June 10, 2016 Smith Roach Gap to South River (Shenandoah National Park) – 9.5 miles 4.5 hours.
It was another beautiful summer day with clear blue skies. After a 3-hour drive we took our position on Skyline Drive at 9:40. Our hitchhiking has prompted a lot of thought on human nature and the state of our nation. As we stand vulnerable and exposed on the roadside thoughts of how best to present ourselves crop up. Should we pose in a certain way? Perhaps Jane in front with Michael less threateningly standing behind? Do you stare down the driver or is it better to abstractly gaze in the distance? Or as our friend Don suggests, don a warm engaging smile.
When you think about it, the oncoming driver has maybe 5 seconds to decide our fate. What influences that decision? Is it our presentation on the roadside or something more deeply etched in the conscience of the driver? Is it easier for a solitary driver to make a decision without having to consult with other passengers?
An older couple in a pickup with an attached camper stopped after 8 passes. Their arrangement was quite different, and gave us a little pause. The driver asked me to sit up front in the cab with him. His wife got out of the cab and asked Jane to join her in the back of the camper. Jane later admitted a little anxiety as she got back into the camper. They’re not a couple of serial killers, right?
Separated as we were, we both got capsule stories. The couple lives in Erie, PA and spends 6 months visiting their daughters in NC. They bought the camper just a month ago and were returning home for the summer. All this in about 5 miles as they decided to turn off the Drive at Swift Run Gap where Rt. 33 intersects Skyline Drive.
That meant we had to bale out and hitch for another 4 miles. Fortunately a car with 3 young women immediately picked us up and let us off at South River. They were continuing north to Dark Hollow Falls for a day hike. It took 8 passes and 45 minutes to get to our destination.
On today’s trek we encountered Ridge Runner Laurel Lee, one of the many fantastic volunteers who patrol and maintain the AT. We chatted a bit as we stopped for lunch. She continued on her journey engaging in conversation with the hikers she encountered. There’s a network of over 30 hiking clubs and 6,000 volunteers who keep the AT a ongoing and vibrant phenomenon.
On our post lunch trek up Hightop Mountain, a bear foraging just a short distance from the trail startled me. The big fellow stood up, turned, and scampered off in the dense undergrowth. Once safely away, he glanced back at me then continued contently foraging.
One of my favorite plants, columbine, was scattered throughout the forest today. I love their arching stems and fluted orange-red downward facing petals with their yellow interior and stamens. They are often nestled in places that capture the essence of the woodland forest. We also saw laurel in full bloom.
Our leisurely hikes center around the opportunity to observe our surroundings. We were reminded of the nature’s subtlety when examining one of the AT trailhead posts. Lying perfectly flat against the concrete column was a moth (I don’t think a butterfly) perfectly camouflaged against the background. Jane had to point it out before I could recognize it.
We made reservations to stay at the Country View motel in Elkton, VA, just a few miles from the Swift Gap entrance to Skyline Drive. Certainly not luxurious, this $70 per night room was convenient and adequate for our needs.
In the evening, we decided to attend a ranger program at the Lewis Mountain campground. On the way we passed large stands of towering cow parsnip along the roadside. This evening’s presentation was by a seasoned ranger who recently transferred to Shenandoah. She admitted this was her first program here at SNP and she was testing a new approach. So in effect, the dozen or so people in the audience were her test subjects.
This year being the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service, her focus was visitor’s impressions and experiences at National Parks. She asked about first National Park experiences. The audience mentioned a lot of the biggies, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc. It made me realize that I had never been to a National Park until I was hired at Independence National Historical Park as a student in 1974. As a city kid, other than summer camp and a vacation in the Poconos, I didn’t have much exposure to natural environments.
Thinking back, our first National Park experience was at Shenandoah National Park shortly after we were married. We subsequently visited SNP numerous times with our sons and also on various day hikes. I recall when Nick was a toddler, we were strolling up a steep wide path, when he bolted forward and nearly fell off the edge. As we hiked the AT near Mary’s mountain, the terrain looked familiar. I believe that’s where the incident occurred.
When Peter was in middle school and very interested in photography, we organized a weekend trip to SNP with the Frederick Camera Clique. We spent the weekend hiking trails around Big Meadows and taking lots of photographs. This was back when you had to go to the darkroom to develop and print your shots.
The Ranger talked about her various NPS postings, including a stint at Natchez Trace Parkway along with the now famous mystery writer and former Park Ranger, Nevada Barr. Barr’s series featuring law enforcement ranger Anna Pigeon are riveting tales that make you appreciate the special qualities of the National Parks and the challenges in managing and protecting them. Her rich, complex and engaging characters add to the quality and enjoyment of her writing. We’ve read about a dozen of her books and are now motivated to check out more recent titles. I’ve since re-read, Borderline, a thrilling tale set in one of my favorite National Parks—Big Bend, straddling the Rio Grade along the Mexican border.
The Ranger also asked what folks collected (photos and NPS passport stamps). She also shared some of her personal writings about experiences in the Pacific Northwest and mountain climbing. In hindsight, it would have been better if she included some observations by other writers. Included in the audience were hikers Wendy and Rene, who we encountered the following evening at the Big Meadows Lodge.