Friday, November 6, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Front Royal, VA

On most days, the Blue Ridge is a misnomer. The pre-industrial days featured a blue, pollution-less haze on the distant horizon overlooking western Virginia. Thereafter, the haze turned whiter and "thicker", with mean visibility substantially diminished. The haze is slowly enveloping the beautiful land called Shenandoah National Park.

A drive on Skyline is a motorcyclist's dream. Even on the chilly autumn days, motorcycles roared the Drive in droves. Pulling over at the nearly infinite turnouts was contentious, with the "hogs" taking up every inch of parking space available. The trend was for vehicles to inch closer and closer to the motorcycles, pressuring the riders to move onward. The roar would diminish as they rounded the bend, and a different whir filled the air.

Places with varying terrain are full of beautiful sounds from the wind. Canyons in the mountains have the ominous roar of an approaching breeze, vistas in the Ouachitas have a barely audible whir stirring from the towns below, the alpine tundras of the Rockies have a scratchy sound from the colliding stems of grass, the hilly forests of the Pacific Northwest have the creaking trees, and the Blue Ridge has the echoes of winds with a long past traveling America.

The vistas of the Appalachians are unreal, completely different than those of the Ozarks or the Rockies. The Ozarks flourish with trees, stifling the rolling terrain. The Rockies look young and rugged, with snow and wildflowers providing stunning decor. The Appalachians look old and wise. The plants are prolific but seem, strangely, as if they are in retirement. There is a regal beauty to the forests here. What once was a young place has aged considerably, and its history is etched in its divine sense of slowness.

Taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail is one of my most treasured experiences in the eastern part of the country. I have glimpses of the hills providing a canvas-like backdrop to the individual trees, with leaves never ceasing to fall one-by-one. The hikers even slow down here. The urgency of reaching the next viewpoint in the Rockies is replaced by a desire to envelop the attitude of the terrain and plants in the Appalachians. To appreciate the land in this part of the world is to conform to its personality.

I have driven four times on Skyline Drive. Each time, I've seen at least 50 deer. That's right. Fifty. Each drive took at least eight hours to complete. I had to have stopped nearly 100 times on each drive. As the Appalachians kept reminding me, what was the use of driving here if you didn't take it all in?

The beautiful colors of autumn are nearly unparalleled, but my favorite time of year here is spring. My first trip to Shenandoah was in April, and the whir of the aging wind was inundated with rustling leaves and territorial birds. It was the first place, though, that didn't feel "new" when life began to "spring" up from the cold season. Instead, everything felt polished and sophisticated. This was not a place that was coming to life; rather, it was reawakening to what it already knew.

My journey in Shenandoah always began in the beautiful town of Front Royal. Normally, a stream of automobiles would edge their way through town, pulling in to a restaurant or a gift shop, or they were honking their way through the National Park jam that inevitably appears seemingly everywhere across the country. These are the towns where driving through the neighborhoods is preferred, with the canopies of houses and trees only allowing small streams of light to pass through, offering small glimpses of the typical life in rural Virginia.

I am particularly fond of northwest Virginia, where the trees feel protective of an often highly stressful world. The houses are personal, and the people are fiercely proud. The landscape is lush and beautiful, with vibrant colors of grass, trees, and crops offering stunning complements to the browns and grays of development.

With the vistas in Shenandoah, and the inevitable noise of other people wishing to steal glimpses of the broad landscape, I cannot help but think that the land must feel like it is being smothered. Such an old, wise place with its plants and animals wishing to live their retirement in peace. The deer are skittish here, quickly darting into the trees upon sight of humans. I find myself doing the same thing, hoping as many of the locals do, that the trees protect me from an ever-increasingly harsh world.