The park is burning and I have a horrible feeling inside me because of it. Beautiful, tragic photos of the glowing ridge line are spreading through my social media feeds like, well, like wildfire. And while I know the ashes will bring lush new growth and our mountains will survive, it breaks my heart to watch my favorite playground struggle like this. I’m sad for those old trees. I’m sad for the baby seedlings. I’m sad for the flowers that waited so long to burst open in the warm sun. I’m sad for the hungry, tired, fearful animals fleeing from the flames. I’m sad for the history that is being erased and made. I’m sad for the workers and volunteers who put countless hours of care into our trails. I’m sad for the work that is ahead. And I’m sad to think this was caused by a careless, human mistake.
In December when it was warm enough to hike in light layers, we hit the trails on the north end of the Drive. This time to Overall Run Falls. It’s been a few months since this particular hike but a few key things stick out about that day: Ella slipped and fell on a rock (she’s ok) and thought it was the most hilarious thing in the entire world. We found a tree that looks like a hippo, I got to catchup on life and cackle with my sister, we saw a whole family of quiet, graceful whitetail deer, and my son gave sound social advice to my daughter as they talked about some struggles at school like ol’ friends.
As I sit to type this the view out my window is smokey and I can smell the tainted air. I hope you find time, real soon, to get out there and enjoy those simple pleasures like hiking, breathing with the trees, catching up with your family and watching your children bond. Let this haze be a reminder that nothing is permanent – go enjoy the things and beings that fill you up!
I’m convinced that, in general, I can juggle more than the average Joe/Jane. Because I do, regularly. I’m not saying that to brag and I don’t need a pat on the back for it or anything. It’s something I’m proud of. I can’t imagine my life any other way. I love all the things I do; I thrive when I’m involved; time management is one of my strengths and I enjoy feeling productive, active, motivated. Last week was different though. I had real things on my mind. Like, health things. Things that made me reflect on my life. Things that took over my brain and mixed-up the hours and made everyday routines a challenge.
On Friday I was at work and a bit foggy. Half way through the day the stench of a skunk hit me like ammonia. It knocked me out of my mind and plopped me in the present. There was a kid in my class who had been sprayed by a skunk before school. Poor thing had to walk around all dang day like that. And teenagers are not equipped to notice a skunk stink and not say something about it. That student had to carry that around all day. The least I could do was pull myself together and give them my 90 minutes of love and attention that day. As much as it sucked for that kid, I was thankful for that jolt.
Hiking is my skunk stench…in the best possible way. When I’m cloudy, a visit to the mountains helps me see things more clearly. When I’m antsy, focusing my energy on the steep incline towards an overlook cures me. When I feel like I’m being swallowed by to-do lists, the trails give me a release that I don’t feel guilty about. You know how it feels to stretch when you get off a plane? Or how perfect it is to chug milk after scarfing a warm cookie? Or the sheer relief of taking down the friggin’ Christmas tree on the morning of Dec. 26? Well all of that plus fresh air and no cell service = zing!
This hike was no exception. I decided on Jones Run Falls and invited Ben and his children to join me. We saw signs of “a giant animal” along the way but I wouldn’t dare speak the b-word. Partially because I don’t wish to encounter bears on my hikes and partially because Ben’s son, Aiden, thought my fear was hysterical. The hike down to the falls was mild and beautiful. We had lunch on the rocks with a waterfall backdrop then started back to the car. On our way off of Skyline Drive, just moments from the trailhead, we saw mama and her cubs just off the side of the road. Pretty cool, especially from the comfort of my car.
Cell phone summary:
I forgot about my approaching birthday until the day before it. Not because I’m a doofus but because I had a ridiculous schedule the two weeks prior. I shot a wedding on a Saturday, left for Alaska on that Sunday, hiked 1, 2, 3 mountains, returned home way late Thursday, Friday was my son’s birthday and dinner, Saturday I shot another wedding, Sunday we went on a group hike to celebrate his birthday and all of the sudden, it’s Monday and my birthday was the next day, Tuesday, June 30. When I list it, it feels like I’m lying. But I’m not. For my birthday I wanted to do a hike and luckily the weather was in my favor. My friend Danielle met me in New Market and we headed to Skyline Drive. There is truly never a dull moment in her company. On our way over the Luray mountain, there were a few whoops and hollers and fragmented sentences and white-knuckle clutching coming from the passenger side. I got the impression my driving was making her nervous. We laughed. A whole lot. I almost hit a deer. Then we laughed some more. I’ve heard of Stony Man Mountain before but it wasn’t until I read the description in my hiking guide that I learned how the name was given. As we rounded mile 38ish on Skyline Drive, we could see the profile of ol’ Stony, and his chiseled manly nose, looking west. I couldn’t wait to get up there and look with him. Within moments of being on the trail, we met hikers ranging from diapers and pacifiers to fanny packs and canes. A really mild hike and certainly enjoyable for all ages. At the top we had a granola bar while enjoying an amazing view of the Shenandoah Valley. Danielle is a photographer, too, so we each got lost in our lens for a bit before returning to real life where we sat on Stony’s forehead and chatted about life. One of my favorite things about the trail guide I have, is that it tells about the flowers and trees you see along your hike and often it gives some history of the area. For this hike it said that we’d “pass red spruce and balsam fir, remnants of the Ice Age.” That’s pretty cool! So on our walk back down, we set out to find the trees. I was so eager I tripped over the same rock twice. We found what we think is a red spruce and/or a balsam fir. (You can judge us below.) We left the mountain content and with minds and hearts recharged from the vast beauty of our Valley. Our post-hike treat was a cheese plate and wine on my deck because Happy Birthday to me!
The profile of Stony Man from Skyline Drive.
photo by Danielle Campbell
photo by Danielle Campbell
photo by Danielle Campbell
photo by Danielle Campbell
photo by Danielle Campbell
And just like that, I have a teenager. My son, my precious baby boy, is a teenager. We’ve all heard it before, and it’s true enough to repeat: time moves impossibly fast. It’s just leaving, right now, right past us. My children, who souls are most beautiful, remind me of this daily. It’s like I have three hearts and two of them beat outside of my chest. They exist, enclosed in the ribs of my children. A nearly perfect combination of me and his father, Blake is a kind young man with a heart of pure gold. He is wonderful with small children, has a ridiculous sense of humor, is sharp as tack and, most importantly, he loves his mama. (swoon) When I asked him what he wanted to do to celebrate his 13th birthday, he said he wanted to hike to one of his favorite waterfalls, Whiteoak Canyon, and invite friends and family. His request made me proud. I’ve intentionally been taking them hiking more frequently this year and we hiked Whiteoak in February. Then, the trail was covered in ice, snow and mud and there was hardly any green to be seen. This time, it was a completely different hike with lush life all around us. The air was surprisingly cool for a June afternoon so when we arrived I looted the soon-to-be-dropped-off-at-Goodwill bag in my trunk and tossed sweatshirts out to our shivering group. There were 11 of us total: a good group of adult friends, kid friends and family.
In lieu of my usual cell phone summary, I give you an Instagram screenshot. (My phone is toast and I’ve lost all the photos. Boo.)
One time when I was a little girl, living with my Nanny, she made a quick run to the grocery store. Nanny left me home alone watching He-Man and She-Ra, coloring innocently at the coffee table. She walked out the door and a beacon of light shined down onto a bowl filled with mini Snickers, placed just out of my reach, on top of the microwave. I tossed my crayon and tugged a chair across the thick carpet. Wobbly legs and tippy-toes. The dog, Fluffy, gave me a sideways stare. That bowl was mine. I tore into those Snickers like a boss. I probably threw back 15 of those suckers! One after another into my little tummy. I heard Nanny’s car pull up so I quickly put the bowl back (empty wrappers and all), returned the chair and resumed my coloring. Within the hour I was in full regret mode. I felt gross….then, I yakked. And if you’ve ever yakked a candy bar, you know exactly the terrifying alienesque blob that was staring back at me from the toilet. I didn’t eat a Snickers bar for 10 years after that day.
Ben and I woke up one Sunday a couple of weeks ago and realized that, for the first time in a long time, we were kid-free and obligation-free onthesameday! A beacon of light shined on our day and we were eager to get out. I was so pumped I skipped a shower and threw my hair up in a tangled knot, put on some week old shorts and grabbed my backpack. We decided to hit a trail that a co-worker had recently told me about with beautiful 360 views called Bearfence on Skyline Drive. The trail was rugged and included some rock scrambling that will put your ego in check. As promised, the views were amazing. The layered gray clouds hovering over layered blue mountains were perfect. The kind of perfect you see in magazines and wish you could visit one day. I showed off a yoga pose (which is really dang hard to do when you’re on top of the world!), Ben ate a bagel, we took some selfies and then we hiked back to the car. We filled the rest of our day with a stop at two vineyards: Kilaurwen where we got to go on a property hike and Moss where we watched a rainband move in over several sets of hills before heading home to watch a movie.
When I was a little girl, that day of over-indulging in mini Snickers taught me a very valuable lesson. Mainly: the good things in life are best when savored, not indulged. There aren’t many free hours in my life these days and that makes those rare gems of unplanned days better than any candy bar, mini or deluxe, that I can imagine. I truly savored our time on the mountain and every drop of wine that followed….and I did not yak up an alien blob of remorse that day.
Cell phone summary:
I was the first one awake on Mother’s Day morning. My son returned home after midnight the previous night because of a band trip to Busch Garden’s. He was exhausted and my daughter likes to savor the morning so the house was quiet that Sunday at 7:15am. I filled a small pot with water and scooped some rich grounds into my french press, hearing the grounds hit the glass for maybe the first time ever. Light poured in the window as my coffee steeped, the house still and quiet. I tidied and swept the main floor carefully then tippy-toed the trash and recycling to the bin outside. The kids woke up one by one and greeted me with a hug and a “What’s for breakfast?” They ate sleepy-eyed and I packed our bag for the hike. We arrived at the Doyles River Falls lot around 11am and it felt a little like my house that morning. It was calm and still, as if our presence alone would wake up the residents. Not far onto the trail we rounded a turn and met a deer. Then, one after another, we saw lots of life on our hike: flowers, snails, millepedes (so many millepedes), gnats (so many gnats) and a snake (which I did not get close enough to photograph). We even passed our Harrisonburg friend Danielle and her boyfriend Cody on this trail! Doyles has two falls: upper and lower. The trail guide I have says “two waterfalls with different personalities.” I didn’t know what that meant until I saw the second waterfall. They were equally beautiful but so very different. And, they’re close to each other so you get two falls in one hike which is sweet. On our way back we passed a group of hikers that let us know there was a black bear ahead, peacefully turning over rocks, looking for food. I had a little tinge of fear, I’ll be honest. But it was way helpful to know it was up ahead and that the people who told us about it lived to tell us so… We saw it, I took a blurry photo of it and then we hauled it up the path. On the last leg of the climb, Ben and Blake raced to the parking lot. They each met their match…neither wanted to keep going and neither of them would quit. It was a fun sight for me and Ella, casually lagging behind. The day ended with one more pull-off along the Drive to take in the rolling mountains under gray skies followed by a Mother’s Day barbecue courtesy of my little sister, Brook. It was the perfect gift from her and a delicious post-hike meal for all.
Bonus mini-waterfall on the hike.
Lower DoylesCell phone summary:
It was me, three kids, a baby doll and enough snacks to survive a week in the wild. Snacks are essential. My kids are not cool when they’re hungry…and that says a whole lot because my kids are pretty cool. So there we were, snacks and all, driving up Skyline Drive. The sun was shining, the windows cracked, the radio up. My daughter and niece wailing T. Swift in the backseat. My son riding shotgun and happy to be next to me. (sigh) Things were looking good…then I rolled the window up and my son did a silent breakdance in the passenger seat until I realized his hand was stuck and those Elvis-inspired hip thrusts were actually jolts of pain. Dang it. He recovered quickly and we were back on our way. Even after that, I wasn’t nervous about the solo hike with three kids because, well, I’m always surrounded by kids: my kids, their friends, my friend’s kids, my family’s kids. Plus, it’s my job. I’m surround by teenagers all day Monday-Friday and they’ve got me well trained to expect the unexpected.
We pulled into an overflowing parking lot at 10:30am. It was filled with cars from all over the U.S. The kids read the license plates aloud as I searched for parking and I found myself feeling very thankful that this gorgeous part of the world is right in the Valley’s backyard. For our hike, I chose Dark Hollow Falls because 1) I know it’s a popular hike, would be highly traveled and therefore help would be near should I encounter a human-eating animal. I kid. Sort of. 2) I’ve hiked this trail with my kids before and they loved it. And 3) It’s a good workout but not a full day commitment. It’s a 1.4 mile hike with an optional .4 mile addition to the bottom of the falls (which we did). I read once that the Dark Hollow hike is .7 miles down and 7 miles back. That seems about right with the seemingly leisurely stroll down to the falls with a heck-of-a haul on the way back up. Shew. We passed lots of friendly hikers and everyone we saw that day greeted us with a smile. The kids enjoyed the day…and I think the baby doll did, too.
Dark Hollow Falls from above (top) and below (well, below).
Cell phone summary: