Five-Hour Skyline Drive Through Shenandoah National Park Offers Awe & Opportunity for Reflection
In a silken voice, the radio announcer intoned “Generations—your music” and indeed, as I headed out of Charlottesville, Virginia toward Skyline Drive, my path was strewn with nosegays of nostalgia. With my cherry red rental VW bug a fitting chariot for my chug along this particular stretch of Memory Lane, I found myself singing along to songs I hadn’t heard since the era I had lived in these parts. As I climbed higher into the hills, the playlist provoked powerful memories of my teenage self and the myriad and mercurial moods of that age with its high-flying hormones.
Easing onto Route 64, I headed north toward Shenandoah National Park, the length of which Skyline Drive traverses. Almost immediately the tense voice emanating from my GPS snapped at me that the signal had been lost before she abruptly went silent. I felt a momentary stab of anxiety and then shrugged it off, figuring my route would be well-marked.
Soon enough, I was sailing down the side of a steep summit, belting out “I’ll Take You There” with the Staple Singers. Despite the warm sun beating down on my arm as it rested on the rolled-down window, I felt goose bumps rise in response to the gospel refrain. I know a place, Ain’t nobody crying, Ain’t nobody worried, Uh-huh, Let me lead the way, Mercy!
Foot pressing on the accelerator as I embarked up another incline, my stomach muscles tightened and sentimental tears sprang to my eyes with the twang of the first few chords of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Life is old there, Older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, Growing like a breeze…Driving down the road, I get a feeling I shoulda been home yesterday, yesterday.
Flying over the top of the next hill, my mood shifted gears along with the driving bass line of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” My fingers thumping on the steering wheel, head bobbing, and shoulders shrugging to the tempo, I passionately shouted out the disco diva’s classic anthem to independence. I spent oh so many nights just feeling sorry for myself, I used to cry! But now I hold my head up high. And you see me, somebody new!…I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give, I’ll Survive, Hey! Hey!
East of Waynesboro, I reached Rockfish Gap and Shenandoah National Park. At the entrance to Skyline Drive, I paid the ranger the $30 fee for access to the 105-mile ribbon of road that traverses the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She handed me a map and told me that there were 75 scenic overlooks along the drive.
I pulled into the first of these, McCormick Gap Overlook and got out of the car to stretch my legs and absorb the rich hues of a sea of undulating green waves reaching to the horizon. Tall grasses merged into brambles and bushes that folded into leafy trees that became an endless cushion of canopy. I happen to look down and noticed a thick fat caterpillar lolling on a stick, master of his domain. It occurred to me that in my day-to-day life I would likely have been oblivious to his existence.
The breathtaking views from the top of Blue Ridge Mountains. Credit: Meg Pier
Green mountain waves reaching the horizon. Credit: Meg Pier
Evening settles in. Credit: Meg Pier
As I drove on, it struck me that I hadn’t yet seen another soul. While just miles from a major interstate highway I was nonetheless truly in the wilderness. I felt a tinge of uneasiness and then caught sight of a tree laden with unusual, heavy purple flowers. Eager to photograph the blooms, I felt a spurt of impatience that there wasn’t shoulder space along the road for me to pull over for several hundred yards. Finally able to nestle my car along the road, I jumped out, slammed the door, and back-tracked at a trot then happily began shooting. A loud rustling, from where I couldn’t tell, sent a jolt of fear through me–I may now be a city girl but I knew there were bears in these hills. I immediately walked quickly to the car, shifting into gear and leaving far behind whatever had made the sound.
100-Mile Skyline Drive Route Traverses Spine of Blue Ridge Mountains
I spent five hours meandering along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stopping at overlooks named Calf Mountain, Sawmill Run, Riprap, Doyles River, Rockytop, Eaton Hollow, and The Point. At each, I was awed by the expanse before me, primeval forest across which fell the shadow of passing clouds, verdant peaks piercing a brilliant blue sky. At one overlook I saw a lone turkey peck his way across a small field; at another, I beheld a soaring bird aloft on wind currents, swooping above one mountaintop to the next without a flap of his wings—perhaps a Peregrine falcons, which are making a comeback in the park. Spring is said to climb up these mountains at a rate of about 100 feet per day starting in March. In late May I was witnessing streaks of magenta azaleas and swaths of creamy rose-colored mountain laurel within the infinite green expanse of the forest.
A turkey vulture soars over the vast forest. Credit: Meg Pier
The A.T. intersects with Skyline Drive 28 times. Credit: Creative Commons C.Watts
Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Skyline Drive 28 times. At one overlook, four teenagers each bearing massive backpacks and carved walking sticks emerged from the abutting woods on a trail marked by white blazes painted on trees that signify the path as part of the A.T. A sign post told me that the spot on which I stood was roughly two million steps from the A.T’s southern end on Springer Mountain, Georgia, 860 miles away. Three million steps in the other direction leads 1,280 miles away to the A.T’s northern end atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Each year, about 150 “thru-hikers” pass here as they trek the entire AT.
Shenandoah Skyline Drive Reveals Colorful History
In another stop to take a short stroll, I saw a sign commemorating the efforts within the Park of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. A part of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC was designed to provide employment for young men in relief families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression while at the same time implementing a general natural resource conservation program in every state and territory. The first two CCC camps located in the national parks were established at Skyland and Big Meadows in the area that was to become Shenandoah National Park. At any one time, more than 1,000 boys and young men lived in camps supervised by the Army. The earliest CCC projects were concerned with the building of trails, fire roads and towers, log comfort stations, construction projects associated with the Skyline Drive, and picnic grounds within this narrow corridor.
At almost exactly the halfway point on the route I came to Big Meadows, which more than lives up to its name. Located at mile 51.2 on Skyline Drive, the area is named for a large grassy meadow where deer often graze. While I had long been seeing signs that the landmark was ever-nearing, I was nonetheless taken by surprise by the immense expanse of the wide open space. My half-day’s drive had consisted of either narrow road carved through dense forest, or pockets of panoramas that looked down at dramatic valleys below. This terrrain of flat fields was exhilarating in its spaciousness.
The dramatic skyline of Big Meadows. Credit: Meg Pier
The perfect spot to sit and look out onto the fields. Credit: Meg Pier
Big Meadows Lodge was a mile further down the road. Arriving at almost 2:00 p.m., I was famished. Enjoying lunch in the lodge’s dining room, I felt transported back in time by the primitive but charming architecture.
The first two CCC camps located in the national parks were established at Skyland and Big Meadows in the area that was to become Shenandoah National Park. The interior structure of the lodge, including the paneling, is made from native chestnut trees, which are now virtually extinct.
Continuing on, I stopped at Skyland Resort for a cup coffee and to sate my curiosity about Massanutten Lodge. The property here has a storied history involving a chain of owners that included a Brooklyn couple who purchased 21,371 acres of land in 1854 for $4,750, selling the land one year later to the Virginia Cliff Copper Company for $1,000,000. With the mining venture unsuccessful, the property came into the hands of a promoter who organized elaborate balls, costume parties, teas, jousts and tournaments, musicales, pageants, and bonfires. The land became part of Shenandoah National Park upon its creation in 1935.
In line at the concession stand for my afternoon cup of java, I eavesdropped on the conversation the woman in front of me was having with the cashier, and heard rave reviews about the blackberry ice cream. The woman said she had first come to Skyland thirty years ago and had never forgotten the sweet tartness of the homemade dessert. She added that she looked forward to its taste more frequently, saying that she had recently moved back to the area from Chicago to care for elderly parents.
That strong sense of family connection to the land here was underscored in a conversation I later had with local Claire Comer, an interpretative ranger with Shenandoah National Park. Claire shared her family's historic ties to the Park's pristine and powerful nearly 200k acres, and provided a snapshot of how the Park came to into existence. She also offered insight into the impact SNP’s creation had on local communities—both then and today.
“My brother and I live on our family farm, near Luray in Page County,” Claire explained. “My ancestors are German, and originally came from the Alsace region to Pennsylvania. They then migrated south and acquired our property in the 1700s through the Lord Fairfax land grant. My brother is the tenth straight generation to farm our piece of property.”
“Around the turn of the last century, farming here was really in its heyday,” she continued. “In the summer, my great-grandfather would be part of a big cattle drive herding the stock from the valley to his property on the mountain to summer. Other valley farmers did the same thing, because the difference in temperature and the absence of flies made for healthier cattle. Then in the fall, because the winters were so harsh, they would bring them back down to what we call the home farm.”
“My great-grandfather had a house and cabin on his mountain property.,” Claire said. “A brother and sister lived in the tenant house and in return for their occupancy, they watched over the property and cattle, and did subsistence farming. When my great-grandfather would go to check on things, he would stay in this cabin.”
“All that property was part of the tracts of land that were made into Shenandoah National Park,” she explained. “The desire to have a national park in this area was a grassroots effort. A lot of people think that the federal government initiated the establishment of Shenandoah National Park, but that’s not at all what actually happened, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that. When I first started working with the team to develop the exhibits and research on the establishment of the park, I remember thinking 'This is my opportunity to tell the displaced residents’ story.'“
“In fact, there were people that had an alternate vision for this area other than logging and mining,” Claire noted. “They wanted to establish a viable industry that wasn’t an extraction industry. A way to give the people of this area the opportunity to make money without destroying its natural beauty. And tourism was the answer.”
“That wasn’t a bad vision,” she observed. “Today, 90 million dollars is pumped into the regional economy just through the Park's existence. That’s a pretty good realization of that mission.”
“But I want to be sure that people understand that the park did not come without pain and sacrifice,” Claire said. “The Park we enjoy today that provides rejuvenation, respite and economic support came at a cost to some people who were not always treated as they should have been. There were people who were displaced. That’s hard to go through for people. And especially in a place like this where families often lived on the same land for generations.”
“Although my family had land ‘condemned’ by the government via its powers of eminent domain, and taken into the Park, we still had the valley home farm, so we weren't displaced,” she explained. “But I can well imagine the devastation of being displaced, having the kind of ties to land that I have, because our farm has been in our family for so long, I certainly understand that sense of place. It’s not that the property belongs to you, it’s that you belong to the land.”
“We did a temporary exhibit that would enable our stakeholders, the former residents and their children, to have a say in how we told the story,” she said. “The story behind the establishment of the Park is one of colliding passions and the importance of understanding all the perspectives. I named that exhibit 'It’s a Mighty Thin Board That Has Only One Side.' which is an oft-used local idiom.”
“There are over a hundred cemeteries in Shenandoah National Park,” Claire noted. “There is an agreement with the families that they can still use those cemeteries as long as they stay in the original footprint.”
“I used to do a walk for visitors that ended at a cemetery,” she said. “When you’re looking at this cemetery, towards the back you see field stone grave markers. Toward the front, you see modern-day engraved marble headstones. Its a very vivid embodiment of the linear-ness of life here.”
“A lot of people don’t understand that connection,” Claire stated. “It goes back to my point of the land doesn’t belong to you. You belong to the land.”
“Right now a group of descendants of former residents have gotten together and built a series of monuments designed as chimney replicas that each have a brass plaque with the surnames of each family that was displaced from the park,” she continued. “These people are starting to tell their own stories through those monument sites. So far, they’ve established monuments in six of the eight counties in which people had land taken.”
“Being displaced did build up some bitterness against the government and the way that was done,” she said. “I think the way that we heal that is by telling that story, allowing those stories to be told. Because until you’ve heard all the stories, you don’t know the history. The history is a compilation of every single story.”
At Thornton Gap, I left Skyline Drive to make my way to Warrenton where I would be spending the night at an inn. I followed winding rural Route 211 around hairpin turns, slowly descending in elevation. Reception to the radio station I had lost long ago suddenly resumed and like tinkling chimes in the breeze, the notes of “Dust in the Wind” from Kansas blew in, simultaneously sad and sweepingly uplifting. Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky…
The melody was a fitting elegy to the day and my week in Virginia. I reflected on the visit with my mother at the assisted living facility in Charlottesville that had preceded my journey along Skyline Drive. Like our relationship, the time together was bittersweet and full of paradoxes. Not the least of those quixotic circumstances was our respective rites of passage.
A feisty woman of fierce will, Mom had just agreed to surrender her driver’s license, and, to her mind, her autonomy, at the same time she resigned her body to a wheelchair. I prepared to sally forth into the mountains, solo behind the wheel—a significant sojourn for someone who had battled life-long fears of driving, heights and being alone. I understood at a deeply personal level Claire’s observation that, indeed, any history is made up of every single story.
Rounding another sharp corner, I saw a pull-off area in front of a green glade, with a well-trodden path disappearing into a tangle of luxuriant growth. A car was parked under the shade of several trees. What held my attention and piqued my curiosity was a swirl of magical airborne movement, a cloud of small specks of luminous blue and pale yellow that glinted and flashed in the sun. After several blinks of my eyes in attempts to focus on the shapes flitting in a haphazard formation, I realized I had stumbled upon a swarm of butterflies.
Choosing to banish the notion that the lone Nissan on the shoulder belonged to a potential Charlie Manson lurking in the thick woods, I swerved off the road and onto the sandy drive. Getting out of the car, I was enveloped in a strong floral fragrance while also engulfed in a pulsating plume of delicate but huge butterflies. The wingspan of the creatures reached close to a half-foot and my heart rate revved in panic as my skin was tickled by the flutter of the insects’ wings. As they followed their random flight patterns around by body, my brush with fear was soon transformed with laughter at the wonder of the situation.
I later learned these were Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Virginia’s state insect. The first known drawing of a North America butterfly was of this species, created in 1587 during Sir Walter Raleigh’s third expedition here. The artist named his drawing “Mamankanois,” believed to be the Native American word for “butterfly.”
A delicate Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoying the nectar. Credit: Creative Commons Jan Haerer
Feeling like Bambi, I followed the procession of darting, brightly-colored creatures into the woods, past bushes bursting with white blossoms. I heard the sound of rushing water become louder and louder and then entered a clearing through which a brook coursed, swollen with recent heavy rains. The sweet smell of spring blooms was replaced by the pungent odor of wet earth, another equally welcome scent of the new season, long-awaited after a brutal winter. I stood there for a long time, my senses soaking up the tranquility. My reverie was interrupted by two butterflies alighting on my arm, and it was with reluctance that I turned down the path and back to my car.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are usually solitary; adults are known to fly high above the ground, usually seen above the tree canopy. During courtship, males and females fly about each other prior to landing and mating, with the male releasing perfume-like pheromones to entice the female—perhaps a factor in the grove’s heavily perfumed air. Despite attempts to capture the scores of swallowtails in flight with my camera, my techniques were not adequate to the task of recording the enchanting but erratic motion. I had to be content with the moment and trust in my ability to remember it without preserving it on film.
That night, sunk into the soft mattress of a four-poster bed at the Black Horse Inn, I closed my eyes and saw the timeless landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and relived the sensation of feeling small and humble. It occurred to me that while I had traversed isolated terrain with my husband or others, I had probably never been by myself in such a remote location. In the dark, I smiled with the realization I had not felt alone; despite an instant or two of trepidation, I had felt a sense of warmth, comfort and peace while on my way that day. I said a little prayer that my mother felt the same certainty about the next leg of her journey.