Category Archives: rural life

Almost Home

Old Order Mennonite buggy, Virginia, Shenandoah Valley

Almost Home.

Out for an early evening drive, my wife and I came upon this Old Order Mennonite buggy near the summit of Mole Hill Rd., west of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Having lived in Holmes County, the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, for most of our adult lives, we were used to following buggies up and down the rolling hills and winding roads.

Now that we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we occasionally have the same experience since we live near Dayton, the center of life for the thriving Old Order Mennonite community. Like the Amish, they, too, stay rooted to the land by using the horse and buggy as their chief means of local transportation and by their rural, agrarian lifestyles. Also, like the Amish, they hire drivers to take them on longer trips.

Shortly after I snapped this photo, the buggy turned left, hurried up a long lane to home. The short scene was a happy reminder of the life we lived in Holmes Co., Ohio, and an affirmation of the new life we have begun in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“Almost Home” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under Amish, human interest, Ohio's Amish country, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

A glimpse into the past, hope for the future

living history, old stone house, Granite Quarry NC

Living history.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I parked the van on the 21st Century side of the road and walked with my wife and our host couple across the two-lane highway back to 1766. The combination of the cold winter air and the smoke from several campfires immediately invigorated our senses and drew us in like kids to candy.

It was Christmas 18th Century style at the Old Stone House in the appropriately named village of Granite Quarry, North Carolina. The massive stones that formed the large, two-story house had been quarried a short distance away. A cast of volunteers decked out in period attire for their chosen character roles held me spellbound at every station.

The ladies at the beehive oven kept producing fresh-baked goodies for visitors to sample. The cornbread was pretty tasty. Members of the Mecklenburg Militia caroused around quietly spinning yarns that spanned generations. Still, they did their duty. To my knowledge, no one was arrested for pilfering sweet bread or inciting unrest.

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The militia’s cotton tents appeared flimsy and insufficient to keep out the cold for their camp over. Indeed, a spy told me they all intended to sleep in the comfort of the little log cabin outbuilding that housed a book sale for the event. Given the bite in the late afternoon air, I couldn’t blame them.

The old granite house stood proud and impressive, having been restored 50 years earlier. Its 22-inch walls kept the interior warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

We stepped into the living room to time-appropriate music as our guide rattled off detail after detail of what life was like three centuries ago. Though this house was large and elegant even by today’s standards, life was demanding. The family and their indentured servants and slaves always had plenty to do merely to ensure day-to-day survival.

The children in our group weren’t too impressed with the straw ticking that served as the mattress on the old rope bed. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite” took on a practical meaning to them. The guide demonstrated the sizeable wooden key for tightening the ropes that served as slats to hold the mattress. The herb tansy was interspersed with the straw to keep most of the bugs away. We all laughed when a stinkbug crawled out onto the ticking.

Upstairs was plain and noticeably cooler since the only heat came from the first-floor fireplaces. A slave squeezed into a wall space behind the massive kitchen fireplace to keep the fire going overnight.

Since the builder of the house had migrated south from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he modeled his home after the ones he knew. The spacious clapboard kitchen was attached to the main house, wherein that era the kitchen was a separate building at most southern homes.

Old Stone House, Granite Quarry NC

Will the door to the past help guide us into a better future?

The kitchen was the engine that ran the household. Here everything from cooking to spinning to laundry to bathing took place. Since the youngest in the family got the last bath using the same water as the others, you didn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The guide mused how we still use sayings without knowing their real origin.

In warmer weather, bathing took place in the stream that ran through the deciduous woods behind the house. Likely there was no lingering in that outdoor bathing arrangement.

I marvel at this kind of living history. It allows us to stand in the present, glimpse the past, and long for a better life for all future generations everywhere.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, Christmas, column, family, food photography, friends, history, human interest, photography, rural life, writing

Standoff at Cooks Creek

black angus steer, bald eagle, Harrisonburg VA

Standoff at Cooks Creek.

Birding is so much fun. You just never know what you will find, see happen, and be able to document.

As I was returning home recently, I spotted a Bald Eagle high in a sycamore tree right beside the highway. I turned the car around as quickly and safely as I could and parked well away from the bird. Just as I exited my vehicle, the eagle flew low across Cooks Creek and landed in a pasture field. I was in luck but didn’t know just how fortunate I would be.

As I hurried along the roadway, I noticed a black Angus steer move towards the eagle. The steer was about half-way between the eagle and me. Soon it broke into a gallop, which drew the eagle’s full attention. The steer stopped at the west side of the creek bank opposite the eagle on the east side.

If they had a discussion between them, it was short. The steer bounded down the embankment and towards the eagle. Of course, the eagle flew straight back for the sycamore tree. At the last second, the magnificent bird changed course and zoomed back over the steer and out of sight.

Whether you are a birder or not, this indeed was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I’m exceedingly glad I got to see and document it.

“Standoff at Cooks Creek” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Moving to The Valley for the most important reason

Shenandoah Valley, sunset

The beautiful Shenandoah Valley at dusk.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I loved where we lived. We had spent our entire adult lives among the world’s largest Amish population in Holmes County, Ohio. Why would anyone want to leave that serene setting for the Shenandoah Valley?

Since we had visited The Valley several times in the last two decades, we could have provided numerous viable answers to that question. The picturesque mountains, the agrarian culture, the abundant natural beauty and recreational options, the rich history, the lively arts and educational opportunities all would have sufficed as legitimate reasons for new retirees to live in The Valley.

To us, however, those were all secondary benefits. Our move to Rockingham County was inevitable for one perfect, personal reason. Like so many retiring baby boomers, we wanted to be near our grandchildren in our senior years. We wanted to be close to them in their active formative years, and assist their busy household however we could.

little league baseball, grandson

Our grandson the pitcher.

We observed that we weren’t alone in relocating for that familial reason. We discovered many others either already had moved to the area or were going to do so. Grandchildren were important to them, too. That alone affirmed our decision to move.

Ironically, my older brother and his wife did the same thing for the same reason only in reverse. One month later, they moved from Williamsburg, Virginia to the exact same county we left in Ohio.

Before we pulled up roots, however, our daughter and her husband assured us that The Valley would remain their home no matter what path their careers took. With that, we moved to The Valley last May.

However, the planning and preparations began long before that. Before the move, we delved into the possibility of living in or near Harrisonburg. We spoke with friends who had already done so. Their advice was not to wait too long. The grandchildren grow up fast.

We researched the cost of valley living and discovered it was a bit higher than what we had experienced in Ohio. Housing was especially a concern. Our ever-alert daughter found a house in our price range that looked promising. Our real estate agent set up an appointment.

We liked the house and the location. We quickly agreed on a price with the owners. My wife signed the papers in a parking lot on the trunk of the realtor’s car late at night. Having gone home for some required monthly meetings, I signed electronically online, a new experience for me.

canning peaches, granddaughter

Our granddaughter helped with the canning.

We were in shock though. In our 46 years of marriage, my wife and I never had been spontaneous buyers. Here we were making the largest purchase of our lives only 48 hours after having seen the home.
Moving wasn’t an easy decision by any means. We thought long and hard about it. All the rest of our immediate family lives in Ohio, including our son. He gave us his blessing to move.

My wife and I were born and raised in Ohio. We spent our careers in public education there. We both served with several community organizations over the years. It wasn’t easy to let go of all of that.
To soften the change, we decided to deliberately take our time moving to the Shenandoah Valley. As quickly as we bought the house, we didn’t move in until 18 months later. My wife and I worked diligently for a year and a half to prepare for the move.

I’m glad it took us that long to transition from one place to the other. We didn’t want to merely cut and run from the people and place we loved. That interlude gave us the opportunity and space we needed to adjust to this major, life-changing decision.

Shenandoah NP, hiking

The exploring grandson.

We met with the local mover that we hired. A sincere young man, he clearly knew his business. We found the combination of his expertise and experience immensely helpful in deciding what to take and what to leave. Our Harrisonburg home was considerably smaller than the one in Ohio. We were downsizing after all.

We spent much effort sorting and packing clothing, furniture, and household goods. We found homes for family heirlooms that wouldn’t fit in our smaller Virginia home. We donated many items to a local thrift store. We also met with family members and close friends before we exited, often over meals. Relationships are worth more than any material item.

Between purchasing the house and moving in, we rented it to a family for a few months. After they left, we hired contractors to update the landscaping and the house. We wanted to put our own personal touches on the place to make it our own. The contractors were glad to have these small jobs during their usually slower winter season.

We’ve more than enjoyed our time in The Valley so far. We’re pleased that we took our time. Not everyone has the luxury of a slower moving transition like my wife and I did. But if you can, the benefits of taking your time can make it more than worthwhile. That’s especially true if you get to regularly enjoy your grandchildren.

grandkids, breakfast

Breakfast out with the grandkids.

This story appears in the current edition of Valley Living.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Neva is my wife

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Filed under article, family, human interest, Ohio, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

Joyously enjoying another snowy owl irruption

snowy owl, Harrisonburg VA

Snowy Owl amid the chaos.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The bird was pure magnificence. It’s chosen perch, however, not so much.

Here was a snowy owl, far from its usual winter range, roosting on a light pole in a large industrial parking lot. I wondered if others saw the paradox of the beautiful bird and its chaotic, manufactured surroundings.

A post of a photo of the bird on a local business’ social media page alerted me to the rarity. The caption simply said, “He’s back!” Upon investigation, I learned that the photo was actually taken four years ago when the last snowy owl irruption occurred.

Ornithologists label such outbreaks of snowy owls as irruptions. Usually, this owl species winters in Canadian provinces and summers further north in Arctic tundra areas. For reasons still being studied, every so often snowy owls venture far beyond that territory to the universal pleasure of birders. During irruption years, the birds scatter far and wide, going as far south as Florida.

To be forthright, I had been a little envious of birders back home in Holmes County, Ohio. A snowy owl had been spotted nearly in the same location as one in the last irruption four years ago, and not far from our former Ohio home.

snowy owl, Holmes Co. OH

The Holmes Co. Snowy Owl. Photo courtesy of Dave Findley.

The Holmes County owl was very cooperative, affording excellent looks and lots of stunning photos of the bird. For many, it was a life bird, meaning it was the first time those individuals had seen a snowy owl. I was happy to hear that the Amish farmer of the land where the owl had settled was glad to host birders as long as they were respectful of his property and kept a proper distance so as not to spook the bird.

The snowy owl in Virginia wasn’t nearly as cooperative. The day my wife and I saw it, it was three football fields away from a farmer’s lane where we observed the bird. The industrial area where it alighted abutted the farm.

We squinted into the early morning sun to see the bird. Even through binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the bird’s more delicate details. A fellow birder, as fellow birders often do, offered us a look through her spotting scope.

I used the full length of my telephoto lens to capture imperfect images of this gorgeous bird sitting contentedly among power lines and steel light poles. I got a better shot through the scope by merely holding my smartphone to the eyepiece. Even then the glaring sun’s rays, defused by growing overcast clouds, gave the photo a black and white look.

digiscoped snowy owl

Through the spotting scope.

That was only appropriate since this snowy owl showed both colors. Layers of black barring covered the rounded owl’s back, indicating that this was either a female or young snowy. The feathers of mature males are almost entirely white.

With the sighting of this Virginia snowy owl, any lingering envy I had of the Ohio snowy melted away in the morning sun. I was contented.

Within days, other snowy owls began appearing south of the Canadian border. Several more found their way into northern Ohio and other states, too, including another one in Virginia.

It would have been too much to expect a snowy owl to appear in the Shenandoah Valley. And yet, here it was, an early Christmas gift perched on a light pole.

That’s just the way life is. When we least expect it, beauty appears in the most unlikely places, even a factory parking lot.

snowy owl, Rockingham Co. VA

The Snowy Owl later found more conducive habitat at another nearby farm away from all the industrialization.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under Amish, birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, news, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

The Enforcer

Belted Kingfisher, Silver Lake Dayton VA,

The Enforcer.

I love birding. You just never know what you’re going to find or see. When I came upon this Belted Kingfisher sitting on this sign, I both chuckled and snapped a picture.

I think the content of the photo speaks for itself. “The Enforcer” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Dusk at Pleasant View

Old Order Mennonite church, sunset in the Shenandoah Valley

Dusk at Pleasant View.

Photography helps keep my mind sharp. It motivates me to see the beauty that is all around me, to photograph scenes that I couldn’t even imagine existed.

With a few wispy clouds in the evening sky, my intended mission might be to capture a lovely sunset, only to be disappointed as the sun sinks below the horizon with unremarkable results. Nevertheless, I stick to the objective, looking for opportunities for creative shots as I traverse the countryside.

I arrived at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite churchyard shortly after sunset. Baren deciduous trees and a few evergreens populated the property, planted in part to shade the horses during the Sunday morning worship service. This was a weekday. I had the place to myself.

I could see the Allegheny Mountains to the west outlined by the evening’s golden light. When I came to this particular spot, I was transfixed. The trees seemed to guide my focus through the opening in their canopy far above and beyond the lovely skyline. There was no irony here whatsoever. The modest, horse-and-buggy driving Old Order Mennonites were spot on to declare this vista a pleasant view. For me, being in this moment was a spiritual experience, one of those spontaneous happenings in life that catches you by surprise and stirs your soul.

“Dusk at Pleasant View” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Relearning the rules of the road

long and winding road, Shenandoah Valley

A long and winding road, typical for the Shenandoah Valley.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve had my driver’s license since I was 16 years old. I’ve loved driving ever since. City, suburban or rural, it doesn’t matter. I just enjoy being behind the wheel of a vehicle.

I consider myself a decent driver, too. Please don’t ask my wife to confirm that opinion. However, she’s more than happy to have me do the majority of the driving on any trip, whether of short or long duration. I once was even certified to teach driver education.

Other than vacations and business trips, all of my driving experience occurred in Ohio. Imagine my surprise then as we settled into living life in the Shenandoah Valley. I have learned Virginia’s driving styles radically differ from those of Ohio, not that drivers in the Buckeye state model exemplary highway etiquette.

Here’s what I’ve discovered so far about driving in the Commonwealth:

1. Using your turn signals is optional. Since you already know where you want to go, why bother to turn them on?
2. When traffic lights turn yellow, accelerate through them. If you stop, you run the risk of being rear-ended.
3. Only use your headlights when absolutely necessary, even well after the sun has set. Apparently, Virginians use this technique to conserve the vehicle’s battery.
4. Pull out in front of approaching emergency vehicles even though you can easily hear the blaring sirens and clearly note the flashing emergency lights. Having previously driven both ambulances and fire trucks, I ignore this rule.
5. Speed limit signs are posted to let you know that you are traveling too slowly. In other words, go faster than it says.
6. Double-yellow lines that separate opposite flow lanes and delineate no passing zones are really used to guide your vehicle down the center of roadways.
7. Pedestrian crosswalks on public highways are the equivalent of middle school dodgeball games. If you hit someone, they most definitely are out.
8. Bicyclists are an illusion. They are not really there, so just keep driving.
9. Texting and talking on your cell phone while driving is expected. Those who don’t do so make those who do look bad.
10. If your license plates have expired, just paint the words “Farm Use” on them, and you’re good to go. However, it helps to have some old corn shocks sticking out of your trunk.
11. Stop is southern slang for “slow.” This is especially true when making a right-hand turn at a stop sign or red traffic signal.
12. Cutting the corner at intersections is mandatory. It obviously helps you save significant time getting where you want to go.

Though I’ve tried my best to adjust my driving habits to the local travel traits, I still get the evil eye in certain situations. Like when I go to turn left on a green light, I pull into the center of the intersection until traffic traveling in the opposite direction clears. Then I make my turn. Apparently, only ex-Ohioans do that. The proper procedure in Virginia is to stay at the painted line ahead of the light and go left when the signal turns red. Note that several other vehicles may follow you.

I have also learned that on country roads it is entirely kosher to just stop in the roadway and talk with someone you know. The others will eventually go around you. Just make sure that when you do pass that you follow another local custom. Please wave and smile, too.

horse and buggies, Dayton VA

Down the center line.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under column, human interest, news, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

In hiking, easy is a relative term

Hawksbill Mountain, Shenandoah NP

Hawksbill Mountain summit.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The official National Park Service website listed the Lower Hawksbill Trail as an easy walk. I would soon discover that “easy” was a relative term.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I thought the hike to the highest peak on the Skyline Drive would entail. I followed the preparation instructions as best I could. I packed bottles of water, snacks, camera and accompanying batteries, binoculars, wore hiking shoes and a hat. I thought I was all set.

Before reaching the trailhead, I had already stopped at nearly every turnout along the Skyline Drive after I entered Shenandoah National Park at the Swift Run Gap entrance. As usual, I took too many photos.

As I approached the trailhead’s parking area, I could see that I wouldn’t be hiking alone. Parking spaces on both sides of the roadway were at a premium. After all, it was a beautiful fall day for being outdoors.

I stuffed my supplies in the multiple pockets of my hiking vest and headed up the trail. The path’s incline seemed a bit steep for a trail identified as “easy.” I soldiered on, stopping every so often to catch my breath. Unfortunately, the way got steeper and steeper.

I met a few other hikers coming and going along the rocky trail that wound its way nearly two miles to the highest summit in Shenandoah National Park. Hawksbill peak logged in at 4,049 feet above sea level, a mere foothill for the Rocky Mountains. The trail climbed up and through a tinder-dry forest of mixed hardwoods and occasional evergreens. Finally, the trail flattened out, and the vegetation became more brushy and dense. I was near the top.

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Once I saw the stone shelter, I knew I had made it. I scrambled the last 50 yards to the ragged Hawksbill summit and started snapping photos. A man with walking sticks teetered on the precipice while his friend took his picture.

I sat down near them to rest and admire the view. Instantly, the three of us began conversing. The beauty of wilderness tends to meld human hearts. I learned that the man with the walking sticks was named Jim. He had taken on this hike as a mental and physical challenge. In late March, Jim had been hit from behind by a vehicle as he walked along the highway near his home in eastern Pennsylvania. Jim was hurdled through the air like a struck deer and landed on the payment unconscious and severely injured. Both of his arms and legs had compound fractures, and Jim’s abdomen was split open.

First responders didn’t expect Jim to live. A month in the hospital and several operations later followed by another month in rehab, Jim beat the odds. He had had lots of time to think. Jim fondly recalled the year he graduated high school when he had walked the entire 2,184-mile length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Jim.

He decided that climbing to Hawksbill’s summit would be the perfect way to help heal emotionally from his recent traumatic accident. So with plates and screws in his arms and legs, Jim did just that with only the aid of two walking sticks and his friend Josh. Jim’s broad smile alone evidenced his courage, humility, and accomplishment as he posed for a photo.

It was then that I realized that despite all my huffing and puffing up the mountain, I really had taken the easy trail.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under column, human interest, nature photography, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

Right Where They Fell

autumn leaves, sugar maple leaves, iron fence

Right where they fell.

This has been an unusual fall across much of the country. Here in Virginia, we have received only recent rains, much too late to help the leaves reach their peak colors before they fell. This sugar maple in a yard in the quaint town of Dayton in Rockingham Co. defied the dry weather. Perhaps not as bright as usual, her broad leaves still turned rich gold in color.

Whether from fatigue or the extended dry spell or both, the shapely maple gave up most of her leafy crown all at once. With little wind, this year’s crop remained right where they fell. The old wrought iron fence seemed to help corral them, too.

“Right Where They Fell” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under architectural photography, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather