Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for October, 2010

Bye, Bye Shenandoah

posted: October 25th, 2010 | by:Bert


Watching the leaves turn and our solar panels collect all the radiant energy we've been enjoying.

©Bert Gildart: For the past few days we’ve been quite content to sit on camp chairs and watch as our solar collectors do their job – converting radiant energy into electrical energy. In fact, at times it has required a considerable effort to rise and return to the interior of our Airstream to conduct the business we have yet to complete.

Part of the problem is that we have been so active physically, and gearing down to desk work requires a substantial mental effort. So much more enjoyable to sit outside and soak up the rays and contemplate the efficiency of our solar panels.

But all that is coming to an end no matter what we may want. In one more week, Loft Campground will close for the season and already several of the seasonal rangers we’ve meet are drawing their last check of the year. Nights are getting cold and here at an elevation nearing 3,500 feet, we’ve seen some frost. Time to say bye, bye.


But all that aside, we simply have to move on and most likely would have except for the fact that all campgrounds we’ve called our booked solid, meaning we must wait until after the weekend. In other words, people are passionate about fall color and love to camp in these forests dominated by oak and hickory, all bolstered in other places by hosts of eastern species such locust, sassafras, birch and poplar.

That leaves little alternative other than to watch the sun soak our batteries – and think about what we’ve seen and enjoyed as we’ve watched summer transition to fall.


CLICK TO SEE LARGER IMAGES. L to R: Summit Blacktop; sumac berries at southern end of park now ripe; rocks mountain folks piled, possibly to clear are for garden space; sassafras leaves and trail to Cathedral Rocks

Foremost have been the friends and family members who have camped with us for days on end, most notably Adam and Sue, Rich and his family — and one week ago, my nephew, his wife and their 16-month old baby, Eaden. What fun we’ve had with everyone. Joel (my nephew) and Becca are determined that their child will grow up loving the out-of-doors and they think nothing of strapping their baby on their backs and carrying him along some of the park’s most challenging trails.


During the several days they camped with us, we hiked trails to Blackrock Summit, and Calvary Rocks, and we hiked the Frazier Discovery Trail, all satisfying our interests in geological history. With the exception of the mammoth boulders found on Old Rag, scientists have designated most of the rocks we’ve recently seen as Greenstone, another form of granite but created by different processes that were separated by the passing of half-a-billion years. Such a figure is much easier to say than to imagine – and is certainly difficult to come to grips with. But the world’s best scientists provide their evidence, and I for one believe in the generation of scientists whose imaginations have helped create and develop our many “miracle” drugs.


Autumn at Old Rag as seen from Skyline Drive

As Janie and I sat outside our camper watching our solar collectors, we recalled that we have made many, many hikes and just the other day recalled that we hiked to an abandoned pasture near the park’s southern end. Apple trees planted by an earlier group of occupants still grow, but near the fringe of the pasture lush sumac berries presented a wonderful photographic challenge, essentially met using two strobes to provide even lighting on that sunny day so full of dark shadows.


Yet another day we recalled a couple we’d met along a section of the Appalachian Trail leading, in this case, from Powell Gap toward the Simmons Gap Ranger Station. They said they’d gotten married just a few days ago and that they had decided to honeymoon on the trail.


"We're married! See our rings." Newly weds hiking A.T. who go by trail name of Pago Pago and Noggin Knocker

Most AT hikers assume trail names and they were no exception, calling themselves Pago Pago and she, Noggin’ Knocker.

A little further along the same trail we came to piles of rocks, and we recalled that thousands had once occupied these old worn down mountains. As we sat in the sun, we again recalled these mountain people, coming to believe the rocks may have been moved to allow garden space. Were these families happy and prosperous?

Like most populations, some found success, but some didn’t. Many, however, certainly weren’t happy when authorities told them they’d have to move to make way for the creation of a national park. According to a campground host, in the 1930’s some of these mountain people were actually handcuffed and carted off.


But that’s the park’s dark side, and right now, that’s not what I’m seeing as we glance around from our job watching solar panels do their job.

All around we see leaves turning red, yellow and orange, and we are regretting that it is now time to leave. But we’ve gathered all the materials needed to update our books (see below) and the sun is no longer putting out the same amount of sun it did when we first arrived.

Tomorrow we’re departing for Washington DC to visit an aunt, and then we’re heading for several days to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. Then we’re heading back home to Montana, hopefully arriving before snows set in and all functional solar energy wanes from winter skies now manifest with their reduced durations.

Bye, bye, Shenandoah. We’ll miss you!



*Thoughts from Experts on Grizzly Bears


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Shenandoah’s Spectacular Loft Mountain Campground

posted: October 21st, 2010 | by:Bert


Early morning walk in fog from Airstream in campground at Loft Mountain.

©Bert Gildart: Loft Mountain Campground, located at Mile 80 along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, has more stories than you can throw leaves at. First inhabited by farm families, evidence of their past is everywhere, particularly if you go out looking for it, which we did. But there are other features as well. The Appalachian Trial skirts the campground, which in turn seems to provide access to many other trails, many of which were created by the park service to help interpret this beautiful setting.

As well, the weather is a story, and right now it’s providing a big one. Fog has moved in and we are totally engulfed, limiting travel. But we have an option, and that is to examine our surroundings a little bit closer; and what we are finding is there are subtle stories that span the generations.

Stepping outside and almost immediately adjacent to our campsite is a number of apple trees and they are of several varieties. One is a dark red, perhaps a crab apple; the other a bright yellow, and is one neither Janie nor I feel we can venture a guess. What I do know, however, is a little something about the way natural vegetation has reasserted itself.


Outside our camper is witch hazel and the low-growing coral berry  berry — but most significantly – are the stands of black locust. Locust is a sun-loving species and is first to return to a disturbed area, for it can tolerate intense sun. In turn the species provides shade for the succession of trees considered to be climax in this area, notably, the hickory – and several species of oak.


L to R: Outcropping of Greenstone and the overlook which also provides view from Frazier Discovery Trail; AT, as accessed from Loft Campground; passing more Greenstone along Frazier Trail.

We can see all these species by making a short hike from our Airstream to a world-famous trail, for the AT is perhaps 100 yards away from our campsite. “Fog hikes” provide incredible opportunities for photography, so we strike out along the AT which we follow for about a mile to the Loft Mountain Amphitheater. Along the way, we see the familiar AT logo and the white slash marks on trees, which are unique to the AT. We also see the buildup of “mast,” consisting of a thick accumulation of acorns mostly produced up here at Loft by the white and scarlet oaks. The food is a favorite of squirrels and jays. Because I wanted to dramatize the “mass of mast” I used a single strobe, which Janie positioned off to the left to help emphasize the extreme buildup of acorns, which must number in the thousands.


Area trails also tell other stories and while we’ve been here at Loft, we hiked other trails (with my nephew, his wife and young baby!), most notably the Frazier Discovery Trail. According to a park brochure, historically, the Frazier family occupied the area for generations, growing various types of produce and grazing cattle near the summit of Loft Mountain. Again, natural vegetation has reasserted itself and a beautiful 1.3-mile-long trail interprets the family’s tenure in the area.


“Mast, a term used to describe buildup of acorns appropriate as food for wildlife; coral berry, as seen most everywhere at Loft Mountain Campground.

One feature the trail used to interpret was the way in which Frazier eliminated native vegetation. Twelve years ago when Janie and I were here producing our first edition of Hiking Shenandoah (see below), we could still find evidence of the family’s technique for killing trees by girdling them.


At the time, park interpreters called portions of the trail the Deadening Nature Trail, and then the term was appropriate, as girdling will certainly kill trees. But such trees have been replaced and we were amazed to see all the new growth.

Frazier also referred to rocks at the summit of our hike as the Raven Rocks, probably so named for the ravens which tended to congregate on the beautiful outcroppings. From these “Raven Rocks” hikers are offered incredible views, and as always we take them in. As well, we take in the wonderful outcroppings of Green Stone, referred to by the park in their brochure as the Overhanging Rock Cliff. Greenstone is a form of granite formed almost 500 million years ago. The park’s other form of granite, Old Rag Granite, was created almost one billion years ago.


PATC maintenance cabin


Loft Mountain tells yet other stories, but we’ll save them for other posts. For one thing, the fog is still heavy here, and we want to explore the beauty of the setting as it now exists. It’s unique and as several of the images reveal, interprets the area’s beauty in a way other types of lighting simply can’t do.

Note: This blog was written two days ago at Loft Mountain where we had absolutely no internet access. Now, we’re back at Big Meadow, where we’ll be for a few more days.



*Pure Photography in Many Glacier Valley


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Recalling Shenandoah’s Mountain Folk

posted: October 13th, 2010 | by:Bert


In the face of such beauty as South River falls, it is difficult to recall that these hills were once home to thousands of displaced occupants.

©Bert Gildart: Shenandoah is a national park well known for its forests of oak and hickory and for the animals that populate these forests. What is often forgotten is that some of these same mountains were home to well over 3,000 people. Here, couples raised their children, who learned to read and write at local schools. Some families made moonshine and on Sunday attended church to pray for their  sins.

Some mountain folk were considered colorful and during the prohibition, Silas Weakley produced a much appreciated moonshine, which he sold to George Freeman Pollock, the man who developed Skyland Resort. As the story goes, once a week Silas would traipse from deep within Nicholson Hollow with his load of packaged rot gut, often packaged with timber rattlers that would augment a performance he’d provide for Pollock’s Skyland guests.

Today, as we hike to the beautiful falls along trails flanked with rocks dating back millions of years, there is little evidence of all these good and interesting people. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, families were told they must relocate for the good of America, that the area they occupied would become a national park. The government used its powers of eminent domain and within several years most were ousted from their homes.


Though there was an immense and forlorn outcry, certainly it was not what one might expect today, and in part, it was because some of the same people who tapped the talents of these mountain folk later characterize them as degenerate Hillbillies. Leading the pack was George Pollock who wanted to create a massive lodge. To do so, he needed a national park. And so he and others described these people as among the most down trodden of the down trodden. Wrote one park proponent: the children have never tasted milk… there is no bathing or other personal hygiene… the children have never heard of Christmas and have no games or toys…

Because of comments such as this, as Janie and I have wandered through Shenandoah we have been particularly interested in any traces of former human habitation, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to find. After eviction, homes were dismantled while others were absorbed by the forests. Yet others have suffered vandalism, most recently a devastating forest fire, deliberately set in the summer of 2000. The fire was massive and when it was finally extinguished many dwellings preserved as historic structures were consumed by the inferno, to include one of the last of the Corbin homes.


Today, about all that remains from the generations of this family’s occupancy is the one shown near the top of this posting. Located where the Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail links with the Nicholson Hollow Trail, the old home was saved through the concerted effort of firefighters; and I am delighted I am still able to visit it, for it shows the isolation these families once considered as part of their birthright. Today, the cabin is also preserved and protected by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which reserves it for overnight hikers.


Eleanor, Rich, Susan, Janie and Emma enjoying spendors of what has been transformed from farmlands to lush forests of oak and hickory.


Though it is unlikely the massive uprooting of families back in the ‘30s would be allowed today, it did happen and that can not be changed. Realizing the situation’s irreversible nature, Janie and I have been more than happy to show our many friends who have joined us the variety of grand settings this park contains.


L to R: Corbin Cabin, saved from devastating fire in 2000 through heroic efforts of forest fire fighters; Emma Luhr tosses leaves into air near one of today’s forest spectacles, South River Falls;  millstone is artifact from years thousands once occupied these hills.

Still, as we poke through the underbrush (finding old fireplaces, cement stairs, mill wheels and more) we like to remember those who once loved this land and called it home. Most likely they were much like the people from today’s wider society, meaning that some were good some and charitable, others not so good or charitable.

But it was a different time, and we’re just glad a little remains to recall this period, something we do as we hike to the beautiful falls and climb the lushly forested mountains, where we try to absorb all of this era’s good tidings – however much changed they might be.

NOTE: Posting from Shenandoah is extremely difficult, and for the next week it will be even more difficult as we move from Big Meadow Campground to Loft Mountain Campground where we’ve been told that you can search and search but will not  find hot spots.



Airstream and our Years on the Road


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Because of Milkweed Monarchs Proliferate in Shenandoah National Park

posted: October 11th, 2010 | by:Bert


Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed

©Bert Gildart: Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadow has always been the setting for grand activities, having once served as homelands for Native Americans and as one of the first CCC Boy Camps during the FDR administration. Today, exciting events are still occurring here, only this one representing a phenomenal adaptation from nature.

In short the event concerns the life cycle of the colorful monarch butterfly, which has its entire life cycle keyed to the well being of the milkweed plant, a species that proliferates in the open areas of Shenandoah. In other words, this member of the order Lepidoptera has chosen the milk weed as the perfect plant on which to perfect life. Here, it lays its eggs, where the tiny 1/8-inch size eggs emerge several days later as tiny caterpillars. Leaves of the milkweed then serve as sustenance for the caterpillar, which quickly grows.

Within several weeks caterpillars reach full size and soon transform to their pupa stage (known as the chrysalis). Finally, individuals metamorphosis into the incredibly gorgeous monarch butterfly — a species we all recognize by its radiant orange and black patterns.


Two other things are interesting about the relationship, and the first seems obvious: Why is the monarch keyed to this one plant species? The other interesting thing is less a question then a statement of timing – and that is that several of the events in the life cycle of this insect are occurring right now, meaning about the middle of October, at least here in Shenandoah.

Park Ranger Bob Kuhns put me onto this interesting sequence when I asked him several weeks ago about the soft cyst-like structure that seemed to be prevalent — and that many campers were brushing off from their belongings in apparent disgust. “It’s the chrysalis of the monarch,” said Bob, “and unfortunately many don’t realize that it will soon emerge into a beautiful butterfly. You’ll find most pupas on the milkweed, but as mature caterpillars they may crawl to other nearby structures just before they make this grand transformation.

“Just head on out into Big Meadow and you should find at least several of the stages.”


That’s precisely the way Janie and I spent the day yesterday. For hours, we wandered the beautiful meadow poking through the milkweed, discovering that not only did the monarch depend on the species but that a host of other species, such as the milkweed beetle, are also keyed to the species. As well, we also found the monarch caterpillar, but no chrysalis. Nevertheless, we had no doubt it depended almost exclusively on the milkweed and we had to wonder — why?


CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE:  L to R:  Milkweed showing brown seeds and feathery “vectors” of dissimination”; Big Meadow in back ground with milkweed and milkweed bugs in forground; monarch caterpillar feeding on husk of milkweed.

The answer we learned from yet more conversation with our ranger friend Bob, and from reading and from people we met out in the fields of Big Meadow results from a phenomenal condition. Milkweed contains an abundance of a chemical known as cardiac glycoside, which includes the somewhat familiar drug known as digitalis. All of these drugs can produce sickness, often fatal, and most animals and most birds have learned to avoid the species.


Somehow, through the eons of evolution, monarchs have adapted to the plant, but because they do eat the plant it means their bodies contain large amounts of cardiac glycosides. It further means that any bird that eats the monarch will become sick and may die. Most birds, however, have also learned to avoid butterflies with brilliant orange and black coloration, and so the monarch enjoys a relatively predation-free life.

At the moment, Janie and I have been finding lots of caterpillars, but few butterflies. That, however, is the stage of this magnificent species we’re hoping to see yet. In other words, we suspect caterpillars will soon be entering the chrysalis stage and then, in another week or two, be emerging as the magnificent and much heralded monarch butterfly.

We look forward to this magical time here during the autumn of Shenandoah National Park, which we continue to enjoy (see Old Rag).



Magnificent Moose


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A Walk in the Rain

posted: October 4th, 2010 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In autumn rain seems to be a frequent condition in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, something that often discourages venturing out in this premier hiking park. But unless the conditions are extreme, with proper attire that need not be a concern, and the rewards can be incredible, particularly for the photographer. At least that was the conclusion Adam and Susan Maffei reached following an all-day long venture down Cedar Run and then back up White Oak Canyon.


Descending Cedar Run


The hike is not an easy one, something that Janie and I emphasize in our book, Hiking Shenandoah National Park. In the book we write that it is easy to slip particularly when descending Cedar Run, for rocks are numerous. But it is the rocks and falls that make the trip, so several days ago Adam and Sue and I took our time.


Meanwhile, Janie remained behind, working on revisions for our book — and nursing a tired knee. She regretted her forced inactivity as Cedar Run was one of the few places we saw a bear, something we noted in our book at the time.


CLICK TO SEE LARGER IMAGE. L to R: Crossing Cedar Run; pausing at one of the six White Oak Falls; Upper White Oak Falls; Pausing at one of lower White Oak Falls.

We saw a black bear cub scamper across the trail and into the woods…

As the three of us hiked, cloud cover increased, but it only added to the saturation of the foliage and eliminated the “hot spots” that can ruin images of streams and falls. Soon a slight drizzle began and as the water increased it began to form droplets on leaves increasing color saturation, which were now beginning assume a variety of colors. Typically, maples were turning orange or red while some of the various species of oaks were turning yellow.


Along the way rock formations closed in and I recalled that this was one of the few places in the park which had never experienced homesteading. Most other areas in the park were farmed but their homesteads were eliminated through the law of eminent domain when the government decided to create a park from the area. As you can imagine the take over was not without controversy, but excessive farming during hard times had created immense erosion downstream, so there were two sides to the story. Such was the nature of our discussion as we descended.


Ascending White Oak Canyon


Near the end of Cedar Run we wrote:

…the water courses down a steep descent and settles into a gorgeous pool at the base of Half Mile Cliffs. Take time out to soak your feet or dunk yourself. There are no rock faces to climb here, and a more idyllic setting is hard to imagine.

About four miles into the hike (3.6 to be exact) we left the Cedar Run portion of the hike and began ascending White Oak Canyon. The canyon contains six falls and because of the rain, all gurgled with water. We stopped often and Adam, who is a natural ham, readily cooperated with my suggestions and then added a few extra flourishes to my suggestions. Because the trail paralleled the falls the temptation to stop often was great, but by now rain had begun to fall steadily. Timing, however, was perfect as we had reached the sixth and last falls. Now the rain began to be persistent.

Retiring the camera for the rest of the day we concentrated on the two mile ascent that remained, concluding as we hiked that if you can time your hike with a light rain, this hike would almost remain one of our favorites.



*Bears Ready For Hibernation


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