Monday, June 30, 2008


Up and on the porch early. The waning “short moon” rides high in the south, making the whole hazy sky glow in an eerie false dawn and fooling me into thinking it was time to get up. Sucker. Mist fills the hollows stretching away to the east. Save for the faint whine of the highway, I sit in silence under the moon for many minutes. Then a lone cow’s distant bellowing breaks the spell; a handful of bats cavort and wheel madly above the lawn, a deer gives a whistling snort as it crashes through branches and brush, an owl hoots towards the river, and suddenly noise is everywhere. Ahead of the sun and the true dawn, the world is awake.

Crows. Lots of them, off to the south towards the river. The bats won’t quit—I don’t think I’ve ever been up to see them at dawn before, always at twilight.

“Crepuscular” is the word of the day.

A wild turkey calls. And again. Now lone deer stands where the lawn, forest and drive converge. As utterly pedestrian and unremarkable as a solitary deer is, it still makes me smile. And now it is gone, vanishing while I looked away.

Calling something a hoary cliché is itself a hoary cliché. But the hilltops really do look like islands in the early morning mist. Now something else is in the air, flying past in a mad chittering formation. I really do have to figure out whether they are bats or birds, but they don’t fly like the bats I’ve seen and bats don’t make so much noise. Swallows? Whatever the non-barn swallow type is; they lack the forked tail.

Definition in the clouds now. Pastel pinks and greys, the colors of mourning doves, flecked with rose and sherbet. A woodpecker sounds, close by and insistent. I think I understand why hunters get so religious about being out in the early morning. Actually hunting must kinda ruin the moment.

AHA! I have the little flying things in the binoculars now! And they’re definitely…either birds or bats. Right-O.

The mist is rising, drowning the islands—in milk.

Bluebird on the lawn. Train whistle far off to the north. Hummingbird, harassing the juniper tree. Now the milk has risen, revealing the close hills but obscuring the farther ones.

Summer. Virginia. The Great Valley.

Sunday morning. Mmm. Coffee. Good.

Pandapas Pond. Hot, hazy, still, cool in the shade but hinting at what the afternoon will bring. Flies aplenty bother everyone. Canada geese; baby turtle swimming in the murk; little static cliques of bluegills. Single-engine airplane drones far overhead. Merciful breeze.

The same swallow-like birds skim the lake, casually dipping into the surface from time to time, and plowing long narrow wakes across the still water. No idea what they’re eating. Lots of dragonflies everywhere. The breeze dies, and it is still as the grave along the shoreline.

This strikes me as an unremarkable place in size and aspect, comparing not that favorably with any stagnant, tepid man-made lake; e.g., Lake Fairfax, but lacking the charming little railroad. And the f---ing horseflies are packets of pure evil on tiny little wings. They are stupid, and have poor, predictable reflexes from not feeling threatened by people. In short order, I have a tiny little pile of two dozen fly corpses at my feet.

A compact grey raptor with a long tapered tail, a buff belly and a nasty little hooked beak. Small glossy black turtle sitting on a lily pad; nearby, another turtle hangs motionless in the water like a pancake with legs, its bright green face breaking the surface.

We leave Pandapas, heading for the falls at Cascades. We depart limestone country and are in sandstone country now; it shows. The vegetation looks a bit rougher here, a bit lanker—not like what we saw growing on the lush limestone-fed soils back across the mountain. We have also entered the Mississippi river watershed, I believe.

I am learning soooo much about the…female issues…of my fellow travelers. Familiarity breeds…too much information. I am determined to work prostate issues and vasectomies into the conversation before the week is over. Misty eventually pulls the money quote out: "Don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die."

Sunday afternoon, and four generations of Pembroke women sitting on the front porch in the shade.

Condescension is never pretty. What is the line from “Far Appalachia”? “Whiskey is the only gift that doesn’t insult poverty.” I wonder if that applies here…looks like a pretty dry place.

We arrive at the parking area at Cascades, and begin executing some esoteric kind of Chinese fire drill involving food, swimsuits and hiking. Fun! But the clouds are gathering above us, and the collective success of our mission seems to be in jeopardy.

Without thinking, I start hiking, shamelessly and irresponsibly leaving everyone else to pack up lunch. But I manage to outrun my guilty conscience, and Chris becomes my partner in crime.

The hike should be interesting—the awesome scale of the mountains is indicated by the power lines that cross the valley at the parking area and shoot up the mountain.

We maintain a three-mile-an-hour pace up the rocky jeep road, in my haste overlooking the more interesting trail that follows the stream. Frass.

We descend the last quarter mile to the stream, walking through a Rivendell of hemlocks, tossed boulders, pools and riffles. The massive waterfall is only revealed to us at the very end through a portal of stone; it is magnificent. Thunder rolls.

We are the first of our group, by a long shot. I shuck my stinky shoes and work my way out onto the flat rock to the water’s edge. After a few minutes of aimless equivocation, I commit, and swim out into the middle of the pool. I am the only swimmer now, and thunder rolls. I roll onto my back and float, high on the side of a tall mountain, hidden deep in a cleft ravine, staring straight into the pregnant grey belly of the storm.

I don’t last long. It is very cold, and it has been a long time since I swam a mountain stream like this one. I slowly extricate myself, dry off a bit, and begin my lunch of various and sundry. The rest of the group begins to arrive onesy-twosy. I am heartened that most choose to wade, at the very least; there are many spectacular cannonballs as well.
Restores my faith in today’s youth.

Everybody and their dog is here. Really.

It is beyond sad to descend through this ghost town of the hemlocks. They stand on the precipitous hillside, soberly looking down like the bleached bones of old wizards. The thunder calls them, but no reply returns; their desiccated lungs offer no breath into the wind.

We continue downhill, and the afternoon light thickens under the green canopy. More rolls of thunder, and eventually a sprinkling of rain—just enough to fool some into putting on their raingear and sweating themselves up.

A lone deer watches us nonchalantly from the roadside as we drive out.

A brief stop at the local quickie mart gives me the chance to consult the reference section of their bookshelf. The chittering little flying things are tree swallows, not bats. Who knew? Lemon balm and mint grow thick in the little garden beside the store’s parking lot.

Mountain Lake—an odd mishmash of good, bad and indifferent. “Dirty Dancing” and British reality teevee, a sadly diminished lake, man-made wetlands built to preserve a fickle natural lake. Still trading on a movie a generation later. The lakebed we walk is a badlands that reminds me of places in Yellowstone. I have an unconscious aversion to stepping off the path because of that. But there is no lively menacing steam boiling beneath this crust—only foul-smelling muck.

Sandstone and shale. Yet another ghost town with a different citizenry. I see no terrestrial animals—no snakes, no toads, no skinks, no insects—nothing scurries around among the beached rocks. This is like the low tide of death, a big bowl of suck.

Then: FOSSILS! And more FOSSILS! Let’s hear it for the Juniata shale formation! And for people who appreciate nerdy things like FOSSILS!

A concept: Ur-Weather. That’s what we’re experiencing.

And Now For Something Completely Different: The Appalachian Trail! We travel some pretty sketchy roads to Wind Rocks, a west-facing outcropping of sandstone in an isolated near-wilderness. (We wonder if Charlie might be a psychopath who is leading us all to a gruesome doom. After all, how much does anyone really know about this “Center for Field Studies” anyway?)

Evening haze shrouds the valleys before us, plus the next four ridges to the west. A very faint and pale line of light rests on the horizon; otherwise, the scene is a monochromatic fade from grey-green to pure grey. This is beautiful.

Thunder rolls from the south, and the breeze freshens. Crisp lightning bolts spark to the far southwest ridge, and now most of the color has drained from the horizon. I think I can faintly see rain falling south of us. It is immeasurably more pleasant here than it was at Mountain Lake, but I am surprised at how uneasy the coming storm makes me in this vulnerable and exposed place. We give our regards to “Thumper,” and head back to the vans.

Flame azaleas—sherbet colored and taller than me. Don’t think I’ve noticed them before. Back at the van, an orange salamander nearly the same color.

Our moveable feast returns to Selu with us, unmolested. Somehow, we all agree that waiting until we are back "home" to eat is better than (1) hauling everything up to Wind Rocks or (2) trying to eat back at the vans in the parking area. We are hardcore, ain't we? So we picnic in the big room, and there is much eating and little talking. We are hungry and tired after a big, long day.

The storm finally seeks us out in our sanctuary at Selu. Lightning alternates between demure discharges within the low-slung clouds and brazen belligerent bolts in front of our very eyes. They viscerally shake the house, the porch and its insignificant occupants. As much as I relish this show, I am tired; the wind-blown mist makes me cold. I have had enough for one day. I am going inside.

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