Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

Finding a new sanctuary

Big Meadows.


Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds, or simply do some walking.

I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County, Ohio. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding, and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs, too.

I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding, and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.

When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40 minutes drive to the park’s closest entrance. Shenandoah National Park was formed out of parts of eight Virginia counties, Rockingham among them.

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The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only been able to thoroughly explore a few so far. Big Meadows is one of those, and to date, it has been my go-to spot.

Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile-marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. The place is a big meadow.

What’s it doing there, and why? With the park’s dense forests, fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows was formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography, and biology in Shenandoah National Park.

Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses, and low shrubs. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans camped in Big Meadows. Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.

The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store, and restrooms. A way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, restaurant, campgrounds, picnic areas, and multiple hiking trails can all be reached from Big Meadows.

A few photos from my most recent visit to Big Meadows. Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Of course, the Appalachian Trial runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.

On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.

Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.

The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to only visit spring, summer, and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.

Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace that we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?

The view of the Shenandoah Valley from Big Meadows Lodge.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, photography, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

Why September is the golden month

September in the Shenandoah Valley.

My wife caught the moment perfectly. We sat on our back porch enjoying our usual simple Sunday supper.

“It’s really still,” Neva said. In response, I looked up. I am not sure why, because silence can’t be seen.

As usual, though, she was right. For no dogs barked, no lawnmowers purred, nor were any voices heard.

An unusual phenomenon caught my attention. A light breeze blew through the back yard, rustling the red maple leaves. Though they quivered steadily, they, too, were silent. I found that both eerie and fascinating.

I relaxed in the uplifting and refreshing quietude. Such an instance enables you to see the moment itself as it is, not as you want it to be.

Turning.

Here we were only on the first day of the month, and already September issued forth one of its many golden moments. If the ninth month kept to its course, there surely would be many more, hurricanes notwithstanding.

The stillness seemed to be the day’s crown jewel, adorning a crest of many arches already naturally appointed. I noted a few of the maple’s eastern-facing leaves had already tinged.

On my morning walk around the neighborhood, I had noticed that other trees also had begun to transform their leaves. A giant sugar maple showed reds and orange where the morning’s first light peeks over the eastern hill that separates the city from the country.

A helter-skelter pattern of blotchy brown infested the fringes of the pointy leaves of a mighty pin oak. I had to wonder if it was seasonal change, blight, insects, or a combination of those causes.

Overhead, a disorganized flock of Canada geese winged it south. I heard the honking long before I saw the birds. Someone or something must have disturbed their foraging in a nearby farmer’s field to be out of formation.

Not the usual V-pattern.

On social media, birders in Ohio and Virginia alike shared photos of western sandpipers, red knots, and other gorgeous birds visiting local mudflats and waterways on their return trip. Birds know when it’s time and September gladly greets them.

The summer’s heat had taken its toll on flowers, whether wild or cultivated. Even recent decent rains couldn’t revive them.

On the way home from church, I had noticed the once lush leaves of the soybean fields had dulled to pale green. Interspersed flecks of diluted yellow appeared randomly, much like the pin oak’s disorderly display.

In contrast, fields of sunflowers glowed golden, a living symbol for the month itself. September is notorious for being the gilded sibling among its peers. Could jealousy be why August stirs and spins its tropical trouble into its September sister?

September relishes its title. It shows off its stuff at county fairs, produce stands and in supermarkets. The honeyed tones of summer squash, cantaloupes, the last of the season’s sweet corn, and the early ripened gourds and pumpkins prove the point.

Pumpkins galore.

I suppose that is only appropriate since stores are already pushing fall sales and Halloween merchandise. If they haven’t already done so, primary classroom windows will mimic the fall colors with a run on yellow, red, and orange construction paper.

Of course, with the flip of a mental sports switch, our attention has turned from baseball to football. High school, college, and pro scores dominated the front pages of Saturday morning newspapers, at least the ones that still publish.

Crickets trading musical text messages woke me from my muse. September is here, and I intend to enjoy every moment the fair-haired month has to offer. I hope you can as well.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Shenandoah Sunset


Given the crazy assortment of weather we have had in the Shenandoah Valley this summer, photographic sunsets have been hard to comeby. Any hint of a possible colorful evening sky, and I headed to my favorite sunset spot. Too often it was to no avail.

Recently, however, that changed, even with few cumulous clouds to reflect the setting sun. I was glad for this recent sunset, and I am happy to share it with you.

“Shenandoah Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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

Watching the grandkids grow

Times have changed, and so have the grandkids.

Our grandkids are growing in so many ways. The most apparent transformations, of course, are their physical changes.

On their last visit to Nana and Poppy’s Ohio home, we had family photos taken. That was April 2017. At 5 foot 9 inches, I was taller than all three grandchildren. Not anymore.

When we returned from a recent trip to Alaska, I could no longer make that claim. Both Evan and Davis have outgrown me. Two years makes a big difference when you are growing youngsters.

In fact, Davis is challenging his older brother for tallest sibling bragging rights. At 15 and 13, they both likely have some growing yet to do.

When Nana asked Davis if he was the tallest in his middle school, he said not by a long shot. One classmate is already 6 foot 3 inches.

When I asked what sports the tall teen plays, Davis quickly replied with one defining word: “Guitar!” That’s what I get for stereotyping.

We took the sprouting trio out for our annual before-school-begins breakfast at their favorite eatery. Since it was already going on 10 a.m. by the time we arrived, the outing was more like brunch. Growing youngsters need their sleep.

The discussion around the breakfast table revealed other sorts of growth. They each shared about their recent trip to the west coast.

Back in Ohio.

The highlights they named surprised both Nana and me. They all liked the Chihuly Art glass garden in Seattle. Riding motorbikes and four-wheelers in Oregon was a close second, followed by watching surfers at Huntington Beach, California with cousins they got to meet for the first time.

We talked about the upcoming school year. When asked about the classes they would be taking in high school and middle school, each boy pulled out a smartphone and read off their schedules. Little sister, who isn’t so little anymore, is excited to have her best friend in her fourth-grade class.

As they chattered on and we waited on the food, I couldn’t help but reflect on their younger years in Texas, where all three were born. We enjoyed those infrequent visits, although the hot Lone Star summers often kept us inside playing with Matchbox toys and changing diapers.

Now they live in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and so do we. They are the primary reasons we moved here from the beloved Buckeye State more than two years ago. Living five miles apart is much more convenient than five hours by airplane.

Watching the grandkids change so quickly is both gratifying and a bit scary. We relish each moment, even the predictable squabbles of youth and siblings. I’m thankful that the role of grandparent is less harried than that of the parent.

Evan, Davis, and Maren all have their various likes and dislikes, gifts and abilities. It is both a joy and a challenge to keep up with their busy, young lives.

We bundle up and watch Even pitch even if it’s 40 degrees with a stiff northwest wind. I marvel at Davis’ preference for quiet, personal time, whether on a solo bike ride or being in his room. I shake my head in disbelief at Maren’s packed after-school schedule. How she manages soccer and choir practices, and piano lessons that sometimes follow one another is a mystery to me.

The grandchildren are growing. Nana and I relish the rapid changes that seem to occur daily. We anticipate with wonder all that is yet to come, thankful we’re here to help and take it all in.

Kids being kids.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under column, family, human interest, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

It was a cloudy day all across the U.S.

On the tarmac.

It was a cloudy day all across the United States. My wife and I flew five hours from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

A blanket of gray covered the entire area of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canadian provinces. On liftoff, it didn’t take long for the jetliner to punch through the clouds, and quickly climb above them.

As the plane leveled out at its cruising altitude, splotches of brown and green peeked through the gray and puffy white clouds. Were we over Washington, Idaho, Montana? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.

Evening clouds.

We were winging it home after a two-week stint of sampling nearly every type of transportation imaginable. On our extended trip, we hopped on planes, trains, buses, cars, vans, SUVs, boats, old Army troop trucks, ships, and even repurposed school buses. We walked a lot, too. Now we were back on a jet heading home.

It was Alaska or bust for us this time. Unlike too many of the old gold prospectors of long ago, the 49th state was no bust for us. Neither was the Yukon Territory, which geographically mirrored much of Alaska’s towns, mountains, and inland rivers.

We had crossed back and forth between the two countries several times. But now in the sky, borders were insignificant, indefinable. They were unrecognizable as God meant them to be until man intervened and contrived invisible boundary lines. Bees, butterflies, grizzly bears, bald eagles, and migrating birds deemed them meaningless.

The clouds thinned over America’s breadbasket. Their charcoal shadows indiscriminately cast jigsaw-like puzzle pieces onto croplands and the Badlands alike.

Evening clouds.

From the jetliner, more ominous storm clouds appeared, and the earth again disappeared. We flew south of the sharp anvil-shaped thunderheads that towered 20,000 feet higher than the 37,000 feet we reached.

Once clear of the storms, I saw the mighty Mississippi River turn and twist beneath the haze as the plane began to bounce in the turbulence ahead of the weather front we had breached. Fastened seatbelts kept us in place until the skies smoothed and summer’s famous white, fluffy clouds steered us eastward.

The clouds were broken enough for me to finally distinguish details on the ground seven miles below. Jagged rows of giant windmills sprouted in the quilt-patterned patches of midwestern agriculture. I wondered if the farmers regretted or relished the decision to take the money and let the monsters run.

Directly to the north, I could see an airport and a city butted up against the end of a large lake. It had to be Duluth, Minnesota at the western tip of Lake Superior.

East of the Big Muddy, clouds blanketed the states like one continuous unrolled sheet of quilt batting gone ballistic. Then the cottony layer transitioned into cotton balls. I could see Michigan’s western shoreline, even the little inlet to Traverse City.

The plane began its gradual descent. Lake Erie appeared through the summer haziness, then Columbus, and then the squiggly Ohio River. In West Virginia, rows and rows of hundreds of windmills towered above lush hardwood forests on old, folded mountain ridges. John Denver played in my head.

As the sun waned, the plane drew lower and lower. We crossed the Appalachians, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, all in less than a minute. Through the haze, we landed with a gentle bounce.

We had had a marvelous trip, but it was good to be home under a cloudless sky.

Home.


© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under human interest, nature photography, photography, Shenandoah Valley, travel, weather, writing

Explosive Sunset


The setting sun backlit this thunderstorm over Sugar Grove, West Virginia just as the top of the storm was being blown apart by upper level winds. I shot the dramatic scene from a ridge in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

“Explosive Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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

The colors of August

Wheat shocks at sunset.

The colors of August captivate me. Living nearly all of my adult life in Holmes County, Ohio gave me a full range of that summer paint pallet.

The pleasing contrasting greens and golds quickly got my attention. I admired the rolling contoured rows of lush green field corn against the toasted waves of winter wheat.

In the eastern part of the county, wheat shocks stood as sentinels guarding the fattening ears of corn nearby. Unfortunately, their presence seldom deterred the deer from nibbling the outer rows to the cob.

The blooming alfalfa brought pretty butterflies, honeybees, and other vital pollinators. The swooping swallows had their own feast, especially when the farmers made their August cuttings whether by tractors or horse-drawn mowers.

August was when the vibrant green leaves of deciduous trees began to curl in the heat, humidity, and parched soil. By month’s end, a few even turned brown or began to color.

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I always enjoyed the flowers that bordered blossoming gardens or multiple flowerbeds like my wife cultivated to perfection. Hollyhocks were my favorite until the gladiolas raised their pink, red, yellow, and white flags.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention the summer birds, some of which had already begun their return flight south. Though not as vocal as earlier in the year, most still showed their breeding colors.

The flashing iridescent red on emerald of the male ruby-throated hummingbird and the flashy orange and black of Baltimore orioles spruced up any welcoming yard, if only temporarily. Sometimes the two species vied for dibs at the sugar-water feeders.

By months end, early morning coolness brought silent, silken fog that glowed bronze with the rising sun. If eyes were sharp, silver droplets dotted the dewy threads of spider webs artistically strung from one barbed wire strand to another.

Much of that changed, however, when my wife and I moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Like Holmes County, the Valley, as locals like to call it, is the breadbasket of the south. Agriculture still rules the rural areas.

Farming is a bit different here, however. Though the Old Order Mennonites still drive horses and buggies, they man the latest farm machinery invented. As thrifty as their Amish cousins, they often farm right up to the roadway.

Though the topography is similar, strip cropping is seldom used. No-till farming seems to be the in thing here. The result is wide swaths of wheat sown between two fields of field corn or the tallest soybeans I have ever seen. It’s still green and gold, just different species.

With soil that hardly ever freezes and being further south, the growing season is longer. Farmers and gardeners get an earlier start on planting and consequently harvesting. The colors I was used to in August begin to appear in July. Produce stands evidence that.

The produce peak, however, still seems to be August. My wife and I can attest to that thanks to the generosity of our son and daughter’s families. They gifted us a weekly produce box known as CSA, Community Supporting Agriculture.

End of August morning.

We have already enjoyed weeks’ worth of fresh, organic produce that is as tasty as it is luscious to admire. Mellow yellow summer squash, prickly green pickles, plump red tomatoes, sweet red beets, orange cantaloupe, and juicy red watermelon make our summer meals perfect.

Happy to merely admire the colors, I almost hate to have Neva slice, dice, fry, cook, and can the colorful lot. I change my mind, however, with the fresh salsa alone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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

Fabricated Rainbow


We enjoy showing visitors the backroads sights of where we live in Rockingham Co., Virginia. We often stop at this dry goods store, which offers all kinds of merchandise for customers. Rocky Cedars is situated among the Old Order Mennonite and Conservative Mennonite folks who populate the countryside in the western section of Virginia’s second-largest county.

The bolts of colorful fabric caught my eye. “Fabricated Rainbow” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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

How do we respond when lightning strikes?

Storm clouds at sunset.

Recently, I received an early morning unexpected wakeup call. Others heard it, too. Neighbors and folks who live miles away got the same loud awakening.

At precisely 3:36 a.m., an extremely close lightning strike nearly knocked me out of bed. I learned later that others said the same thing.

The storm was unforeseen, not in the forecast, and as a severe weather spotter for the National Weather Service, I keep a close eye on the weather. This storm took me by surprise.

I was sound asleep, and yet I somehow remember hearing the sizzle, a loud pop, an extremely bright flash, and then a bang and thunder that rattled buildings up and down the Shenandoah Valley. All that happened in a terrifying split second.

Of course, I jumped up right away, wide-awake as if it were noon. Fearful that the lightning had struck our home, I immediately did an extensive check of the interior and then the exterior of our place.

In my office across the hall, the strike had fried our Internet modem and the Wi-Fi router. My laptop seemed saved by the surge protector.

I roamed the house sniffing for smoke and fortunately found none. I went outside and noted that it had rained, but was not now.

Lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled in the far distance. I scanned the neighbors’ homes in front and back of us. Everything seemed fine, so I went back inside and rechecked the house before settling back into bed.

We all face life moments when we need to be rescued.

I later learned that the lightning had hit two houses away. The lightning damaged electrical equipment in several homes and knocked the Internet provider offline for several hours. One lightning strike had created all this damage by following an underground cable.

This close strike was the first we have experienced in Virginia. When we lived in Holmes County, Ohio, our house was struck at least six times in the nearly 38 years we lived near Berlin. We never had a fire, but usually had to replace a variety of electrical products over the years.

I have to confess that the surprise lighting bolt immediately unnerved me. A deep, personal sensation filled me like a close encounter of the heavenly kind. I said a silent prayer of gratitude and dozed back to sleep.

Life is like that, isn’t it? Sometimes the most straightforward experience or situation suddenly brings deep, passionate meaning. I thought of others who have found themselves under ominous and personal storm clouds. For them, unfortunately, mere replacement isn’t always an option.

We all are struck by lightning in some way. It could be a sudden illness, a severe car crash, the death of a loved one, a house fire, a lost wedding ring, a lost job, or a terminal diagnosis. The list is endless. How we choose to respond can determine the intensity of the shock.

That unexpected bolt awakened me not only from my sleep but from life’s slumber, too. I know I have faults, can do better, can be kinder, listen instead of talk, share instead of desire, pray instead of complaining.

Lightning strikes the earth 100 times per second. So the close lightning strike wasn’t that unusual. The extraordinary sense of making every moment count while I still can, however, literally hit close to home.

For me, the message was simple. Time is short. Time is fleeting. I need to be kind and generous, compassionate, and considerate unconditionally. Will you join me?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under column, human interest, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather

When One Became Two


First the disclaimer. I am not a scientist or a lepidopterologist. That’s a person who studies butterflies and moths for a living. (Yes, I had to look it up.)

Now for the background on my Photo of the Week, “When One Became Two.” A couple of decades ago, scientists noticed irregularities in Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, especially those flitting around the Appalachian Mountains. Their investigations showed that some of the swallowtails were bigger than others. Those that were larger were also paler in yellow pigment than the smaller ones. Enough evidence was presented that it was decided that the giant-sized swallowtail was actually a new species. Thus, the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail was born. And yes, I realized I am oversimplifying the process and intense research.

I was ignorant of all of this information until I came upon the two different swallowtails side by side, feasting on the same thistle blooms. My wife and I were showing friends from Ontario, Canada, around Rockingham County, Virginia, recently when we saw the two butterflies. Even from our vehicle 30 feet away, we could distinguish that there was a significant size difference between the two tiger swallowtails. We also noticed that the larger one was not as yellow as the smaller one.

The journalist in me went to work after we bid our friends farewell. I was fortunate enough to capture the two butterflies in the same digital frame, which made it easier to compare their sizes and colors. As you can see, the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail is indeed larger and paler than the more common Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. A check of multiple sources verified my conclusions based on these two main distinctions. Also, the only alteration that I made to the photo was to add my watermark.

So a few years ago the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail butterfly was designated as a different species than the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. My Photo of the Week, “When One Becomes Two,” shows why.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

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Filed under nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia