Loving Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag is a popular hike in Shenandoah NP.

My wife and I have enjoyed Shenandoah National Park since we moved to Virginia three years ago. There’s a lot to love about the park, and it’s less than an hour away.

We’re not the only ones who appreciate it, of course. The estimates of annual visitors compare to those of Ohio’s Amish country, our former residence. Each location attracts millions of visitors a year.

Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on tourist numbers everywhere. With the virus cases flattening out in Virginia, the park has mostly reopened.

When we want to break our stay-close-to-home routines, Neva and I head for the hills. Sometimes I will venture out alone, birding, hiking and shooting photos. It’s an enchanting place, a multi-sensory extravaganza.

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I hear the beautiful song of an indigo bunting, and I raise my binoculars, scanning the area for the likely source of the melody. Novice that I am at identifying bird calls, I want to make sure I am matching the right species with the song. I’ve learned that, like human accents, bird calls of the same species vary geographically.

Once I find the bird, I switch to my camera to try to get a decent photo. With the trees in full summer canopy, that’s not easy to do. Now and then, I am fortunate to find a bird singing in the open, and I click away.

I catch a slight, silent movement out of the corner of my eye. Is it a doe with a fawn, or perhaps twins? Is it a black bear grazing before nightfall? One never knows. On warm days, keeping a lookout for a lounging timber rattler while scrambling on a rock outcropping is always a good idea.


The park is a great place to take sunset photos, too. But sunsets in the mountains can be problematic.

The expansive, rolling Shenandoah Valley is bordered on the east and west by mountain ranges. Sunsets can be as disappointing as they are stunning. Weather plus geography equals a formula for the unknown.

When we lived in Ohio, all we had to do was look out our windows to know the potential for a spectacular sunrise or sunset. We were spoiled.

Here in the breadbasket of Virginia, the rising and falling topography makes it iffy to predict what the eastern and western skies will do at dawn or dusk, respectively. You hope, pray, and go for it. Sometimes you are disappointed. Other times, you are speechless.

(Mouse over the photos for the captions)

It can be cloudy and raining in the valley. The view from the mountains of the park, however, might be spectacular if you wait long enough. Pick one of the many west-facing overlooks along the majestic Skyline Drive, and prepare yourself for come-what-may.

The elevation of the old, folded mountains ranges up to 2,500 feet higher than that of the valley. From the park, you can see the Allegheny Mountains that mark the boundary between the Commonwealth and West Virginia.

Patience, intuition, and good fortune can be the formula for bathing in a dreamland. Even with a thick cloud cover, the sun can still break through, turning drabness into beautiful in the blink of an eye.

I’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected as the sun slinks below the jagged horizon. Will the clouds refract the sun’s rays into pinks and blues, lavenders and oranges? Or will they merely steal away the sun without fanfare?

You don’t have to have a national park to enjoy heavenly landscapes. Wherever you are, just wait and watch, and let nature do the rest.

Sunset in Ohio’s Amish country.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Checking the roads and the scenery

Fall haying by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

When I moved to Holmes County, Ohio more than four decades ago, one of my initial purchases was a county road map. I wanted to learn my way around the ridges, valleys and hamlets of the area.

I drove both the highways and back roads in order to get to know the topography and citizenry of this place. Geography buff that I am, landscape variations between the glaciated and the unglaciated portions of the county greatly intrigued me.

I marveled equally at the steep wooded hills that defined the broad Killbuck Valley, and the rolling farmlands and rivulets in the county’s northern section. The common elements of picturesque scenery and practical people reoccurred despite the demographic differences.

All these years later I still drive the roads, still learn, still enjoy my bucolic and human encounters. I think about that often, especially when I inspect the roads for which I am responsible as a township trustee.

Washout by Bruce StambaughMy main objective is to ensure safe road conditions, and check for potential problems like plugged culverts, leaning trees and slippery roads. I do those duties, but the pastoral vistas and the genial people I encounter along the way can easily distract me. I don’t mind in the least. The diversity of the countryside and characters in my township are truly remarkable.

My regular route takes me up hill and down vale, through densely wooded ravines with sharply slanting walls that rise abruptly on both sides. In several places road and stream are pinched with just enough room to navigate side-by-side.
Amish farm by Bruce Stambaugh
In minutes, I can motor from forested valley to high, rolling fertile fields that surround coffin red bank barns and white farmhouses. Various shapes and sizes of purposeful farm buildings cluster around the intentionally unadorned agrarian castles.

It was inevitable that over the years the views would be altered. With the population regularly expanding and the land not, cottage businesses and manufacturing buildings sprouted up out of necessity. Many are Amish run and involve some aspect of the lumber industry. Other shops create products specifically for the benefit of the Amish lifestyle, like buggy shops and farriers.

The commerce is nice. The views and residents are better.
Saltcreek farm by Bruce Stambaugh
Near one of my favorite hilltops, the land falls away gradually, cascading toward the Killbuck lowlands. It is a sacred place for me, and yet it is at this precise spot where a new Amish country murder mystery novel is set. When I read about the book’s release, I wondered if the writer had ever met the good folks on the homestead he had impugned.

Last winter, during a fierce snowstorm, a semi-tractor trailer truck got stuck on the slippery incline in front of this very farmstead. The kind farmer cranked up his bulldozer, puttered out the long lane in blinding snow and pushed the teamster and his rig over the hill and on his way.
Wash line by Bruce Stambaugh
When it comes to beauty, seasons are really insignificant as I traverse my lovely township. Refreshing summer breezes flap wash lines loaded with pastel clothing. Gaggles of youth skate and play on frozen ponds. A Golden Eagle roosts on a chubby fence post. Leafy rainbows of the mixed hardwoods compete with those in post-storm skies.

Then, too, rounds from paintball guns plaster stop signs, runaway streams wash away road banks, and citizens rankle at impassible roads. Fear not. Repairs can be made, relationships mended.

Peace is restored to my Camelot, at least until my next dreamy drive.
Amish school by Bruce Stambaugh