The Rules

We awoke to a Shenandoah National Park softly shawled in blue fog and cooled by a light mist of dawn rain.  Down through the valley the dark tarmac of Skyline Drive wound its way among groves of Poplar, Pine, Oak, and snags of dying Ash. Understory, the ferns and wildflowers bent heavy with dampness, and all around was silent, save for the wine of the tires as we swept toward Front Royal.

The plan was to follow the Shenandoah Valley to the Cumberland Valley and into the Hudson Valley and Champlain Valley — all part of the western formation of valleys along the Appalachians. But, we did not yet know the rules.  Just after a brief stop in Front Royal, we checked the border crossing website to estimate wait times for tomorrow’s move into Canada.  As it would happen, the rules for crossing the border have been updated since we left Atlanta.  You are now required to have a very specific type of COVID test completed within 72 hours of your crossing.  We do not have that test.  We can not get to Cape Breton without entering Canada and we can not enter Canada without that test. These are the rules.

It turns out we can get that test.  In Manchester, New Hampshire.  We figure all this out as we travel toward Eastern Pennsylvania. Since everything depends on getting the test, getting it read and having all that within a certain number of hours of crossing the border, we alter course and find the fastest route to Manchester.  This route is neither interesting nor scenic, nor peaceful, but it is doable.

So tomorrow at around noon we will be tested and by 6 pm we should be in St. John for the night so we can catch a ferry across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia at 8 am on Friday morning. But really, who knows.  Tonight, we are being serenaded by coyotes, tree frogs and the periodic splash of a leaping fish, along the banks of the Housatonic River in Connecticut.  It is a pleasant bookend to the shawl of Shenandoah fog from this morning, and a faithful tonic to the day of highways and phone calls and figuring out.

We will move on tomorrow at dawn, completely confident that it will all work out and thoroughly happy to be trying to make sure it does.  These are the rules.

These Valleys

The Shenandoah

Someone told me once adventure happens when plans meet reality.  Around 5:30 this morning I awoke and began to plan what I was going to do about my current reality. Which was that overnight a flash flood had happened so quickly and with such force that two cold rolled steel brackets and one solid aluminum  pole had been deformed considerably by the weight of water that fell while I was tucked inside the cab writing and not paying attention.

So a morning otherwise devoted to a nice sunrise drive across the blue ridge mountains was spent trying to figure out how to re-bend and reinstall awning brackets that suffered as a result of my poor planning.  Adventure.  It turned out to be a very satisfying repair accomplished over a couple of hours fueled by good coffee and completed without reference to fault.

The net net of all this was a slightly later start to our journey northward, but no less enjoyable.  Sometimes, a good fix results in a good mood. Even if the cause of the need for the good fix is self evident. 

We rolled up the remainder of the Blue Ridge Parkway and into the Shenandoah National Park as if we were on schedule and not at all involved in the previous night’s problems.  This is a a key to happy journeys.  You travel and you adapt and you don’t worry.  

Shenandoah National Park is essentially a continuation of the the Blue Ridge Parkway — you just keep going straight and you go from one to the other.  The Blue Ridge Parkway becomes Skyline Drive.  The result is satisfaction through continuation. If you told anyone in the world you could travel from the corner of western Carolina to just outside of Washington DC without leaving the forest and without seeing anything remotely like civilization, they wouldn’t believe you, but you can. 469 miles of Blue Ridge Parkway, and around 100 miles of Shenandoah National Park.  All sublime, and all a carpet of mountain and valley scenery that comes to you as you come to it — 45 mph, windows down (in our case) and without pretense. This is the southern end of the oldest mountain range on the continent, but it doesn’t brag, it just is.  

Battles were fought here, westward dreams were launched through these gaps, countless generations of those who settled this country found a way through and over these knobs and gaps and forks and balds.  And you can see it all in one continuous thread from Cherokee, NC, to just outside of Washington DC.  Unchanged by anything but time, and still just wild enough to help you dream of what you could be if your life depended on finding the next gap to keep moving and keep looking for a life beyond the one you live now.

We are, on paper, a little behind schedule.  But we sat tonight with deer 10 feet away, cooking dinner and discussing life’s big questions, amidst locust trees and singing frogs and we didn’t think at all about schedules.  Tomorrow we will continue.  We will enter the Allegheny and follow the Appalachian Mountains north getting ever closer to the Eastern Reach of Cape Breton Island.  We may make it as far as we think, or we may make it as far as we can.  But we will make a journey.  And we will wander as we wonder about those who before awoke with adversity, solved problems, and proceeded without concern for what they lost, but rather with anticipation for what they might find ahead.

Knobs, Gaps and Forks

The Blue Ridge Mountains

I don’t know if it’s a difference without distinction or a distinction without a difference but driving on a road versus rolling over ground is different regardless.  It’s really the first thing you notice when you “drive” the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The speed limit is 45 mph, there is essentially no traffic, and nothing really impedes your progress save the twists and turns in the road.  As a result, you get a distinct feeling of rolling over the ground.  And that makes you think.  It makes you think about the people who built the road — largely CCC workers after the depression — the geology that established the terrain — the original separation of the supercontinent maybe a billion and half years ago, followed by a couple of periods of uplift, eruption, a re-collision of continents, and then lots of erosion — and it makes you think, period. 

The Blue Ridge and Northern Highlands of the Appalachians run basically from the Great Smoky Mountains of North Georgia, Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina all the way through Virgina and Eastern Pennsylvania, through Vermont and New Hampshire up to Maine. The area of mountains, valleys and folds represents the the oldest chain of mountains on the continent.  And traveling this section via The Blue Ridge Parkway, is a sublime and peaceful journey through hardwood forests, boulder fields, granite outcrops and bald meadows.  Locally, the names are almost all descriptive — but largely within three categories.  There are Knobs, Gaps, and Forks.  Occasionally a Bald is thrown in for good measure.  The road itself generally goes around the knobs, across the gaps and through the balds, but oddly, there are no forks.

Camped for the first night in what was at first a pristine, cool evening breeze atop one of the knobs, things changed about sundown to a torrential flash flood.  It easy to see, when in it, how erosion has played a role in taking these mountains from towering rockies, to knobs and knolls. Of course this same “Appalachian rain forest” effect creates a diversity of plant life that both colors and contributes to the mists and fogs that give the smokies their name.  We suffer through and lose a little gear to the elements, but in the end, survive, just as these knobs have and will continue to.  Changed, but mostly for the better.

Tomorrow, we finish the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah and head into the Allegheny section of these old mountains.  And we get a little closer to Nova Scotia and the Eastern Reach.

Following the Ancient Fold

Early tomorrow, amidst a light rain I expect, I will set off again to see more of this extraordinary country, meet different people, and find a special sort of contentment that seems to only come to me when I wander around and look and listen. This trip, which I’m calling The Eastern Reach, will follow the spine of the Appalachians from North Georgia to the Maine/Canada border before slipping across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia and the Island of Cape Breton.

As usual, I am heading out with an open mind and no preconceptions about where I will go or what I will find, save the basic route on which I intend to travel. I do know that the ground over which I drive represents, if you go deep enough, or know where to look high enough, some of the oldest ground in North America. And that the Appalachians themselves, once as high or higher than the Rockies, are not anymore — some perhaps no more than hills or knolls. I’m guessing the years took some things away and left some things behind in and among this great geologic fold in the fabric of our country. Lets see what we can find.