I couldn’t help but borrow this title from one of a fantastic series of books written by the famous naturalist, Edwin Way Teale, who captured the natural wonders discovered along the road through his and his wife’s travels around America in 1947. In their hopes of transfiguring the grief of losing their son to World War II, they bought a Buick and set out on a 17,000-mile road trip, writing eruditely of flora and fauna long before ecological awareness entered the American post-war mass mind.
We have turned the corner on a number of months waiting out the Dark Time—as my son used to call it—and headed north ourselves, aided by the explosion of chiggers (no see’ems), mosquitoes, ticks, and other unnamed parasites that thrive in the low country, and sought out the higher northern terrain. Both Ruth and I carry the marks and scars of swarms of these pesky critters despite insect sprays and retreating into our “bug house” shelter. This moniker relates to its design intent and our state of mind. There have been stories of how swarms of mosquitoes can drive Alaskan moose and other inhabitants crazy, and we have experienced this madness adapted to the region below the 49th parallel. We took stock of our skins’ stomping ground, and I counted roughly over 150 bites on my legs alone. Ruth had the look of having a bout of the measles, with related indescribable itchiness, perhaps a similar madness that would cause those above the 49th to exclaim, “A spouse on the loose.”
Late April finds us at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Our drive shuttles us along exquisite explosive verdant green parkways representative of the East Coast region, over and around rolling hills on a ribbon of road that rocks and lulls us into tranquil contentment.
Parkway lanes split into dappled green forested canopies, and emerge out into deep green pastures, dominating the color spectrum. One significant difference in suburban landscape here is the absence of border fences and hedges between houses. One can scan across a cross section of front yards and their only demarcations are driveways. Riding lawnmowers are king here. These sod-trimming tractors are the hood ornaments of Lowe’s and Home Depot in this region, posing dominoed along their frontages, ranked in size and power to suit any turf trimmer’s needs. As we drive along the highways, everywhere we look, riders shuttle around their acreage like Pacmen, cutting out geometric patterns over the green. We discuss the value of every home owning its own mower, great for the economy, or of those shared between families, wise socialist home economic thinking? I reflect back to my first visit to a ballpark, and walking from the dark recesses under the stands through the gangway into the stadium, being flabbergasted by the vision of ordered verdant sensuousness, a field of creative excitement and potential.
As we traveled up the eastern seaboard from Savannah, Georgia through South and North Carolina, into Virginia, we transitioned from full spring, traveling back in seasonal time to witness the brilliant verdant green of new leaves and flowering of early spring. Butterflies traced hidden pheromone pathways across the landscape, and bird calls dominated the soundscape. Now is the exemplification of spring to us Southwest desert rats. Edwin Way Teale talks about the changes they witnessed during their travel north noting that along with spring, there is an approximate temperature drop of three degrees per 300 miles at sea level as they traveled. Contours of the land bring seasonal changes as well, with about five and one-half degrees of temperature drop per one thousand feet of elevation. Time travel, which is scientifically near impossible at this point in time, can be cheated a bit by a keen observer traveling over this orb’s convoluted surface, temperatures and elevations moving seasons forward and back in time.
Ruth loves to plot out destinations off the beaten path as we trek along, following the often practiced 2-2-2 rule: drive no more than 200 miles, get to your camp before 2pm, stay a minimum of two days. There are a plethora of camping options in our stable of stays, one of which is cheap and often overlooked, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and we satellite navigated off our parkway to a road that set my alarms off. Looking back in our side mirrors, I could see the side edges of our Airstream cut the center lane in half, and sweeping over the verge on the passenger side. Looking out the side windows, I swear I could spy banjo-playing folks in worn overalls with moonshine jugs at their feet, and wry toothless grins mouthing silently, “Y’all ain’t from around here, are ya?” Yes, I know this is a cliché and . . . perhaps it was just my imagination.
After numerous tight turns on mountain roads that turned tortuously upward to dip into heavily shaded hollows, we came to a campground guard shack. I figured I’d get the jump on the conversation by asking if it would be acceptable to fire semi-automatic weapons, play loud music, and drink and fight with our neighbors? For some reason, this question didn’t faze the attendant: folks in the south have a way with their repartee. They directed us to our lakeside campsite. Did I say the US Army Corps of engineers build and manage the dams here in the US? And we passed from Virginia high country solitude into a campground carnival. Every spot was filled with families larger than Catholics off birth control, dogs barking, kids scurrying everywhere, vehicles circling, some parking boats, others just cruising, strollers carrying fishing tackle, folks popping in and out of the restrooms like bees in a hive. One couple was escorting their three-year-old in what I figured was a shiny new yellow $1,000-plus electric mini car up the street against heavy traffic. Kids zipped over concrete, grass, berms, ditches, and hills on two-wheeled electric hover boards.
Upon arriving at our campsite, we saw our entry was blocked by a pickup truck and a robust woman across the way, seeing my quizzical face, apologized for the inconvenience. It seems they just needed a spot to park closer than 50 feet from their campsite, and ours was most convenient. Our apologetic interloper explained about the presence of their truck using some vernacular unfamiliar to our ears. Ruth was puzzled, as the woman’s accent was so thick, but it translated (we suspected) to her boys were out fishing, and left her the keys for safekeeping. However, she couldn’t drive a . . . she didn’t say stick shift, or standard transmission. It was unrecognizable even by my years of working in the tech field. “Okay, no problem,” I politely responded. And for safety, with no snarky response said, “I’ll do it.” I took the keys, depressed the clutch, turned the ignition on, and dash lights came on but it wouldn’t start. At this point, our fifty-foot rig was blocking the road in the campsite with no resolution in sight, so I walked back to the welcome station, requested a new site, and within a plunk of a banjo string we were set up overlooking our lake destination.
This was a significant upgrade in location from the previously heavily forested and populated spot, and I would have to remember to redouble my snarky comments with the campground hosts and park rangers to earn it. We came into the campground on Saturday, and the next day, everyone—and I mean everyone—left, leaving us alone with the sound of fish jumping out of the water in the distance (why does this not seem to happen when people are fishing nearby?) and bull frogs moaning on the water’s edge. We chose this opportunity to walk around our campground and up into a hidden little-used wooded camping area that we figured was built by the Army Corps back when the dam was built in the early 50s. Signs warned off campers driving or towing a vehicle longer than 20 feet, and our walk confirmed and revealed tight turns on up and downgrades that would lead to serious extraction problems. Yet the steep-hilled campground was a ghostly remnant of an earlier time, once populated with our earlier revelators, now silent, but for bird and wind song. Ruth explored this sector of the park during an early morning hike and swore she heard voices in the trees . . . we slid into silence . . ..