had to go. We climb one last heroic hill, accompanied by Sabina’s venting, and paused at the top. Sabina still looked very flush to me and I asked if she’d been enough water. Then I asked if she had taken off any layers.

This girl had the entire Burlington coat factory under her rain jacket. Layer after layer we made her strip off until her face finally returned to normal.

We walked the last half mile of Day 1 and kissed the ground of Campsite 2.

Immediately the backpacks were shed and our backs relieved.

It’s a funny thing when you are looking for a spot to put your tent it seems that there is always a shortage of good level ground. Jamie and I began marking our territory when Bean comes over, looking at our plush grass plot and asks to share the soil.

It was a little hard to give up the spot, but Jamie spotted another decent area and we graciously gave the new couple the good spot.

We began to set up camp; tents pitched, and the women starting to collect firewood as the men managed the fire.

Building a fire with a group of people can sometimes be a challenge. I prefer the log cabin method whereas Ta (Giulietta) prefers the teepee method. Either way, the wood was wet and our task was proving challenging.

In the previous camping trip, we were able to get a strong fire going in the middle of a hurricane.

Sure the wood was saturated, but the abundance of fire-building methods was not necessarily an efficient process. The struggling fire would suffer from “the best process”. Every time another person would approach the fire it had to go a full transformation from one method to another. In and out of log cabin formation or other various wood-stacking styles. Our lungs were full of smoke from desperately trying to blow oxygen on the coals. We had become obsessed with the idea that our poor fire was suffocating and desperate attempts to help it breath were being executed. The heroics stopped just short of mouth-to-flame resuscitation.

With the fire situation desperate and over attended, I focused on making dinner for Jamie and me since the fire was being cared for and I was hungry. We had just received a new camp stove for our wedding and it was about to be put to good use.

My love of good food runs deep and I had been prepping this one meal in my head and in the kitchen for a few weeks.

I spent careful time at home blending together bullion and spices for a pho broth. I marinated bison meat in ginger, garlic, and tamari and then dehydrated it.

When camping, the boiling broth plumped up the meat and a small pack of rice noodles and before we knew it, Jamie and I were gorging on our hot meal.

Just as I had hoped, envious eyes from our companions darted back and forth from our Vietnamese delicacy and their dehydrated food pouches.

The night rolled on and Jamie and I had been barefoot since breaking camp. With our shoes completely damp we opted for naked toes and drying our boots by the fire.

It is amazing how comfortable your feet can be when they are slow-roasting by the flames. With the nip of Glen Moray in our throats and infused butter in our bellies, we were all feeling pretty good.

At some point, all of our gear decided it was too hot and various shoes and socks and gloves began to melt. There would be waves of panic and bustle when we would realize our precious clothing would reach this state. In reflection, I’m not sure why I even bothered to dry them as I had more than one set of back-ups and a dryer waiting for me at home.

***

The night came to an end and we all put our food tother and Nate and I went in search of a good tree to hang our bundle. With seven of us camping, the poor tree limb could hardly support our goodies.

Upon returning to the tent I realized that I had copious amounts of chocolate stashed in my pockets. Hoping that the smell of my dogs Fred and Ethl would deter any vicious beats in the night from desiring my cocoa.

We tucked into our sleeping bags and settled in for the night.

Recently Ethl had been plagued by dry skin and has been in the habit of licking incessantly. Our other two dogs have taken this as a sign to also lick themselves loudly and often. Long story short, at home, I have been troubled by the grotesque sounds of dogs licking themselves. This sound disturbs me to such an extreme and it had been amplified as of late.

Being that Jamie and I are not the most organized of people, we had no tent steaks with us and resorted to using sticks to support the tent. This resulted in the loose tent flaps mimicking the sound of dogs licking all night long.

I swore that mother nature was teasing me and that there was a large beaver posted outside our tent to lick itself just to annoy me.

****

Luckily, my dogs were too exhausted for any excess licking that night and they did not add to the tent-flap sounds.

In truth, I was very grateful for the companionship of my pups that evening. Their portable-heater-bodies not only ensured that I would be warm all night long, at one point I had to throw them out from overheating!

Jamie and I alternated between the two imperfect options of having the dogs warmth vs. having enough room in the sleeping bag. Truly, by morning time, I was so comfortable I had forgotten I was camping and thought I was waking up at home.

Later we found out that Sabina and Pat had been plagued by an armada or rocks and sticks in the original camp spot.

We all woke to soft flakes of snow and sleet hitting our tents. Peeling back the zipper felt like stepping into Narnia. Everything was coated with white and twinkles of light. Of course, my eyes had been glued shut from eye-ball-smoke secretions so I could have been confusing the twinkle with the fact that my eyes were like two white ping pong balls glued to my face.

I began to attempt a fire. I had asked Jamie to get our breakfast started; I vaguely recall a sarcastic glance from him, but I continued to focus on the fire.

The rest of the troupe started to assemble themselves and their breakfasts. I look back to Jamie who had been focused on getting his gear packed away and asked: “have you started the oatmeal?”

Jamie had avoided any interaction with cooking food or tending to the fire due to the “too many cooks in the kitchen”. He had also been suffering from lack of coffee. Poor Jamie obviously was not in charge of the food situation. He didn’t even know that we had oatmeal, or which sack it was stored in.

Meanwhile, there was also this debacle of needing hot water for everyone’s breakfast. I volunteered my super cool new cooking stove which I promised would boil all the water we needed in minutes. Many minutes later, I realized that the fire had gone out. Upset with myself for being distracted by packing up camp I relit the stove and went back to packing up. Again I failed and the stove ran out of wood fuel and went out.

Feeling the hot sting of hungry and caffeine deprived eyes watching me and my failures I attempt the stove one more time, so ashamed of my poor camp kitchen skills. Last night’s pho-mazing dinner was in great contrast to the watered down bland oatmeal we had for breakfast.

It was more like oat-water mush. Jamie and I resorted to licking clean the leftovers from my sister’s dehydrated food pouch.

Eventually, we were all packed up and ready to start the final 6 miles back to the car.

***

The woods were beautiful that morning.

A blanket of white across the thick grassy fields and new rhododendron buds. It could have been the lack of nutrition, but the world around me looked full of magic and wonder.

I prepared Sabina’s mind for the small uphill push that we would encounter halfway into our hike. We were all ready for the incline. We had walked up a small hill and took a pause, knowing the worst was still to come. We knew there would be a great descent before the big push, and we started to descend. Down and down we hiked. Waiting for the hill, the hill that never came.

We blew past our scary incline with such ease! The last 6 miles of our hike was a breeze!

In no time at all the bridge back to the real world came before us. We crossed what we thought was the bridge to the parking lot of our cars, but instead, the lot was empty. No car to be found.

A slight moment of panic and a peek into the guidebook later, we realized that we had a quarter mile hike remaining before we would reach our cars.

The first sighting of glass and plastic of our vehicles was a blessed feeling of creature comforts. My sisters and I practically sprinted back to the cars, desperate to get out of our wet clothes and into soft dry coverings.

The drive out of the wilderness was much less confusing than the ride in and before we knew it we were back on paved roads.

The weather was clear that day and for the first time, we saw the beauty of the mountains before us.

We sealed our trip with a visit to Davis, WV for some beer from Stumptown Ales and hot food from Farm Up Truck.

With a healthy buzz from beer and beautiful scenery, we all hugged and kissed goodbye, already dreaming of next years hike.