The Mother of All Road Trips had an inauspicious start: 25 miles from home, in the Montvale Travel Plaza of New Jersey's Garden State Parkway, as I was slowly backing out of a parking spot, I had a "no-speed" collision with a car behind me that I didn't see. Although the damage to my car was minor and there were no injuries, the other party wanted to call the state police and this turned into an hour delay. To make matters worse, I discovered (to my abject horror) that the proof-of-insurance card in my car was four our other vehicle&emdash;the same insurance policy number, of course, but since we were so close to home, we traveled the 50 miles there and back, to swap cards. In the end, between delays packing, lunch and the accident, we got on the road in earnest 4 hours after we hoped to leave.
Saturdays in August can get steamy, and by the time we hit Baltimore, we were faced with a violent thunderstorm! The rain was torrential and the lightning was unreal! Fortunately, it was by far the worst weather we encountered on the trip. Evetually, we made it to our destination in Arlington, Virginia, where we spent a couple of days visiting with a cousin. When we left Arlington on Monday, our first camping leg of the trip was a relatively easy 2-hour trip in suburban Virginia to the park entrance in Front Royal.
We entered Shenandoah National Park via Skyline Drive, a 100-mile scenic parkway that takes you up into the mountains to around 3,600 feet above sea level. From many of it's 75 overlooks you can see the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, some 2,800 feet below in places. On a clear day, you can see across the 35-mile wide Shenandoah Valley to the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. On this day, however, we encountered fog and light rain, and at times you couldn't see very far at all. It was still quite beautiful, though!
We arrived at Big Meadows Camground about 7 PM. We had already registered for the campsite back back in March through www.recreation.gov, so it was simply a matter of collecting our site pass from the gate house bulletin board and going directly to our site. We also found a store in the campground which had both firewood and ice (as well as other essentials like propane cylinders and rain ponchos) and was located next to hot showers and a laundry room! The sites are generous. We quickly pitched the tent and worked on a campfire. The weather was so humid, it took a while to get the wood burning, but in time we were able to cook six burgers.
It actually rained inside the tent around 2 AM that night, but only on me!
There is a mesh vent at the top of the tent to help ventilate heat and moisture from within the tent. A waterproof rain fly covers the vent and the entire roof of the tent so rain coming down falls down the sides of the fly and drains to the ground outside. On this night, the weather was extremely foggy with 100% humidity. A light, but steady, breeze blew the moist air under the rain fly and up to the top of the tent, where the moisture collected on the mesh, condensed, and fell on me. Because the breeze was steady from the south, the moisture only collected on one side of the tent and only condensed in one quadrant of the vent—the mesh under the other three quadrants was completely dry!. I had my own pico-climate!
Eventually, I worked out that if I went outside and dropped the brow pole over the south window, the fog could no longer travel under the fly. This solved the problem. After a while, the weather turned to rain and simply fell on top of the fly, posing no further problems. Weird.
Tuesday morning turned out to be cloudy with light sprinkles, so we decided to visit the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, in Staunton (rhymes with "Scranton"), Virginia, rather than travel the length of Skyline Drive in the rain and head to Charlottesville to see Monticello (rhymes with "Cello"). After a serviceable meal at Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant in Staunton, we took in the library. It was okay.
Woodrow Wilson was President from 1913–1921, the first Democrat elected to that office in years. He was born prior to the Civil War, in 1856, to a slave-leasing Presbyterian minister who later went on to serve as chaplain in the Conferederate Army. The Library & Museum is built next to the parsonage where Wilson was born. We had a docent, Linnea, who was fairly knowledgable despite her youth, but I couldn't help but feeling that the museum was glossing over the whole slavery thing by stressing how the slaves that worked for the Wilsons had much better lives than field slaves working nearby farms. We left around 2 PM and by this time the afternoon had brightened considerably and the day had become hot & steamy.
After a missed exit for Skyline Drive, we decided to head to Charlottesville anyway to visit President Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. It was great! Founding father, farmer, brewer, diplomat, framer of The Constitution, architect, scientist, weather observer, voracious reader—he was a true Rennaissance Man. We had a fantastic docent, a man from Brooklyn (of all places), who did a much better job of addressing the contradictions of a slaveholding farmer who also wrote so eloquently about the natural and inalienable rights of man in both The Declaration of Independence and The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Jefferson's accomplishments and his many scientific, meteorologic and political interests were discussed of course, but so were his relationships with his family and his slaves, including Sally Hemmings, with whom Jefferson likely fathered all six of her known children. Furthermore, she may well have been the half-sister of his recently departed wife Martha. Let's just say it's complicated.
Following our visit, we travelled through the center of Charlottesville, which just three days earlier had been the site of a violent "Unite the Right" protest by neo-Nazis that resulted in the death of a counter-protestor. On this day "Emancipation Park" was quiet, but there were plenty of news-gathering trucks on hand—a reminder of how much work this country still has to do on issues of racial justice. The heat in the valley was also oppressive (91°), but the temperature soon dropped as we climbed Skyline Drive. We were treated to a beautiful sunset as we traveled along the southern end of the parkway. Apparently, bears liked the weather too, because we saw four black bears (including an adorable cub!) at various points along the way.
It is a truly great park, and I'd really love to come back to Shenandoah during the fall season when the weather is drier and the foliage is ablaze!