A team of seven gathered at the edge of Olive Hill last week to visit one of city’s most historic and colorfully named areas - The Devil’s Backbone.
Retired educator Greg Collinsworth, who joined the Journal-Times crew for a similar adventure two years ago, proposed the journey a couple of weeks back. Olive Hill Trail Town Coordinator Jesse Oney was among the first to sign up, and I committed journalist Jeremy D. Wells and myself as well.
On the morning of the trip, fellow adventurer Jim McKnight and his trusty husky, Dakota, signed up. My wife, who loves Jim’s dog, also decided she was feeling strong enough to make the hike up the backbone.
We kept them waiting at the gate for a few minutes too long, but the gang, including Stevie Clay, were waiting at the gate when we finally arrived.
We had gone hardly a few yards downhill before several of us were discussing the potential of the former loading facility we were walking through. Large paved areas and several concrete structures remain behind from a place where trucks and train cars once loaded and unloaded.
BMX and mountain bike enthusiasts, among others, would beat a path to such a place, if it were available to them.
Collinsworth took the lead as we connected up along Tygart Creek and our little group stretched out along the former railroad path. Clay and Oney followed the first spur off the main line and caught a glimpse of an owl, and we all ducked beneath a natural “tunnel” of shrubs next to the remnants of a railroad bridge. Those bridge foundations, Clay and myself agreed, could also provide excellent bases for some sort of a zipline system.
Back on the main line, we briefly feared we had overlooked the old staircase leading up the Devil’s Backbone to the place where Captain C.C. Brooks and family once lived. Legend has it the train stopped at the bottom of the staircase each morning and night to pick up and drop off Capt. Brooks. The last time we went looking, Collinsworth and myself actually passed the stairs by, and had to turn around when we ran out of rail bed at Ben’s Run. Fortunately, the stairs had not moved since then and the moss covering each helped us spot the structure.
With Collinsworth again at the front, we hit the stairs gently due to fears of the moss making them slippery. McKnight’s dog, Dakota, had no such fears and would have made record time if not for a hand on the leash.
At the top of the stairs, I feared my wife would need to take a rest, although it seemed she had instead been boosted by the experience. She always loved to hike, but has largely been unable to do so this year. Getting out and onto a trail clearly served to renew her spirits. She had a few moments when balance and other challenges worked against her, but never once lagged behind.
After a few moments looking at what is left of the old Brooks homeplace, we decided to keep things moving and enjoyed a view of Tygart Creek before winding back around to look for the old cemetery on top of Devil’s Backbone.
The old graveyard, which served the Brooks family and the Hayes family, was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. We divided up and pursued our own interests, taking photos and trying to make out the fading names and numbers carved into the oldest, weather-worn stones. Collinsworth rightfully worried one or more of the stone markers may soon topple, due to tree roots causing them to lean at dangerous angles.
In addition to my trusty Nikon camera, I carried a huge, black machete which I’ve been wanting to field test. Based on the kukri blade, the thing is almost more of a short sword than it is a knife. I had doubted if it would be a utilitarian tool or not, but used it to slice through several hanging grape vines and a few small dead trees as a test. I can say it would surely come in handy if you needed to blaze a trail.
We split into three groups heading back down the Backbone, with McKnight and Dakota being the first to get back on the path. On the walk back up the hill, Oney said he was again inspired to investigate ways to add The Devil’s Backbone and nearby connecting properties to Olive Hill’s Trail Town assets. We all agreed it is an area people would love to visit and would be an excellent addition for hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders alike.
It is noteworthy that “The” Devil’s Backbone is actually “A” Devil’s Backbone.
The title has been applied to many other places, but also to another, similar ridge further downstream on Tygart Creek near Carter Caves State Resort Park.
Tim Preston can be reached at email@example.com, or by telephone at (606) 474-5101.