Sunday dawned considerably warmer and as we showered, we discussed where we wanted to eat breakfast. I did a quick web search and found that a lot of locals liked a place called the Knotty Pine Restaurant and it was only a half mile or so down the street. So once we were ready, we packed the car and headed out.
The Knotty Pine was everything that is great about the American road trip. It was homey, the waitress (there was only the one) knew almost everyone that came through the front door, and the menu was simple, inexpensive and had everything you could want for a good breakfast. Plus they had apple butter on the table and that alone was enough reason to love the place, but the food was good and exactly as ordered. Listening to the locals banter about everything from politics to lawn tractors turned out to be phenomenal morning entertainment.
With our bellies full, it was time to head back up onto the mountain, and while the line was not as long to get through the gates, we found the same masses crowded into nearly every overlook and pull-off up the entire first leg of the Drive. Because we had agreed to do it the day before, we stopped at the Dickey Ridge visitor center and looked around through the displays and purchased a couple of small items at the gift shop, including a wonderful little book for identifying trees and fallen leaves in the autumn.
As we wandered out to the observation area behind the center, we were again struck by the number of people shooting pictures of themselves and each other while completely ignoring quite magnificent natural vistas all around them. The tiniest children and the elderly seemed to be the only ones other than us to be staring off into the mountains as the clouds dragged their shadows across the forests and the farmlands far below, or squatting to look closely at the few remaining wildflowers holding on this late into the year.
We decided to journey on to Jewel Hollow overlook where my parents and I had spent many fond hours crawling around in the woods and down on the outcrops looking for spring wildflowers and the occasional animal discovery. The lower lot at Jewel Hollow was impassible because of the crowd but the upper lot was half empty, so we parked, grabbed our cameras and hiked back along the rocky trail to see what we might see.
Over the next two hours, we walked, climbed, paused to check out fungi growing from fallen trees, to watch ravens, vultures and at one point a Pileated Woodpecker fly over and to generally enjoy the experience of being there. We crossed paths with other hikers, exchanged pleasantries and now and then glanced up to catch people above us on the overlook, peering out at the distance through the windows of their phones and tablets.
We began to realize at about two o’clock that our time on the mountain was running out, and so we made our way, a little sadly back to the car. On the way, we made friends with a member of the park’s maintenance crew, an older gentleman with an epic beard, great hat and musical Virginia accent named John Tucker. We reminisced about how things used to be and he shared with us how each day, people who had tried camping for the first time were leaving the campground and throwing their tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and equipment in the dumpsters on the way out.
He said that they chose the wrong time of year, didn’t do their research and assumed that it was going to be just a simple matter of setting up their gear and they would be warm, safe and dry. He shook his head with an air of sadness but then quickly smiled and said, “What can you do?” before launching into another story. Our encounter with him made an amazing trip into something extra special!
After saying our goodbyes to John, we once more made the journey out to Crescent Rock overlook to have a ceremonial lunch on the rock where my parents and I always dined. We laughed, communed with the ghosts of my parents and of my younger self and perhaps with a dog or two and then we bid goodbye to that sacred place and made our way down into the world below again.
I want to address the people with the phones and tablets, or at least their habit of viewing the entire world through tiny windows. There was a world out there, one of absolute and breathtaking wonder, and though I understand the draw of taking memories home with you, after all, I spent the weekend with a dslr camera around my neck, as did Kim, the difference is, that we photographed things for their lasting beauty, but did not fill our every minute with it.
We saw people near absolutely stunning scenic backdrops posing their lovers and their kids against their cars for pictures. We passed a grove where the light was simply beautiful but you couldn’t park anywhere near it because there were dozens, if not hundreds of people standing around in the trees, with selfie sticks, pointing their phones at themselves.
I want to find these people, at home, weeks from now and ask them, “What did you see?” and when they go for their phones, take their hands and say, “No, tell me what you saw, what you felt and what did it mean to you?”
The same thing goes for people at concerts, plays and other magical events, we seem to be so obsessed with cramming all of life into these tiny windows that we forget that for a while at least, we aren’t trapped inside of four walls. We are out where stories can happen to us, where we can meet our fellow travelers, where we can see creatures that do not venture into our cities and just for a short time where we can breathe in something so vast that it can remind us of where we fit in the scheme of things.
We have since looked at our pictures from the trip, but we have also spent a couple of days talking about the food, the wind, the sunset on Saturday, how wonderful John Tucker was and what we want to see next time.
We will go back in the spring I think, close to my parents’ anniversary and perhaps there will be smaller crowds and perhaps we will meet some of them on the trail or on one of the lookouts and talk to them in real life, not through tiny windows.
Go easy until next time…