May’s Flower Full Moon was the last of the three supermoons of 2020. I wanted to photograph the full moon rising over the Massanutten Mountain Range that runs through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. However, my plans changed due to the weather. Spring has been unusually cloudy here this year. With a predicted clear sky on May 7, I was determined to capture shots of the full moon setting over the Allegheny Mountains that serve as the border between Virginia and West Virginia in Rockingham Co.
I had a clear view of the moon from Mole Hill, an ancient volcano, and noted area landmark west of Harrisonburg. Dawn’s early light highlighted Old Order Mennonite farms that dot the landscape all the way to the Allegheny foothills. The rusty silo, the brick farmhouse, the rolling, fertile fields, and the sweeping mountain slopes all take your eye right to the setting moon.
Exploring has always been in my blood. Curiosity has coursed through my veins all of my life.
The move from Ohio to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley merely whetted my appetite to become familiar with my new surroundings. A myriad of opportunities abound, either spontaneously or scheduled, to explore this beautiful, historic setting.
Many of my junkets have been self-started. A lazy afternoon’s drive around the rolling, scenic countryside brings new people and places into my life. The Shenandoah Valley region is rich in history, a personal favorite subject. I needed more.
I just completed my second class, an overview of Mennonites in the valley.
Phil Kniss, the pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, taught the class. He is an astute student of Mennonite history, so I knew I’d learn a lot.
The first session served as a historical survey of Mennonites, tracing their beginnings to the 16th century Reformation. Because of their steadfast beliefs, many Mennonites endured persecution to the point of martyrdom.
Consequently, many moved from their European homelands to the New World, where they hoped for a new chance to live peaceably. Unfortunately, conflicts followed them right into the 18th century as they settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They tried to live in peace farming the fertile soil, but war found them again.
Armed with that information, class field trips sent us into the lives and history of the many sects of Mennonites in the valley. A small choir enthralled us with their magnificent singing at the local Mennonite high school that is celebrating its 100th year.
At the Old Order Mennonite elementary school, I flashed back to former Ohio days of living among the Amish with their own private schools. The horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites are spiritual cousins to the Amish.
At the unassuming Old Order Mennonite church, a devoted preacher succinctly explained the scriptural basis for their simple way of living. Like all other Old Order men, he was clean-shaven but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, an anomaly among his people.
At the buggy shop, we laughed and learned through the wisdom of the father-son combo that so efficiently ran the business so necessary to the Old Order way of life. The elder’s humor kept us on our toes.
In an Old Order Mennonite home, we gave thanks and feasted on a scrumptious home-cooked meal. The sparkle in our host’s eyes twinkled her delight in our contentment.
At Bank Mennonite Church, we learned of an orchestrated church split with genuine intent to agreeably disagree on specific theological applications while continuing a parallel spiritual path. Congregates dressed and lived like Conservative Mennonites in Holmes County, Ohio with a notable exception. Again, the men had no beards.
At the final class at Crossroads Heritage Center, we explored a type of living museum. Guides explained pioneer life as we wound through original, relocated old houses and various other buildings.
It was a fitting location for the last class. From high on a hill, the valley played out below us. The city bustled beneath the hot morning sunshine. Yet, the farmland’s still earthy springtime fragrances enveloped us.
From that vantage point, I imagined the struggles, the heartache, the determination and the desire to live their lives in community together through productivity, and finding peace and satisfaction in weaving their daily lives together.
Out for an early evening drive, my wife and I came upon this Old Order Mennonite buggy near the summit of Mole Hill Rd., west of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Having lived in Holmes County, the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, for most of our adult lives, we were used to following buggies up and down the rolling hills and winding roads.
Now that we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we occasionally have the same experience since we live near Dayton, the center of life for the thriving Old Order Mennonite community. Like the Amish, they, too, stay rooted to the land by using the horse and buggy as their chief means of local transportation and by their rural, agrarian lifestyles. Also, like the Amish, they hire drivers to take them on longer trips.
Shortly after I snapped this photo, the buggy turned left, hurried up a long lane to home. The short scene was a happy reminder of the life we lived in Holmes Co., Ohio, and an affirmation of the new life we have begun in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Photography helps keep my mind sharp. It motivates me to see the beauty that is all around me, to photograph scenes that I couldn’t even imagine existed.
With a few wispy clouds in the evening sky, my intended mission might be to capture a lovely sunset, only to be disappointed as the sun sinks below the horizon with unremarkable results. Nevertheless, I stick to the objective, looking for opportunities for creative shots as I traverse the countryside.
I arrived at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite churchyard shortly after sunset. Baren deciduous trees and a few evergreens populated the property, planted in part to shade the horses during the Sunday morning worship service. This was a weekday. I had the place to myself.
I could see the Allegheny Mountains to the west outlined by the evening’s golden light. When I came to this particular spot, I was transfixed. The trees seemed to guide my focus through the opening in their canopy far above and beyond the lovely skyline. There was no irony here whatsoever. The modest, horse-and-buggy driving Old Order Mennonites were spot on to declare this vista a pleasant view. For me, being in this moment was a spiritual experience, one of those spontaneous happenings in life that catches you by surprise and stirs your soul.
When I first moved to Holmes County, Ohio a month after the devastating July 4th flood in 1969, I explored the countryside to get my bearings. As a rookie teacher, I wanted to know where my students lived, and what they were dealing with in the flood’s aftermath.
We had several other rookie teachers who were also new to the area. Our principal, Paul O’Donnell, loaded us all in his Chevy station wagon and chauffeured us around the hills and dales where our students lived.
Being a geography geek, I greatly enjoyed the tour. I decided that was the best way for me to get to know the Holmes County area. I bought a county map and drove the dusty back roads as often as I could. I marveled at the diversity of the area’s topography and vegetation.
In a matter of minutes, I went from marshlands up steep, winding roads to the top of hills with majestic views of the valleys below. Hillsides were often densely wooded, while croplands and pastures dominated the gently rolling landscape atop the ridges. I repeated the process when I moved to the eastern section of the county.
Whether east or west, I greatly enjoyed getting to know the countryside and its inhabitants. My wife and I are trying the same approach in our new county of residence, Rockingham, Virginia. Only we often use GPS instead of a map.
With Rockingham twice the size of Holmes County, there’s a lot of ground to cover. We’re chipping away at it as time allows. So far, we’ve explored a lot of beautiful scenery and quaint, rural towns. It didn’t take us long to discover why they are called the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even the Allegheny Mountains cast a blue hue in the day’s waning light.
The folks we’ve met so far are as friendly and polite as advertised. No one has even mentioned my Holmes County accent.
Besides sightseeing, our exploring is purposeful, whether traveling into the City of Harrisonburg, or the rural areas of the county. Running errands, going to appointments, buying fresh produce, an afternoon with the grandkids, all get us out and about, finding our way around our new home.
We also explore with friends and relatives who visit and want a look around, too. I enjoy those trips the most. They usually involve a stop at a local restaurant to try their fare, followed by another stop at a local ice cream shop. The problem is deciding which one.
We’ve been practical about our excursions. We live in a housing development that serves as a buffer between the city to the east and the county to the west. Consequently, most of our rural exploring to date has branched out north, south, and west of our home.
We’ve especially come to love the Dayton area, where many of the Old Order Mennonites live. Old Order Mennonites drive horse and buggies just like the Amish. And like the Amish, they are deeply rooted in the soil. Most are farmers. Some are business owners, providing services that the majority of their peers could use. Harness shops, bicycle shops, and dry goods stores are typical.
Many have branched out into businesses for customers beyond their own culture. Orchards and produce stands are prominent.
We have enjoyed our junkets around the Rockingham countryside vistas. We’re looking forward to uncovering exciting new places and making additional friends and acquaintances. In Virginia, both are easy to do.