Once again, we’re ending up in a lot of places without any data. This is surprising to us; we thought the States would have better internet than Canada but this hasn’t been the case. Even in a couple of RV parks, where we hoped to use wifi for computer software updates, the wifi was pathetic verging on useless (or nonexistent unless we were right inside the office) and our own data coverage was weak. So we haven’t been able to upload new posts and I feel like all kinds of stuff has gone on that I wanted to share but now won’t, because it’s already old news.
We probably left Pennsylvania sooner than we might have if they didn’t allow hunting in their state parks. As always, we try to limit our stays at RV parks and the possibility, regardless how slight, of getting shot while hiking on a state park trail – neither one of us owns any bright orange clothing – put a damper on things. Certainly, a big warning sign we passed on our last hike there didn’t help:
I normally enjoy hiking in silence but, this time, I told Roland to sing. And, after the hike, we aimed our compass toward Virginia to spend a week and a half exploring and slowly making our way southeast.
Virginia is lovely. Do I say that about every place we pass through? I know we thought New Hampshire and Vermont were beautiful too. Maybe it just comes down to the simple truth, that there are many beautiful places, and Virginia is definitely one of them. Or at least it is at this time of year with autumn colours exploding and the weather good – people tell us Virginia is almost unbearably hot and humid in summer. If I have to spend another summer in Virginia, one guy shared cheerfully, I’ll go insane. Also, as per signs on campground bulletin boards and hikers we’ve talked to, Virginia in summer also means ticks, chiggers, and Copperheads. All of which seemed to have eased off now. We were as vigilant as we could be, particularly during a few hot days when temperatures soared to near 30C (85F), but we didn’t run into any bugs or snakes.
During the first few days we drove – at the posted speed of 35 miles per hour – along the twisting ribbons of the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. We must have pulled over at over a dozen “lookouts” to gape at the scenery and, like all the other people there with us, try to capture, unsuccessfully, the rolling mountain ridges dressed in glowing autumn colours in our photos.
We stayed in a couple of the National Parks along the way and did some hiking, always under a canopy of gold turning to amber above our heads. The Big Meadows Campground in the Shenandoah National Forest, in particular, was lovely to hike through. We don’t have forests like this in BC. Our forests are mostly dense evergreens that tower up from damp mossy ground and feel like they could swallow you up. Here, the woods seem more open and the mix of sugar maple, beech, birch, and oak allows more light in. The trees also fill the trails ankle-deep in leaves and acorns that crunch while you walk.
Lovely scenery aside, we’ve also been in a part of the country where history seeps out at every turn. Our route for the past few weeks has been marked by Colonial-style architecture, in various stages of elegance, and countless signs for historic attractions. No matter where we stop, a piece of the past lurks underneath the skin of modern life. Even in the parks. As we camped in the Shenandoah National Forest I read that Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, lay a relatively short distance to the southeast of us. Apparently, he could sit on his back porch and see the misty blue line of the Blue Ridge Mountains shimmering in the distance. He supposedly loved that view of the mountains but, as we hiked there, I wasn’t thinking about Jefferson and his back-porch-view. I was wondering how close we were to the paths the Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia took, through the mountains and into Pennsylvania, a hundred and fifty years ago. To Gettysburg.
On our way through Pennsylvania, although yes, we normally avoid large-scale tourist attractions, we did drive to Gettysburg. Being so close, a mere hour away, curiosity pulled. I’m not sure what I was expecting but the place had a powerful effect on me. On both of us. But then, really, Gettysburg is much more than a tourist attraction and, oddly, I didn’t feel like a tourist or sightseer when we were there.
At the national military park, a twenty-four mile auto tour winds around past battlefields and more than a thousand markers describe key moments in the three-day battle. Somewhere around 51,000 soldiers fell there in 1863 – a staggering amount. They fell on the very land we drove through although, these days, the rolling fields – split by rustic wooden fences and copses of trees and planted with what looks like flowering corn – give the impression of the utmost pastoral tranquility. It’s probably not much different from how it looked before the armies of the North and South began to fill it with blood and bodies. We passed a sign that said “relic hunting is prohibited”. Clearly, with so many fallen, the soil still holds a lot of secrets.
After stopping at a couple of the markers to read about the action they stood to commemorate and realizing how little we really knew, we drove to the visitors centre where Roland bought a small handbook for the park and the battle. Somehow, we were drawn to learn more. We also bought and are both now immersed in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Killer Angels. I can’t remember the last time a place had that kind of impact on me. On us. Maybe it’s in part because I remembered my first visit, over forty years ago. I was with my parents, I was twelve or thirteen, cranky and self-centred, and I was NOT interested in seeing a field where a bunch of guys died. I was focused on whether our campground that night would have some place to swim.
It was a blazing hot day when we got there and my mother went alone into the fields – I don’t remember there being any fencing or where my dad was. She was there for what seemed like way too long and she came back silent, with strange eyes. I didn’t understand, then, why an empty grassy field in hellish heat would have that effect on her – she was uncharacteristically withdrawn for several hours after we drove away – but, this time, I think I know some of what she felt. And it brings her back to me a little.
Our last stop in Virginia was Colonial Williamsburg. I was hoping to get the same sense of the “something” I felt at Gettysburg but didn’t. We didn’t pay the $40 (per person) admission so we didn’t get inside the houses but that’s ok. I got enough of the feel of it just touring the outside. Oddly, even though the meticulously restored town really does date back to the 1700’s, it all seemed a bit staged. Almost fake. No doubt due in large part to the costumed actors, there to add a historic flavour by pretending to be residents from two hundred years ago. I know some people really like that. I probably loved it as a kid. It adds colour. But if I had a choice, despite my love of theatre – I majored in technical theatre in university – I’d like it better if the actors weren’t there. If it were more like a museum than a pageant. Maybe that’s what it was about Gettysburg. There weren’t any live props – no actors dressed as soldiers brandishing rifles and pretending to wage battle. There were only the silent markers, standing still above the windswept silent fields, forcing you to also stand in silence and reflect.
Tonight, we’re camped at a North Carolina state park, making history of our own by breaking the law. Yes, us: law-abiding, rule-following people that we generally are. We’re having a glass of red with our gnocchi. According to the handout we got in the office, the possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. I shake my head. We spent one night at a state park in Maryland where alcohol was also prohibited but there, at least, RVs were exempt from this. So now I wonder, will the camp host be knocking on the door soon to check on whether we’re compliant. I’d guess not. The rule is probably there to discourage wanton drunkenness around campfires – in a place where people can actually carry guns – and to protect the park from any potential liability.
It’s interesting how neighbouring states differ in their approach to things. Similar to the variances in policy between the provincial parks from one province to the next in Canada. It keeps us on our toes a bit but for now, I’m fine with that. It keeps things interesting. In fact, I think I’ll toast the differences with my glass of prohibited wine.
To see Roland’s take on Virginia, go here: