Photos by Ross McDermott and Joey Conover
“Adventure Days,” a semi-regular series of strenuous exploits in the out-of-doors, was recently instituted by The Dear Leader as an opportunity for the common working man to regain his vigor by momentarily relaxing his burden and lifting his eyes to the wonders of our uncommon Commonwealth. In other words, sometimes Jeff just needs everyone out of the house while
the insulation is blown in.
Our first destination was a given: Quiz any adventurer in Central Virginia about the best place to get away from the general public and explore an underappreciated example of elegant design and master craftsmanship and most will reply,
“Well, if you don’t mind getting dirty, wet, a bit frightened and possibly contracting Tetanus, then probably a Latitude 38 jobsite.”
But that’s their response only because they are blissfully unaware of the death trap known as the Crozet railroad tunnel.
By the grace of the maker alone, a younger and more naïve Latitude crew made it through the abandoned tunnel once before; we saw fit to return on our inaugural Adventure Day because this festering, mile-long borehole under Afton mountain is soon to be converted into a slick and sanitized recreational path; providing families and fitness enthusiasts with a rare opportunity to escape the sunny Virginia climate and exercise in an inky granite tomb.
And trust us, potentially home-buying public- It is dark in there. The comforting view back out the tunnel mouth doesn’t last for long, first becoming bent and distorted like a religious apparition by hanging tongues of water vapor before being snuffed out completely less than one hundred yards in from the entrance. Fortunately, we were accompanied this time through
by A Rouge’s Gallery of C-ville Notables who wisely provided petrol-soaked torches to light the way as well as to touch off any lurking pockets of flammable rock gas- a quick incineration always trumping a helpless suffocation among spelunkers.
Speaking of incineration and suffocation, work started on the tunnel
in 1850, at a time when OSHA was a village in Wisconsin and the field of “Worker Safety” concerned itself primarily with how the upper classes could remain safe from their workers. The grey matter behind the operation was Honorary Latitude 38 employee Claudius Crozet, a decorated French military engineer who relocated to central Virginia, no doubt drawn by the pleasing year-round climate, cultural amenities and world-class shopping at Barracks Road (then Barracks Rut). But a life of wine-tastings and schmoozing at Friday’s after Five wasn’t in the cards for ole’ CC, who was quickly approached by the Blue Ridge Railroad Company to construct a line across the mountains to the Shenandoah valley, a region that in 1850 was still best reached by birth. In addition to being a brilliant engineer, Crozet apparently also had a flair for the dramatic, and so hired two gangs of Irish workers to build the tunnel that would be the crux of his route. From the west side chipped and blasted a group from Northern Ireland, and from the East dug a Protestant group from County Cork, working towards each other’s throats at the achingly slow rate of playanalyzed.com 19 feet per month. They holed through deep under Rockfish Gap on Christmas Day, 1856. During the subterranean holiday fracas that no doubt ensued Crozet excused himself to check the tunnel’s alignment and…
The two excavations, each half a mile in length, were off by only six inches.
In contrast, when a replacement tunnel was dug in the 1940’s using state-of the art surveying and measuring tools, the two sides missed each other by six feet. Yet another argument in favor of leaving the awkward tool belt at home and “jus’ eyeballin’ it” on the jobsite (Kidding!).
But enough with tales of sturdy workmen and captains of industry almost lost to us in the depths of time-we have a group of the same lost in the depths of Crozet tunnel as we speak! Torches lit and dripping hot kerosene down our forearms, we discovered that the first quarter mile of the shaft was navigable by canoe. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a canoe. But we did have each other-specifically each other’s shirt collars and pant’s legs, which were stretched and pulled low as we grabbed out at our fellow man to arrest plunges into the thigh-deep, wall-to-wall pool of stale
rock drippings. Suddenly the expansive echoes were stolen from our voices and the culprit loomed up out of the darkness- a huge bulkhead wall across our path, the only way ahead appearing to be a belly crawl through a body-sized drain pipe streaming rusty water. As Staff Photographer McDermott set up shop capturing unflattering portraits of rear ends attempting to enter a confined space, shivering bystanders noted numerous spray paint tags claiming
this space for “CORY”, “KOREY” and also “COREE”, giving us further proof (as if we needed it) that one of our newest co-workers isn’t being entirely forthcoming about his leisure time activities (or his spelling abilities).
At this point, a source close to the author (this phrase takes on a fresh meaning while crawling through a cast iron pipe) informed me that the wall (along with an identical one at the tunnel’s far end) is a remnant of a daft 1970’s scheme by the city of Waynesboro to use the interior of the defunct tunnel as a storage vault for a huge quantity of pressurized natural gas, to be purchased on a low market and stored for a rainy day. When the proverbial rainy day arrived, however, workers realized that it probably wasn’t rain but rather natural gas falling outside, as the entirety of their investment had escaped upward into the surrounding rock, luckily not destroying Interstate 64 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, both of which run directly overhead. After a stern reprimand at City Hall, the responsible party transferred to BP’s promising new deepwater drilling division.
Beyond the wall we found ourselves in a disconcerting acoustical funhouse filled with the mid-Atlantic’s largest lode of unredeemed beer cans (ME-VT-CT-MA-CA-IA-$28,034)., As past footfalls and conversations ricocheted overhead we slowly spread out; exploring at our leisure the hand-hewn walls and dynamite drill holes, all the while stumbling over the fins of rock that lay across our path like giant fallen dominos.
It was then, in the deepest bowels of the tunnel, most of us lost in reflection, some of us just plain lost, and all of us at our most emotionally vulnerable, that Tommy, somewhere up ahead in the murk, innocently banged an admiring hand against some rusting hulk of Americana lying on the tunnel floor. Before the trembling vibration he had set in motion could reach even his ears, it escaped into the void and was forgotten about, only to return a minute later, wildly distorted by the half-mile long chamber, sounding like what can only be described as the building roar of C and O Ghost Locomotive No. 24- straining into the tunnel entrance with a load of West Virginia coal, Kentucky bourbon, Barnum and Bailey circus lions and a Pullman car full of cigar-chomping Midwest dignitaries bound for Washington. Now, I would like to imagine that upon hearing this shrieking thunder announcing our demise everyone fell to their knees in horror, but I suspect it might have just been my gullible self. I was about to run ahead and show our Show-Me State friend a thing or two but reconsidered, remembering that if not for his generous loan
of a pair of water shoes I would have been facing a barefoot imaginary death inside Afton Mountain (for the second time, but that’s another story).
Apologies, as the above was certainly neither here nor there; but, then, neither was our group until with great relief we spotted the first glimmers of the
western tunnel entrance ahead and soon emerged into the spectacular light of day, all of us immediately taken with the beauty of the spring forest. Far above, a symphony of water dripped from the decorative stones of the tunnel facade; nearby, saplings swayed in the honeysuckle breeze like Radio City Rockettes; and Jeff, to this day, maintains that he saw a chipmunk dressed in a tiny pair of engineer’s overalls beckoning to him from a distant tree limb. Perhaps the copious radon fumes we had all just inhaled played a role in this spectacle, but, suffice it to say, nothing allows one to experience the Virginia countryside in a new light
quite like spending two hours inside the Virginia countryside with no light.
In closing, while an outing to the Crozet railroad tunnel can hardly be recommended for a first date (Please give me a second chance, Tammy), it was an ideal destination for the first of hopefully many Latitude 38 Adventure Days. Inside Crozet’s masterpiece we found new friends (and promptly lost them in the darkness); and we took a welcome break from our hard-knock world of swaying scaffolding and potentially lethal power tools to explore a place infinitely more dangerous. But most importantly, we were again reminded of the bounty of Latitude 38’s eponymous parallel. Joey managed to best summarize the journey before it
had scarcely begun, as our group set off towards the tunnel with the beautiful Rockfish Valley spread out far below us-“This… is why we live in Virginia.