An Afternoon on Skyline Drive

The long view from Skyline Drive.

I was hoping to see the Blue Ridge Mountains painted in shades of red, yellow, and orange in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. What I discovered were only splashes of brilliance here and there.

Most of the mountain forests were dull in color. I was a bit early.

Of course, I wasn’t alone in my quest. Others were out and about, cruising the roadway for the same reason. I spotted vehicles from several states and even a Canadian province at the various overlooks where I stopped.

The day was bright and beautiful. The park’s early afternoon temperatures were in the 60s and high 50s. The bright sunshine warmed lower elevations in the Shenandoah Valley 10 degrees higher.

The excellent weather and a good report from a morning doctor’s appointment put me in an exceedingly good mood. The people I met wherever I stopped only increased my joy. Everyone seemed to be in a jovial mood.

Folks were snapping selfies with the coloring trees as their background. I took time out from my photography with offers to take portraits of couples, families, and a woman with her dog. Of course, engaging conversations ensued as they thanked me.

It didn’t matter what state of origin or type of vehicle they drove—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Georgia, or Ontario; camper van, motorcycle, Mercedes, or clunker. Everyone seemed to be on the same emotional page. That connectivity made the day and the scenery even prettier than they already were.

The first family I came across was from the deep south. They were on their way to Williamsburg and wanted their two boys, 17 and eight, to experience at least a little of the storied national park.

I asked the younger one if he knew he was walking on the Appalachian Trail. Indeed, he did. I told him he could go back to his second-grade class and report that he had hiked the AT and see if they knew what that was. He just giggled.

I started at the southern entrance to the park at Rock Fish Gap. Go north, and you will be in the park. Go south, and you travel the Blue Ridge Parkway. Either direction, it’s a beautiful, leisurely drive that soothes the soul and eases the mind. The 35 miles per hour speed limit contributes to that cause.

That’s what the woman with the dog was attempting to do. She drove southeast from Philadelphia towards Charlottesville for the parkway. When she realized Shenandoah National Park was so close, she changed gears and spent a night camping in Big Meadows, nearly in the center of the park.

As we chatted, she voluntarily confessed that she had turned left out of Big Meadows without realizing she was going in the wrong direction. Reality caught up to her when she arrived at the park’s northern entrance south of Front Royal, Virginia.

Undaunted, she merely turned around and headed south. She laughed at herself for trying to rely on GPS when there was little to no cell phone service in the park. She was happy to know she could get internet at Waynesboro, her destination for the night. The next day, she could begin her journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A retired couple on a motorcycle was thrilled with the photo I took of them with crimson leaves of oaks, maples, and dogwood as the backdrop. They seemed most pleased, however, that I had included their bike in the photo.

Ironically, the colors dulled as I cruised north and to higher elevations. Only patches of sunlit staghorn sumac brightened the roadside.

I had stopped at most overlooks, snapped many photos, and talked so much that it took me three hours to drive the 40 miles to Swift Run Gap. No matter. It was an afternoon well spent and one I’ll remember for a long time.

Staghorn sumac caught the fall fever.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Lessons from Fall

She has a lot to teach us.

Even beyond peak, the colors were bright in spots in the Adirondack Mountains.

Believe it or not, fall is half over already.

For a while, we thought summer would never end with the oppressive heat and humidity and the lack of sufficient rain in many regions of the U.S. and globally. But clearly, autumn has now settled in for the duration.

The first widespread frosts and snows for the northern climes have yet to occur. Tinder dry conditions in the western U.S. began early in the summer and continued far into fall. Thankfully, a record-breaking rainstorm helped put an end to much of the drought.

The primary anticipated autumn event for us humans is the changing of the leaves, which has turned out to be much later than usual. In many places, it has also been much shorter in duration than in previous years.

Fall is a favorite season for us photographers. The migrating birds, the changing leaves, the glorious sunsets and sunrises, and the autumn bounty of flowers create plenty of photographic opportunities. Plus, the weather is cooler and generally more pleasant.

I watched weekly updates from the qualified rangers at Shenandoah National Park, my go-to place for taking pictures. The reports kept saying the peak had yet to arrive.

Fall foliage maps created by tourist bureaus offered hope even though green seemed to be the dominant color within my range of vision. When one such map showed the adjacent counties west of us in West Virginia to be near peak color for leaves, I headed out.

Once over the first range of the Allegheny Mountains, I could see that the map and reality didn’t jibe. That didn’t deter me. It was a beautiful day, so I headed to Dolly Sods Wilderness, a noted photographer’s spot. I had never been there, and I wanted to get a lay of the place, if nothing else.

I was pleasantly surprised that the mountaintop wilderness preserve provided many colors, despite the lack of large deciduous trees. I snapped away and enjoyed my short stay.

A few days later, my wife and I drove north to upstate New York to visit our son and his wife and then turned east to the Adirondack Mountains, another new venue for me. We took four days on mostly state routes through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Empire State.

Though it was typical peak leaf-peeping time, the colors on the maples, ash, hickories, and others mainly remained green or dull in color. In the Adirondacks, we were a bit late but saw splashes of brightness between multiple rainstorms.

On our trip home, only in central Pennsylvania did we see the expected reds, yellows, golds, crimsons, and oranges of the fall. Since we were on the interstate, we enjoyed the views without being able to stop for photos.

The leaves have finally begun to turn here in the Shenandoah Valley. Spots of colors dot cityscapes, landscapes, hillsides, and mountain forests. But as multiple cold fronts moved through with winds and rains, many leaves came tumbling down.

Like usual, nature had some life lessons to teach us. Natural wonders happen in their own time.

We learned or were reminded to be patient. The leaves did turn like we knew they would, just not when we had expected.

We learned to look for the beauty in whatever we found. It could be a single speckled leaf lying on the ground or a spider’s web adorned with morning dew drops like dazzling pearls on lacy strings.

We learned, too, to be grateful for all the beauty around us, not just in colorful leaves.

The rainbow of colors at Dolly Sods Wilderness in WV.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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