City Paper is not for tourists
Driving up the side of fog-enshrouded Mount Weather, you can’t help but get a sense of dread, especially if you’ve heard the stories.
In the dead of winter, the dense trees are bare and birdless, revealing little. From the mountain’s only through road, a winding two-laner, few houses can be seen, only mailboxes announcing such homesteads as “Bear’s Den.” Signs point down private driveways dubbed “Heart Attack Lane” and “Journey’s End.” The mountain seems deserted, right down to the wrought-iron gates guarded by stone eagles, the ramshackle entrances to turn-of-the-century estates once owned by Washington’s elite, who used to vacation here in rural Virginia’s Clarke and Loudoun counties, 50 miles west of the capital.
In recent times, however, the former weekend retreat has gained a reputation as the ultimate getaway: an underground refuge for government officials in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington. As vacation-property realtors might put it, the area is one of the region’s most secluded jewels. In fact, you’d have to have quite an agent even to find out about it: Pretty much everything about Mount Weather officially the home to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) headquarters is a state secret.
A 1991 Time article, “Doomsday Hideaway,” outlined some of the few facts that have ever surfaced about the top-secret, ’50s-era facility, just a 20-minute helicopter ride from the White House. Carved deep into the greenstone base of the mountain is a small-scale city that could support hundreds of senior U.S. officials for an extended period. There are streets and dormitories and stores and hospitals and an underground pond for drinking water down there, not to mention an executive suite for the president, all sealed behind a 5-foot-thick steel blast gate that only those wielding proper ID cards can gain entry to.
FEMA officials won’t comment on the mountain. But, naturally, rumors about the place have grown ever wilder, with talk about all sorts of Ian Fleming-style high-tech contraptions, such as gargantuan shock absorbers that would shield “High Point” the facility’s code name from the effects of a nuclear hit. Conspiracy theorists say the place is a Big Brother storehouse for information on every American citizen. Some whisper about a tunnel that leads from Mount Weather straight to the White House.
Even my uncle a longtime local and an avowed anti-conspiracist who would kill Oliver Stone on sight if he had the chance admits that the place must be pretty damn important: Every year he cuts firewood up there, and he says that no matter how wicked a snowstorm slams the mountain, the curving, treacherous road is always cleared by the next morning. Such lickety-split maintenance is definitely not to provide easy access for would-be snowboarders.
Recreationers wouldn’t have a very easy time on Mount Weather, anyway. Near the summit, a 10-foot-high razor-wire-topped chain-link fence is a stark tip-off that you’ve reached the government compound, more than 500 acres marked on county tax maps as “United States of America.” At the heavily guarded front gate, a large digital marquee tells the latest time and temperature. (Years ago, this was a National Weather Bureau facility; hence the name.) An armed sentry stands post round the clock, waving cleared vehicles through the gate as helicopters hover above a landing pad among antenna-spiked buildings.
If you don’t have official business inside, you can’t get past the gate, period. And there aren’t many questions that the guard will bother to answer. The sentry’s job is to wish you luck and wave you off the mountain.
But on a recent excursion there, I have only one inquiry to make, and it’s one that draws a decidedly unspooky response: the location of the Horseshoe Curve, a little country bar that is supposed to be nearby. When he hears my request, the guard’s face red and stiff in the cold thaws into a smile. Friendly as a tourist guide, he gives me precise directions.
I start to surge past the stop sign to make a 180-degree turn back out through the exit gate. Such a breach is not allowed. Resuming his stony expression, the sentry tells me to put my car in reverse and exit the premises immediately.
On a Tuesday evening, a typically motley crew of regulars huddles in the Horseshoe Curve. They include several stone masons, a Loudoun County sheriff’s deputy, a lawyer, a carpenter, and the author of a series of best-selling espionage novels. On other nights, you’ll find an assortment of construction workers, retired geezers, and local politicians fraternizing with FBI and FEMA employees and other feds whose agencies boast more obscure acronyms.
As in most tightknit beer joints, the regulars aren’t quick to embrace a newcomer, but here, in the shadow of Mount Weather, they take their suspicions a bit further. I’ll hear later on that they begin to run a check on my out-of-state license tags before I even order a beer.
If the low-lit interior resembles a family den, it should: It is the downstairs of the house where the proprietors, Jim and Tracee Lee Wink, have lived for years. Right off, though, it’s not hard to tell that this is no average living-room-turned-bar. It’s cozy but definitely not quaint: The walls, for one thing, are crammed with beer cans and constabulary caps from around the world from a London bobby’s helmet to one worn by the Malaysian police. In the corner is a paramilitary-themed video game, Operation Thunderbolt. A small wooden bar built by a few of the regulars seats only five, but there are enough linoleum-topped tables for a small crowd.
After a while, Jim Wink emerges from a side room. Fifty-five years old and still fit, he is not far removed from his career as a secret agent. Displaying an understated, businesslike manner, he’s more interested in sizing up his visitor than showing off, as is the way of any well-trained spook, retired or not.
First, Wink pooh-poohs any conspiracy gibberish about Mount Weather. Sure, he used to run some “exercises” up there when he was working for the intelligence community, but it was no big deal. “The government is a good neighbor,” he deadpans. In fact, he worked for that good neighbor for years, spending most of his career globe-trotting as a CIA agent. In the ’60s and ’70s, he says, he worked with the government providing intelligence services for the South Vietnamese army. In the decade after, Wink says, he roamed all over the map as an undercover operative, especially in Asia and Latin America.
The patrons of the Curve regard Wink as the keeper of the longest-running safehouse saloon in the Blue Ridge. “Think of the great hang-out placesHarry’s Bar in Venice, Fink’s in Jerusalem, the Anchor Bar in Detroit,” says John Weisman. “It’s even better than those.” A New York City native, Weisman has been a regular for five years, ever since he moved to the mountain. In the meantime, he’s written most of his 10 novels, adding to his previous work for publications ranging from the Columbia Journalism Review to Soldier of Fortune magazine. At his home, which he named “Ground Zero,” he is currently finishing his Rogue Warrior book series, about the U.S. Navy’s elite unit, the SEALs.
Tonight, Weisman has brought along an advance copy of his latest thriller, Rogue Warrior: Option Delta, which he’s inscribed: “For Jim & Tracee, who are characters in their own right.” In fact, this is the first book in which a character named “Jim Wink” makes an appearance, and it’s typically cryptic: “There’s an asterisk next to his name in the Index,” writes Weisman, “because whatever his real name is (it ain’t Jim Wink)…”
In one scene, “Wink, who lives in the Blue Ridge in an anonymous little town called Pine Grove,” starts talking tough about the book’s villain, a bad-guy industrialist: “‘This guy Lothar, he’s tight with the deputy assistant underminister of defense, some asshole named Marcus Richter,’ Wink drawled in his North Philly accent. ‘Richter spends a lot of time eatin’ an’ drinkin’ onna cuff at Beck’s Schloss in the Mosel Valley.’”
Wink’s spook past lives on in more than spy books. The side room doubles as his office and as a veritable shrine of awards, medals, and photos highlighting a storied career, back in the days when he sported Andy Kaufman sideburns and sunglasses. One of his prized possessions is a framed thank-you note “Para Jim: En reconocimiento a sus sobios enseñanzas” (“For Jim: In acknowledgement of his wise teachings” ) from the Peruvian counterterrorism unit that Wink says captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. Other than expressing a particular fondness for one of the men, nicknamed “the Bear,” Wink will only reveal that he “worked with them on problems of mutual concern in the field of counterterrorism.”
Wink has a habit of instinctively turning his head toward the front door whenever he hears someone making an entrance. It is not due to paranoia, but because he never knows who’s going to drop by for a surprise visit; once a year, Wink says, septuagenarian Roy Boehm, an old friend who was the first Navy SEAL, stops in for a beer. Former CIA cohorts show up all the time, he says.
But no matter who they are, Wink won’t let much slip out about their businesswhether it happens to take place in Siberia or on that mountain next door. “If any of us knew anything, we wouldn’t tell you,” Wink says. He points to a grizzled codger nearby, swigging a beer. “See that guy over there? Name is Hawk. He helped build the government installation, and he’s never said a word about it. If you asked him, he’d just tell you that he moved rock up on that mountain.”
Despite the high-tech security, lots of plain old drifters still make it through into what remains, at heart, a friendly mountain saloon. The Curve gets all kinds, from snooping journalists to weary pilgrims on the nearby Appalachian Trail, which skirts the bar and the compound on Mount Weather. “I had a hiker Christmas Eve,” says Tracee Wink. “I didn’t know what in the world he was doing out there, but it was snowing and he looked like he was half-frozen. He had a beer and dinner and took a sandwich with him. I guess there was some sad story behind it.”
Tracee Wink’s raspy twang betrays her former career as a rock and country singer, and the place is as much hers as Jim’s. She has made her own contribution to the decor, adding a local touch to the exotic relics of her husband. After all, she grew up here. And, ultimately, her family history grounds the Curve in Appalachia’s quiet past just as much as Jim’s catapults the bar into Clarke County’s covert-ops present.
On the wall next to a battered banjo and some old-fashioned iron ice tongs hangs a photo of Tracee’s grandfather, Bob McLaughry, who ran the place for decades before his death. His Sicilian Lupo shotgun still hangs over the kitchen door, and he pulled it down more than once, as has Tracee. Under Bob’s command, the bar was a combination beer joint and gas station on the sweeping curve that gives the place its name, about halfway down the mountain.
In those days, the bar stood at Snickers’ Gap on the old Virginia Route 7, originally laid out by a young surveyor named George Washington in the mid-18th century. Now, the four-lane Harry Byrd Highway bypasses the bar, and the place is marooned on an obscure side road that winds down to the Shenandoah River. Still, the Horseshoe Curve remains the hangout for miles around, the only such pit stop between Purcellville and Berryville, the county seat.
Jim married Tracee a decade ago, two years after she’d quit her music career to help her ailing granddad run the Curve. They’ve been here ever since. Wink still gets ribbed as the interloper from the North; old-timers still needle him about the incident when he asked for some “bushels” of straw at the Southern States down in Berryville. “On my tombstone it will say, ‘Here lies the man who married the McLaughry girl.’”
And yet, on the mountain at least, Wink has been accepted and has even become something of a local leader. The Horseshoe Curve runs one of the region’s most active charities, and he recently made a foray into politics, a failed bid for a seat on the county’s board of supervisors. He had support from another local Republican, Ollie North, but apparently it wasn’t enough to unseat the incumbent. “If the mountain was all one voting district, it would have been different,” he says. He’s still considered an outsider by the horsey set down in the lowlands around Berryville.
Wink has vowed to run again on his no-development platform; he wants to make sure that Clarke County’s population of 12,000 continues to remain smaller than the local deer herd. In January, he says, he’s headed to Richmond along with the local state delegate; he wants to get a look at how they do things down at the General Assembly.
When Tracee joins him at the state capital, the Horseshoe Curve will remain open, thanks to regulars who take turns as substitute barkeeps in the Winks’ absence. After all, they depend on the place as much as the proprietors. Indeed, despite its spy-novel setting, the Horseshoe Curve often resembles the country bar it partly is, with more talk about this year’s hunting seasonthe bucks are sporting splendid racks because of the droughtthan secret missions overseas or up at Mount Weather.
On this evening, a little local drama plays itself out: As darkness falls, a pudgy man with a baseball cap crammed over his reddened, stubbled mug walks in to a chorus of stony silence. He’s not a stranger, just a local fuckup. He moves cautiously across the bar, right up to Tracee, who stands hands on hips behind the ancient McCaskey manual cash register. He softly makes an apology and then bolts back out the front door. Moments later, his wife creeps in and performs a similar ritual. As it turns out, the couple had a nasty row in here a few nights before starring the husband as chief abuser and they’re making amends. Tracee accepts their overtures, though after they leave, she murmurs, “It wouldn’t bother me if they never came back.”
No doubt they will, though. Sooner or later, everybody bounces back to the Curve.
A customer at the next table lets out a pretty decent rendition of a rebel yell, and Weisman smiles. “I’m from New York, and Jim’s from Philly,” he says. “But they accept us as damn Yankees, because we’re here to stay.”