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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Skyline Drive and the Perfect Day

The delicate palette of an evening's colors cloak the Shenandoah.
Copyright 2012 © by Ralph Couey

A perfect day is hard to come by. For one to happen, you really need three things to synch up.

First, it has to be a day off. Yes, we can have rewarding days at work. But perfect? Secondly, it has to be a day on which you have nothing scheduled, nor any errands to run, and an empty honey-do list. Thirdly, it has to be a perfect weather day. Partly cloudy is great, but nothing’s better than that clear blue dome above. Oh yes, and the temperature has to be right. Not too hot, not too cold, like baby bear, just right.

During the last week of June, I had one of those days, a Tuesday. It was a day off, with my somewhat unusual work schedule, my “weekend” runs from Sunday morning through about Wednesday noon, when the walls of work once again enfold me. The weather couldn’t have been any better if I had special ordered it on Amazon.com. The sky was clear of anything resembling a cloud, and the temperatures were forecasted to be in the low 70’s, a rare day indeed for Northern Virginia in late June.

I had but one mark on my calendar, a short appointment that was done by mid-morning. My honey-do list was clear for the first time since we moved into our new home in April. With the appointment done, I gleefully headed home, geared up, climbed aboard my motorcycle, and headed west.

Still new to this part of the country, I’m in the process of finding out where all the good roads are. This day, with all its beauty and freedom, was written for the Blue Ridge.

Leaving Chantilly, I headed west on VA 234, Sudley Road, which assumes a number of identities as it meanders through the Virginia countryside. After crossing US 15 at Woolsey, it becomes Waterfall Road. The path is mixed open and forest at first, but once on the Waterfall segment, it becomes mostly forest.

I have a real affection for trees. I’m not a “tree hugger” per se, I just appreciate their majestic beauty. The forests in this part of the state can be dense enough to bar passage to all but the smallest critters, but on this stretch, the undergrowth is mostly ferns and short grasses. The high crown of leaves and branches cools the air and softens the colors underneath. It is the kind of place where I feel peace emanating from the very land itself.

Passing through Hopewell, the road takes on the name of that small burg. Here, the terrain begins to roll a bit as we get closer to the mountains. At The Plains I jump on VA 55, the John Marshall Highway. Then, crossing I-66 just north of Morgantown, I switch over to Crest Hill Roadand head southwest. At Flint Hill, I take a short jaunt on US 522 before hooking up with US 211.

I’ve ridden the Dragon, US 129 through Deal’s Gap in the Smoky Mountains. Those 319 curves in that tightly-packed 11 miles do present a real challenge to a street rider, even one who’s knocked back over a quarter-million miles. But the stretch of US 211 from Sperryville up to the entrance to Skyline Drive is pretty close. The biggest difference is that the Dragon doesn’t change much in altitude. 211, however, climbs at first steadily, then precipitately up to the Blue Ridge. The last 4 miles or so are alternately terrifying and exhilarating. This is a collection of hairpins and switchbacks, thankfully 2-lanes wide on the uphill portion. It’s tempting to get unwound here, but the visibility through the turns is limited and there is an abundance of wildlife about in the dense woodlands that march right up to the road’s edge.

Suddenly, you round a curve and find yourself at the turnoff for the entrance to ShenandoahNational Park. The road is actually about 105 miles in length, running from Front Royal in the north down to Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro. There, the road changes names to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

About 1 billion years ago, magma forced its way upwards, building what would eventually become the Appalachian Mountains. Fast forward to about 8 or 9,000 years ago, the first human presence, in the form of Native Americans came into the area, on a seasonal basis to harvest nuts and berries and locate stone for tools. European explorers entered the mountains only 300 years ago in the form of hunters and trappers. They were followed by settlers who built rough cabins among the hollows and springs. Some of those structures can be found still standing in the Park’s back country. People came to the area in increasing numbers, drawn by the impressive beauty of the area.

In 1925, the ShenandoahNational Park was authorized by the government, but it wasn’t until 1935 that Roosevelt’s Army of CCC workers developed the core of the Park’s structures. But development has been tightly controlled. Almost half of the Park’s acreage is designated protected forest land.

Skyline Drive is the Main Street of the Park, running along the spine of the Blue Ridge. This affords the visitor to experience breathtaking views both east and west.

The ride up US 211 is a thrill, as I push the bike deep into the curves that slither up the east side of the ridge.

At the Thornton Gap entrance station, I’m greeted with sincere joy by a Ranger who knows she has the greatest job in the greatest place in the world. She collects my entrance fee, ($15 for cars, $10 for motorcycles), explaining that it’s good for seven days. She also warns that the speed limit is rigidly enforced.

Once through the station, I turn right and enter the roadway. Yes, the speed limit is only 35 mph, but I have to tell you, there’s no real need to go any faster. You’d miss too much.

Since I have most of the day still in front of me, I take my time, stopping at many of the overlooks as I meander northwards. The forest is dream-like and from within, the orchestra of birdsong serenades the visitor. The roadway is lined, not by aluminum guard rails, but fence lines made of native stone. They frame the road and the experience in a way that just fits the surroundings.

The road is heavily forested, but every few tenths of a mile are wide pullouts that give the visitor a stunning view of the surrounding area. Since the road straddles the ridge, you get equal share between the view towards Washingtonto the east, and the beauty of the Shenandoah Valleyto the west. As I ride along, the scenery flows by, seemingly too beautiful to not be the painting of a master artist. Here and there, deer stand alongside the road, looking up from their grazing as you glide by. As a rider, I have had a love-hate relationship with these particular mammals, given their predilection to leap into the roadway in front of approaching vehicles, sometimes resulting in collisions that usually have grim consequences. But today, we’re on the same side. I admire their graceful beauty and those large dark eyes as their presence brings life to the landscape.

You can get lost up here. Not in the navigation, but in the way that the beauty of the mountains takes possession of the soul. Life, with all its frustrations and complexities, goes away for awhile and is replaced by the peace that is upon the land.

Life has to go on though, and upon reaching the northern end of Skyline Driveat Front Royal, it is with regret that I leave this piece of heaven and head eastward to home, to work, to life. As I head back, I find a yearning within to return on another day.

And I promise myself; there will be another day.
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