...but zero cell phone service.
We've been in Shenandoah now for three days and it has been wonderful. But we've had issues keeping in touch with family (who for some reason think we're dead if they don't talk to us for one day) and friends (who were expecting us today, but logistics prevented it). So first off, our apologies to all for that. We were lucky enough to get a wireless signal at a lodge in Shenandoah National Park, and are reporting from there as we gaze out over a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can't even fathom going back to work at this point!
We woke early on Saturday morning to head out for our first whitewater rafting excursion, with my college buddy Christian in the Poconos, where he has a house. And when I say "we woke early", I mean at 4:30am, so as not to miss the 7:15 start time for which Christian implored us not to be late. Was he on time? Well, you'd have to ask him that (he wasn't). The day started off with torrential downpours, which eventually abated and afforded us some terrific rafting weather. we weren't exposed to the sunlight for the six hour trip, and that made the day all the more pleasant. Christian packed us a fine lunch, which we learned would be only the start of our meals for the day. We handled Class III rapids so well that Christian and his friend Lou were referring to us as ringers all day long. In the early afternoon we retired to Chrisitan's Pocono estate, where he served one plate of food after another, assuming that we'd just eat everything he served. Alyssa and I went to bed thinking there must be some cultural connection between the Italians and the Filipino when it comes to food.
Monday we went downtown, and Alyssa had only one destination in mind. Though this was her first trip to Washington, DC, she only wanted to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I couldn't figure out why someone with only one chance to see this city would only want to see this one thing, but then again, I was a Poli Sci major with a History minor - I could have spent all week there. When we arrived at the museum, I realized why Alyssa wanted to visit: the Julia Child exhibit. Since seeing Julie & Julia, Alyssa has had a bit of a Julia obsession, and after 30 minutes at the Smithsonian, she saw what she came to see... But we spent another six hours there. Let's just say, when you put me in a museum, you should expect me to get my money's worth, even when it's free!!
We visited the Botanical Gardens and grabbed a few touristy photos before having dinner and heading to home base for the trip. Though my aunt and uncle had recommended the relatively newer American Indian museum, we arrived well after closing and resolved to return there the next day, even though it wasn't part of the plan. We woke the next morning, said our goodbyes to my aunt (sorry we missed you Uncle Bernard!), and head back downtown. Our GPS played tricks with us, trying to put Sylvia into the HOV lanes when she didn't have the passengers to qualify, but when we did finally arrive, it was well worth the trip. We only had two hours to spend, but the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian is something everyone should visit when they are in DC. We learned a little bit more about some of the country we'll be driving through and the native inhabitants, and gained a great deal of respect for how they conduct their lives, with respect for the land.
We hopped back in the car, made a quick stop so Ollie could pay his respects to the Marine veterans at the Iwo Jima memorial (my personal favorite), and then took Route 66 west to Shenandoah, where the real adventures were about to begin.
We've been here three days and aside from some less than enjoyable campsite neighbors, Shenandoah has been a revelation. On the trip in along Skyline Drive, Alyssa spotted three black bears grazing by the side of the road - one even crossed right in front of us! But we arrived at the park later than expected, and had to pick a campsite earlier in the park than we thought, and both immediately realized that our next stop would not be a practical one. After we set up camp in the pouring rain and cooked lamb tips and corn on the cob as Mother Nature tried her best to dampen our spirits (admittedly with some success), we rolled out our sleeping bags and let the rain provide us our lullaby.
As we hiked down the "Story of the Forest" trail, Alyssa perked up and agreed to go a bit further to Dark Hollow Falls. Deer were abundant and not too shy, so we got to enjoy their company, along with the several hikers on the trail. We managed to get a call out to my friend Mark, who was expecting us Thursday (sorry again Mark), then returned to camp for a far more pleasant dinner experience, followed by joining another Ranger session in Big Meadows, which is no misnomer. We got to wander in the twilight as deer surrounded us, either oblivious to or quite tolerant of our presence in their grazing grounds. It was wonderful, and as the sun went down and the stars came out, we were truly alone with Nature.
This morning's itinerary would entail a hike down Rose River Falls, followed by lunch and then a Blackberry Wine tasting, all before dinner at the Big Meadows Lodge and a Ranger-led bonfire. But our day would nearly be complete by 10am. As we drove to the Rose River Loop trailhead, we sighted another roadside black bear. I snapped a couple photos, then hopped back in the car to get us to our starting point. The Rose River loop begins with a wide, graveled fire road, and about a half mile in, there was a sign for the "Cave Cemetery" on our right, though I suggested we take a look, Alyssa declined and then immediately grabbed my hand saying "I'm not kidding, there is a bear right behind us". And sure enough, not ten feet behind us, on the fire road's edge, a sizable black bear stared at us with some curiosity - me facing him, Alyssa with her back towards him. This was not my first bear encounter, so I remained calm and tried to assure Alyssa we were fine. As the bear's curiosity waned, he wandered off into the forest, still along the road's edge, but thankfully not in the direction we were headed. (Rest assured Ed & Joanne, Alyssa was always safe!!)
Our journey would not get any less exciting. A few fellow hikers alerted us to a sunbathing copperhead near a bridge, and we passed two more black bears in the woods as we did the Rose River Loop. Alyssa's reaction was much less panicked in our latter two meetings, and the rest of the hike was without incident. Though I must admit, I've never seen Alyssa hike quite so fast...