Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scouting the territory: day trips in central Virginia

For more photos from our day trip scouting missions, click on Gordon's blog at Gordospace -- see blogs I follow.

On weekends we scout.
We set a time to shut down computers, hop into the Prius and head for scenic frontiers. I drive. Gordon navigates – but he doesn’t like maps and sometimes naps, so he can be unreliable.
It matters little or as the young and glib say, “No worries.” We can’t get lost if we aren’t headed anywhere. And if it should happen that we grow tired, cranky and wanna go home, we tap on our Tom Tom GPS, and a firm, but slightly sexy, British voice tells us how to get there. Sometimes we wander nearby roads to see what’s around the corner; other times we try to follow planned routes that loop from home and back.
We are discovering central Virginia after moving from Maine.
What a surprise it is! Landscapes unfurl before us, more beautiful, more rural, than I ever imagined. The truth is, before moving I had no sense of what our new state looked like.
A little more than two years later, I am still awed by roads that wind past vast expanses of mowed fields – fields patterned in yellow hay, newly plowed red Virginia clay and green abundant crops. Cows, horses and a few donkeys graze in endless Arcadian pastures. White slatted fences outline grand estates; some are gated; many are named. I look and drift back to the newsroom where I worked for a few decades and think about all those dying Maine farm stories. Who lives in these places? Where do they work? Or do they? Are most of these places owned in the Jeffersonian tradition by modern-day gentlemen and gentlewomen farmers? What becomes of these non-CAFO cows?
I know Virginia agriculture has been transforming itself over the past several decades, but it seems while many of Maine’s farms have closed down, some of Virginia’s have spiffed up. Fueled in part the local foods craze, their abundance –organic and otherwise -- spills out at the area’s numerous Farmer’s Markets and upscale restaurants. As we drive along, we pass orchards and vineyards, many of them recent sophisticated additions to the rural landscape. The vineyards beckon day trippers for wine tastings and offer pastoral settings for weddings and other galas in sumptuous grand halls. On a recent trip we came across a variation on this theme, a “cidery” -- but all the cider was hard so as the teetotalers we are, we declined to imbibe.
Some roads twine up through heavily wooded mountain passes, so narrow we hope no cars approach, and fear if there are no cars, we could be stranded for days. Another road led us to “a ford,” a place where we would have to drive through a stream to continue along the road. Presumably the folks who live here regularly drive pick-ups, but we turned around, not quite sure what tire-high water might do to an electric hybrid.
On many nearby roads, the Blue Ridge Mountains loom in the background or declare themselves in the foreground, spectacular and soft, mystic in majesty.
            There’s a valley road just an hour northwest of here. Look left, mountains; look right, more mountains. And then of course, there’s the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. The first time we took it, the mountains made Gordon think of his father, Georg, who emigrated to Maine from Austria. He had been a ski guide in the Alps where mountains soar to more than 15,000 feet. Georg, or George as he renamed himself, would privately voice his opinion that what the natives call mountains like these– he called hills. Hills or mountains, they are big enough for me and blue truly Blue, amazingly blue, just as Vermont’s mountains are Green, truly green, and shall we even think it, New Hampshire’s mountains are White. At the peak snow persists into summer on Mount Washington, which Georg had Gordon and his brother trek up and ski down one spring.
A little Wikipedia research tells me “trees put the ‘blue’ in Blue Ridge, from the isoprene released into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the characteristic haze on the mountains and their distinctive color.” Click deeper into Wikipedia on isoprene and it says that oaks and poplars are among the emitting trees and there’s a “hypothesis that isoprene emission appears to be a mechanism that such trees use to combat heat stresses.”
Note that’s not cold stresses, which gets us back to why we are here. While we have not yet found ourselves oppressed by heat, Gordon still suffers from an accumulation of lifetime cold stress.
Those who play outdoors in the cold have good reason to live in Maine. But it’s been a long time since we took advantage of winter. Gordon skied enough in his youth for a lifetime, and while I may have enjoyed a few more winter walks on Pine Point Beach, the occasional snow here satisfies my need for white stuff. There’s even skiing available at nearby Wintergreen resort though so far we have only taken our car to its summit.
The Blue Ridge mountains south of here are higher than the Green and the White, (in North Carolina and Tennessee there are 39 peaks that are more than 6,000 feet, while only the White’s Washington reaches that high.) The Blues have no Alpine zone, no tree line. While Georg, who skied into his mid 80s may not have been comfortable here, we now call this climate zone, and its big blue hills, home.

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