It was Labor Day weekend and one look at Skyline Drive would lead you to believe that everyone in the Valley had hiking on the brain. Rightfully so. It was a gorgeous day and somehow between my August hike and this one, Fall started. The top of the mountain beamed with yellows and fading greens. Still lush but whispering change. We settled on a hike with only two cars in the lot: Miller’s Head, a short little number with a trail that leads up and down through the woods to a stone-built overlook. When we finished our hike we craved more so we tossed in a hike to Stony Man Mountain. A numbered trail with a corresponding booklet that shares a bit of information about each spot along the way. The view at the top does not disappoint…even when my eyes are fixed on my kids, through a lens.
When August rolled around, it came and went. I was forced to part ways with the summer of pool-side fun, sunshine-on-the-mountain-top memories and accept the return of the daily hustle as the school year begins again: early mornings, long afternoons and night that comes too quickly. It all happened so fast I almost forgot about the hike Ben and I did to Hightop Mountain. Here are the bullets…
-Ben brought my Nikon along and got it to work long enough to shoot a roll of film
-the narrow, lush trail made me feel like I was walking through a fairy tale
-day-old pizza, bugs, wind, amazing views, a new friend: Lucky Lucy
–Kilaurwen Winery and some Harrisonburg goodies I packed
-a pitstop at Brothers Craft Brewery on the way home. <slurp>
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!
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.
It was our fourth and final day in Alaska. I woke up still full from last night’s massive attempt at eating my weight in fajitas. After a quick shower I walked downstairs to find a sweet note on the counter from Kate. She treated us to a train ride to Girdwood, left her car keys, gave directions to the train station, jotted down a few key words and instructed us to have a good day. She’s awesome like that. We boarded the Alaskan Railroad(!) and for about an hour we took in gorgeous views while sipping our morning coffee to the hum of the train. Girdwood was the first stop and I had to laugh when I saw the small wooden “train station” sitting in the middle of nowhere. I reached in my back pocket for the note Kate had left that morning and some of her notes started to make sense: “take Alyeska Hwy to The Bake Shop and get on shuttle to Alyeska Resort.” From the train stop, we walked up a hill, through some trees where we found a pedestrian trail that followed Alyeska Highway, the main road. It was a beautiful three mile stroll to the heart of Girdwood. The skies were beaming blue and the roads were lined with giant wildflowers and a good sampling of Alaskan-style housing: angles, decks, steep roofs, great windows. Since we forgot to pack water (doofus move) we stopped at the first roadside business we came to (about a mile and a half in) called Chugash Adventures. They had some really cute local items and since it was our last day, I let myself be a tourist and left with a small piece of pottery and a trucker hat that features the work of a local photographer. (Support the arts y’all!) Our walk continued and soon we arrived at the end of the highway. We located The Bake Shop and took the shuttle to Alyeska Resort. Just behind the resort is a slew of trails to choose from. We chose the North Face Trail. This 2.2 mile hike sounds meek…but don’t be fooled. In that 2.2 miles we climbed 2,000 vertical feet. And I didn’t take many breaks for photos because I was certain, as I usually am, that a wild beast was just around the next turn. Even though most of the hike was spent huffing it up steep inclines and making lots of loud noises to alert the animals of my presence, there were a few moments that stand out. Like this one section of the hike where a foot-wide walkway made of boards and plywood lead you through a lush meadow. And this other section that is so steep, there was a big chain to hoist yourself up the rocks. And then this other part near the top where you’re out of the tall bush, switchbacking through a more gradual incline and you can see everything! Gosh, I really couldn’t think of a more perfect time to visit this town. It was absolutely breathtaking. At the top we exchanged exhausted high fives and walked to a spot on the ground were we could sit and catch our breath. The last two days of hiking ended with trembling legs so when I felt my legs trembling, paired with the rumble of the tram coming and going, I didn’t think anything of it until I overheard one of the guides explaining that we just experienced an earthquake. (!) All the way up there on top of that mountain…those trembling legs and tram rumbles I thought I heard was actually an earthquake. Talk about an epic day. Ben and I ordered a beer from the deli and sat on the deck in disbelief of the sites around us.
After a sufficient rest, we hiked a little further up the mountain to a footbridge hovering over fast-moving glacier water. I had to touch it – it was cold. Ben had to taste it – his nose went numb. Then we hopped on the tram and watched the North Face Trail zoom right by us. Kate drove out on her motorcycle to meet us for dinner at Jack Sprat and one of her friends joined. Everything brought to our table was delicious and beautiful. After dinner we got a ride to the train station and headed back to Anchorage for the night.
In my brief experience, Alaska breeds badasses. “A short walk” translates to ~3 miles. “A moderate hike” translates to post-hike leg trembles. “I’m a little out of shape” translates to “I think I’ll do some push-ups while I wait for you pansies to catch up.” <–All of these things actually occurred.
After the day in Denali and Talkeetna, we returned to Kate’s home in Anchorage and crashed. I was up early because the sun was peaking through the blinds. I showered and enjoyed part of a danish that Kate bought in Talkeetna the evening before. Jessie picked us up and we all grabbed a breakfast burrito and latte from the City Market where we met up with her friend Holly. Jessie and Holly were taking us on a short, moderate morning hike to Flattop Mountain located in the Chuggash State Park. And while the name “Flattop” does in fact describe the appearance of the top of the mountain, there was nothing else flat about it. The hike is just over 3 miles and it starts out easy. The terrain was similar to that of the trail the day before in Denali National Park, except this time we had spectacular views of a whole different set of incredible mountains, the city of Anchorage and the coastline. We reached a series of plateaus on the way to the top, each followed by another climb and all with wonderful views. About half way up, there was a class of preschoolers following close behind me. They shouted question after question to their teacher and she patiently answered each one as we all huffed our way up. Surely there was a superhero cape tucked away in her backpack. When I reached the rocky mountain face right before the top, the climb got harder…in a mind-over-matter kind of way. Loose gravel on steep inclines proved challenging. On the way back down, Holly darted through the crowd and the next time I saw her, she was doing pushups on a log. She’s hardcore. We ended the hike successfully covered in dust and sweat.
Later that day we grabbed some fuel at Spanard Roadhouse where Jessie drew us a map and highlighted all her favorite spots. We set out on foot to explore downtown Anchorage. Later that evening Jessie and Kate had a kickball game. We watched and cheered them on and then headed to dinner. Sleep followed soon after…one more day and one more mountain to hike before flying back home.
Alaska, Day 1 | fly, drive, camp | Baltimore to Anchorage to Healy
June 21, 2015 : to-date, my Life Solstice. It was literally the longest day of daylight of my life. We left Arlington, VA for BWI at 4am on June 21 and 24 hours later, on that same day, we were pitching tents in Healy, Alaska under dusk or dawn skies, I’m not sure which.
Our flight landed in Anchorage around 1pm. Kate picked us up, put an Alaskan beer in our hand, drove us to her place to load up camping supplies and then we ate a meal at Snow City Cafe where her sister Jessie works. When Jessie finished up, we all hit the road for Healy, Alaska. Healy is about four hours north of Anchorage but with wild fires lining parts of the road, seasonal road reconstruction and two eager, snap-happy tourists – the drive took us six hours. Kate pointed out that billboards weren’t allowed there and because of this, we were able to see the beauty from the car, without obstruction. Our destination for the day was 49th State Brewing Company where we caught the tail-end of their Solstice BrewFest. It was around 10pm when we arrived but the party was going strong. Live music played while we deliriously ordered a cold beer and way too much food. Neighboring the brewery is an extremely convenient campground where we set up for the night. There was intention of hanging out and playing card games but….zzzzzzz, I was out when my face hit the pillow. I was so tired I mistook a moose for a horse as it trotted by our campsite. Everyone laughed but, in my defense, well, whatever – I was tired.
Road work was sprinkled along the trip. We met one worker who reminded me so much of my aunt Debbie. She was fun and welcoming and had a cigarette hanging from her mouth during most of our conversation. She had the right idea though, the mosquitos were fierce.
Above: a short time-lapse video of us setting up our tents in a sleepy stupor. Below: a shot from our campsite in Healy taken at midnight. The sun dipped below the horizon but it never actually got dark!Alaska, Day 2 | hike, drive, sleeeeeeeep | Healy to Talkeetna to Anchorage
Woke up in a tent around 6am. The whole no-darkness thing it pure tomfoolery. You just get up and go until you slam into a wall and then you sleep until you can’t. Kate and Jessie were still sleeping so Ben and I went on a serious search for coffee. Our search led us to a gas station where the Russian man behind the counter assured me they had “whole wheat” milk to use in my latte. My uncaffeinated brain laughed a little too much. Kate made us breakfast at the campsite and we all packed up and stopped for more coffee at a cute little spot along the road. Under the sleepless sun, we sat and enjoyed the morning. Ben ordered a triple Americano and didn’t realize “triple” meant three shots of espresso. Half way through our game of Cards Against Humanity, he kind of tweaked out…we’re talking giggles and shakes. He later said “I didn’t know if I was going to be alright.” (lol) After coffee and cards we drove into Denali National Park. I never saw the name of the trail we hiked that day but it’s right off the parking lot at the Savage River stop. It wastes no time heading straight up. Before we knew it we were already at the first of many impressive overlooks. The trail consisted of rocky switchback after rocky switchback, some rock scrambling and hoisting, then later there was loose soil with a gradual climb and wide open views. As my first hike in Alaska, I appreciated being able to see across the terrain…in other words: I was happy to know I could spot a grizzly from afar. And while we didn’t spot any grizzlies, we did see some Dall Sheep, caribou and some cool birds. I also learned that there aren’t any harmful snakes in Alaska. And they don’t have poison ivy/oak. I asked these questions because I realized I was on the lookout for those things…like I would be if I were hiking here at home, in Virginia. We hiked in one direction for about 90 minutes then turned and hiked back to the car. We devoured leftover brewery sandwiches by the Savage River before doing some abbreviated yoga to loosen up and then we hit the road again. A little more than half way back to Anchorage is a town called Talkeetna. Kate has spent a lot time there and wanted us to see it. Our timing was perfect for dinner so we stopped at Denali Brewing Company for food and, of course, a unique local brew. My favorite beer that day was their Louisville Sour. I was very sad to hear they didn’t sell bottles or cans to bring home to share. After dinner we walked around the quaint little town of Talkeetna. I bought some souvenirs for my kids, who I was missing already, Kate grabbed some pastries for the next day breakfast and Ben met Stubbs, the town mayor, aka the cat.
These photos are all shot with my iPhone. I did not forget my camera on this excursion to Denali…I just forgot my battery. Doh!
It felt a lot like a Sunday when I parked my car on the third and final day of the second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival. Time moves differently on Sundays. It ticks away and reminds us to notice the smells and colors and faces and light, to slow ourselves down and enjoy one last little morsel of, in this case, a mid-summer musical dessert. When I shut my car door, there were no echoes on this third day…no soft melodies or harmonicas bouncing off the Chimney’s. There was quiet. A little alarming, I admit, for a music festival…but I proceeded anyway, with curiosity and camera. As I moved towards the back of the seated, silent crowd, I heard Trent Wagler wailing out a line from his gospel set. It was an experience to be there in that moment, watching this community church under overcast skies, surrounded by beauty and bodies who needed this healing sound. People napped and recovered and carried themselves to the stage to wake up. Dang good way to start a day.
Next up was Willie Watson, who I found to be a pleasant surprise. I love watching passion pour from a face with each lyric…eye wrinkles forming in the delivery of a verse, veins bulging with blood pounding from an aching heart and a shaky esophagus to distract from a tear. I got to see this in Willie’s performance of Rock Salt and Nails, among others. I feel you man. But before I let myself get stuck in my own head, I wandered around to mingle and grab images of smiling faces. It was a good move, the sun joined us and the rest of the day came with a smooth, steady beat as each new band took the stage.
Above: Blackfeather Furniture made taking a break look goooood.
It was time to fill our tanks with some Hanks.
Townes Van Zandt Tribute Set packed the stage with a smorgasbord or festival talent.
Hayes Carll wrapped up the evening and the festival for the year.
This post is part of my year long series Celebrating Life.
I played Bob Dylan on the way to this year’s second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival. I felt it was a decent way to get my soul ready for the day that awaited me in that magical, green pocket of Mt. Solon. When I parked and stepped out of my car to a distant harmonica chirp being carried through the trees with the mountain breeze, I couldn’t help but smile. I’m baaaaaack. Finally. I slung my camera around my neck, grabbed my cash and i.d. and followed the tunes. It led me straight to the Shenandoah Mountain stage where Charlottesville’s The Honey Dewdrops were mid-set. Sadly, I missed the Walking Roots Band all together because I got distracted by the awesome kids activities that Larkin Arts offered this year. They’ve really evolved with the festival and is one of the many ways the whole experience, that was already dang awesome, got even better.
Peyton Tochterman takes on the crowd at South Stage.
I was particularly excited to see the performance by Many Nights Ahead. Amy, the lead gal, is my former art student and I’ve been trying to catch them live since they started playing. I let myself indulge in photos of these guys. They’re awesome and I felt so proud of them!
I left the Local Roots Stage to take on what I feel is the most difficult part of the festival: deciding what to eat. There were so many goooood and local choices of festie cuisine available. Luckily I have friends that share so we ordered a bunch of food and taste-tested all of it!
After witnessing all that is Pokey LaFarge last year, I could hardly wait to see him again. And I wasn’t alone. The crowd quickly migrated to the Shenandoah Mountain Stage, ready to shake a thang or two.
Night came and The Duhks took the stage. I was ready to take a long nap and prepare for Day 2.
Don’t miss my photos from Red Wing Roots II: Day 2!
Check out an excellent writeup and MORE of my photos from Red Wing Roots 2014 on ilovemyburg!
This post is part of my year long series Celebrating Life.
Since driving through Barboursville on the way to Lake Anna, I’ve wanted to stop by to see the ruins. With few free Sundays on the calendar, we headed over the mountain for a sunny day of tastings, chili dogs, sunshine and site seeing. We started with a tasting and a game of corn hole at Keswick Vineyards (I lost). Then we headed across the road to Castle Hill Cider where we tasted cider, played in the yard and I learned about a kvevri for the first time. That whole process is pretty dang cool! To keep the day classy, we made a pit stop at the Tastee Freez. My kids would be irate if they knew I stopped there without them! And finally, I really wanted to see the Barboursville Ruins which are not as elaborate as I thought but fun all the same.