Daily Mail staff
Thursday April 19, 2001
Dorvil Taylor has dug ramps
frequently enough to have plenty
of helpful advice. He offered a
straightforward method for gathering the potent root: "Just
dig what you can dig." As ramp dinners
become more popular, more and more people are hiking up
Virginia's hills to dig them. Photo by Tom Hindman/Daily Mail
The group from Calhoun County found
an entire hillside
covered with ramps. After a couple of
hours, the group had filled about nine burlap bags. The
part was hauling the heavy bags back
down the muddy, steep hill. "People say we're crazy," said
Wanda Richards, "but when we're
determined, we're determined. Photo by Tom Hindman/Daily
Everybody talks about the pungent odor of ramps, but digging the
Appalachian delicacy produces a different set of concerns:
My legs are tired. My back is hurting. I am hungry. My nose is
And my burlap bag is filling very, very slowly.
I have come to this hillside with a group of Calhoun County residents
who are planning a ramp dinner to support the community
center in the town of Minnora. To pay the electric bill, they will
ramps prepared with potatoes, scrambled eggs and bacon
A man named Dorvil Taylor has led me across a rocky slope and into the
fog where the hillside is covered by long, green
leaves. Those are the ramps. "They're thick as the hair on a dog's
back," Dorvil tells me. "Just dig what you can dig."
So, I start swinging my pick. Pretty quickly, I realize why hillside
farming never really caught on.
Ramp dinners are becoming even more popular, though. People enjoy the
look on your face when you try a ramp, which is like
a green onion but more potent. The culinary adventure is a good way
community groups to make money.
So, each spring, more and more community groups decide to have a ramp
dinner to pay the bills. And each spring, people
more or less like me climb steep hillsides to dig ramps.
I am tagging along on this trip because I have responded to an e-mail:
"Anyone wishing to help dig ramps can call the number
above." The woman on the other end of the telephone number is Wanda
Richards, a resident of Chloe.
Three years ago, Wanda and other community center supporters decided
gather ramps near the Pocahontas and Webster
county line, where they had often been fishing and camping. Once
they asked the residents about the best place to find
The first year, the ramp dinner raised $600 for the community center.
This will be the third year for the dinner, so the Calhoun
County crowd has gotten the act of gathering ramps pretty close to a
science. I am learning as I go along.
Tom, the photographer, and I are to meet Wanda and several others at
Go- Mart in Big Otter at 7 o'clock on a Monday
morning. Fortunately, Go-Mart has coffee.
In our group there are Robert and Mary Lou King, who have brought
grandson Matt, who is on spring break. There is
Gene Hicks, who has bad knees. There is Dorvil Taylor, who gives me
advice throughout the day.
And finally, there are Lawrence and Rose Jarvis. Lawrence doesn't
particularly like digging ramps, but he plans to go fishing in
the afternoon. "Rose is a real good digger," Wanda tells me. "She can
dig those ramps."
As for Wanda, she considers herself best suited to follow behind the
diggers, gathering the ramps, shaking the dirt off and
stuffing them into the burlap sacks. Wanda and Rose generally do the
cooking for the dinner, too.
Wanda also has a definite idea about how to eat a ramp.
"I like mine with a bologna sandwich," she says. "You take a bite of
ramp and then a bite of sandwich."
>From Big Otter, we wind our way through the central part of the
from Interstate 79 and then onto smaller roads through
Cowen and alongside the Williams River. The scenery is beautiful. The
landscape is green, and we pass trees with violet
We finally arrive at an area called "County Line Trail" in the
Monongahela National Forest. No one seems exactly sure what
side of the county line we are on. All I know is, the trail looks
It doesn't take long to realize that I am a moron. I had thought the
weather would be warm, and I actually considered wearing
shorts. Instead, I am in jeans, a T-shirt and a light jacket. And it
It doesn't feel any better when Wanda assures me, "When you start
climbing that mountain, that'll warm your butt up."
Fortunately, Tom the photographer has heavier clothes in the trunk and
lets me borrow a coat and some rain pants. It helps that
Tom is prepared, but it doesn't change my misguided notion that
ramps will be easy.
That's a simple matter of ignoring the facts. I am aware that the part
of the ramp that people like to eat is the root. And I am
carrying a large, metal pick in my hand. But I am still envisioning an
activity as strenuous as picking daisies in the park.
Halfway up the hill, I am out of breath and wondering where the ramps
are. At last, Dorvil points at one: "See the ramp right
there, buddy? Right there against that log." He's right. It's a clump
leaves shaped like thin spades. I think, Is that the only
one? Still, I feel the sort of relief that sailors must feel when they
see that first bird that indicates dry land.
We hike much, much farther up the hill before anyone sees fit to
remain winded, even though I am the youngest person
on the trip. Dorvil, who remains in front of me, is in his 60s. When I
finally catch up to him, he's standing in the fog in a field of
"It's like a hayfield," he says.
The ramps are in patches, and they go all the way up the hill. They
much thicker than I had ever thought. They are so
plentiful, it's easy to see why people started eating them. Early
settlers must have been grateful after long, hard winters.
Everyone else has started digging, and I'm still not sure how. I start
whacking away with my pick with mixed results. Sometimes
I'm getting the white root, but other times I'm just cutting off the
leaves. Based on Wanda's recommendation, I ask Rose how
"Just look for a big pile and dig deep," she says.
So, I go back to my original method. It's hard work. You're bent over
most of the time, swinging the pick, gathering the ramps
or stuffing the bag. The pick starts to hurt your hands. And you get
all over your body.
Before long, though, I have filled the bottom of my sack, and I feel
like I'm making progress. It's a mirage. A little while later,
my back has started to ache. I peer into my sack, and it seems no more
full than before.
I walk over toward Lawrence and Rose, hoping to absorb some secret --
more efficient digging method or an easier patch of
ramps to dig. Instead, they seem to be doing about what I've been
except better. After two hours, I still haven't filled half
A windfall finally comes after Lawrence has filled a plastic Wal-Mart
shopping bag with ramps. He dumps the contents into my
burlap sack. I am ecstatic. Through no work of my own, I have doubled
quantity. The second time Lawrence does this, I
feel even better.
With my sack nearly full, I decide it is OK to be exhausted. I ignore
the fact that Lawrence has done most of my work and
take a seat on a rock. Wanda announces to everyone, "OK, quit digging.
We're done." That's about 10 minutes after I've
Together, we've collected nine sacks of ramps. Dorvil estimates the
entire weight to be 400 pounds. It seems impressive until
you stop to consider how you're going to get them down the
Dorvil -- who, it bears repeating, is in his 60s -- ties two bags
together and slings them over one shoulder. I take one bag and
drag it behind me. Normally, going down a hill is a relief, but under
these conditions it is twice as challenging.
With 40 pounds of ramps, it is hard to balance. And my sneakers are
suited to produce traction in the mud. I've gone only
a few yards before my feet slip out from under me and I land on my
behind. By the 10th time this occurs, it is somewhat less
Finally, we reach flat land. I have never seen a parking lot look so
good. It is such a relief that I fall one more time. I drop my
sack with the rest and wander off toward a creek to wash the mud off
shoes and hands.
Once all the sacks are piled together, it looks like an impressive
We all congratulate each other. Then I ask the question
that has been on my mind: If you've done this once, why would you ever
do it again?
"After a year's gone by," explains Rose, "you forget."
Wanda tries to convince me that the enjoyment has only started.
"What's really fun is when we clean the ramps," she says, "and you
sit and clean and everybody talks and socializes."
Well, maybe next year.