Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Solitary Splendidly Steep Hike

After cycling on Saturday morning in the muggy heat I thought I'd punish myself a little more and on Sunday morning I went to hike a remote trail in the Shenandoah Park. After driving down a long country road that became an unpaved road and then finally ended at a gate to private land, I stopped the car to walk about. There were no apparent parking spaces and the place was desolate.
An old trailer was slowly rotting on the bank and its curling wrought iron caught my attention so I leaned in to take a photo. A women's voice hailed me and asked if I needed help. Sprinting up her rocky drive I met her and she very kindly showed me where the trail started and where I could park. She didn't expect to see anyone else this day and was surprised to see me in this heat. She warned me to be careful about where I put my feet as copperheads were frequently sighted in the area and asked if I had enough water. She even gave me instructions on how I could find an outcrop of rocks, from where I would have an unrivaled view of Old Rag Mountain all to myself. I thanked her profusely and set off.
The first part of the hike was through a stream bed. I expect it's usually dry but we'd had heavy rain a couple of days ago so the water was still flowing, although I was amazed at how muddy some of the trail was. It seemed weird being so hot. Almost immediately I was climbing upwards. The ground was rocky and uneven so I stopped frequently to huff and puff and stretch my legs. Then would continue on determinedly.
I spotted a few of these insects, and had assumed they were Emerald Ash Borers. I would never have killed them but was delighted to discover later when researching that they weren't these destructive creatures at all. These were Six Spotted Tiger Beetles, which don't eat elms, or any other trees, but are actually carnivorous and like to munch on smaller bugs. I have to say there were doing a particularly poor job on eating mosquitoes because those horrible critters bothered me continuously. I ended up spraying myself more than liberally 3 times on the hike, almost emptying the whole contents of the can, so much so that I feared I was now so combustible that standing in the sunlight too long would cause me to spontaneously ignite. Luckily the hike was mostly shady, but those mozzies plagued me persistently. The only good thing about it was that they kept me on my toes, I couldn't stand in one place for too long, so my rests were minimal as I was chased up the mountain.
Up and up I went, the climb was never ending. but I wasn't going to chastise myself for the many small breaks I took. I took the opportunity to just stand silent, study my surroundings and listen. The only noise was the humming of the insect life, small bees and beetles dashing back and forth, and the birds trilling their sweetness through the trees. And of course the drone of the mosquitoes as they caught up with me and yelled ahead to their buddies, "Human on the trail! Human on the trail!".
I nearly passed out from bending down to take these, it was so hot and muggy, but the trail was so pretty. And the incline continued. Up and up and up. As soon as I saw a corner I hoped I was near the top yet when I turned the bend the trail climbed up further. Then just as I was resigning to the fact that I would climb uphill forever the ground leveled and I had finally reached the top.
Some of the trail was now sandy, lined with wild laurels on each side, and if I peeked through gaps in the trees I could see blue mountain tops in the distance. I remembered the lady from earlier and her instructions, and soon found the gap in the bushes to the outlook.
It was impressive. Climbing up onto the huge boulders I had an unobstructed view of Old Rag Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains. There wasn't a single human being in sight and I was quite certain no one near me for at least a couple of miles. This high point is so remote that not even the mountain folk resided up here. I sat on the warm rock and relished the solitude. Only a few birds were singing, apart from them the air was completely still, not even any mosquitoes bothered me. A few dragon flies flitted past and the fluffy white clouds bobbed slowly across the blue sky. This was a wonderful spot and one I'll be sure to visit again, especially in the fall.
This turtle was in the middle of the trail and we both stopped and stared at each other. We had a one-sided conversation and then I moved him to the side of the trail he was heading to. Just in case a bear stood on him. I had seen 2 very large and fresh piles of bear scat a short distance apart on the trail, so was now walking with my pepper spray in my hand. And sure enough, about 10 minutes later a huge crash caused my heart to leap out of my chest. I twirled around just in time to see a black patch deep in the bushes, There was a loud cracking of branches and it sounded as if trees were being stripped of their leaves, and then he was gone. It actually sounded like he'd fallen out of a tree but I doubt that was the case. Anyway, he had seemed to be very anxious to get away so I relaxed once the forest became silent again. But I kept that pepper spray clutched in my hand.
I don't know if it was due to the heavy rain, or because there's so little traffic on this trail, but the fungi was amazing. I saw many varieties I'd never seen before, and struggled to identify them. I think the one above is a yellow coral mushroom, but I couldn't be sure. But I was continuously delighted to see bright colors peeking out from under rotten fallen trees or growing right on the path.
This one stopped me in my tracks. I'd never come across anything like it before, it seemed to be alien or from the Underworld. I called them Death Bells, and when researching later I discovered that I wasn't actually far from the truth. Their name is Ghost Pipes or Corpse Plant, info here.
These are Red Chanterelle Mushrooms, apparently edible, but I wasn't taking a chance on nibbling any of the fungi I came across. These ones fascinated me as they were popping up everywhere, little red nubby buttons poking through the soil, looking like drops of blood on the trail.
And then it was time to descend. Once more the trail was steep and, even with my sturdy hiking boots, I still slipped and skidded a few times. Lower down the mountain I came across an abandoned cabin, vacated long ago by the mountain folk, and I wondered if they were the unfortunate ones who had been herded off the mountain when the park was being created, or if they'd left of their own accord due to its remoteness. Even though the building had almost collapsed, the walls still standing showed the workmanship of the builder, heavy beams still forming a solid wall, cut so perfectly that there were still no gaps allowing sunlight or winds through. Shingles overlapping in perfectly straight lines. I marveled at their skills, all hand worked with no power tools, rarely seen today in the mostly shoddy new houses that are erupting and encroaching on green fields. Just down the trail there was the spring used by the family, a neat stone wall by the small creek, and I imagined probably sat on during summer days to cool hot feet.
Further down the mountain the path followed a creek, bubbling and rippling over huge mossy rocks. The trail crossed back and forth across the water,meaning lots of rock hopping, always fun! It was easy today but I was curious at how the crossing would be during the wetter months.
I liked that the hike ended almost as though it had started, walking along what would be a stream bed when the rains came, a rock path and even a huge flat boulder to use a bridge. I walked alongside the creek and a farm until I was on the dusty dirt road again. A calf had recently been born, still unsteady on its legs, and the poor thing was being hounded by flies. Not a soul was around, I had to assume the farmer knew of his recent addition since the mother and her calf had the field to themselves. and were overlooked by the farmhouse. I hoped they were being monitored. I stood and watched as the mother nudged her baby and then slowly sauntered up the hill, through a gate, and into another field, her little calf tottering alongside her. I then too slowly sauntered up a small hill back to Stanley, who was thankfully parked under a shady tree. Apart from the friendly lady at the start of my hike I hadn't seen a single person, and I wondered, as I drove away, if anyone had been aware that I'd been there.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Celebration with Conviviality and Cheer and Beer

On Saturday, I joined Kristen for a party in Midland, VA. I hadn't spent quality time with her since 2009, when we'd shared a primitive cabin for a weekend, so it was fun to see her again. She was the only person there that I knew but I was looking forward to the evening. It was called 'Eric's First and Probably LAST 4th of July Party', an awesomely superb title, sounding as though it belonged in a Wayne's World movie or a Bill and Ted Adventure. I wasn't very sure what to expect so when I turned onto a dirt track and stopped in front of what looked like farm buildings, I was very curious. Kristen's friend Kellie came out and introduced herself, explaining that we were partying at an abandoned golf course. Elation set in, how positively superb! This would be a most excellent evening!
We walked towards what used to be the club house, me trying desperately to rush towards the building, eager to explore, but hampered by having to haul my cooler and a huge folding chair. As we entered I spotted tables loaded with munchies and was instantly aware of a poultry smell. In one corner were boxes filled with baby chickens and guinea fowl, none of them restricted in any way, so a few were strutting about, although most were content to stay inside the boxes or perch on the sides.
Kristen was already inside, indulging in a cuddle fest with armfuls of chicks, and I bounded over to look. There was also a very smug looking cat near the kitchen door, who, although had got a bowl filled with kibble, she evidently preferred to catch herself the odd snack, as a few random feathers on the floor gave her away.
Getting immediately down to business, I cracked open a beer, and then investigated a counter top that was piled high with countless hats. It was like being in the Disney Costume Room; there were hats with animals heads, stetsons, a Davy Crockett hat, elves hats, dress hats, but I chose a Mad Hatter hat and posed for a photo.
Even though this place hadn't been used as a golf course for some time, it still had power and had a fridge to keep our beers cold and lighting. Except in the bathrooms, but that was fine. Better that than porta potties, and my phone had a flashlight. We were introduced to Eric and his girlfriend Sophia, and a crowd of other pals, who were all super friendly. A small group of us went outside to explore the grounds and Kristen brought her bag of carrots and sugar cubes for the horses, which we were allowed to ride at $50 an hour.
We pottered about the grounds, fed the horses, and I was nipped by the tiniest one, a Shetland, on the arm, no idea why. I laughed as a line of ducks headed for the lake in single file, then checked out the kayaks, lined up along the bank ready for use. The old trampoline had seen better days and I was very tempted to try it out, only stopping myself at the thought of bouncing right through the base and spilling my beer. Not acceptable.
Then it was back inside again for a beer tasting. Kristen and I had brought some lesser known ales for others to try. Most of mine were IPAs, and note my extreme generosity at parting with a can of my beloved Squeeze to the left of the photo. Kristen brought a tasty pineapple IPA and a chocolate orange beer which was strangely tasty, and I kept sipping it. Most of the other guests weren't too enthused with our selection though, so we gamely polished off as many of the opened bottles and cans as we could, and I very bravely handed over the rest of my Squeeze can to a fellow beer enthusiast who had enjoyed it.
The sun was setting, lighting up the clouds from behind, the sky casting beautiful hues across the horizon, so we went back out for a saunter further afield. I was starting to wish I'd brought my Sony, my G15 wasn't able to capture enough detail or clarity in the low light.
We walked around the lake, where the ducks were now roosting on the beach, tucked into the shadows. The old golf course was overgrown but the cart paths were still fine to amble along and the grass had been cut down where folk would walk. Eric and Sophia had been out for a ride and we passed Steven, the owner with the horses later, taking them back to the stables as a squall blowing through was upsetting them. An old farm silo had been isolated on a small island, implying that the lake was man made when the course was built. It was very pretty here and was a perfect spot to hold a party, no nearby neighbors, although we could hear a redneck party scooting it up at full blast down the road. They had the loud music but we had the best venue. Some music was playing quietly on the patio for a while, but we didn't need it, everyone was busy chatting.
On the patio, there was a scurry of activity as Eric and Sophia arrived. Eric had proposed and now the happy couple were sharing their news with his parents on his phone. His friends created a perfect photo capture as lights were held above the beaming couple while another took The Engagement Photo.
And then the bonfire was lit. From the patio, it seemed a huge fireball had erupted across the lake and people started to grab drinks and seats then walk over there. It seemed that the fire was in an old bunker. As we set up our chairs, the ground was soft sand with grass growing in patches, lending it a beach appearance with the water close by. Some folks lay on blankets while the men huddled all the fireworks boxes together, rummaging through as though they were tearing open presents under a Christmas tree. "Oh yeah, we've got mortars!" was exclaimed a few times, making me chuckle as I leaned back, enjoying their excitement.
The pile of wooden pallets was ensuring a constant blaze from the fire, the heat and flames still enjoyable despite the warm night. Kristen and Kellie got the sparklers going while Eric and Sophia created a 'hand heart' to celebrate their engagement. The fireworks didn't really amount to much but there were still a few good bangs and some colored orbs shooting skyward. We all emitted the necessary "oohs" and "aahs" as they shot up into the night.
It was a beautiful evening. The humidity and searing heat had dropped tremendously, a cool gentle breeze wafted across us and folks just enjoyed the camaraderie. We didn't have a huge crowd, maybe 35 people, and it was just enough. I'd chatted to some great characters and had been made to feel very welcome. Once the fireworks were depleted, we packed up our chairs and ambled back to the club house.
Inside, Kristen pulled out her ukulele and played us a couple of songs, one of which Kellie and I attempted to sing along to, called 'Really Big Chickens'.  She performed it really well. I have never heard this song before, and wondered if it was a song that all Americans were familiar with as kids, but before I could ask, there was a sudden flurry of activity as folks came in and started clearing up. The party was ended and everyone helped to tidy up. Leftover food was put in the fridge and trash collected. Beers wasn't allowed to stay so I was astounded to find a 6 pack was pushed into my hands. Why can't all parties end like this? Within 10 minutes, the building was clear, and we were on our way to our homes. A future event to watch a meteor shower was promised, and although I'd be able to watch this from my house, I'd love to meet up with this crowd again. I eagerly await my invitation.