Comparing this summer’s travels to our marathon journey last summer, I’m struck by how much less the narrative is about how we survive the family dynamic on the road. Harper’s Ferry could have been a disaster – with our aborted attempt to camp. When you are with family, moments of adversity become magnified. Discomforts amplified. Perhaps the worst thing is getting lost. A few summer ago, we got lost driving a few times in the Pacific Northwest and it wasn’t fun. The tension in the vehicle was so great – our son became preoccupied with a fear of getting lost. Every time we made an innocuous U-Turn his worried voice would ask, “Are we lost?” Summer 2019 has found us a different family from those days. The next leg of our trip put that to the test:
Still flying by the seat of our pants, we set out for Shenandoah Valley National Park without a campsite reservation. It was a Sunday, so the chances were good that we’d be able to find a “walk-up” site, but there are no guarantees. We reached the park entrance where a dry-erase board declared each campground to be “FULL.”
“Is that sign accurate?” I asked.
“Oh, no. That hasn’t changed since yesterday,” the ranger said with a smile.
Indeed, a few miles from the northern end of the park, we found the Matthews Arm Campground to be nearly abandoned by the weekenders. We found a spot with only one neighboring campsite, and a hiking trail leading out the back of it.
Skyline Drive runs the length of Shenandoah Valley National Park offering dozens of incredible vistas. Campsites in Matthews Arm are spacious and shaded.
I’ve mentioned before that we enjoy hiking. Nothing too strenuous. With my physical and medical limitations, and a six year old in the family, we try not to bite off more than we can chew. We have the right footwear, good walking sticks, carry plenty of water and snacks, always bring a map, and never go too far.
The first hike that we took was on a popular trail to an overlook facing a waterfall. It was a fairly steep downhill trip. During the first mile, I noted that each downward step represented an uphill step on the return trip.
Shortly into our downhill hike we came upon a trio of hikers coming the opposite direction. An older lady was sitting on a rock, with a ghostly pallor. The other two were in their fifties. All three were wearing cheap sandals. They had a large clear bottle – filled with murky water, clearly obtained from the river we’d not yet reached. The younger woman asked us how far it was back to the trailhead. They looked worried when we told them it was about a mile.
Given the age and attire of the older woman, I couldn’t figure out how she’d even made it that far, much less to the river and overlook and back. But walking downhill can be deceiving. She was in trouble. We, on the other hand, were over-prepared. We had plenty of water and I had stashed some snacks in my backpack. We quickly offered them a granola bar and my water bottle, which had fresh ice water in it. We continued on the hike, marveling at how someone could take an elderly woman down that trail. Later, when we retrieved my water bottle from the park rangers, we learned that the woman had to be taken down the mountain in an ambulance. We didn’t hear anything further.
We passed many improperly shod humans on the trail – all wearing long faces. Always satisfying watching our six year-old pass seemingly healthy young adults.
It was good to be camping again.
We planned a similar short hike for the second day of our stay. This would take us to an old cabin, built by a farmer who scratched out a life in a mountain hollow – or “holler,” as they say. We found ourselves on a well marked, narrow, rocky downhill trail. Again, each step a painful reminder of the return trip we faced. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long hike. The only other human we encountered was a man coming the opposite direction. He informed us that a different trail back offered a more gradual climb, and only a little longer distance. So we planned to take the looping route back.
We reached a stream with large flat rocks that formed little pools. Perfect for a picnic and dipping our toes in the cold water. We marveled at the remoteness of the ancient cabins that had been home to a mountain clan. We gobbled up sandwiches and, rather than go back on the same trail, we took the gentler route out.
Or so we thought.
Left: This photo depicts the exact moment our daughter picked up the tick that gave her Lyme disease. We caught it early and she’s fine. Top right: See who is holding the map? Bottom: It has been a while since I mentioned our incredible Keene backpacks that fold into little seats with back rests (unfortunately they are discontinued.)
Look how happy we are, in spite of the giant spider. Seriously, those beams are 6×6. That spider is almost as big as my hand.
The trail continued… downhill. “How is this going to be more gradual, if we are still going downhill?” I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud. Monica had the map, and I’ve learned that two navigators is not always better than one. We continued to lose elevation, as the trail continued to follow the stream. Finally, our son spoke up. “How much further?” he asked. Monica admitted, the trail didn’t match the description in the book. I looked at the map, which lacked much detail, and deduced that we were probably OFF the map, on a trail that disappeared out of the picture. But honestly, we weren’t really sure. The only thing we knew was that we’d hiked the wrong way for about a mile, which meant that we had to hike that mile BACK to the cabins. And then we could either find the right trail, or go up the steep trek the way we came.
My “Blair Witch” moment.
“It’s no big deal,” I said. “We’ve got all day. We can take lots of rest stops.” Indeed it was only 2pm. There was almost 7 hours of daylight left. We’d be back to the car in 90 minutes. We hiked back up the trail to the cabins, and took a rest. It was then, that we noticed the impossible-to-miss trail marker. The very obvious trail that we intended to take was in plain sight, behind where we picnicked. Crisis averted. This story is unremarkable, except for what happened next.
Monica isn’t flashing a “peace sign.” That’s a “2.” As in, this is our SECOND time resting at these rocks. And that’s TWO extra miles we just hiked.
“Guys,” I said, “I don’t think we should rest too long. It sounds like rain.”
We tightened our laces and headed up the shady trail. It was really beautiful.
Then it started to rain.
Then it started to pour.
Then the trail was its own stream.
Monica quickened her step, but I can’t go uphill at the same pace as she and the kids when they want to hurry. For me to successfully hike uphill, I have to manage my exertion and my heart rate. Breathing normally, taking small steps, in a steady rhythm, I fell behind. Our daughter, who had zero insulation on her body, was beginning to feel cold and miserable. As the rain pounded, thunder and lightning got closer. Soon, it was striking all around us.
Then, a decision was made:
Monica, who takes three weight training classes per week, and runs marathons, put our daughter on her back. With our son close behind, they headed up the hill at a quickened pace. I lost sight of them almost immediately. The rain only got harder, and the lightning closer. I was soaked completely through, but the wide brim of my hat kept the rain out of my eyes. Trudging slowly up the hill, with no haste whatsoever, I continued my journey alone.
Alone, I focused on breathing slow and not pushing too hard.
“A least it’s not hot,” I thought. In fact, other than the risk of being struck by lightning, what was the problem? I can walk anywhere, even up a steep hill if I go slowly and take rests. My hike was somewhat serene in the deafening downpour.
Monica, on the other hand, had an extra 50 lbs to carry, and a pair of worried children to calm. She was a beast, going up that trail, still much faster than me. I stopped a few times to rest, but maintained steady progress. It was probably 45 minutes and two miles when Monica reached the road, a quarter mile from our van. She flagged down a passing SUV, who generously agreed to shelter the kids while she came down the trail to check on me. A maintenance crew also arrived and stood by in case someone needed to radio for help. After all there was a dude with history of aneurysms caught alone in a storm. In fact, I was only a few hundred yards behind them. The rain stopped briefly as Monica reached me.
We thanked the good Samaritans and walked along the road to the van as it began to rain again. Finishing our hike, we were soaked, but otherwise in perfect condition. Twenty minutes after a harrowing experience, we were laughing again – and marveling that we were almost one of those families on the news that had to be rescued after getting lost two miles from their car.
Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley National Park is pretty empty on a Tuesday during a rain storm. Few cars passed on the final stretch to the warmth of the van. One of the advantages of camping in a Westy is that you always have everything you need. In this case, all of our dry clothes were in there waiting for us. The kids jumped inside and quickly donned dry duds. Any reports of naked adults reenacting Woodstock outside a Volkswagen camper are greatly exaggerated.
In all seriousness, Monica was a bit worried about me, not knowing how far behind I’d fallen. But our first priority was the mental and physical health of our frightened children. I can walk. And I can walk wet. Bears, giant spiders, and lightning be damned.
Safe and dry, we decided to spend the afternoon at the cozy National Park Lodge just a few miles up the road. We found hot coffee and waited for the restaurant to open. It was nice to end the day with hot food, cooked by someone else. By evening, the rain had stopped.
It was a memorable day. In hindsight, I’m struck by how we responded to the stress of getting lost in bad weather. Monica was quick to take the blame – but I could have easily been the one who was holding the map. And while they were certainly frightened (the kids hate thunderstorms more than anything), there was no gnashing of teeth or cross words exchanged. I think a year or two ago, the sheer stress would have had us bickering a little (or a lot). Instead, we were laughing about it. And while we’re not going to go out of our way to make dumb mistakes for the sake of creating a memory – we had an adventure that we’ll never forget.
Back to the dry safety of our campsite.
Shenandoah Valley National Park is place we’ll definitely visit again. And I’ll remember that their definition of “easy” hike comes with some warnings. When it comes to “easy” things, I like to apply the rule “should a pregnant woman do this?” If the answer is “no,” then it’s best for a man riddled with aneurysms to avoid it too.
Still a little damp, we pulled out of the park heading for more Civil War exploring in Richmond… but naturally, we didn’t go there.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.