It’s a Thursday and since I’m working at home and Maggie’s school hasn’t started, I suggest we have a picnic lunch on Skyline Drive. Jose looks a little skeptical but I insist. We drive the winding road to the park entrance, buy another pass for the year, and roll on up toward the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
Jose and I are both terrified of heights, so I’m not sure why he announces, just as we near one of the more spectacular overlooks, that recently some woman drove right off the edge of the Blue Ridge.
I can see the car perfectly, a little hybrid economy model, plunging down down toward the great snaking river and neat squares of farmland.
Maggie looks to her right at the sheer drop thousands of feet into the Shenandoah Valley then at me, eyes wide, mouth turned down in horror.
I grab her hand and assure her that we are not going to fall off the mountain—at least I don’t think so.
“Thanks, honey,” I say to Jose, trying to believe in the superior handling of our Toyota Sienna. Actually, I’m riding my adrenaline rush like a cheap thrill, a trick I’ve been working on for a while. Being this high makes me feel like I’ve just done a whippit.
It’s the kind of lift that comes easy to wimpy, nature-phobic, city types like us.
After parking, we spread a table cloth on the grass in front of the visitor’s center and open our wicker picnic basket. The weather is ideal—sunny and breezy, not too hot. I could stay here all day, just sitting and gazing out over the valley, forgetting my life as a mommy, worker, and consumer of far too many artificial sweeteners.
Jose seems to be enjoying the view too but maybe isn’t as blissed out as I am. He has terrible allergies. Bugs love him like a Las Vegas buffet. The bites make strange Rorschach patterns all over his limbs.
Our little picnic is about as outdoorsy as we ever seem to get—exposed to the sun, eating on the ground beside a towering tree, complaining about the gnats.
I dare Maggie to go hug a tree and she races over to a big one, her arms flung wide. I think she’s really going to cuddle up to it but she gives the trunk an air hug instead—so Hollywood. I know it’s because she’s still eating and doesn’t want to get her hands dirty.
After lunch, we use the thoroughly modern and clean bathrooms that Maggie says smell like pool water, then mosey over to the field of wild flowers across the way. Maggie wants to look for those satiny green Monarch butterfly cocoons that hang under the wooden railing along the road.
I know we probably shouldn’t pull them off and plop them into her Dora the Explorer collection bag but her enthusiasm for specimen gathering is fanatical. I don’t dare try to stop her.
The cocoons look like something a jeweler would make—a perfect jade-colored surface, shiny and smooth, with a single band of gold beads around the top. I glance around every now and then half expecting a uniformed ranger to pop out from behind the trees and nab us. He will be accompanied by the entire stable of Disney teen stars, who will chastise us mercilessly while singing uplifting songs about the environment.
As Jose, Maggie, and I walk along beside the wildflowers watching bees and butterflies flit among the petals, I secretly wish we were more hardy and nature-centered, less disconnected from the land.
Staring at an open milkweed pod, I finally get it. Being closer to nature really was one of my reasons for moving to the Valley and it is a legitimate one.
Jose believes it was all about saving money—yeah, let’s go live out there where shit is cheap and we don’t have to toil like slaves in some Beltway Gulag—sure, that was part of it. But all along there was something more, something surprisingly primal pushing me toward the mountains.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had this vision. Sometimes it feels a bit crazy—almost approaching the intensity level of a David Koresh or Jim Jones apocalypse scenario, except without the religious frenzy or the killing.
My vision involves the forest—not building a compound in its heart or leading masses of followers there—just walking into it with a few other people, actually going inside for days at a time, carrying tents and canteens, building fires, identifying plants and animals, walking through streams, getting dirty, sleeping under the stars—actions Jose would deem inherently insane and unhealthy.
I think it’s called camping.
Yes, I know, for most folks the dream of camping is a small one, easily satisfied; for me it is a quest, a goal attainable only through great effort, perseverance, and some serious bribery.
Recently, while eating on the outside deck of the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, I shouted to Jose and Maggie, “Do you smell that? Do you smell that? What is that smell?”
“Mmmm, steak, French fries, grease,” said Jose.
“No,” I said, “not that. It’s coming from the field.”
He and Maggie just sneezed and swatted at the mosquitoes that had been swarming them for last 15 minutes.
I inhaled deeply, trying to vacuum in every particle of that oddly intimate scent as it drifted over from a nearby field. Strangely delicate, it seemed to emanate from the soft air and moist earth surrounding a stand of wheat-colored stalks. They were my madeleine. I was taken back to a country lane at dusk, a real place I’d been, though I couldn’t tell you how to get there.
This smell was so evocative it felt like part of my own body. It was sweet and grassy with a hint of roasted hazelnut. Had I run free as a kid like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, rolling on the ground, sleeping on a bed of leaves? Apparently, yes.
Would Maggie ever know a smell like this, I wondered, a smell so profoundly natural it seemed to stop time itself, holding everything in perfect balance?
More to the point, would I ever be able to get Jose into a tent? Or even a cabin? Though I’ve only slept in a tent once or twice, I spent many weekends with my grandparents in their pull camper at various campgrounds in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
I adored those trips. They felt like a doorway to something eternal. But that was another lifetime ago before responsibility and jobs and life in the city. Could I ever go back?
No matter how hard I try, I just can’t picture Jose at one of these places. Though my memories of public recreation areas are pretty rosy—lots of hayrides, bingo nights, and campfires enjoyed with family, friends, and even strangers—Jose hasn’t been so lucky.
Once, in the early sixties, his family was turned away from a beach along the Chesapeake Bay because they are not white. To this day, he has a serious aversion to public pools. Growing up in D.C. with a father who worked two jobs, I don’t think his family got the chance to go out to the country much in any case.
I’d like to think that if we went back to one of the old campgrounds I knew as a kid, the regulars would not look at Jose funny but would be the kind of down-home country people who never see skin color or fret about immigration status, the kind that extend hospitality to every neighbor without question. That could happen.
I can’t kid myself though, even if folks were welcoming, Jose would still worry night and day about bears or Maggie falling into the river or deer ticks. He knows how to burst the shiny bubble of my nature fantasy pretty darn quick. Maybe camping wouldn’t be as great as I imagine anyway.
Done with our illegal gathering of cocoons, we move inside the visitor’s center to look at the exhibits. While Maggie presses all the light buttons on the huge topographical relief map of Skyline Drive, I think about the question people always ask when we tell them we’ve moved to Front Royal. “Oh,” they say, “so you’re outdoors types?”
That’s when it gets awkward, “Um, no” we reply, “not really.”
“Oh,” they say, suddenly quiet, brows scrunched.
As we gaze at the map, it strikes me that to turn away from all this beauty—even with the snakes, bears, and ticks—would be a crime. And I have a feeling we’re gonna be residents here for a very long time so we might as well give in. Right then and there I vow not to let my vision falter.
We’ll start slow, so slow Jose won’t notice. Coming here is a first step. Next I’ll trick him into completing an easy trail. Then maybe we’ll try the guided nature walk led by a poet friend of ours in Frederick County. Then I’ll book a room at Big Meadow Lodge further down Skyline Drive. I’ll make sure to bring a canteen and a bag of trail mix just for effect, just so I feel more authentic.
It’s true that the lodge isn’t a tent or camper—it’s more like a hotel—but we will be smack dab in the middle of the forest and Jose won’t be able to drive back into town on a dime.
Oh, he’s gonna curse me for that. And after the lodge, who knows? A rustic cabin maybe.
Jose and Maggie stare at me from across the map as I grin madly—the wheels of my apocalyptic plan are in motion.