June 27 – A thousand words…

…the worth of a photo, as they say.  Today, I foolishly left the card of my camera in the computer, where I had been downloading images for a previous post.  So, on my daily outing when I reached to take a photo, I got the dreaded “No memory card” message.  I guess I’ll just have to describe the day with some evocative prose.

My friend Sherri is visiting from Montana, with her many children.  She was interested in seeing some Virginia nature, maybe some big ol’ east coast forests.  I had been planning on a trip to Montpelier to see the old-growth woods there.  Then I looked at the forecast–93 degrees and muggggggggy!  So I re-thought the outing, and decided it would make more sense to head to Shenandoah to spend the day splashing around in one of the many cold clear creeks that tumble out of the mountains.  On the morning of our big adventure, we awoke to an oddly persistent fog and drizzle, even up to the time when, on a hot summer day, we should start feeling the heat.  I was sure it was just a morning fluke, so we piled all of her and my kids into a big ol’ Suburban, and we set off through the gloom.  As we got a bit closer to the mountains, the temperature dropped and the sun remained resolutely hidden.  At the last moment, as we passed the intersection for Montpelier, I decided to postpone the splashin’ around in the creek until we got a better idea of whether the weather held any sunshine for us.

So we made an hour-long detour to Montpelier, where the kids enjoyed an epic game of hide-and-seek in the formal walled garden.  A nice feature of this garden is that you can relax on a grassy slope overlooking the carefully cropped hedges and planted beds of flowers inside the wall, while looking out to the very Virginian horse pastures and wooded hills & mountains off in the distance.  The low gray sky and intermittent drizzle made me feel like I was in England, or in Maine.  It definitely felt more like a northern New England day than central Virginia.  Once the kids had managed to burn off a few thousand calories of energy, I tried leading everyone on a short walk through the nearby old-growth forest, but all the young-uns were totally amped up and screaming, and it just seemed wrong to bring such frantic screamy energy into such a peaceful place as the Montpelier woods.  Plus, my younger son was starting to pester me about when we were going to go to the mountains, so we all went back to the enormous SUV and kept on truckin’ .

It took another 45 minutes or so to get to the trailhead, and by that point the kids were literally bouncing off of eachother and the inside of the truck.  The trailhead I had chosen, Graves Mill, is an obscure one;  it had been about 12 years since I was last there, and there was no signage anywhere until the moment you reach the parking area, where a tiny country lane dead-ends at a wall of trees.  I had to stop and consult the atlas a few times to make sure I wasn’t getting us all lost.  As soon as we killed the engine, hordes of children leapt out and began chasing one another up and down the trail.  I was greatly relieved to see we were the only vehicle at the trailhead, and didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone’s “wilderness experience.”  The trail here follows the headwaters of the Rapidan River, which is more of a big creek than a river this far up.  The water was, as advertised, clear and cold, with lots of little cascades and waist-deep pools; there was a lovely spot with a gravel beach just about 100 yards in where we had a picnic while the kids climbed on the rocks, narrowly avoiding (I hope) extensive patches of poison ivy and stinging nettle.  There was still no sun and the temperature never broke 75 all day, but having come this far, nothing was  going to stop us from splashing and wading in and out of the creek, up and down little waterfalls, over and around mossy boulders.  Altogether, we never made it more than a half-mile from the van, but covering trail distance on a day like this was entirely beside the point.  It was enjoyable hiking with a friend from the western US, pointing out oak, maple, tulip, and beech trees that grow far larger than any deciduous trees in Montana, and always a treat to spend a summer day splashing and swimming, even if it felt more like early May than the end of June .  Toward the end of the afternoon, we even got a few minutes of direct sunlight.

I was, as always, hoping to encounter some fungal treasures, but wasn’t able to see much.  In contrast with the woods at Twin Oaks, which have some underbrush but you can usually see the forest floor, the forests of Shenandoah present a wall of greenery, layers of shrubs, vines, and ground cover.  In many places, it’s hard to see more than 10 feet off of the path.  I think this is even more the case where the trail follows an old road, as is the case with many of the low-elevation creekside trails I’ve been hiking lately.  There could be dozens of mushrooms within 50 feet of the trail, and you could walk right by without seeing anything but wall of green.  Our most interesting find was a pair of brownish yellowish boletes which, when broken open, immediately turned an intense shade of bright blue.

Driving home through late afternoon sunlight, the bright greens of Virginia farm and mountain, the views that were hidden by mist on our way in suddenly so vivid, I felt very pleased and satisfied with the aesthetic qualities of the state I’ve chosen to live in.  It’s more of a pastoral beauty, lacking the dramatic untouched wildernesses of New England or out west.  Still, the countryside just east of Shenandoah park sure is easy on the eyes in the slanted light of a bright summer afternoon after weeks and weeks of rain.  Not a bad day, I just wish I had thought to bring a working camera…

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