I live in one of the prettiest places in the world. I can be atop the Allegheny Mountains in less than half an hour. They are the mountains in the far distance, center to left in the photo.
In less than an hour, I can be driving on the enchanting Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, which runs 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. This photo was taken less than a month ago from Rockytop Overlook on Skyline Drive.
The peak in the center of the photo is the southern tip of the Massanutten Mountains east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. These old age mountain ranges can’t compare in beauty to the younger, sharper, snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Nonetheless, I find beauty in the mountains that border and bisect the Shenandoah Valley even on a mostly cloudy day.
Even though the morning’s southeast breeze was gentle, the leaves rained down like ticker-tape parade confetti. I was in my favorite outdoor space, Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows.
Big Meadows is an anomaly. No logical or scientific reasons can explain why the expansive meadow sits in the middle of this popular national gem.
Scientists have determined that there is nothing unique about the soil’s geologic makeup or bedrocks below that would create a meadow in the middle of a forest. In a matter of yards, the foliage changes from plants of a kettle-like marsh to wooded hillsides. I imagined Big Meadows as God’s thumb stamp of approval on these ancient mountains.
In the short time we have lived in Virginia, I’ve found fall is my favorite time to visit this gorgeous spot. From our valley home, the weather appeared to be perfect. But when you visit the mountains, conditions can be changeable at any time of year. I packed for the unexpected, and that’s what I got. With every step, creation’s glory unfolded.
You could hardly call my creeping along as hiking. I followed the parameter of the southern part of Big Meadows. In three hours, I covered only a mile and a half. A wooly worm would have made more progress, but likely not shared my joy.
I wasn’t out to break any endurance records. I went to see whatever came to me as I strolled along and through the area’s various topography. In the mountains, just a change in altitude of a few feet makes a big difference in the kinds of vegetation that grow.
This gently sloping mead is home to flowers, grasses, reeds, trees, and assorted creatures great and small. As an invader of their varied habitat, I tried to remain obscure.
With fall’s migration, I knew plenty of bird species might be passing through on their way south. I expected year-round residents, too, along with a few lingering butterflies.
Resident eastern bluebirds and handsome field and song sparrows greeted me. Eastern phoebes, magnolia warblers, blue-headed vireos, Carolina chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos darted about, too.
Dressed in their duller non-breeding feathers, some birds, especially the warblers, went unidentified by this average birder. Chirps near and far came from other species that I couldn’t locate.
I crept along the raggedy edge that separated fields from woods, exhilarated. I lingered in a high place beneath a sweeping white oak at the meadow’s southernmost border, where I could see near and far.
Contentment filled me as I sensed all the life around me. Instead of hiker, birder, or photographer, I was an uninvited but appreciative guest. Every moment bore existential meaning.
The first frosts of the season created a festive carpet of fall’s primary colors that spread across the landscape. The leafy trees and evergreens looked on in envy. Red-tinted green leaves, spent wildflowers, delicate ferns frosted golden, ruby-colored blueberry leaves, and russet grasses decorated the earth like it was Christmas.
Overhead, the sky also joined nature’s artistry. One minute, it was pure cerulean, the next white fluffy clouds.
Suddenly, a fog rolled in from the eastern piedmont. The steady breeze soon carried it to the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I breathed an appreciative silent prayer of gratitude for all these sights and sounds. The old withered away, yet the promise of rebirth remained.
At every step that I took, I was delighted to have observed all that found me.
Clouds hung low over the Blue Ridge Mountains dimming my hope of photographing June’s Strawberry Full Moon as it rose over Shenandoah National Park. A break in the clouds appeared as the moon rose about 30 degrees in the eastern sky. I turned my attention to other options. A farmer’s cornfield was nearby. I leaned against my vehicle and captured this hand-held shot of the moon, cornstalk leaves providing a contrasting foreground in place of old-aged mountains.
It wasn’t the shot that I had hoped for, but it is the one that I got. “June’s Strawberry Moon” is my Photo of the Week.
My wife and I were making marvelous memories with our daughter and her family in Shenandoah National Park. We drove a section of the Skyline Drive, and stopped to hike a couple of trails.
As we motored along the twisting scenic highway that runs the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s mesmerizing Shenandoah Valley, I remembered I had been there before. I said out loud to no one in particular, “I haven’t been here since I was a kid.”
Indeed, it was the same stretch of road that I had ridden along with my parents and siblings nearly 60 years ago. On that trip, we were on our way to visit some of Mom’s relatives in southern Virginia. Dad, always up for an adventure, insisted we detour to experience the vistas, floral and fauna that the famous Skyline Drive offered. I think we stopped at every turn out to embrace the views.
The excursion with our grandkids was a diversion from the hectic schedule of finishing the school year and rushing from soccer matches to baseball games. I couldn’t have anticipated the emotions it would evoke in me remembering that long ago family vacation.
I could hear my late father in the rustle of the leaves of the forest canopy, the call of the Eastern Towhees, the fragrance of wild blossoms. I could see him point, index finger to lips, at the grazing white tailed deer that casually ignored us. I heard him shout, “There’s a bear,” as a young black bear scampered across the road in front of our van.
It seemed Dad was everywhere we went, in the woods, on the spiny rocks on which we climbed and rested, in the beauty of the Big Meadow where Tiger Swallowtails fluttered free from bloom to bloom, and the field sparrows called from thickets of scrawny locusts and carpets of heather.
I certainly felt Dad’s presence as the grandchildren hoofed it up the trails, scampered steep, craggy rocks, and posed for pictures atop ancient outcroppings with more wavy mountains as the backdrops. I saw Dad’s smile in the grandkids’ smiles.
Once we scrambled to a place where we had a 360-degree view, I corralled the grandkids and their parents to stand for a family photo. Dad carried his camera wherever he went, too, documenting family outings.
The grandkids energy and enthusiasm for exploits carried them past their Poppy onto the heels of their own father while their mother and I lingered to absorb the views and catch our breath. Echoes of the past mingled with those of the present from forested ridge to forested ridge.
Sea of forest.
When we all assembled on the next precipice, my daughter used my camera to capture me with her trio of trouble and orneriness. The shot joyfully reminded me of my father surrounded by his own youngsters.
I don’t remember stopping at Big Meadows south of Luray on the trip with my family so long ago. As I lovingly watched the grandkids romp along narrow trails that snaked through lush carpets of knee-high grasses and plants, their excitement hit home.
A cool mountain top breeze hurried white fluffy clouds through bluebird egg sky. Emerald forests perfectly framed the sentimental scene. Amid the children’s giddy laughter, I thought I heard my father say, “You were here when you were young, too.”
“I know,” I replied silently with a smile and a tear.