It’s that time of year, again, when the leaf peepers hurry far and wide to find the prettiest leaves. This photo was taken exactly four years ago to the day high in the Maryland mountains. The leaves on the trees on this hillside declare the breadth of Mother Nature’s paint palette. In this case, I was on one of my many trips between Ohio and Virginia before we moved to the Shenandoah Valley.
If the calendar has a nostalgic month, October is it for me.
As a child, our father would load his brood of five into the old cream-colored Chevy, and we would head southwest out of our blue-collar steel town to the wonders of Holmes County, Ohio. Oh, the things we would see and encounter.
We’d stop along the windy way of U.S. 62 to sample cheese. We watched horse-drawn black buggies clop along, marvel at the corn shocks standing in rolling fields, and gape at long farm lanes that led to large white houses with big red bank barns. The real show, however, was in admiring woodlot after woodlot ablaze with every shade of orange, red, and yellow.
Dad would photograph the most colorful of the scenes. I couldn’t have imagined that as an adult that I would spend the best years of my life in that setting, among those people.
If I had to pick an ideal month and place to paint an iconic picture of our life, it would have to be October in Holmes County. My wife and I reared and raised our children there. We fulfilled our careers there and made life-long friendships.
During the first decade of our life together, my wife and I lived in the western hills of Holmes County. In October, there was no prettier drive than the road from Killbuck to Glenmont with its seven hills all dotted gold, russet, and yellow. It was a landscape artist’s paradise.
We built our first home on a bluff facing into that lovely valley. The view was always gorgeous in October.
When we moved to the eastern section of the county, our directional orientation and views changed but were equally splendid. Facing east, many gorgeous sunrises greeted us. The brilliant sunsets we enjoyed from the back yard were similarly lovely.
The bucolic scenes of corn shocks drying in fields surrounded by blushing sugar maples, rusting oaks, and yellowing ash and tulip poplars were commonplace, but no less appreciated. I drove back many of those long lanes to converse with the inhabitants of those white houses, and the keepers of those red barns. It was like those childhood visions had become actuality. That’s because they indeed had.
But October served as a double-edged sword of sorts for me. I didn’t mind the changeable weather. If an early-season Canadian clipper arrived, the snow seldom stuck, and if it did, the fluffy whitewash merely enhanced the already glorious countryside.
It wasn’t the weather or even the stinging scent of burning leaves that concerned me, though. Early Halloween pranks brought us volunteer firefighters out at 3 in the morning to douse some of the corn shocks that had been set on fire for pure orneriness.
On more than one occasion, town squares resembled barnyards. Temporary pens of goats and sheep were surrounded by hay bales and relocated corn shocks that blocked the traffic flow.
The good news was that the farmers usually got their livestock back safe and sound. Fortunately, that tradition has waned with the advent of security cameras and alarms.
We haven’t experienced such shenanigans during our two-year stint in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. With consecutive dry summer and fall months, the autumn leaf colorations can’t compare to those of our former home either.
I suppose that is what in part drives my pleasant autumn nostalgia for those bygone Holmes County days. October does that to me.
I sincerely doubt that this is what Jimmie Hendrix had in mind with his song “Purple Haze.” But if there ever was a photo of purple haze, this surly has to be it.
It was a chilly morning several years ago in Ohio’s Amish country about this time in October. The mist coming off of the farm pond caught the twilight’s first light. I also doubt that the residents of this Amish farmhouse ever heard of Jimmie Hendrix. But they do know what purple haze is.
Our friend had the right idea. But then, he had been to Knick Glacier near Palmer, Alaska, several times. While the rest of us scurried around exploring moraines, discovering wildlife, and capturing as many photos of the incredible scenery as possible, Doug leaned against a rock and just relaxed. With this view, who could blame him?
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.
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.
A Painted Lady near the Big Meadows parking lot.
The big picture of Big Meadows.
Silver Spotted Skipper.
Browsing near Big Meadows.
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?
While returning from an exhilarating trip to the Knik Glacier, a bush pilot flew low over our boat in the Knik River. The pilot was shuttling tourists like us for flyovers of the glacier and surrounding mountainous areas.
My wife and I booked the first wildlife and lighthouse boating excursion of the year out of Bar Harbor, Maine in mid-May. The guide had promised that we would see lighthouses, harbor seals, bald eagles, and Atlantic Puffins. It was the latter that most intrigued me.
I had never seen a puffin in the wild. I not only wanted to see some but photograph the cute birds, too. The tour guide and ship’s crew made good on all their promises. When we got to Petit Manan Island, Maine, everyone including the crew was surprised to see dozens of puffins. We stayed a safe distance away from the birds to ensure their safety. At first, small flocks circled the boat in a feeble flight. I snapped away.
While nearly everyone else was focused on the birds in the water and on the island ahead of us, I spotted a few loners in the ocean that appeared nearer the boat. I did my best to steady the camera and focused on one particular puffin bobbing on the choppy waves.
After taking several pictures, I checked to see if I had any keepers. I was pleasantly surprised to find this shot of a puffin with nesting material in its bulbous beak. Puffins are often photographed with multiple small fish sticking out of both sides of their bills. But nesting material was another matter. Another photographer on board had the same capture. We were both overjoyed to have a decent shot of something not often seen.
Adding the Atlantic Puffin to my life list was one thing. Capturing this shot was something else altogether.