Category Archives: rural life

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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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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In awe of fall’s many murmurations

meadow, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg VA

The hilltop meadow.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Have you seen them? Fall’s murmurations are everywhere, or at least they were. They can be as fickle as fall weather. In fact, it’s autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours that often spur them on.

European starlings create the defining form of murmurations that are often caught on video. Massive, migrating flocks of starlings whirl, dance, gyrate, and swirl, darting high and low, turning seemingly indiscriminately in the sky. One minute they mimic a ballet dancer, the next a fearsome Halloween monster. Sometimes they perform over land, other times they maneuver above great bodies of water. Either way, their machinations mesmerize human observers.

Common Buckeye, honeybees,

Getting buzzed.

These starling murmurations, so prevalent in the fall, appear cloud-like, pulsating as if scripted to a choreographed symphony. They change direction and tempo, moving from Beethoven’s measure to Springsteen’s beat. I once saw a murmuration where thousands of starlings turned and twisted like a tornado, so much so that other drivers also pulled over to watch the show.

As magical as they are, the starlings cannot claim a patent on this fascinating phenomenon. Though not as showy or perhaps even as noticeable, other creatures great and small participate in their own migratory matinees.

A recent Sunday afternoon sabbatical on a hilltop brought me to that conclusion. October’s bright afternoon sun bathed the land in warmth and beauty. I couldn’t have been happier.

West Virginia, Virginia, Appalachian Mountains

The blue mountains.

To my west, the Allegheny Mountains stood eternal, the hazy blue boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia. To the east, the Massanutten Mountain held watch over the city of Harrisonburg, which hummed with its usual busyness.

As pleasant as that was, the setting became secondary to the murmuration activity in the lovely hillside meadow before me. In its last days of seasonal, colorful productivity, hundreds of butterflies flitted everywhere. Multiple species competed for the blooms they far outnumbered. Thousands of honeybees, bumble bees, and beetles also joined in the frenzy for the limited floral offerings.

Monarch butterflies, meadow, wildflowers

Blooms and butterflies.

Though they weren’t captivating clouds of whirling birds, each insect species had its own style. Butterflies chased butterflies. Bees buzzed butterflies, usually unsuccessfully. It wasn’t uncommon for a ladybug, honeybee, a Monarch, and a Painted Lady butterfly to all inhabit the same blooming wildflower plant, appropriating whatever they could for their journey or hibernation ahead.

Overhead, turkey vultures sailed on rising convection thermals, additional byproducts of the generous sunshine heating the cooler landscape. Beyond the urban trees and down the hill, a red-shouldered hawk shrieked its call in an attempt to flush songbirds from their protective cover.

American robins appeared with only abbreviated chirpings. Silent and absent since their last summer nestings, robin congregations bobbed on yards and scavenged crabapple trees for any morsel of energy to wing their way to milder winter climes.

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An eastern phoebe launched from a solitary dogwood tree loaded with bright red berries. The bird had no interest in them, however. Instead, it captured an unsuspecting damselfly, and returned to the same perch in the same tree, wagged its tail one more time and disappeared.

On the way home, a rather lopsided V winged across the last of the sunset’s orangey glow. Even with car windows closed, I could distinctly hear the geese honking as the darkening sky absorbed them. At day’s end, I was elated to have observed a few of the other forms of nature’s murmurations, each with their own flair, their own personal signature.

What murmurations of fall have you seen? Look sharp. They’ll soon be gone, replaced by the coming season’s institution of slumbering stillness.

sunset, Shenandoah Valley

Waning sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Country View

Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Country View.

I call it photography by driving around. It has multiple purposes. We moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia’s enchanting Shenandoah Valley in early May. Although not entirely unfamiliar with the area around Harrisonburg, I decided the best way to get to know the countryside was just to drive around the rural roads. Doing so helps me get a lay of the land, occasionally talk with local folks, and find scenes like this one.

This viewpoint is about eight miles north of Harrisonburg looking southeast toward Massanutten Mountain. If you look closely (click on the photo) to the left of the grain mill silos, you can see a string of train cars sitting idle on tracks in the valley near the village of Linville.

“Country View” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Waiting on rain and suffering the personal consequences

picket fence, black-eyed susans

Is it the flowers?

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat on the patio reading a marvelous book my best friend had given me before we hightailed it out of Holmes County, Ohio for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I didn’t read long, however.

A good case of what I’ll call the Shenandoah Sneeze forced me to retreat to the safety of our air-conditioned home. I had no choice. I was sneezing more than reading. I used more tissues than I turned pages.

Reading was only the secondary reason I had escaped to our outdoor sanctuary. I thought if I went outside the thick promising clouds would finally let loose a downpour. It didn’t happen. Apparently, I was under the spell of not only the Shenandoah Sneeze but also the Harrisonburg Hole. I’ll gladly clarify this localized lingo.

When my wife and I had our first appointments with our new doctor, one of the first questions she asked was if we had contracted any allergies yet. Apparently, newcomers to the Shenandoah Valley acquire hypersensitivities they didn’t have previously. Harrisonburg is The Valley’s notorious epicenter for such physical reactions.

home, Harrisonburg VA

Home sweet home, as long as the windows are closed.

I never had allergies my entire life of living in northeast Ohio. Now, every now and then when I step outdoors, or our home’s windows are open, I suddenly begin a succession of rapid-fire sneezes. I have no idea why or what is causing it. I’ve tried both over-the-counter and prescription medication. Nothing seems to help, so I just endure it. When an attack occurs, I retreat to a private space so as not to spoil a perfectly good autumn afternoon for others.

After the sneezing episode ends, my eyes itch and water and I have to breathe through my mouth due to nasal congestion. In relating this all too personal information, I am not asking for pity, only understanding.

As for the Harrisonburg Hole, that’s the real reason I went outside in the first place. The official forecast was a 90 percent chance of rain. It had been more than a month without rain. Not. One. Drop. I figured if I ventured outdoors the sky would inevitably open up. It didn’t.

backyard, Harrisonburg VA

Where I’d like to relax without sneezing.

Besides the parched yard, I had a selfish reason for desiring a good soaking. I had fertilized the lawn the previous morning when the dew wetted the browning grass. The moisture-laden blades of grass made the tiny granules of fertilizer stick. To make the fertilizer effective, I needed the promised precipitation. Otherwise, the lawn could burn out more than it already was.

You see the Harrisonburg Hole is a fabled meteorological phenomenon that affects our fair city and its immediate surrounding areas. Nine times out of 10, when the weather forecast calls for a high chance of rain, it doesn’t. It does rain, north, south, east, and west of “The Friendly City.” But it doesn’t rain in and around Harrisonburg.

So far I haven’t found one person who can explain why this occurrence happens so frequently. I just discovered a bevy of believers in the myth that apparently has more than a grain of truth to it. I can attest that I’ve checked the radar on more than one supposed-to-rain occasion only to find steady rain everywhere but over “Rocktown.”

I was hoping that in addition to rinsing the specks of fertilizer into the ground that a steady rain would also clear out whatever was in the air that was causing me to make the Kleenex brand rich. No such luck.

Please excuse me now. I have to sneeze again.

still life

Wishing my life would be still.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Seasons of Gaillardia

gaillardia, blanket flower, great spangled fritillaary

Seasons of Gaillardia.

When I asked my wife to identify the flower the butterfly was enjoying, her reaction surprised and inspired me. “Wow,” she said, “seasons of Gaillardia!” Then I saw it. As the growing season winds down, this meadow of wildflowers held the blanket flower nearly in every stage of growth. The Variegated Fritillary butterfly, which just happened to be in the shadow of a taller flower, fed on one of the remaining Gaillardia heads still in full bloom.

“Seasons of Gaillardia” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Embracing October’s sensory qualities

changing leaves, Holmes Co. OH

Autumn’s glory.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve always loved October. The month never seems to fail in its sensory-sensitive offerings that surprise, frustrate, and elate you. October in Ohio has that much variety. Halfway through the tenth month, I’ve learned that’s even true in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

Fall’s first frost ushered in the new month on October’s very first morning. Light as it was, the chill still stung the tomato and pepper plants in our daughter’s garden. Overall, the days have been balmy and very dry. I haven’t mowed the lawn in a month. No worries. I’ve found other ways to spend my time.

I chauffeured our granddaughter to 5 p.m. soccer practice on her eighth birthday. She took along a sweet treat to share with her teammates, which the college-student coaches wisely kept until after practice. A refreshing breeze blew through a crystal clear, early October sky while the youngsters jostled back and forth on emerald grass bordered by stands of patient trees waiting for the signal to paint their leaves.

sugar maple, Shenandoah Valley

Sugar Maple.

After an afternoon of volunteering at a local thrift store, my wife shared a touching story with me. A customer came in from Florida. She and her husband had evacuated to a relative’s home in Harrisonburg to escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma. The lady’s husband was gravely ill with cancer. She was gathering clothes for their return trip home. The man wanted to die in his own bed. The store manager and Neva donated the clothing to the grieving woman. As she was leaving, the lady turned at the door and said, “You don’t know how much this means to me.”

Loyalist that I am, I wear my Cleveland Indians gear wherever I go. As I walked across the campus of Eastern Mennonite University to the school’s library, a student stopped me. “I noticed your Indians shirt,” he explained. Turned out, he had graduated from the same small, rural Ohio high school as our son and daughter. I had a brief chat with Aaron Weaver, now a college senior. The connection brought me as much joy as an Indians postseason win.

harvest moon

Harvest Moon.

Soon after that encounter, October’s Harvest Moon bathed the earth in creamy nocturnal colors, enabling the skunks to waddle their way around with ease. You could follow their trails with your nose.

Of course, this October brought more human-induced and unnecessary horror that just cannot be understood. Innocents in Las Vegas fell dead or injured faster than autumn’s leaves. I shudder at such horrid, incomprehensible, and inexplicable violence.

Even with that sad news, if you asked me to pick one month out of the year as my absolute favorite, it would be October. My October memory bank is overflowing.

One particular Ohio scene is indelibly etched in my mind as if it were yesterday. In reality, my regular morning walk on my favorite township road was actually four years ago.

Typical for an Ohio October morning, the air was crisp, embroidered with lacy fog that snaked across the landscape indiscriminately, propelled by the rising sun that warmed the country air. My stroll was nearly half completed when a young boy quietly passed me on his bicycle near an Amish parochial school. The sun’s defused rays colored everything a luminous, eerie monochrome on the hazy landscape canvas.

That’s an October memory I’ll always recall for its vividness, its sensory invigoration, and its blessed setting. It’s helped me to continually be alert for unfolding comparable moments. They are everywhere for everyone, especially in October.

Amish boy on bike, foggy morning

Into the fog.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Welcome to the Center of the Universe

Center of the Universe, Wallace ID

Looking east on Bank St., Wallace, ID.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I never met Ron Garitone, the late mayor of Wallace, Idaho. I’m sure I would have liked him if only based on one creative decision he made for his small mining and timber town located in Idaho’s panhandle.

Pushed on an environmental issue by the EPA in 2004, the mayor was told, “If a thing cannot be disproven, it is thereby proven.” The incredulous but affable mayor called the government’s bluff. He proclaimed his beloved Wallace the Center of the Universe because his claim could not be disproven, he said. His proclamation gained international attention. Wise town leaders seized on the idea and installed a fancy manhole cover that doubles as a marker in the middle of the main intersection declaring Wallace as the center of the universe. Blue and white tourist signs mark the spot.

Wallace ID, humor

The proof is in the manhole cover.

As I stood there admiring the designation with no fear of the typically light traffic, I flashed back to my early Holmes County, Ohio days. Impressed with its rural location and horse and buggy prominence, people who visited us, including several of my family members, asked me why we lived there. I had a ready answer for them.

“We live here because Holmes County is the center of the universe.” That usually brought puzzling, blank looks. So I’d clarify. “If I want to see anything else in the world, I have to leave here.”

I was joking of course, much like the good-humored mayor. However, there was a grain of truth to the statement. Rural counties universally can’t offer all that their citizens need. Folks travel to more urban areas for entertainment, sporting events, doctors, shopping, and fine dining to name just a few.

Sometimes everyday items can’t even be bought in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country. Specifically, it’s a fact that neither gasoline or alcohol can be purchased in either Saltcreek, Holmes County or Salt Creek, Wayne County. That point carries far beyond those two commodities.

colorful leaves, Holmes Co. OH

Autumn in Ohio’s Amish Country.

Nevertheless, the faithful residences of the greater Holmes County area still love where they live. In my nearly seven decades of living, I’ve found that most folks feel the same way about where they reside no matter where they call home. Home is home. It’s all they need, sometimes all they know. As far as they are concerned, it is indeed the center of their universe.

If we all feel that way, we can’t all be right. The truth is we all have bragging rights to that claim. Each of us is entitled to make that statement. But that does not diminish the other towns or peoples.

I know that is true from having lived all of my adult life in Holmes County, Ohio, where I spent my most precious and productive years. To me, it was the center of the universe. It must have been. It attracted three to four million visitors a year.

Now my view has changed, right along with my life’s purpose and priorities. I have a new center of the universe from which to operate. I can see it every time I walk to the mailbox, every time I travel down Pin Oak Dr. Mole Hill greets me, calls me, as it does so many others.

Mole Hill is an ancient volcano now covered with dense woodlots, lovely homes, and fertile farm fields. Mole Hill is simply unmistakable and is the landmark by which all folks within its eyeshot navigate. In western Rockingham County, Virginia, Mole Hill is the center of the universe. I dare you to prove otherwise.

center of the universe, Rockingham Co. VA

Mole Hill, Rockingham Co., VA.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Say goodbye to summer, hello to fall

Silver Lake, Dayton VA

On Silver Lake.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s another quiet morning in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The warming sun has climbed high above Massanutten Mountain to begin evaporating the valley fog and mist wisp by wisp.

The leaves of the red maples in our yard have started their annual process of revealing their true colors and the reason for their designated nomenclature. Even before they fully blush, a few tumble one by one onto the still luscious grass beneath.

red maple tree, turning leaves

Green to red.

The school buses have already made their morning rounds. It’s quiet now, with only the sound of blue jays squawking in the distance. My wife is her busy self, the washing machine already spinning its first load. Still, I can hear the soft sound of the dry mop gliding over the oak floor. Neva is in her realm.

Orange and brown wreaths have replaced the sunny summer ones on neighbors’ front doors. Pumpkins and pots of yellow and scarlet mums beckon visitors from their sidewalk setting.

The signs of autumn’s arrival have been overlapping with those of summer’s waning for weeks now. The outer rows of massive cornfields have long been cut and chopped into harvest bins. The rest will soon follow until the silos are full. The Old Order Mennonites drive horse and buggies to church. They wheel huge tractors down narrow country roads into their sprawling farm fields with no thought of contradiction.

Shenandoah Valley farm, large farm equipment

Old Order Mennonite farm.

It was a pleasant summer, our first as residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Folks kept saying that this wasn’t a normal one for Virginia. With intense hurricanes brewing and massive wildfires sweeping the west, is there such a thing as normal weather anymore?

The chimney swifts that called our neighbor’s flue home for the summer disappeared days ago. Ohio friends have reported flocks of common nighthawks winging south. Shorebirds, some rather rare, made pit stops in the Funk Wildlife Area, Killbuck Marsh, and Beach City backwaters to the delight of novice and hardcore birders alike. Those, too, are sure signs of fall’s arrival.

Starlings, northern cardinals, and cedar waxwings have already obliterated the bright red dogwood berries even before the trees’ curling leaves have completely transitioned from green to crimson. The Carolina wrens provided the soundtrack to the feeding frenzies.

Old Order Mennonite horse and buggy, Dayton VA

Down the road.

Just as we did the summer, we anticipate with wonder whatever our first Virginia fall delivers. Neva will continue to play chief cook and bottle washer for our daughter’s household until the volleyball season subsides in early November. Just like all the other seasons, I’ll continue to do whatever I’m asked or told to do. Usually, it’s the latter.

Seasons come and seasons go. Life marches on. We embrace each moment of each day with joy no matter the silliness, pettiness, and egotistical disposition of those in more powerful positions than the rest of us.

That, my friends, is the way it is. We must keep on keeping on no matter the season, the situation, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Rake leaves with a smile on your face. Stop and talk with your neighbors who are likely doing the same chore. Share your abundant tomato harvest or a freshly baked apple pie with others. The results will be delicious.

Enjoy the pleasant fall weather, the changing of the leaves, the foggy mornings, the brilliant sunrises, the stunning sunsets, and each moment in between. In the process, autumn will fall most graciously upon you and yours.

Rockingham Co. VA, sunset

September Shenandoah sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Striations and one lost hat

sunflowers, field corn, cumulous clouds

Striations.

I’ve always enjoyed finding objects in my photographs that I didn’t know where there until I viewed the shots on my computer. This photo is the perfect example.

The original focus of this capture was the striation effect created by the blooming sunflower heads, the tassels of the ripening field corn, and the rows of cumulus clouds on a late summer’s day. However, upon closer inspection, I found what appears to be someone’s lost hat hanging on a stalk of a sunflower in the foreground. It’s a tradition of this Old Order Mennonite farmer to allow folks to freely harvest as many sunflowers as they wish from this five-acre field. A little box is nailed to a utility pole for donations, which are given to a local charity.

I surmise that someone lost the hat while picking sunflowers and another kind person found it, placed it where it could be seen if the owner came looking for it.

“Striations and one lost hat” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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