Photos by James Atkins
Blog Post by Maria Higgins
My 45th birthday. What to do… What to do… I gravitate towards camping. Sleep on the hard ground. Get out of this town. Get into the outdoors. Look at the horizon and not see a building standing tall. I want to be far enough away and camp overnight in a national park. Ahhh, Shenandoah.
James reserves the Big Meadow campground so we would be surrounded by something different than the usual deciduous trees and lush ferns of home. Oh, it sounds good to me.
The drive south is serendipitous in the activities of our roadside stops. In need of a bathroom break, we pull over when we see a sign on the side of a building for ice cream at a place called Cooter’s. Cooters ends up being, yes, THAT Cooter’s. We are in Hazzard County, Virginia. The General Lee is parked outside. The business is trimmed in orange and dons a confederate flag. Inside, in an explosion of Duke’s paraphernalia, there is a souvenir for every age- from Daisy Dukes to T-shirts to license plates to sheets. A schedule of appearances is posted and includes Catherine Bach, aka “Daisy” and Ben Jones, aka “Cooter” himself, who owns the place. Online reviews rave about the shop, and our experience is no different. The ice cream is delish, the staff is super friendly and the atmosphere is down home southern.
Another stop on our exodus from real life is an apple orchard. We buy fresh apples from trees that grew wild and unruly, right up to the road. Unbeknownst to us, Sperryville, Virginia is the home of a renowned apple festival and a common destination for apple connoisseurs. Loaded down with apples and cider, we proceed.
Skyline Drive snakes up the Appalachian mountainside to the ridge peaks and affords gorgeous views of the Shenandoah valley. Stopping at the overlooks on the left side of the road is necessary but seems trite. These views are too easy. Views that are this impressive and rewarding should require more work, more effort on our part to achieve.
We continue onto the Big Meadow Campground, aptly named for the large meadow across from the entrance. Intermittent rain is predicted so we hastily find our campsite and set up our tent. As we stake the last corner in the ground, touching the earth and breaking it in our hands, it begins to rain heavily.
We use the rain as an opportunity to gather gifts from the camp store, carefully choose postcards to send to family and friends and purchase dry wood in case the upcoming wood gathering mission fails. On the way back to the tent, the sun suddenly breaks though the clouds.
The hiking trails call.
James fills his backpack with optics and chivalrously includes my drink and Starbursts. Trail shoes laced, we take off with a mismatched stride. James’s gait mirrors his personality- thoughtful, meticulous, careful and efficient. Alternately, mine matches my character- quixotic, driven, rushed and focused on what is directly in front of me. We take some time to adapt to each other’s rhythm. Out of character for me, today I want to walk and not ‘run’. James speeds his pace to meet my deceleration. We relax into synchronicity.
We start off on the main path, quietly following along worn areas that many other feet have trampled. Soon, the inner meadow calls him. The wildflowers, the thistles, the far off mountain overlooks beckon. He looks at me with a quizzical expression as if to say, ‘Can you handle it?’ Always wanting to prove I am no sissy girl, I defiantly look back with a ‘Bring it on’ expression and a “Word” arm gesture. And then I smile a simple, but hesitant smile.
He abruptly veers right and starts trampling his own path. I follow with head bowed, certain to step in his footprints, in his giant stride. As much as he tries to warn me of the picker bushes, within minutes, my legs look like I had been sentenced to 20 lashes. The experience is worth it. The wildflower sightings are colorful, varied, plentiful and stunning. At one point, a fawn startles us by bounding out of its hiding place leaving a bedded crater in the meadow plants. The final reward is the view from the edge of the ridge where the atmosphere is hazy and causes an ethereal effect.
The next trailhead is at the back of a hidden campsite and it takes some time to find it. Once headed in the right direction, we find the forest to be peaceful, yet vibrant with life. James stops to take a photo of a wasps hive, then a buck silently parallels our path. Deeper in the woods, we come upon a mother deer, grazing in a clearing. Her two fawns are lying nearby. The mom shoots us a warning look, as if to say “Proceed carefully, my babies are near”. Then, she protectively moves closer to them. The fawns are unfazed and just alternate between lazily gazing at us, blinking at the click of the shutter and chewing some nearby grass. Once James and I have filled our souls with their peace, pureness and wildness, and he filled his camera with their images, we continue.
The path winds down the incline until we intersect the Appalachian Trail, which follows the lower ridge, below the meadow but high above the valley. At one point, James stops to listen to a bird’s song and identifies it as an Ovenbird, a bird so named because of its oven shaped nest. As we look into the wild blue to try to spot the tiny bird, we see a sharp sheet of raindrops just slightly ahead of us. Like a wall of water and the underside of a waterfall, the cold rainstorm starts abruptly, just out of our reach. We stand mesmerized at the sight. The bird for which we were searching flies over our heads into the bright storm, set free of the branches and closer to heaven above.
No words are necessary. We watch until the storm abates, stopping as fast as it had started. There is no rainbow. Somehow that would seem too perfect, too much, too sticky sweet. There was just the rain and it was beautiful and then it was gone. It left us speechless and awed.
I love the silence and being the only one for miles and miles. We enjoy the coolness of the air after the rain, savoring the stillness of the forest. We have a few miles to go to get back to the campground. There is an occasional bird chirp, a rare rustling of a chipmunk in the underbrush but mostly there is quiet.
And yes, it sounds so good to me.
(Any similarity to the Dixie Chick’s song ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ is purely intentional.)