Celebrating a Big Birthday

Sunset as viewed from Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park.

When you have a big birthday, you celebrate it in a big way. At age 75, however, it’s best to do so gradually.

That’s not usually how I approach things. Given the circumstance, going slow and steady was the formula I needed and certainly enjoyed. Pacing myself proved to be the best alternative to enjoying each moment.

My oldest grandson gave us an early jump on my birthday. He was home from college for Thanksgiving, so we ate at a local restaurant on Thanksgiving eve. The family time around a chef-prepared meal allowed everyone to enjoy the evening together.

Celebrating my birthday with the family well before the big day.

My birthday extravaganza continued. My dear wife secretly arranged an overnight stay in a neat bed and breakfast less than an hour away the next weekend.

On the way there, we drove southeast across country roads that wound through Civil War battlegrounds fought on land still farmed in rural Shenandoah Valley. To the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains rose majestically, guiding us onward. Farther to the west, the Allegheny Mountains marked the state line between Virginia and West Virginia. The ancient mountains east and west provide an innate sense of security.

We made sure we stopped at Milmont Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft. They always display colorful poinsettias and other lovely flowers for the holidays. We selected a few small pink and white poinsettias for our daughter and headed for our bed and breakfast. We met our gracious hostess, who showed us our spacious and comfy second-floor suite. We had a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Poinsettias galore at Milmont Greenhouses, Stuarts Draft, Virginia.

My wife also had scoped out the town’s eateries and made reservations at the top-rated spot. Since we had plenty of time, I suggested we take a short ride to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and hope for an inspiring sunset despite the mostly cloudy day.

There were a few west-facing overlooks not far from the park’s southern entrance. We found the second one more favorable than the first and kept watch there.

As often happens over the mountains, the clouds thickened as daylight waned. Still, we noticed a break in the clouds just above the farthest mountain range.

The brief burst of orange.

The wind picked up just as the sun briefly broke through. From the overlook, we saw first-hand how the Blue Ridge Mountains earned their folklore name. A series of blue ridges led right to the setting sun’s soft orange glow. I snapped a couple of shots before darkness overtook us.

More than satisfied, we headed south but soon had to stop for a doe and her yearling to cross in front of us. Their brown coats naturally blended in with the dormant roadside vegetation.

Blending in.

Despite the minor delay, we arrived at the downtown restaurant right on time. Our delicious meals and our friendly waitress, who knew how to care for her customers, made for a splendid outing.

When we arrived back at the bed and breakfast, our host’s husband entertained us with the history of the old brick mansion. He then cranked up the beautiful player piano with a few Christmas tunes. He talked a lot but said very little. I preferred the piano.

At this point, I must confess that spreading out my birthday celebration was advantageous to my health. For unknown reasons, my blood pressure had significantly risen in recent weeks. Following my doctor’s orders, I took things easy. It was all I could do anyhow. This day had been good for me, though. My evening blood pressure reading was the lowest it had been in weeks.

In the morning, our hosts provided a scrumptious meal of shirred eggs and bacon, and they even had gluten-free fruit-infused bread for me. It was an excellent way to start the new day.

We said goodbye and drove into town to the P. Buckley Moss gallery. Since Waynesboro was ringing in the holidays this particular Saturday, the famous artist greeted patrons for part of the day. We arrived shortly after the store opened and had a friendly chat with Ms. Moss. She even signed the Christmas tree ornament we purchased that she had painted. The artistry depicted a winter scene only a few miles from our home, the historic Silver Lake Mill.

P. Buckley Moss.

We caught lunch just down the street, and it was time to head home. With the sun shining brightly through low broken clouds, I had to stop and take a few scenic photos. We spent the rest of the day watching football and basketball and enjoying the birds at the feeders.

I awoke much too early Sunday morning. I could tell I would have to take it easy on my birthday. My blood pressure had spiked again.

Many friends on social media expressed their best wishes for me on my big day while we attended church. I greatly appreciated all of their kind thoughts. They came from former students and teachers, friends and family, and people I have never met. That’s how social media is supposed to work.

After an uplifting worship service, we went to our daughter’s home, which is just up the hill from the church. We dropped off the poinsettias and popped two casseroles into the oven. I enjoyed some quiet time with our grand dog, Millie. We visited with our daughter and her family and then drove to a friend’s house for one of the small groups to which we belong. Neva had baked my favorite cake, an upside-down pineapple cake. I blew out the lone candle, and we enjoyed the carry-in food and genuine fellowship until mid-afternoon.

We wound down my big day quietly, watching more sports and fixer-upper TV shows. Just as we settled in for the night, our son sent a text that made my birthday complete. Our six-month-old grandson had his first solid bowel movement.

I couldn’t think of a better way to end my progressive 75th birthday celebration.

Teddy, our grandson.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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

Back Out on the Trail

Crossing the Mill Prong on the Mill Prong Trail, Shenandoah National Park.

It had been too long. I missed hiking regularly.

I had several excuses as to why I hadn’t hiked: I was traveling; the weather was too hot and humid; it was too rainy; I had family obligations. I could list more, but you likely don’t want to hear them.

So, I gladly agreed to lead a group when an opportunity to hike came along. A friend and several of her female friends hike local trails weekly. The Mill Prong Trail in Shenandoah National Park was on their radar, but they were unfamiliar with it. My friend knew I had hiked it.

I chauvinistically asked if men were allowed in their hiking entourage, and I was quickly admonished. They wanted to hike and wanted me to lead the way.

The Mill Prong is a side trail that juts off the Appalachian Trail (AT) at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive in the park. The trail leads to the Rapidan Camp, the summer home of President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

My trail app on my iPhone listed it as a moderately strenuous 3.7-mile hike round trip. We wouldn’t be going that far. Since all in our group were in their 70s, our goal was to hike to the intersection with the Mill Prong Horse Trail. That is exactly one mile.

This day was much cooler than the previous weeks of hot, sticky, and sometimes wet days in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we arrived at the parking lot where the AT crosses Skyline Drive, my van’s thermometer read 60 degrees. It was perfect hiking weather.

To access Mill Prong Trail, you must walk across the roadway and then a short distance on the AT. Soon you’re at the Mill Prong Trailhead.

I had told the ladies that this wasn’t the most scenic hike. They were more concerned with the trail’s difficulty and elevation gains. Having hiked it previously, I knew that the Mill Prong was a comparatively gradual decline to the horse trail. We had no intention of going to Rapidan Camp. A two-mile roundtrip hike down and back would suffice.

The Mill Prong Trail has two stream crossings. Trail-keepers conveniently placed large rocks for hikers to successfully cross both without getting wet. That is, as long as you don’t slip and fall. I was the only one who did.

The trek down the Mill Prong trail was similar to my earlier experience. The walk was eerily quiet. I only heard a lone Downy Woodpecker along the mostly dirt path down and back. We saw no other hikers until a young woman passed us as we were nearly finished, and she was just starting.

We took our time, enjoying nature’s stillness, the verdant forest floor carpeted with ferns, grasses, and wildflowers. We respectfully observed the colorful fungus and the four-foot northern water snake soaking in the morning sun on a large moss-covered rock in the middle of the trickling stream.

We took a break just after passing the horse trail, precisely one mile from the trailhead. We ate our snacks, inspected the snake, kept our distance, and hydrated.

Then it was time to head back up the gradual incline. The trail effortlessly wound its way past outcroppings, back across the two forks of the Mill Prong, shaded all the way by a mixed hardwood forest. It was already shedding some of its leaves.

Just before we reached the intersection with the AT, birds and pollinators began to appear. Jewelweed bloomed everywhere, especially in a triangle between the AT and Skyline Drive. Hummingbirds zipped left and right, and a few Monarchs and Tiger Swallowtails flitted here and there.

Despite our tired old bones, smiles dominated. It was a perfect ending to just the kind of hike the ladies like to take. Me, too.

Stepping stones.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Hot Full Moon Rising

I captured this shot of the Hot Full Moon rising over Shenandoah National Park just after sunset on June 24. You can see outlines of the trees along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Given the recent spell of sweltering weather over much of the U.S., including Virginia, the Native Americans properly named this moon.

I stood on the eastern side of Mole Hill 30 miles west of the park to take this photo. The darker line in the foreground is the summit of the Massanutten Mountain ridge.

“Hot Full Moon Rising” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Reward at the Summit

Lunch with a view

Hiking has its rewards. Reaching the summit of a peak is one of them. Hikers often celebrate with some cool water and a light lunch to refresh their body’s energy. This hiker is doing just that while also enjoying the gorgeous view from Hawksbill Summit, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. New Market Gap in the Massanutten Range is in the distance.

“Reward at the Summit” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Slow down for the rest of May

Enjoying the outdoors is one way

Hightop Mountain, Shenandoah National Park.

Don’t look now, but we are in the middle of May already. May always goes too fast for my liking.

Ideally, it would be nice to put a speed limit on each of May’s 31 days to slow their pace. Of course, that is a romantic pipe dream.

There is an antidote. We can each slow down, take our time, enjoy all that is around us.

Here in the Shenandoah Valley, I am grateful to be part of a hiking group that helps me do just that. It’s a program primarily designed for retirees, so going slow is what we do.

The group generally hikes twice a month and almost always in the gem of the valley, Shenandoah National Park. Each outing is limited to a dozen hikers. The leader is a retired bank president who volunteers in the park by keeping trails open for hikers.

I can’t participate in every hike, but I try to do both hikes in May if I can. The leaves of the mountain forests have yet to unfurl, allowing many wildflowers and trees to bloom. Plus, hikers’ nemeses, heat, humidity, and insects, are scarce.

Our leader plans the hikes and reminds us to come ready for the cool mountain temperatures and bring plenty of water and a lunch. We often trek to a precipice that overlooks the rolling countryside that dominates the Shenandoah Valley.

Mosey might be a better way to describe our hikes. We usually take four or more hours to hike three to four miles roundtrip. Pokey we may be, but we indeed have a glorious time enjoying each other’s company and the beauty we encounter.

It’s not unusual for us to climb 1,000 feet or more in that distance and back down again. Along the way, we frequently stop to enjoy and photograph the floral display spread out for us like a colorful carpet on the forest floor.

On our latest trip, we enjoyed seeing both large and small-flowered white trilliums, patches of red trilliums, wild geraniums, yellow and blue violets, black haw bushes, and hawthorn trees in bloom. Wild strawberries blossomed low while towering tulip poplar buds opened high above.

To reach the summit of Hightop Mountain, we walked the Appalachian Trail (AT) that snakes its way the entire length of the national park. We meet other day hikers like us, section hikers, and through-hikers.

Section-hikers walk the AT one section at a time, returning multiple times later to do more hiking. Through hikers are the serious ones. Their goal is to hike the entire 2,500 miles of the AT.

Most start at the trail’s beginning in Georgia and hike north to its terminus in Maine. In doing so, they experience an unfolding of spring over and over from the south to the rugged northeast.

Our group tries to give way to these more experienced hikers, but they are often as curious about us as we are about them. They often share their trail names and hometowns, and off they go.

We then return to observing the songbirds singing and flitting all around us and the many varieties of wildflowers as we meander. At our age, we have no choice to simply take our time to be safe and to inhale both our surroundings and the refreshingly cool mountain air.

Perhaps that is a good lesson for all of us. Slow down. Take your time. Enjoy all you encounter, moment by moment, breath by breath. Maybe then the remainder of May will gladly join you.

Our lunchtime view with a through hiker.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Mountain to Mountain

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.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Letting Creation find you

Looking west from a point in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.

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.

The fog that hung over Shenandoah National Park even after I left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Hawksbill Summit


The summit of Hawksbill Mountain is one of the most popular spots in Shenandoah National Park. There are many good reasons for that.

Hawksbill is the highest point in the park at 4,050 ft. above sea level. You have a 270-degree view from the summit. Hikers love it since two trails lead to the peak, and a covered shelter is available. Plus, the view is incredible.

I chose the Upper Hawksbill Trail for several reasons to do my second hike in the park this year. The trail has less elevation, is shorter, and I had never hiked it before. I wasn’t disappointed. Birds and butterflies were abundant, and most hikers donned face masks as we passed on the trail.

As you can see, the rock outcropping of the peak is rugged and angular. The Appalachian Trail is 500 ft. below. The drop into Timber Hollow, however, is 2,500 ft., which is the most significant elevation change in the park. Unlike others, I stayed well away from the edge.

“Hawksbill Summit” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Feeling stressed, fearful? Head outside!

The misty morning view from the Skyline Drive.

Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.

A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!

Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.

Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.

I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.

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Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.

The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.

Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.

I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.

The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.

I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.

I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.

Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.


Click on the photos to enlarge them.
When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.

Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.

In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.

I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.

Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.

Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.

The splendor at trail’s end.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

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