Road Trip-July 2012

25 Sep

I had intended July – my last month of being 50 – as a month of going new places.  I envisioned taking day trips to some of the many sites in Westchester and New York City that I had never found time for – Kykuit, Katonah Museum of Art, Phillipsburg Manor, and The Cloisters, to name a few.  But the month began, and then began slipping away in a steady stream of obligations and tasks and checklists.

As the July days fluttered and then flew past me, I grew desperate, and in my desperation I floated the idea of a road trip to my 78-year-old mother.

“Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been,” I suggested.

Mom had turned down accompanying my sister and me, with our families, on our annual Memorial Day vacation to New Hampshire, and she’d said no to a week at the beach at the end of the summer.  She’d hurt her knee back in January, and was walking, slowly and gingerly, with a knee brace and a cane.  Also her memory is not what it used to be.

So I didn’t actually expect her to say yes.

“Sounds great!” she said.  “Where do you want to go?”

We needed a trip that didn’t involve a lot of walking; that was someplace we hadn’t been before, yet was within a day’s drive; and that had scenery and, ideally, museums.

Which is how we ended up in Shenandoah National Park: I’d never been there, we could drive down through it and circle back through Washington, D.C., and, despite being a national park, a Shenandoah visit didn’t have to involve a lot of walking.

One of only a handful of national parks in the eastern half of the United States, Shenandoah was envisioned as a way to expose urban east coasters to the transformative power of unspoiled nature, thereby building support for western national parks.  Shenandoah is a narrow strip of park that snakes down through the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia, from Front Royal to just north of Waynesboro.  Although one can hike and camp in the park – and many people do – it was originally intended as a place to be experienced by automobile.  Hence, Shenandoah’s backbone is formed by Skyline Drive, a winding, two-lane parkway that unspools along the meandering ridge line of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mom and I left New York at lunchtime on a Monday, with plans to be home by mid-day Friday.

After spending the night at a wonderful, rambling Irish Bed and Breakfast called Killahevlin, in Front Royal, we repacked our bags, reviewed the day’s itinerary, and were set to begin our automobile tour of Shenandoah when Kathy, our B&B hostess, mentioned Skyline Caverns. Billing itself as “the closest natural wonder to the Nation’s Capital,” and home to an unusual crystal formation called anthodites, Skyline Caverns immediately became a must-see.  We’d never been there!  We’d never seen anthodites!

Discovered in 1937, the caverns were opened to the paying public in 1939, back when people didn’t have iPhones or home game systems, or even televisions, and so were willing to pay to be awed by magnificent underground rock and crystal formations.  As Mom and I shelled out our entrance fee and entered the caverns, I offered up a silent prayer of thanks that I was not visiting with my children – or anyone else’s children, for that matter – who would have been immediately bored and, within minutes, openly hostile.  Instead, Mom and I oohed and awed at the various sights, laughed at the guide’s silly jokes, and snapped mediocre picture after mediocre picture with my iPhone, none of which remotely captured the beautiful, lunar weirdness of the caverns.


On our way out, we fingered everything in the gift shop, and took more pictures.

“I’m so glad we did that,” Mom said as we stepped into the bright, hot July sun.

“Me too,” I said.  And I was.

After lunch at a diner in Front Royal, we drove to the Shenandoah National Park entrance, with its familiar 1930’s-era style welcome sign, the same type of sign that graces every U.S. national park.  We stopped and took pictures.

We stopped again, a few miles into the park, at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, where we looked at all of the displays about the flora and fauna of the area and watched a short documentary about the park’s development.  Although the park had been authorized during President Herbert Hoover’s administration, it wasn’t until the Great Depression, and President Roosevelt, that Shenandoah was finally developed.  Roosevelt saw Shenandoah as a kind of example for the nation, because it became one of the largest employers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers. Teams of young CCC men, many from the farms and towns that surrounded the park, reforested the area (which had been mostly farmland) and built the roads and lodges and campgrounds that still transport and feed and house park visitors today.  In the video, old men who had once been CCC’ers fondly reminisced about their experiences and spoke about the transformative effect the CCC had had on their lives.

We left the Visitor Center and began to drive along roads built seventy years ago, by strong, young men, most now gone, and stopped at each overlook, admiring the stone walls those men had built and looking beyond to the timeless vistas created hundreds of thousands of years ago.  We would stop and gaze out at the Virginia Piedmont to the east or the Shenandoah Valley to the west, noticing the way the undulating hills looked almost more like a painting than reality, washed in a thousand different shades of green.  We watched hummingbirds flit from flower to flower and listened to cicadas buzz in the grass and birds chirp and twitter in the trees.  My mother, who had worked as a professional photographer many years ago, suggested photos to take, and gave me pointers on how to set up a good shot.  In between overlooks, as we drove slowly along the curving road, Mom reminisced about her childhood and her college experiences and the early years of her marriage, some of which I’d heard before, but many that were new, or perhaps that I’d heard and forgotten.  I asked questions and prompted her for details, and then another overlook would appear, and we would stop and marvel at the beauty of the natural world.

Late in the afternoon, as we were nearing our destination, Big Meadows Lodge, we spotted a black bear ambling through the brush alongside the road.

“Quick!  Take a picture!” my mother said, but the bear disappeared into the trees too quickly.

   A little further on, we saw a deer standing by the side of the road, grazing.  We got a photo of that.

At the lodge, I walked Mom in and found a seat in the lobby for her.

“You hang out here,” I told her.  “I’ll park the car and unload the luggage, and check us in.”

As I was returning from the car, schlepping two suitcases and two book bags, I began to feel sorry for myself – that I was travelling by car rather than hiking, that I had to do all the driving and the carrying and the decision-making.  That it had become too stressful for Mom to manage even checking in at a hotel.

After I’d checked us in and made dinner reservations at the lodge restaurant, and we were settled into our room, I told Mom that I wanted to go out for a short hike.

“That’s a great idea,” Mom said.  “You should do that.  I’ll just rest here and read my book.”

The front desk receptionist gave me a small map of nearby trails, and I headed out, passing through a picnic area full of families having dinner.  I could smell charcoal and lighter fluid.  It was that time of evening when the sun bathes everything in a golden light, and I watched mothers setting out hamburger buns and squirt bottles of catsup and bags of potato chips on picnic tables while dads manned the smoking grill.  I felt like I was walking through a TV ad for quality family time, and I felt lonely and even more sorry for myself.

I wished my family were with me, backpacks on our backs, tramping through the woods, being wholesome and healthy and outdoorsy, and even as I wished it, I knew that it would never happen, that my children had outgrown family camping trips meals around a picnic table, and I felt the hard, black pit of regret settle in my chest.

And then, as I left the glowing, perfect, happy families having their perfect picnic dinners, and entered the woods, I thought back to the one and only time we went tent camping as a family.

The kids were old enough to be slightly helpful, but not yet so old that they had become jaded about these kinds of things, so I cajoled Peter into a three-day family camping vacation.  After researching campgrounds for weeks, I settled on a highly rated state park in western Massachusetts.  There was a lake, and the park was filled with towering pine trees, and it sounded lovely.  I reserved a campsite, borrowed a tent and a couple of air mattresses from friends, and organized some simple meals.  Peter had done some camping as a teenager, and felt confident that he could set up a tent, but just in case, we were going to practice in our back yard.  However on the day I borrowed the tent, literally as I pulled out of our friends’ driveway, it began to rain.  And continued raining for days, up to and including the day we were supposed to leave for our vacation.

So on the first night of our three-day camping trip, we stayed home.

On the second day, with the rain still falling steadily but the weather report insisting it would end any minute, we packed our gear and a cooler full of food, and headed north.

It kept raining.

We spent the second night of our three-day camping trip in a Holiday Inn.

Thankfully, sometime during that night, the rain finally quit.

So after breakfast, we headed directly to the campground, determined to salvage at least 24 hours of our three-day camping trip.

The campground was filled with towering pines.  Which had been soaked with rain for five days, and were steadily dripping onto our very muddy campsite.

“It’ll be fine,” I cheerfully said to Peter, who had never been so gung-ho about this trip anyway.  “We have a tarp.  And I brought extra towels to dry things off.”

While the kids played in the van, so they wouldn’t track mud everywhere, Peter and I lay the tarp down on the ground, putting pegs in the corners to hold it, and pulled everything out of the tent box, setting it out on the tarp.

“Hmmm,” Peter said, looking down at the mound of nylon cloth and rope.  “Anything else in the box?  Like any poles?”

I looked.  “Nope.”

“How about directions?”

I looked again.  “Nope.  Everything that was in the box is on the tarp.”

Peter picked up a piece of the tent and studied it.  “It’s been a while since I put a tent together,” he said calmly, “but I’m pretty sure we need poles.  Something has to hold the fabric up.  It can’t just hold itself up.”

So less than an hour after we arrived at the magnificent campground with the towering pines, we were at the ranger’s station, sheepishly asking if there was anywhere within driving distance that we might be able to rent a tent.

Which, luckily, there was. And only thirty minutes away, in Northampton.

We drove to town, rented a tent, had lunch there because the kids were of course starving, and headed back out to the campground.

It was afternoon by the time we had the rented tent set up, but I was determined to pack as much as possible into the last remaining shreds of our three-day camping trip, so we hustled into our bathing suits and made our way to the lake, where the kids splashed happily for a couple of hours.

At dusk, the mosquitoes came out in droves.  Whole armies of them.  We doused our bare skin with bug repellant, but they seemed to be biting right through our clothes, so I sprayed everyone’s clothes as well.  And our heads.  And our sneakers.

After dinner, and s’mores cooked over the campfire, it was time for bed.  I’d packed pajamas for everyone, but with the mosquitoes still out in full force, it seemed reckless to remove our bug-repellant soaked clothes and expose virgin skin to the biting enemy, so we all crawled into the tent, and into our sleeping bags, in our clothes.  Peter and I were on a double-sized air mattress, with two sleeping bags zipped together, and each of the kids had a sleeping bag on a twin air mattress, perpendicular to ours.

Sometime in the middle of the night, it began to rain again.  It woke me up, which caused me to notice that our air mattress seemed to be spongier and less firm than when we’d gone to bed.

The rain woke Maggie up too.

“I’m scared,” she said, “and cold. Can I sleep with you?”

“Okay,” I whispered, and she crawled in between Peter and me, the spongy air mattress rocking up and down like a small ship on rough seas.

The next time I woke up, it was still dark, and the rain had stopped, but when I shifted, I could feel cold, hard ground against my back.

By dawn, all the air had escaped from our air mattress.  Noah woke up, said he was cold, and wriggled his way into our sleeping bag.  A few minutes later, Eli joined us, somehow managing to shoehorn himself in.  We were packed so tightly that none of us could move, but it didn’t really matter because we were all awake anyway, bleary-eyed, fuzzy-teethed and slightly damp, reeking of bug repellant, and lying on what had become a double-bed-sized piece of plastic on the cold, hard ground.  Morning had been a long time coming.

As I walked through the Shenandoah woods, remembering that damp and abbreviated foray into camping, I had to smile.  By anybody’s standards, it hadn’t been a rousing success, our three-day camping trip.  But the discomfort and the damp had faded in my memory, and what was left, most vividly, was the image of the five of us, packed into a double sleeping bag, together.

I carried that image with me, out of the Shenandoah woods, and back through the picnic area, where the golden light had faded, and the picnic tables were littered with dirty plates and empty potato chip bags.

It had been a good trip so far, I thought.  Not perfect, of course, because nothing is, but full of new experiences and unexpected moments.  It was, in many ways, a fitting final chapter for my “Forward From Fifty” year. I had struck out on a new adventure, but like any good adventure, I had not gone alone.

When I returned to our room, Mom was waiting, patiently.

“Did you have a good walk?” she asked.

“Very nice,” I said.

We made our way to the lodge dining room, where we enjoyed a truly excellent meal.  Better than anything I could have cooked over a campfire.

G’mar chatimah tovah. 

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for Good.

Sunset from the deck of Big Meadows Lodge


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