Home for the night

CCE6F5BF-4199-453C-B07A-222D1D18E541When I first began day dreaming through this adventure, it took a while to unearth exactly where I felt compelled to explore.  I had a decent handle on the path I would take – mountains through Virginia, North Carolina and northern Georgia and then south through central Georgia and Florida to the Keys.  On the return trip – head north as close to the Atlantic for as long as possible – final stop on the Eastern Shore.  Most important rule:  no highways.


But past that I just wasn’t sure what I was doing.  As in, why was I doing all this?  Was I looking for something?  A place?  A feeling?  People?  For weeks I muddled along, mostly on my morning runs, trying to work this out in my head.  I determined that time would tell, and there was no rush.  In fact, those words became some of the most important in the weeks leading up to my trip.  Deep breaths.  No rush.  Time will tell.


In the end, some of my plans were well laid out.  But for some reason, I could never nail down where I was headed that second day, though I knew that day #3 would take me to Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  So after my beary interesting morning on Skyline Drive, I headed to Lynchburg to have lunch with my college roommate.  I will not recount any of our many tales here as there’s just too much dirt between us.  Perhaps that’s a different blog!  Suffice it to say our time together was just what we both needed.  College friends – 30+ years later – are still the best friends.


But now where?  I had felt so much success at my trial run of car-camping that I wanted to do it again.  Try as I might, I just couldn’t find a location along the path to make it work.  And then inspiration struck mid-afternoon as I pored over the map of southwestern Virginia.  There would be no car-camping tonight after all.


Eight summers ago I took on a rare solo trip to Tennessee.  I remember this 2-day adventure fondly, and as a mom running a busy household, it was a novel and liberating feeling to drive somewhere far away on my own.  I planned to stop for the night along the way, and happened upon the little town of Marion, Virginia, along route 81 not too far south of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech.  In the center of this sweet town lay the General Francis Marion Hotel, a recently restored throwback to more interesting architectural times.  It seemed out of place somehow – a bit of a grandiose curiosity in this mountain hamlet.  The cost was no different than a decent roadside chain, so I stayed.  It would remain fondly in my memory as an almost secret escape and charming highlight of that trip.


And now, peering at the messy spread out map on my lap, I spied Marion not far off the path.  I’d always thought that I’d return, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in ages.  Now, it seemed like the most perfect time and I felt compelled to just go.  And yes, they had a room for me.  I could be there in 3 hours.  I was thrilled and felt as though this was exactly where I was supposed to go.

Downtown Marion, Virginia


Returning to a treasured place conjures up feelings of contentment for me.  Even though I’d only been there once, it felt quite familiar.  The old hotel stands proudly in the center of town, clearly the crown jewel of Main Street.  Built in 1927, it had fallen into disrepair and seemed doomed to disappear into the past around the turn of the 21st century.  Thankfully, it was purchased by a local family in 2000, and a major restoration ensued.  The hotel reopened its doors in 2006.

The Francis Marion, circa 1927 and 2018

I arrived in town in time to check in and take a walk in the early twilight.  Heading behind the hotel into the more residential streets, it was clear that Marion residents took pride in their homes and yards.  Genteel southern mansions surrounded by well-appointed perennial gardens and magnificent old trees gave way to tiny bits of cottages on back streets.  The town appeared cared-for and loved.  A kindly well-heeled southern gentleman extricated himself from his parked car as I walked past the gate at the edge of his stately home.  He kindly apologized for startling me, encouraging me to enjoy my evening as he disappeared into the shady entryway.  I imagined him a John Grisham old-school lawyer or judge, his mind on loftier things but happy to be home for the evening.


Heading back towards Main Street, it was clear that even for a mid-week evening, folks were out enjoying the cool summer air, greeting friends at one of several local watering holes.  I especially enjoyed the Song of the Mountains mural across the street, splashed across the side of a building, touting the rich musical history of the town, which dated back to the early 20th century.  Marion was home to old-time bluegrass musicians and the renowned Lincoln Theater, which has been both movie house and live venue.  Apparently even Roy Rogers appeared here, riding his famed horse Trigger across the stage.  Thoughts of this horse evoke a personal memory as well.  At a fair perhaps, my grandmother famously (so the story goes) cut or pulled a lock of Trigger’s hair from his mane when my dad was a little boy.  It remains now, maybe 70 years later, tucked carefully into her Bible by my bedside at home.

I pause in front of what appeared to be a museum of sorts.  Proudly displayed in the old-school shop windows are over 100 years worth of military uniforms, mostly men, some women, complete with the recounted tales of local soldiers who served in wars around the world.  It’s clear this is a town in part defined by its past.  But Marion is more than fulfilling its present as well.


As I saunter up the street to my destination,  the Francis Marion sits proudly as if the protector of the town, watching over with pride and fondness.  I can’t wait to head back and enjoy my  night in the midst of this living history.


This day, with its roots in the cool shadows of the Shenandoah mountains, wandered on with a drive down into the rolling hills of Virginia wineries and breweries into the comforting land of a best friend, ending perfectly in the inviting heart of the most welcoming of hotels in this mountain town. Another good day, indeed.



Joy in My Morning


I’m pretty sure I was smiling before I even woke up.  Mountain air drifted into my cocooned hideaway, bringing with it the promise of a new day to explore.  And blessedly, sunshine streaked through the treetops overhead, calling me out of my cloistered space and into the campsite.   Heaven.  And I couldn’t wait to get started.

My first glimpse of the morning

I love to walk.  It’s a crucial part of my mental health, and it might be a little bit of an obsession too.  Most mornings start with a 3 or 4 mile walk or jog around the neighborhood.  When I’m home, it’s a way to clear my head, pray, and organize my day.  It’s where I think best.  I love watching the little changes in the terrain each few days.  The barren carpet of the woods in winter which slowly gives way to the first hints of green.  By early May it’s all so lush and fragrant with honeysuckle it’s hard to recall the harsh brown of the ground just weeks earlier.


When I’m traveling, I eagerly anticipate striking out that first morning, on foot, to investigate.   I’ve walked mountain paths in Wyoming and Washington state, beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and city streets from Manhattan to San Francisco, Barcelona to Sorrento.  It’s the best first way for me to get a sense of a place.  Experiencing a new spot, on foot, provides a unique view that planes, trains and automobiles, (and even bicycles) cannot match.


As yesterday ended with a rainy evening that allowed for just a hint of what lay beyond the campsite, I set out with anticipation to see what I could see from my sun-splashed mountaintop.  I was not disappointed.


Near the entrance to the campground I discovered a trail to the amphitheater.  As I approached from the rear, it was quickly evident that the whole wide world was its backdrop.  The stage in the foreground seemed unnecessary as the view of the mountains provided enough entertainment of its own.  A beautiful start to the day!

Amphitheater backdrop

Walking away from the amphitheater, I heard scuffling in the woods – the kind of craziness that always sounds like Sasquatch is plowing through, but usually turns out to be a few psycho squirrels skirmishing through the trees.  Not even bothering to look, I walked on past the perceived squirrel party.  But then the racket escalated just enough to compel me to turn around.  No squirrels.  Not even close.

I confess this isn’t my guy, but had I had the guts to pause for a photo, it would have looked just like this :).

A large black bear was slowly clambering down an oak tree, breaking branches along the way with the weight of his ginormous paws. I felt like I was dreaming a little, or in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Oh how I wanted to freeze and take his picture, watching him as he lumbered to the ground.  But I didn’t.  I turned tail and jogged back closer to where there would be people.

Wow, I thought.  This is the BEST day!  An amazing view and a bear.  Even cooler, a bear in a tree!  Thank you Lord for a great beginnings.

I took this photo earlier on my walk, thinking it was probably a bit of an overstatement. I mean, surely this is just precautionary and not the norm!


As I neared my site, I decided to explore the ridge just below the line of campsites.  This was part of the Appalachain Trail, the enormity of which always captures my imagination.  It thrills me anytime I can hike even a little stretch of it.  I scrambled down the rocky path, anxious to walk along the vast sheets of rock that provided grand views of the remote and uninhabited valley below.

Within a hundred yards I came upon a flat expanse of slate-like stone, romanticizing that it would be a perfect spot to settle in and read for a while.  Unbelievably, as I considered turning back for a book, I see another furry black friend rummaging through the laurel and scrub brush, looking for breakfast.  Seriously?  He was directly between me and my campsite.  Should I be worried?  Or more specifically, HOW worried should I be?  Should I make a run for it?  I quickly decide NO.  He didn’t see me nor did he seem interested in anything other than scavenging.  I determined to walk on, quietly, and leave him to his more important business.  I clearly had this under control and was feeling pretty smug indeed.  Big scary bear – whatever!

But . . . and before I share this last part I must digress a bit to say that God is ever-so-quick to put me in my place these days.  The moment I feel in charge of my own destiny, that I have things more than under control, out comes the rug beneath me.  Not YOUR ways, the message comes clearly.  MINE.  And so it goes.

I didn’t even enjoy one full minute of feeling in control of this bear-y situation.  Not one minute.  As I quietly and unsuspectingly moved on down the trail, around the bend that would take me back to the path and the safety of my campsite, I came face to face with what I am confident is the largest black bear in Virginia, not thirty feet in front of me, lumbering directly my way.  The mountain itself may have been shaking each time a colossal paw hit the dirt.  Well, that may have been my heart.  I didn’t stay to find out.

The following is not proper protocol for bear sighting behavior, but I quickly considered my options.   Back away slowly with my hands in the air?  Scream and act like a crazed person? Turn around calmly and walk away?  No no no.  I ran like the wind.  I ran like a 300-pound black bear was chasing me.  I just prayed he wasn’t

Growing up I ran cross-country.   Stamina I had in spades, but no speed.  On the track I was slow as molasses.  But not this morning.  Usain Bolt had nothing on me for the next minute or so.  I escaped back down the trail, terrified to look back, but oh so wishing I could have just watched him from a safe distance.  He was so regal and sure of himself.  So proud.  After I was sure I had run far enough to not encounter scavenger #2 in the woods, I hung a hard right and burst into a campsite where three girls were calmly cooking breakfast over a healthy fire.  They looked at me like I was the Sasquatch.  I’m sure I looked and seemed ridiculous.

So this is not officially my guy (he was WAY bigger :), but you get the idea!

Somewhere between thrilled and terrified, I slowly made my way back to my site.  Clearly it was time to pack up and get on the road.  If nothing else happened today – heck, this week – I was good.  Three bears in 15 minutes!  With any threat of danger in the past, I recognized this for the amazingly cool thrill that it was.

Before long I packed up my self and my site and headed south along Skyline Drive, anxious to see what else this amazing morning could possibly bring.


Just a few paces before I encountered “HIM”, while I was still thinking this was the perfect place to read for a while.

The trees hung fresh with rain, sparkling in the now bright sunshine.  Everything smelled crisp and clean.  Yesterday had been a time of expectation.  Today was clearly bringing joy in the morning.  And yes, adventure called!  Before I could drive 10 more miles, I encountered one more bear.   This lady was just hanging out in the middle of road.  Within a moment of my stopping, her twin cubs came bounding out of the woods to scurry across the road under her watchful eye.  Day made.







Clearing the fog

A perfect beginning!

Earlier this summer, when I decided I would strike out for the Florida Keys, it never once occurred to me to fly the 1100+ miles.  Instead, for the past 6 weeks or more, I’ve joyfully unfurled maps of every state from Virginia to Florida on the kitchen table, highlighting and plotting my itinerary.  It makes me giddy. Researching new places, plotting a route – this is comparable to childhood Christmas mornings.  I can’t help it.  I’m a planner by nature.  Well, not for everything (ie. ironing and lesson planning come to mind immediately as areas in need of work) but certainly when it comes to travel.


From the onset there was a sense of persistent curiosity to investigate the unknown.  The problem – the possibilities were endless!  Oh yes, and the other problem – a miniscule budget!  I embraced both issues and brainstormed.  The added challenge of traveling on a dime took the adventure up a notch.  I determined that ending every day at a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express seemed like cheating anyway.  However, in my chai latte soaked brain, that does not mean that it isn’t completely appropriate and perhaps necessary to find a Starbucks somewhere along the way each day!


So how to begin?  This part was easy.  For pretty much my entire adult life I have lived less than 40 miles from the northern gate of Virginia’s  Skyline Drive, the north/south byway that runs for 105 miles across the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.  Prior to this trip, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve entered its gates. Shameful.  No more.  I resolved to explore the length of it over the course of the next day and a half.


And so on Day 1, I packed up the SUV (ok so I say this casually but truly, it took me weeks to feel confident regarding what I needed to be on the road for two weeks) and headed west.   Note: for those who may be directionally challenged, west is NOT the obvious direction to drive to Florida from Virginia.  But it’s mine.  And I wasn’t gone 5 minutes before I had the most satisfying sense of freedom.  In hindsight, I think that’s why I headed to the mountains first.  Clear, clean, fresh.  All concepts I needed to apply to shed the gunk of everyday life and recover the joy within.


My expectations for this day were reasonable.  Drive to Skyline Drive and leisurely head south.  The end game – camping in my SUV at Loft Mountain.  Wait . . .  WHAT?  (Well, I said I was on a budget!)  I don’t have much experience in this area, but this trip is about trying new things, stretching myself, branching out.  First off I’d like to say that you can learn just about anything you want via Pinterest.  Turns out camping in your car isn’t that weird.  And so I did it.  Thinking back to my dad’s repurposing of the pickup truck (see earlier post), I determined the same could be done to my good ole’ Pilot.  For $15, I could have an amazing night on top of the Blue Ridge.


And looking back now on the day itself, it was God-designed and perfect.  I’ve been praying about this trip for a long time.  I can’t explain it except to say that I have been compelled to do this.  I couldn’t NOT do it.    So, I knew that God would honor it and lead me where I needed to go, and protect me and stretch me along the way.   Somehow as the sky fell and raindrops pelted my windshield as I drove through the gate of the park, it seemed just right.  The forecast was for this to be the last day of the epic rains of the past 10 days, and I just trusted that by the time I got to the campsite, all would be dry-ish.


The whole day became a metaphor for the trip ahead.  Fog everywhere, with glimpses of sky and, at the many overlooks, quick previews of far-off valleys and the occasional peeking-through of a shot of blue or a ray of honest-to-goodness sunshine.   I felt so much peace as I drove slowly (because you can’t go over 35 without driving over a cliff) around each bend, not knowing what I would find, but always expectant.  Sometimes I could only see about 50 yards in front of me, but I trusted the road was there and that the fog would clear.  And it did.

While I don’t profess that God brought down rain down on Virginia just so that I could learn a thing or two, He did use it to get my attention.  As excited as I was about beginning my trip, the fog and rain forced me to go slowly, and to think about every turn and every view.  And yes, there were just glimpses of what was to come, but I could only see what I needed to see, and trust for the rest!

By the time I shyly pulled up to the campground and picked out my site, I felt a little bit empowered.  After building a successful fire made mostly with very wet wood, making dinner, and finally packing it in (literally packing ME in my SUV), I tucked myself down to work through my first blog post.  Breathing in the cool wet mountain air, snuggled up on my daughter’s super cushy college mattress topper in the back of my Pilot, I felt like things were off to a pretty grand start indeed.  I couldn’t wait for the promise of morning.

End of Day 1 with a promise of great things to come.


Taking to the Road

“Adventure” and “explore” are two of my favorite words.  I’m a road-less-traveled kind of girl.  Always have been.  The sheer curiosity of not knowing what is around the next bend or over the hill is intoxicating to me.  It’s like reading under the covers when you’re little, holding your breath and turning the pages fast as lightning because you can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

There’s something about cool stairways. There’s mystery and adventure right around the corner!

I place blame for my curiosity of spirit in two places.  First up – my dad.  From my youngest fuzziest memories I see the top of his full head of hair, eyes squinting through his glasses, peering intently at a map.   Of course that’s going back to when a map was either a road atlas or an impossible-to-fold giant piece of paper.  He could be pulled into that paper full of colors and lines for hours on end.

I’m sure my desire to understand a map had as much to do with wanting his attention as it did deciphering the language of topography, but in either case I was all in.  He patiently taught me the language of highways and back roads, how to calculate mileage, and that a main route ending in an odd number meant it traveled north/south, but an even one went east/west.  To me this was all fascinating.  Before long, I wanted to take to the road and decipher it all, to see how routes played out in real life.  Would they thrill?  Surprise?  Disappoint?  I think I loved the mystery of it all – that this coded scribble of lines correlated to every road in America.  I’ll never get over it!  The whole exercise cemented the US of A as a web of cities and roads that remain in my brain to this day.  And I still want to experience them all.  The possibilities are truly endless, which is both thrilling and torturous.  It still delights me to no end to explore a new road, but there’s always a sense of loss in knowing there are so many tempting turns and trails that just can’t fit into the day.

The summer I turned 12, my parents put a cap on the back of the Chevy pick-up and tricked it out with storage and carpet.  A veritable hideaway on wheels.  My 10 year-old sister and I trekked to the library with my mom and stumbled out of James V. Brown under the sheer weight of all the books we had in tow.  Mom and Dad tossed us, along with our books and sleeping bags, into the back of the truck and drove us from Central PA to Wyoming.  This was adventure of the highest order.  I held the mysteries of  Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden in my hands, and just outside the window the maps in my dreams came to life in full color.  What could be better?

And honestly, in hindsight, what could have been better for our parents?  Three days of knowing your kids are safely ensconced in plain view, but you can’t hear them at all?  We didn’t even have one of those nifty little windows that slid between the cab and the rear.  Nope.  If we wanted anything we had to pound on the double window. Looking back they clearly ignored us unless it suited them.  This sheer genius move on their part never occurred to me until now.

This epic road trip easily doubled the number of states I’d been through at that time in my life.  We didn’t have much money, so this trek through the Midwest and beyond made an indelible impression on me.  I’ll never forget the overwhelming rush of driving around a bend in western Wyoming and coming face to face with the Tetons.  There was no warning.  One minute it was just all hills and scrub brush, and then, WHAM – the Grand was staring me right in the face. That moment is burned in my traveling brain, along with an everlasting lesson:  every corner has possibility.

And so here I am – as a big ole’ grownup 40 summers later – taking to the road.  This time I’m on my own.  Yes, for the past month I’ve had my head in a map or two, determined to find the balance between planning and spontaneity.  I’ve read the lines and colors, and of course these days we have so many other options for research.  How did we travel without TripAdvisor or Yelp, not to mention Googlemaps and a GPS?  In the end, I have a starting point and a destination, but the path there and back is the prize.  Days of wandering (not lost!) slowly southward from the noise and tumult of the far western DC suburbs to a very much-needed stay with sweet and fun friends in the Keys.  According to the can’t-live-without-it GPS, it’s about 1200 miles down route 95, but I won’t touch it until I have to near Miami.  (It’s 95 or the alligator swamp.  Tough choice but the highway wins by a tooth.)  This trip isn’t about South of the Border and traffic jams in weather so hot you can melt the soles of your flip flops.  Nope.  It’s an adventure of the highest order.  I’d love for you to come along for the ride.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to pull out the road atlas and explore for yourself.

Day one coming up!