Kim and I spent our weekend chasing the ghosts of my childhood.
In May of 1969, my dad and my third trimester mother spent their honeymoon on Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. I was born less than two months later and the journey that led me to this moment began.
Each year that followed, on the weekend closest to the 20th of May, we as a family would journey back to that place and spend a weekend, exploring, hiking, learning, relaxing and being amazingly alive in the wilds of the Appalachians, and I believe that it is one of the things that kept us together when so many other things seemed to be going so wrong.
During those journeys, we always stayed in the same hotel, ate the same meals at the same restaurant and our itinerary was nearly identical for each trip up the mountain. My father’s open hostility toward any variation of theme was a constant on those trips and we accepted it and thrived as best as we could within those parameters.
That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy those weekends, because they were often the highlight of our year. The four of us, mom, dad, myself and there was always a dog, first Tris, the Siberian Husky that was my brother from birth on, then McDuff, and finally Rowdy both West Highland White terriers, would disappear into the woods and emerge hours later with stories to tell, photographs to share and dirt marking our skins. I think we were more at home on “The Drive.” as we called it, than we were in our little two bedroom bungalow in Aliquippa Pennsylvania.
My mother has been gone since 1995, dad since 2010 and the dogs as well have crossed over, perhaps to be reunited, or perhaps they have returned to begin the journey anew.
Mother’s ashes, as well as some of my father’s are up on Skyline Drive. They are not in the same place, but that is another story.
Kim & I had been talking about making this journey for years, but one thing or another prevented it, money, time, or other commitments and then there was my prolonged illness that pretty much negated any travel from 2011 until 2014. But finally about two months ago we made a decision that we wanted to see the Drive together for the first time in Autumn, the season of fire.
We did not really make a plan beyond departure and return dates and basic lodging hopes (cheap & clean), but having made that bare bones plan, we departed on Saturday morning, with the GPS set to guide us, avoiding all toll roads and all highways.
The journey down was spectacular, the colors of Autumn in rich blaze, the weather was at last October-like after weeks of higher than normal temperatures and we were in the mood for adventure. We laughed, talked and meditated as we glided along the Gypsy ribbons of grey asphalt between Pennsylvania and Virginia, passing through West Virginia and Maryland on the way.
Kim shot hundreds of pictures through the windows of the car and we slowed down on more rural roads to marvel at old barns, beautiful gardens and we made an awesome little side trip to photograph a wonderful little single lane covered bridge in Napier Township. The Calvin/Colvin Bridge was built in the 1880’s but who built it is unknown. It is one of only a couple of bridges in Bedford county that used the barn red color scheme and though it was lightly raining we spent an amazing hour wandering around, taking pictures and exploring above and below like good Trolls should.
With a couple of brief stops for fresh cups of tea or to have a sandwich or some fruit, the miles slid by easy and beautiful.
Once we arrived in Front Royal, we decided to maintain my parents’ tradition and get a room at the Front Royal Motel. If you ever read reviews for it on the internet, you will never stay there, but I am convinced that most people know nothing of the true nature of travelling and so I suggest ignoring them. We paid for our lodging, a staggering sum of $38.00 plus taxes, and we ended up with #105, a room that my parents and I had often stayed in. Except for the linens and the newness of the electronics, the room was pretty much unchanged since my last visit there in 1996 to scatter my mom’s ashes. The door still open with a metal key and still have a chain lock on the inside. By today’s standards the room would be called rustic or even rundown, but it was clean, there was a bed, a shower and a toilet. We weren’t there for the room, we were there for the adventure.
Once we had our basic luggage moved in, we hustled back to the car and made our way to the entrance of the park. The line to get in was approximately half an hour and nearly a mile long. I had never experienced this as we always went up pre-memorial day and had many of the overlooks and trails to ourselves, this was going to be a wholly different experience.
Two things made Saturday such a departure from what I was used to from previous visits. The first was the aforementioned crowds, but the second and more significant was the storm. For twenty four hours, the Blue Ridge Mountains had been battered by a windstorm such as I have never seen up on the mountain.
The wind was a beast, blowing a steady twenty to twenty five miles per hour, with gusts in the fifty to seventy mile per hour range, it was “wild and wooly” as my mom used to say.
I longed to share the breathtaking vistas with Kim as she had never been on Skyline before but I was dismayed to find that each of the first several overlooks were completely packed with dozens of cars, parked at all manner of crazy angles with people everywhere and so we drove on.
The visitors center had so many people at it that cars were double parking along the grass near the exit and blocking roads as they sat, hoping for a space I suppose, and so again, we drove on.
About 30 miles along the Drive, we began to encounter a lessening of the crowds, but where we found them, they were almost all doing the same things, they were peering off into the distance through the screens of their cellphones or they were taking selfies with a staggering array of electronic devices.
We had to avoid people who had moved out into the middle of roadways to photograph themselves and each other while all around them this magnificent storm was throwing clouds, like white horses across a perfect blue sky. If you paused, you could see the wind run in currents up the mountainsides through the yellow, red and orange treetops, but the people weren’t watching.
Black Vultures, Ravens and Red tailed hawks were circling on the thermals and riding the storm winds over everyone’s head but we seemed to be the only ones who noticed. It seemed odd to both of us but we explored on, watching, observing, and commenting on one amazing sight after another.
We ended up at Crescent Rock Overlook. Crescent Rock was known to my family as “The garden” or “Our place.” and it was. Every trip to Skyline ended up with us eating lunch on the same lichen covered stone in the parking lot and then spending four or five hours at a minimum crawling over that rough outcrop of rock to see what was in bloom, what birds were nesting, what reptiles and amphibians might be out and about and just generally immersing ourselves in that wild, rambling garden 3558 feet above sea level.
We loved that place so much that my mother’s ashes reside there, now grown into the flora she adored so much, she has become even more of a part of that place than she was when she was alive.
So Kim and I clambered out into the hurricane force of that wind, onto that shelf of primordial rock and I showed her mom’s resting place and we had a long quiet moment as the winds howled around us.
We lingered for as long as we could but the wind was dropping the temperature into the mid-thirties and we had a long journey back to the north end of the park, it had been a spectacular day.
On the journey down, we paused to observe the single most beautiful sunset I had ever observed from Skyline Drive, it seems somehow appropriate as we had come to find the ghosts of my past, but to also kindle a new set of traditions for ourselves and hopefully someday, our family.
Once we were back down into Front Royal, we decided to have dinner, as we often do, at a locally owned (mom & pop) kind of place and we ended up choosing Melting Pot Pizza on West 14th Street and it turned out to be a brilliant choice! They make a tremendous super-thin crust pizza, awesome toppings, the pizza cut into manageable square-ish chunks instead of traditional slices, their staff is awesome and proud of what they do, and the locals? The locals love the place and that is often all the recommendation I need.
After dinner we retired to our room, off loaded pictures from the day onto our laptops and shared them with each other. We talked and reminisced about what the place meant and what we had seen and felt, and ended the night excited about what Sunday might offer up.
End Part One. Continued tomorrow.