Sunday, October 12

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mansion in nearby Charlottesville.After two days of driving around Charlottesville, Virginia, in between a rehearsal dinner on Friday night and an evening outdoor wedding at a pastoral vineyard near Earlysville on Saturday, we steered the rented Saturn L200 into the South entrance of Shenandoah National Park at Waynesboro. I was beginning to become dangerously fond of the L200, as it completely out-classed my Saturn SL2 at home. It was 10:00 Sunday morning. Intentionally, we had purchased a James Taylor CD for the purpose of imprinting our experience on the music. I find the best way to remember anything is to hear the music associated with it. For example, Def Leopard tunes make me recall those awkward days of the 6th grade. To this day, I hate Def Leopard. Thus, the formerly unheard James Taylor became the official balladeer of this trip. “In my mind I’m going to Carolina.” To a western boy like me, Virginia’s about the same thing. 

Big Run FallsIt’s always hard to match those first few minutes cruising down a sun-dappled National Park road after exiting the super-beltway, on which your car is herded along by the sheer momentum of a thousand others at 80 mph. Sunshine streamed through the myriad colors of hardwood leaves in the crisp, October morning air. Red and orange oaks, blazing yellow hickory and tenaciously green tulip trees, barely frosted with yellow, lined Skyline Drive, casually leading us north along the crest of the storied Blue Ridge Mountain. The thin river of dark pavement curved and streamed around rock walls and through a forest so dense at times I could see no more than 10 feet into its depths before my vision grew confused at the jumble of shapes, colors and textures. For the automotive-tourist, Skyline Drive is perfect. Dozens of vehicle pullouts line the main road on both sides, affording red-blooded Americans the satisfying option of “seeing” the park without ever getting out of the car. Hell, we observed some folks who wouldn’t even put their car in park before cruising on down the road. Now THAT’S entertainment! We enjoyed the views from several pullouts along the way. Each one, and a significant portion of the road through the park, was contained by a rock retainer wall built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. Being so close to Washington DC, Shenandoah was naturally a great spot for FDR to demonstrate the utility of the CCC.

Like a kid in a candy store, I was chomping at the bit to get out of the dang car and start slapping my boot soles on the packed clay. We parked the car at Turk Gap, where I endeavored to strike quickly up Turk Mt and return to the car within an hour. Andra felt she would rather sit in the quiet woods and read while I sweated my way up the mountain, so she did her thing and I did mine. Even more exhilarating than the first few miles of road inside a national park, the first few thousand yards of trail are usually the most easily-recalled segment of a trip. The woods were cool and heavily shaded on the trail to Turk Mt, with a thick, moist air that one could almost chew on after spending so long in Colorado’s dry winds. Something like 20% of the leaves had fallen from the trees already, with most still hanging tenuously, waiting for that first full blast of winter air to knock them down. The yellow hickory leaves seemed to make the sky glow an even more luminous shade of blue, and my neck grew tired constantly shifting from looking up at the spectacle of the leaves against the sky and looking down to steer clear of roots and rocks across the trail. I followed the Appalachian Trail (AT) south for a short distance before turning off west to Turk Mt. Along this trail I came across an American Chestnut and thrilled at seeing something in living color that I had read so much about.  It was small, and dead at the top, as most are apt to be these days. Fungal fruiting bodies covered the cracked twigs near the top. I would see many more chestnut sprouts later on.  The trail led downhill from the AT to a saddle between the main ridge and the mountain, then rose steeply up its eastern side, 500’ to the summit. I walked quickly with the bright sun on my left shoulder, stepping lightly over rocks and crunching leaves underfoot. I had purchased a brand new pair of Asolo hiking boots just a week earlier, pressed into it by the rip that developed in the sole of my old pair of Vasques only two weeks before. I passed only one group, a family of four with small kids enthusiastically running ahead of each other on the trail, and off. Nice to see some families still get out to walk on the trails. The top of Turk Mt was heavily wooded except for the slope to the west, which was occupied by a young couple trying to figure out their digital camera. Digital cameras, like personal computers and automatic coffee-makers, tend to be less of a convenience than anyone who doesn’t already have one could possibly imagine. In all directions, rolling mountains melted together into the horizon. Shades of red, orange, yellow and green were melded together in a festival of fall color. I tarried but a moment up top, then strode quickly back down. On my way down, I could imagine Confederate soldiers, younger than myself, tromping through the leaves with their rifled muskets lazily shouldered over rag-tag uniforms (multi-forms?). I could imagine natives quietly stalking deer in the dense underbrush. A vision of an early pioneer hunting rabbits popped into my head. The history of the place was palpable. Ditto for the moisture. The humid air allowed no sweat to dry, and I constantly wiped my brow as I walked downhill. I tried to imagine what kind of sticky mugginess enveloped this place in August, and failed. As I neared the spot where I left Andra, I turned off the trail and heard her whistle from 20 yards away. The woods were so thick, I couldn’t see her, but followed the sound right to her. We sat in the leaves and I told her about the grand sight she missed, and the chestnut tree. We listened to folks hike through the leaves on the nearby trail.

Up the road we went in the car, stopping at some of the pullouts to study the curves of the valleys below, passing by others. Somewhere, shortly off to the west, lay the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you; Look away, you rollin' river; Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you;  Look away, we're bound away; Across the wide Missouri.” I don’t think that song has anything to do with the Shenandoah River but it’s a fine tune. The words Shenandoah Valley conjure up images of Stonewall Jackson’s brigade deftly outflanking Union armies twice its’ size, holding the Union out of central Virginia for over 2 years. I also picture Phil Sheridan’s cavalry burning farm houses and slaughtering everything with four legs in an attempt to cripple the Confederacy. Seemed to work, I guess. The United States has always excelled at total war. The entire trip into Virginia was made with constant thoughts of the history that lay steeped in the land. 

At Jones Run, we shouldered our packs in the afternoon sun, and set off down the trail towards one of the more popular destinations in the park, Jones Run Falls. The sky quickly grew overcast. The trail led downhill steeply, east of Skyline Drive, with few switchbacks. A straight-and-to-the-point kind of trail. I liked it immediately. Andra and I played “What tree is that?” for a long portion of the trail. Coming from the west where giving the answere of “spruce” is a 50/50 chance at any location, the game held particular challenge here. The game’s added challenge was contained in the fact that most trees had branches no lower than 50 feet, so a keen eye was also required. It seems odd, this fascination we humans have for naming things. What difference does it make if something has a name? It is still the same thing whether I call it a hickory or a zampunbossel. Think on that one. I am not the first to question this human tendency, but the subject bears rehashing now and again. We reached the falls ahead of the pack, and I quickly set up my tripod to snap a few shots prior to the crowd’s arrival. I succeeded. Jones Run Falls is a beautiful, 80-foot waterfall with multiple falls beyond of significant height. Up to this trip, I could count the number of falls I had hiked to on one hand. Now I need several hands to do so (and they’d come in handy for dishwashing too). 

Doyles River FallsAndra and I made our way downstream as others filed into the rock flat below the falls. Leaf-covered rocks lined the creek, creating a delicious dichotomy of yellow and red speckles on black rock. The trail continued downhill through a deep canyon, with walls much to steep to camp on or climb up. Nothing to do but walk on. At the confluence of the Jones Run and Doyles River, we fanned out to find a flat spot of ground to sleep on, but found nothing except bramble-covered slopes under imposing oak trees. In retrospect, it wasn’t too bad, but at the time we felt we could do better. Maybe it was just that I wasn’t quite ready to stop the sightseeing for the evening yet. We started up the Doyles River Trail, a steep and rocky path leading uphill along the south side of Doyles River. Two magnificent falls stretch out over a section of the stream, and I regret we had so little time to dally at them, but darkness was approaching fast. Just uphill of the upper fall, I found a spot not far off the trail that would do for camping. A steep pull up the hill for 30 feet brought one out to a flat stone ledge overlooking the trail. Andra and I threw down our packs and began munching on snacks while studying the trees and rocks on the opposite side of the steep canyon.
 “That’s an interesting plant,” said Andra, pointing to a length of Virginia Creeper meandering along the rock at our feet.
 “Virginia Creeper,” I said, and pointing across the stream to the opposite wall of the canyon, 100 yards away, “Do you see that spike of red? That’s a dead tree trunk covered with Virginia Creeper.”
 “Very cool.”
At that moment, a giant black bear walked right behind the red spike. We saw it at the same time. I immediately imagined that the scent of my hickory-smoked beef jerky was wafting on the down canyon breeze and had been picked up by a cranky old bear who was coming for it. This is just what he seemed to be doing, as he ambled at a moderate pace straight at us. We leapt to our feet and watched his progress in silence. When he got below the canopy of trees in the creek bottom, we grew very tense, and when I was sure I saw movement below us on the trail, I sounded the “move-out” alarm. We hopped back down to the trail, where two hikers were just strolling up. I told them about the bear, and they seemed unconcerned. Maybe I was overestimating this bear thing. I relaxed a little, noted that no bear had yet attacked, and we set out up the trail, unwilling to consider staying at our great spot above the creek. As we put some distance between us and the bear, I began to think that it was pretty nifty to spot a bear in the woods. It was only the second time it had ever happened, the first being a black bear in Redwoods National Park the year before.

Not much further up the trail, a very old forest road crosses Doyles River. Stonewall Jackson’s Brigade used this very road to cross the Blue Ridge in 1862. Once again, that sense of history seeped through me, and I felt the age of the rocks piled along the foundation of the road grade. The current use of the road is for fire-crew access. The road splits not far from Doyles River, with the original grade splitting off uphill. It is little-used, covered with trees and shrubs, and is almost indistinguishable except for the line of piled rocks on the downhill edge that leveled the grade. We hiked along the newer road to the northeast, searching for a spot to camp. We found it about 200 yards down the road, well uphill from the river. The bank of the road on the uphill side leveled out after 20 feet or so, and among tall oaks on a forest floor of leaves, we set up the tent. The clouds had vanished, but the sun was going down, and it was too dark to cook. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then packed up the food into the tent bag. We hung the food from a dead tree about 50 yards from camp on the other side of the road.  It was dark at 7:30.

As we lay in the tent, hot in the humid air, insects droned by the thousands in the trees above. Acorns fell from the trees and crashed into the bed of crisp leaves on the ground, while unknown cracks and creeks seemed to germinate from all around. Such noise! Unlike the still and quiet alpine woods, this forest was crawling with activity at night. I escorted two large spiders out of the tent as I settled in. We both read by flashlight for 10 pages, then I went to sleep around 8:30. I noticed Andra’s light was still on every time I turned over for quite awhile. I decided we should hike harder the next day.

At 10:30 PM, I awoke to the sound of loud wood knocking coming from the general direction of the food-tree. Loud knocks sounding like someone lazily swinging a 2x4 against a hollow tree created images of a black bear pawing his way up the tree in search of that fantastic jerky smell. I lay on my side listening for awhile, then sat up to listen better. The moon had come out, and was casting silhouettes of leaves on the tent fabric. The insects had quieted down. The banging, scraping and knocking continued for 20 minutes, after which things got very quiet. I could just imagine a bear quietly devouring our week’s food, finding special enjoyment in the cache of peanut butter. Even worse, I could imagine that a week’s worth of food wouldn’t do much to satisfy a bear, and if he liked what he had from the bag that smelled like tent, maybe he’d go check out that tent that smelled like tent. I sat, still as stone, for almost 2 hours listening to the sounds of the woods, and trying to decide how much my scented deodorant had worn off during the hike. Just as I was sure a sufficiently-long interval of silence had elapsed, I would hear a suspicious-sounding shuffle of leaves, or twig-crack nearby. From the comfort of your computer, you may feel that such anxiousness was unfounded. Let me hear you say the same thing after spending a night in the woods with known bear activity. A primal human sense awakens in the darkness of the night when the thought of predators enters one’s mind. It is not fear, but simply an alertness that transcends reason. Andra, who had been snoozing soundly the entire time, woke up and asked me what I was doing. I told her the situation. Her opinion was that no bear would hang around in one spot for this long, and he wasn’t going to come back at 4AM to revisit. I agreed, and after awhile, we fell asleep. Ironically I heard the footsteps just around 4AM. Loud, crunching, shuffling footsteps, seemingly inches away.  I was, and am still, sure that a bear was investigating our little tent in the woods. I whispered to Andra, :”Wake up! Wake up!” and as she awoke to my loud whisper, she heard the bear scramble in surprise away from the tent, crashing through the underbrush, sounding like an elephant. That kept us awake for about half an hour. We can laugh about it now. 



Sunday   Monday   Tuesday    Wednesday   Thursday


Page Created January 2004