Shenandoah National Park, VA

On the ideal trip, it feels great to be heading toward your destination in the wilderness, and it feels great to be heading back out to civilization.  That means you’ve gotten your fill of change and perspective, and hopefully are more appreciative of everything you’ve got in life.  That’s how I feel about our past few days in Shenandoah National Park.

We could hardly have had worse weather coming into the park.  The big rain that everyone was talking about (see comments on the previous blog entry) hit the Washington DC area as we left, and we towed the 95 miles up to the mountains in a moderate rain, with fog along the top of the Shenandoahs obscuring all of the views along Skyline Drive. All we could see were waterfalls splashing down the exposed rock along the edge of the roadway.   This is the sort of weather that tells you if you have a leak in your rig; fortunately we did not.

bert-and-janie-gildart.jpgWe were expected by friends who had already been at Shenandoah for over two weeks.  Bert & Janie Gildart were there, working on the fourth edition of their popular guide to Shenandoah National Park (published by Globe Pequot Press), and they’d been joined by Adam and Susan, who were hiking the trails with the Gildarts.  To update the book, Bert needed to hike every trail again, take new photos, and capture GPS coordinates of all the trailheads.

Everyone was out when we arrived, so we hit the Visitor Center first, to get oriented and get Emma’s Junior Ranger program.  The Jr. Ranger badge for Shenandoah is a tough one, requiring the purchase of a $3 workbook and completion of 12 activities plus attendance at two ranger programs.  It ended up taking all four days for Emma to complete.

The Visitor Center at Big Meadows tells a very compelling story of the formation of the park, focused on the political and cultural struggles that surrounded it.  During the Great Depression, when the park was approved, the land was occupied by tenant farmers and homesteaders, most of whom were relocated, and there was quite a bit of travail associated with that.  There’s also a story surrounding the contribution of the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose signature stonework and architecture are visible everywhere.

The pouring rain and fog reminded me of our visit to the Hoh Rain Forest in October 2007.  On that trip Eleanor made an apple crisp, and coincidentally she made an apple pie while we were in Shenandoah.  There’s something about baking in the Airstream on a cool rainy afternoon that makes it feel very cozy.

Unlike our trip to the Hoh, we were also comforted by our catalytic heater, which really paid off on this trip.  There are no hookups in the Big Meadows campground, so we were operating solely off solar power and batteries.  I like the smooth, silent, radiant heat the catalytic heater produces without needing electricity, and its high efficiency.  We ran it each night as the temperatures dipped into the low 40s.  Our friends were admiring it as well, since they were going without heat on some nights in order to budget their power.  The generator hours in this campground weren’t really enough for them to recharge their batteries fully if they used their furnace extensively.

bert-e-e-at-falls.jpgFortunately the weather turned beautifully sunny on Friday and stayed that way all weekend.  Shenandoah runs about 10 degrees cooler than the valley below, which meant perfect fall hiking weather in the 60s each day.  The rain took a lot of leaves down, but there were still plenty to show some early fall foliage color, and the air was sparkling clear for stunning vistas both east and west.

I did two short hikes on Friday morning with Bert, Adam, and Susan, and in the afternoon we picked up Janie, Eleanor and Emma for a 3.3 mile hike to Lewis Spring Falls.  Emma and I celebrated the day by trying the chocolate shakes at Wayside, the cafe and store at Big Meadows.

Our evening activity was the 7:30 pm ranger talk at the amphitheater, shivering on a cold aluminum bench outside despite hats, gloves, and warm jackets. (Wow, the things we will do to get a ranger signature on the Junior Ranger program…)

The weekend campers arrived in droves on Friday, which predictably meant we spent the weekend in a haze of campfire smoke. Bert and Janie had the bad luck to get some noisy neighbors with “Diplomatic” license plates.  (They apparently confused diplomatic immunity with a license to be obnoxious.)

We chose to take the day in Luray, down in the valley below, to get some extra propane and diesel, and to visit the famous Luray Caverns.  The caverns are bigger than I remembered, much more sophisticated (now with an audio tour) and much more expensive at $23 per adult.  But the ticket includes admission to two other small museums on site, one filled with antique cars, the other filled with Shenandoah valley historical objects. The result is a solid two to three hour visit.

This time we had the chance to actually see things as we covered the 15 miles or so of Skyline Drive from Thornton Gap to Big Meadows, so we stopped at every overlook along the way.  Several were closed for renovations, with signs that say “Your Recovery Dollars At Work”, but there were enough spots open to get a really nice look at both the eastern and western valleys.  Back at camp, things were smokier than ever, and we had to peer through a haze to see the ranger’s presentation that night, but we knew it was the last night we’d have to endure camping in the midst of a forest fire.

Sunday’s hike amounted to 5.5 miles roundtrip to South River Falls, in 46-52 degree temperatures. Eleanor and Janie stopped at the falls overlook while the rest of us continued down to the base of the falls.  It turned out to be a good call for those of us who went down, because we spotted a bear cub along the way.  Momma Bear was nowhere in sight, but I’d guess she was in the direction we saw the cub running.

Supposedly bears have not been a big problem in Big Meadows campground, but the rangers are careful about it nonetheless.  I left a 12-pack of diet soda on the picnic table for Adam, and while we were gone the rangers confiscated it.  They left a note saying it could be retrieved at the campground entrance station, and Adam picked up the soda with good humor while Eleanor made a dessert treat for everyone (pound cake with a reduction of fresh raspberries and Grand Marnier, dark chocolate sauce, and Amaretto cream.)  Dinner came later. As they say, “life is uncertain — eat dessert first.”

Since we were budgeting our water in the Airstream very carefully in order to get four nights of use out of our 39-gallon supply, I volunteered to take a shower far up the hill at the campground’s shower/laundry area.  It was far enough up the hill that I drove the car over, with my towel and soap.  The deal was $1 (four quarters) for five minutes of water in an unheated shower cubicle.  Since the time limit wasn’t actually posted at the showers I used, I guessed how much water I had left—and I guessed wrong.  Unlike a car wash, there was no “beep beep beep” to warn of the impending end of water.  It just suddenly slammed off, and I was left with a significant portion of soap on my body.

There is no negotiating with these machines.  The only thing they care about is four more quarters, which I did not have.   I needed 30 seconds of water but you can’t get sympathy from a coin-op machine, so I wiped off most of the remaining soap, dressed, and drove the car back down to the Airstream where the rinsing was completed.

Solar-wise, we did well.  The first day was a washout, and the last day (Monday) was a washout, but the other three days were very sunny.  Every day we were fully recharged by afternoon.  We left the park on Monday morning in an extremely heavy fog with 75% of our battery power remaining.  We had planned to leave on Monday, but even if we hadn’t it was definitely time to go: the weather was abominable, with wind, light rain, dense fog, and temperatures hovering around 40.  Adam and Susan left as well, but Bert and Janie will be there another week or two to complete work on their book.

Emma was concerned about towing in the grim weather.  The fog was so dense that deer could not see us coming, and would jump out into the road with no warning.  The speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 MPH, but we covered about 15 miles of that twisting and hilly road at a very sedate 25 MPH, carefully studying the trees as they appeared from the gloom for signs of deer.  Two passed right in front of us but we were going slowly enough to stop.  I posted some video showing just how spooky this tow was, on YouTube.

We are now near Winston-Salem NC in a pleasant county park.   It is Fall even here, but much warmer and fairer.  For the next four days we will be engaged mostly in work and school since this is a spot with conveniences such as cell phone service.  Our immediate plans from here are vague, but generally we are headed to Florida where various appointments await.  For the next two weeks, we are mostly free to roam between here and there.