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Oh Shenandoah

As I have said in previous blogs, I never take the blessing of travel for granted. We have been fortunate to gaze on breathtaking vistas from Tuscany to the Greek Isles and from the Brecon Beacons to Bavaria. But this weekend, we once again proved the maxim that there is no place like home. 

It had been a few years since I had been on the Skyline Drive. Married to an acrophobe means that we try to drive around mountain top experiences. I need to be solo if I am heading to the heights (see, I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes), but this weekend GiGi was lured in by her granddaughters. 

The girls recently got souvenir albums from the US Park Service that feature the opportunity to collect a stamp at every National Park. We had been at a family reunion at the Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Virginia which sits right on the doorstep of the Shenandoah National Park, so off to the park we went.  

We were in a three-car caravan, so Hayden and I were by ourselves in the middle vehicle. This afforded Hayden the opportunity to close her eyes, listen to her book on tape, and dream that she was at the beach. She bravely exited the vehicle at every overlook, if only to ensure the safety of her granddaughters. 

The whole experience was simply wonderful. 

The miracle of this ribbon of highway that stretches 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Front Royal, Virginia to Waynesboro, never ceases to amaze me. For almost 90 years it has made the mountain top experience accessible to the multitudes who would never have had the equipment, stamina, or opportunity to do it on their own. 

The Blue Ridge Mountains have been a place of retreat for generations of Americans long before the Park or the Drive were conceived. President Herbert Hoover built Rapidan Camp to escape the sweltering heat and humidity of the Nation’s Capital in the summer months. Like TR’s Sagamore Hill, and FDR’s Shangri-La (later named Camp David by President Eisenhower), Presidents have become associated with these retreats as they seek northern climes or higher elevations to escape the heat.  

The construction of the Drive afforded employment for scores of farmers and apple growers during the Great Depression when the valley was in the throes of an historic drought. When FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), much of the infrastructure that is associated with the park and the drive became their handiwork as well. As you wind along miles and miles of this beautiful ridge-crest highway your path is bordered by pristine stone walls constructed by the CCC. 

Another border feature of the drive is an almost continuous string of a wildflower that I incorrectly thought was Queen Anne’s Lace. When I looked it up, I found that it is actually Heracleum Maximum, commonly known as cow parsnip. Some of its other great names include Satan Celery, Indian Rhubarb, and Poison Turnip. It is native to North America and grows from sea level to 9,000 ft. A pasture flower that is enjoyed by sheep, goats, and cows, Heracleum Maximum is also an important part of the black bear and grizzly bear diet, and an attractor for the Swallowtail butterfly.  

On our drive, we stopped only at a handful of the 75 scenic overlooks, but each one was breathtaking in beauty and touched by warm summer breezes. The altitude and updraft from the valley combined to drop the temperature 20 degrees. The entire east coast was in an unbearable heat wave and the daytime temperature in Charlottesville was 98 degrees, making the 78 degrees on the mountain a pleasant change. 

The other thing that the vistas give us (as seen in the title picture) is a clear indication of why these mountains were named Shaconage or “Land of the Blue Mist” by the Cherokee Indians who lived in this area for over 12,000 years. It was anglicized as the “Blue Ridge” by the pioneers who saw these ridges as the dividing line between Native American and colonial territory. 

There is a scientific reason for the blue hue that dominates the ridgeline of these mountains. Many of the native trees in the area produce a volatile hydrocarbon called isoprene. It is how the trees protect themselves from excessive heat and insects, but it has another unique feature. This natural mist scatters the sunlight in a way that emphasizes blue in the spectrum. From a distance, the mountains appear to be painted blue. 

So once again, from the dramatic scenery to the wildflowers, wildlife, unique azure hue, and pleasant summer breezes, there is no place like home. At each overlook as we emerged from our cars with fellow travelers, it was like hearing a conversation at the United Nations. Multiple languages, styles of dress, and physical features were a reminder that the world makes a pilgrimage to see the beauty of our homeland and experience this special place.  

Riding to the sunshine, I am Constancely Hoping. 


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