Monday, May 23, 2011

Dear Shenandoah, I would like $3.75 back.

The morning started off quiet and grey, and the clouds hovered over the valleys below Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

Then--my first wildlife viewing! This guy was indecisive. Back and forth, back and forth. Luckily we were the only ones on the road.
 Hey! I think this Southerner turned his nose up at me. WTF?!
Sweet to see flowers blooming and the world wide open ahead.
When I reached the visitor center, a couple guys on a motorcycle with sidecar pulled in right after me. They said they'd just seen a bear. What?! Lucky bastards.

I realized after a while that I was looking for bears like I sometimes look for relationships--too hard. Chill, the little voice said. But every time I heard a twig snap behind me, I figured I'd missed something. And at one point, up ahead, I saw leaves rustle and something emerge from the side of the road. My heart started to race. It was going to happen! It was going to be a beautiful moment in nature. It was going to be . . . a hiker. Damn it all. I was having no luck.

So I just drove along, enjoying the incredible number of lookout points (105 miles, 75 outlooks). The haze made for unfortunate picture taking. And I knew as I took 78 pictures throughout the day that few would convey in any way the beauty. I even became lazy and didn't get out of the car sometimes. There were very few other cars, and I would just come to a pause at an outlook, put down the window and snap a picture. Total slacker sightseeing.

Around one corner, I saw a car stopped with hazards on. I'm an idiot and figured they just needed to pull over for a second on this narrow road. Um, NO. They were checking out this view:
Mama and three babies! The cubs were climbing the tree, hopping up and down on the trunk. Mama was foraging. They were pretty close to the road but surprisingly unphased by the now three vehicles stopped to check them out.
 So cute! I want one. This little fella:
After a while of ogling, I sadly felt I had to move on (so others could enjoy the show).

Turkey vultures are everywhere along the drive. And as I came up around one open corner, a vulture flew straight up over and just above my car. Very cool. At every outlook, there were usually a few vultures, just circling patiently over the valley.
Then I encountered a cave. And the realization that I should clean my windshield some year. This photo looks like it was taken in 1978.

 Sometimes it was clear enough to get a decent shot. But most of the time it wasn't worth it.
An oncoming car flashed its lights at me, and I slowed down immediately. Around the next bend, there were three cars and a motorcycle stopped along both sides of the narrow road. I pulled over, excited, thinking there were more bears. I strained and looked up into the brush, even the trees. But I couldn't see anything. Then I put down the window to listen for them. I mean something had to be happening; all these people wouldn't stop for nothing. Hmmm. Then each pulled away, leaving just me. I was still staring up into the woods, figuring the bear(s) must have lumbered away. As I started to pull ahead, I noticed a twig in the road. Then the twig moved. And then the twig RATTLED! So cool. Loud rattle on this one.
 Capturing the glory of the Ford Focus on the Skyline Drive...
At about the halfway mark, I stopped for lunch. There are a couple of places that serve food. They each feel like something out of Dirty Dancing--but not in a cool Patrick-Swayze's-gonna-hoist-you-up-and-hold-you-in-the-air sort of way. More like a wow-these-people-don't-get-out-much sort of way. Being in the South, I ordered pulled pork and then shamelessly took a picture. Because I'm that person.
After that, things sort of went downhill. And not just because I was descending. I don't know. Maybe the kind ranger lady might have offered up that they were repaving a quarter of the Drive. Maybe she could have told me that there would be long waits and awkward traffic flow. Heck, she might have told me to be on the lookout for all the dump trucks and 18-wheelers sailing through the Drive way above the 35-mph speed limit. I went from being almost completely by myself for half the trip to being tailgated, with the grill of a Mack truck taking up my whole rearview. Between that and the groups of revving motorcycles bap bap bapping around every turn, it kinda killed the mood. No bear is going to hang out and listen to all that. It made me a little sad, a little frustrated. I pulled off the road for a while to let everyone get a long head start on me. Oddly, that was the most stressful driving I've encountered this whole trip. And for that, Shenandoah, I would like a quarter of my entrance fee back.

The end of the trail feels anticlimactic. Rain was starting to set in, I was tired and had a headache going. What's a girl to do? She goes to Charlottesville. ...where she quickly is flumoxed by her naivite in a new town. Tossed and turned from street to street. I think I saw a monument of Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea in a momentary blur at an intersection. I thought I was following signs to the historic district, but instead ended up driving through UVA and then onto rt 29, which has about 47 lanes. But I found my beloved Hampton Inn (I'm ready to be a spokesperson), where for an embarrassingly low price I got a room containing two queens and an office. Even the art is decent. Shameless, Hampton Inn, shameless.

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