After the excitement of several back-to-back metropolises, it was a relief to get back to the cool greenery of the wilderness. We were heading to Shenandoah National Park, my first foray into the state of Virginia. Extending along the narrow ridge that is the northern apart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah’s spectacular views, star filled skies and cooler climes were the perfect antidote to the steamy hustle-bustle of the city.
Shenandoah and Skyline Drive – the scenic drive which runs the full length of the park and eventually turns into the Blueridge Parkway – was established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The more we traverse the states, the more we are exposed to the long term impact FDR had on his country. It’s a nice reminder of the true beauty of America and its underlying values that can easily be forgotten today. As we started to traverse Skyline Drive and oohed and ahhed at the views to the flat plains to both the east and the west, I thought ‘FDR, you can be part of my American entourage’. (Just to be clear: so far it’s me, FDR and Ben Franklin… and I guess Erik).
It is truly a spectacular part of the country. Before we left Baltimore, our friend Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson had told us that ‘you feel like you are on top of the world’ in Shenandoah. He couldn’t have been more right. In the same conversation, Jeremy also mentioned we might see black bears in the wild. And, as we drove towards our campsite on the first night, a car stopped on the side of the road alerted us to our first Ursus Americanus. Turns out the Australian response to seeing her first bear is similar to an American (or at least Theresa Venon’s) response to seeing her first kangaroo. It goes something like this: ‘SQUEEEEEEE!!!!!!’. Throughout the rest of our Shenandoah stay, we saw another 5 bears. My excitement didn’t lessen at each one, although I’m less concerned about been eaten by one now.
Unfortunately, wilderness and wifi (or phone service) are mutually exclusive. Whilst this afforded us several days of zen unplugged camping, it made it more challenging to complete work. I had a meeting at 7pm on our first night there, and as we drove into our campsite at about 6.30pm with zero reception and no wifi, I had a minor freak out. We had heard that the nearby lodge had wifi, so scuttled up there and hooked into the slowest and almost non-existent service I’ve ever experienced. Disaster hovering as my Skype meeting loomed, I looked down at my phone and (insert hallelujahs and sun streaming from the heavens above) I had two bars of service. Perched right on the Western edge of the mountain range, the lodge just managed to pick up service from the town in the valley below. As I set myself up and tried to lower my blood pressure, an email popped up postponing the meeting. This is the life of a digital nomad.
Fortunately, the following days were blissful. We worked from the two lodges along Skyline drive, hiked to waterfalls, went on a slow but pretty horse ride, watched live music at the lodge, discovered the effects of drinking at altitude and spent a good amount of time just hanging at our second campsite. We didn’t like the one we were assigned initially so on our second day we found a walk-up site which was shared with a family of chipmunks (again: SQUEEE!), gave us more privacy and shade as well as delightful neighbours that invited us over for s’mores (or, as I can’t stop calling them: shmores).
On our fourth day, we made the journey down the mountain to see Luray Caverns. This was another tip-off from our Shenandoah guru, Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson. When we arrived, we were apprehensive at the tourist trap appearance of it (there were crowds of people, a ‘Toy Town Junction’, a maze, a ropes course, a gem shop… you’re getting the picture ). However, thinking Drummer wouldn’t steer us wrong, we approached the long line to buy tickets and asked an older gentleman exiting the caverns if it was worth the wait and the not-so-cheap price tag. He told us it was, although you have to listen to ’10 minutes of history bullshit at the start’. So, we made the leap and boy oh boy, was it worth it! We walked 2.5km through underground caves filled to the brim with stalactites and stalagmites. One section was even lit with 600 birthday candles (it was their 139th birthday . . . I’m not sure who did the maths on that one). It took us an hour and 30 minutes to wander through this underground natural wonder, and I even liked the 10 minutes of history bullshit at the start.
On our last night, we packed up our camp early, ate at the lodge and then lay in a field watching a meteor shower (I know, this place is ridiculous!) until the sky clouded over. We had a long drive ahead of us to Asheville the next day, and wanted to drive as much of the Blueridge Parkway as possible on the way there. It was hard to pull ourselves away from Shenandoah but we did so at 5.30am, stopping at one of the Eastern overlooks on Skyline Drive to watch the sunrise as our farewell.