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Koppenhaver's Selected Travel Journal Entries
I could try smuggling bullets onto the plane, but opt for transparency instead.  When I show the first TSA agent what I have, she shakes her head and summons her supervisor.   Fortunately, as soon as he lays eyes on them, he waves me through saying munitions of such historic nature are of no threat.

In a sense, history is the reason for this trip I’m about to embark upon to Germany.  The Civil War bullets and other accompanying artifacts that just passed through security are gifts for my hosts who will be showing me much of their country over the next eight days.  First and foremost, I’m going to Germany for business; to strengthen long standing corporate relations with three significant partners.  Second, and of more importance personally, I’m going to Germany to connect more deeply with my family history.  Both my maternal and paternal ancestry emigrated from Germany in the early 1700s.  My quest is humble; I simply want to spend time in the center of each town hoping to develop a strong memory and appreciation for the area.

Following my TSA success, and after landing at Frankfurt International, my next challenge is simply to find my way.  In a land where I don’t speak the language, claiming my bag, clearing customs, and renting a car goes quite smoothly.  A few minutes later, I’m out on the Autobahn being passed regularly by zooming Germans.  I exit at Mannheim and follow a beautiful winding road along the Neckar River valley to Mosbach – home of my maternal ancestry.  Here I simply stand and absorb.  It’s a vibrant city center on a Saturday morning.  The cobbled streets and painted timber frame buildings are classic Germany.  Mentally block out a few of the modern signs and it’s easy to imagine what this city center was like 300 years ago when the decision was made to leave for America.  After an hour of wandering about this homeland and letting the imagery sink in very deeply, it’s time for me to leave too.

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An hour away is the much quieter village of Rublingen – a small cluster of farm houses surrounded by lush fields of corn and wheat.  Only a handful of people are seen, and none speak English.  I hand a page written in German to an old man I found sweeping his driveway.  It explains why I came to Rublingen and asks if anyone with my family name still lives here.  He seems to understand the question and shakes his head no, but then begins rambling in a language I don’t understand.  He’s smiling while talking animatedly and I would have given anything to understand what he was saying.

On a ridge above town sits the ruins of an old castle which surely housed the lord of this land in the 1720s.  It’s easy to visually imagine the angst that an over-taxing lord forced upon my ancestry compelling them to leave for America.
After walking nearly every street in town and letting the imagery sink in, it’s time for me to leave again.

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Just outside of Rublingen, the road spirals a few miles sharply downward into the Kocher River valley where I have reservations for the night.  Here I have perhaps the best celebratory drink of my life.  Savoring a German pilsner while deeply immersed in thoughts and images of my ancestral homes is nearly overwhelming.  In a biergarten full of weekend patrons, I doubt any have as meaningful of a reason as I for savoring this moment.

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On Friday the 13th, I went on a killing spree.  My victims were hapless tree saplings and other ground vegetation.  Imagine a baseball bat with a 12 inch serrated blade on the end of it.  A homerun swing easily wiping out several saplings at a time.  Three hours of swinging that blade left countless victims in my wake, and was an environmentalist’s nightmare.

But actually, it was for environmental gain that I engaged in such a killing spree.

Voorhees Nature Preserve and its three mile trail along the Rappahannock River are intended to inspire a visitor’s appreciation for nature’s awe.   Being located in an area of flourishing vegetation during its most thriving time of year, keeping the trail clear is a real challenge for me and my fellow volunteers.  After today’s clearing, I was as exhausted and blistered as I had been in a long time, although it was a very satisfying discomfort.  I just hope visitors over the next few days appreciate my labors.

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Trail clearing is a violent and noisy task, but I’m a seasoned enough woods walker to know that when approaching a field or water’s edge, it should be done quietly as these type natural attractions afford the best wildlife viewing opportunities.  At Voorhees, that attraction is its riverside cliffs - known roosting havens for the all-American bald eagle.  A hundred yards before reaching each cliff I’d stop the swinging noises and begin a slow, quiet creep.  In doing so, I was rewarded with eight sightings over my three hour visit.  Eagle-eyed as they are, they’d spot me long before I spotted them and take flight upon my approach.  The size and gracefulness of these birds as they fled took me aback.  Simply majestic.  At the northern-most cliffs one eagle simply stayed sentry-like, watching over me as I rested.  A guardian angel perhaps, on Friday the 13th.

This was my maiden volunteering effort at Voorhees.  It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for over twenty years and it did not disappoint.  Not only did the bald eagles take me aback, but this entire place had nature’s awe on full display.  It’s an isolated, hard-to-get-to preserve of surprisingly pristine splendor and undulating topography.  And if you’re inspired to visit it yourself, please leave now before my trail clearing efforts become quickly overgrown again.

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Eighty two miles per hour would get me pulled over in my home state of Virginia, but in Kansas, I whiz right past the state trooper on I-70.  He doesn’t flinch.  It’s dusk and my rented shoebox-sized Fiat 500 doesn’t seem to be able to go much faster, which I think is probably a good thing when I spot a deer on the shoulder.  In this car, hitting that deer at this speed likely would be fatal for both of us.

I’m rushing toward the Flint Hills of Kansas, near the geographic center of America.  My plan calls for an abbreviated night’s sleep followed by a very early morning two mile hike under the stars.  I’m hoping to make it to the middle of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve for sunrise on a day where the forecast calls for “brilliant sunshine”.

A few generations ago, the middle of America was covered in a sea of prairie grass.  Now only 5% of that vast sea remains, most of which is in the rocky hills of Kansas.  Thankfully, much of what remains is now federally protected.  Prairies are an incredibly complex ecosystem and exceptionally good at converting solar energy into edible protein.  The prairie’s strength is subtle, and mostly underground.  Each blade of grass has a root system twice as long below ground.  Author William Least Heat Moon wrote, “The prairie is not a topography that shows it’s all, but rather a vastly exposed place of concealment.”

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So it was with child-like enthusiasm that I set out under the stars early this morning in my quest for the sunrise.  Though excited, I was also cautious.  Hiking in a dark, unknown territory past signs warning visitors about recent aggressive Bison behavior was a bit unsettling.  My senses were on high alert, but the further in I went, the more comfortable I became.  A half mile past the Ranch Legacy trail intersection, I found a set of tire tracks veering off toward the shoulder of a high ridge.  Instinct told me to follow, and I’m glad I did.  At the crest, a vast valley of intense green opened up as far as I could see.  I could not image a better promontory from which to experience the Tallgrass Prairie.


Atop a lushly covered hill.
As brilliant golden sunshine rose.
With undisturbed beauty in all directions.


The cherries on top stood a hundred yards away - a herd of grazing Bison, none of which displayed any aggressive behavior for the hour I spent at this spot fully immersed in the openness.


Ruth Palmer, one of the stewards of the preserve, told me that if I was a fan of open spaces, I would love Tallgrass Prairie.   Others say it’ll take your breath away.  I did love my visit to Tallgrass Prairie – so much so it’s now on my Rushmore of favorite places.  And Tallgrass Prairie did in fact take my breath way… or more appropriately, gave me an incredible amount of space to breathe.
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: Strong City, Kansas

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I’m please to find no parking lot on 10th Avenue.  I simply pull onto the sandy shoulder across from the small, faded sign for Run Hill Dune.   I dip under a wooden fence rail designed to keep ATV’s out and then begin my trudge up one of the east coast’s highest dunes.   I consider going barefoot, but my sandals work like snow shoes in the loose sand.  Neither barefoot nor sandals though are ideal on this unstable surface, so my progress is slow.  I enjoy the unhurried pace; it affords more time to absorb the beauty.

About 5 miles south of Run Hill is Jockey’s Ridge - the more famous dune on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  In between is a four mile stretch of maritime forest. Run Hill is shifting southward, encroaching one grain at a time upon this forest.  In this collision, there’s intrigue.  I seek to find the unique when I travel, and a sand dune swallowing up a forest is something I find quite intriguing. 

After fifteen minutes of trudging, I come across a steep, down-sloping ravine that seems to be the apex of the collision.  At the bottom is a pond, adding a third element to the mix.  This beautiful place – where forest, dune, and pond collide - instantly becomes my favorite spot I’ve ever found over my 40 years of coming to the Outer Banks.  I linger here, deep in the ravine, enjoying the sounds of intense quietness… and the gurgle of brackish waters… and the occasional tweet of birds that I’m certain are thrilled to have found a home in such a unique and beautiful place. 

Forests are not the only thing that Run Hill collides with.  On the western edge, far from the 10th Avenue pullover, Run Hill meets the marsh of Albemarle Sound.  These intersecting ecosystems require a second day’s visit, so same time next morning I left in the dark for Run Hill again. 

As a crow flies, Albemarle Sound is a mere 3,000 feet from my parked car; however, the zigzag-drunk-like path I chose as I ambled up and over the undulations of the dune made it at least twice a far.  Reaching the edge of the thriving marsh of Albemarle Sound elicited similar feelings to yesterday’s find: another favorite spots on the Outer Banks.  So unique is this intersection of sand and marsh that I linger even longer than at yesterday’s find.  And here too I spend time simply listening to the quietness, brackish gurgles, and happy tweets.  

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Sometimes when traveling, I gather in quantity – trying to collect locations, but at the cost of not becoming fully immersed.  There are merits in that approach, but having now spent back-to-back days at Run Hill has reminded me that going deeper and further, at a slower pace, and discovering the full uniqueness of a place brings real contentment.   At Run Hill, there are no more scratches to itch.

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As the sounds of classic jazz quietly fill the lavish, timeworn lobby, the bellhop and I exchange a smile.  I sit alone on a red velvet couch at the base of a grand staircase, legs crossed, flipping through business documents as I prepare for a late afternoon meeting.  On the table in front of me a goblet of water brought by the bellhop sits glistening on a napkin.  With my loafers, blazer, and graying hair, I suddenly feel as though I might just be looking important.

To the young bellhop, perhaps he knows I’m about to enter a meeting in which significant strategic business decisions will be made.  Maybe that’s what the smile exchange meant. 
Then again, he might just as well be thinking I’m a pompous ass. 

I guess I’ll never know.
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Gravelly
I’m standing on the bank of the Potomac River at Gravelly Point watching jets follow an s-shaped flight path as they line up to land at Reagan National.  It’s an impressive operation; especially so from my vantage point where the roaring behemoths fly a mere 100 feet overhead.  In between each landing, departing jets sneak down the runway before of the next behemoth drops in.  For plane-spotting geeks like me, Gravelly is a mecca. 

On one or more of those jets are surely some of my fellow committee members with whom I’ll be having dinner in a few hours.  Eight of us insurance geeks have been invited to Crystal City in a collaborative effort to contemplate what the market needs.  None of us has ever met before, yet we share a common character: we’re seasoned industry veterans whose experiences provide the qualifications necessary to help steer the ship.   After a heavy dinner at Morton’s and a good night’s sleep, we’ll be think-tanking for seven hours tomorrow.  I’ll be on the cutting edge of insurance for the first time in my life.  Hope I don’t disappoint the inviters.  I’ve brought some ideas with me; time to see if any take flight.

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Santa Fe Trail, Garrett County, Maryland
In the winter of 1985, the wind chill in Garrett County, Maryland hit negative 120 degrees.  When it did, I was just over the county line, east of Garrett, in college at Frostburg State.  Though the wind chill on our campus wasn’t quite a cold as the higher elevated Garrett, I do remember the threat of a triple digit negative number.  It was the one and only time in my four Frostburg years that classes were canceled.

Garrett County is Maryland’s western-most and highest-elevated county.  It’s bordered to the north by the Mason-Dixon Line, to the south by the Potomac River, and to the west by West Virginia.  It’s the only Maryland county who’s snowmelt drains into the Mississippi instead of the Chesapeake; an attribute of its extreme elevation.  A drive to Garrett County from the east is a long, continuous, unremitting uphill climb.

The unique location of Garrett County positions it in a sweet spot for snow accumulations; averaging ten feet per year.  The current record though, from 2010, is twenty two feet.  It’s at the crossroads of multiple weather patterns.  Lake Effect Snows from Lake Erie and Nor’easters are regular contributors to the totals.  The main contributor, however, is Upslope Snows which happen when prevailing winds are forced skyward upon colliding with Garrett’s high plateau and ridges.  As the air ascends, it leaves moisture behind.  Or as my brother once referred to it, Garrett rakes the clouds.

Sounds hellish.  So why would a non-skier and hater of winter like me actually choose to visit Garrett County in February?  One word: love.

My wife’s birthday is in February.  Traditionally, we like to get away.  Last year it was Florida.  The year before, Arizona.  But this year, she wanted to embrace to cold.  I love her adventurous spirit, and it sounded reasonable when we booked it last fall.  Sounded practical too.  Why fly to Saskatchewan or Siberia when Garrett County was a mere two hour, steep drive from my home?

Embracing the cold was precisely what we got.  A freshly fallen two feet of snow buried the cabin we rented in the hills above Deep Creek Lake.  I had to engage my vehicle’s 4WD to ascend the slick, vertical access road.  Then we had to trudge slowly through thigh-deep snow to reach the cabin door.  And from the time we arrived until we left two days later, the snow never stopped.

Frankly, one of the reasons embracing the cold enticed us was knowing a roaring fire would be the antidote.  It had been two years since I last sat by a fire.  The Arizona birthday included a fire pit warm up.  After a day on the rim trail, the Grand Canyon Lodge had a nice big fireplace waiting for us.  But the fire in Garrett was much nicer.  First of all, I created it.  And second, we burned it as hot and as long as we wanted.  With snow approaching three feet deep outside and no signs of letting up, that fire was more welcomed than any other I can recall.  I loved every smoky minute of it.

Though I was not as confident as my wife about embracing the cold, I’m definitely happy with how it turned out.  It was an outstanding adventure and made for one of the most memorable birthday getaways so far.  The hellish conditions of Garrett County, and that awesome fireplace to counteract them, made for an exceptional trip.

21 Boston Post Road

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Nature's Compast

As I step out of my office, forty minutes later than planned, I open the settings on my phone to disconnect my email account.  I need clean separation.  My morning was intensely work-focused, but this afternoon, it’s all about the trail. Silencing the phone will go a long way toward transitioning me into the outdoors.

The silent hour of driving to the trailhead works its magic.  By the time I take my first few steps, I feel in tune with my environment.  It’s a bright, crisp winter afternoon and I have four miles of trail ahead of me.

The mature main trail at Wildcat Mountain is all clear today, meaning the freshly oiled folding saw stays in my backpack the whole afternoon.  It’s my first visit in which no maintenance is required.  The extra time this affords enables me to wander along a few of the many side trails that are not open to the public.  One leads down the Black Cotton Branch ravine to a narrow, multi-plateaued waterfall – a new favorite spot at Wildcat, although access will be more challenging during the thick undergrowth seasons.

Another first involves my gear – new boots, new hiking pants, and a new, stylish Tilley hat.  All perform quite well.  Muddy, bloody, and sprinkled with cigar ash, my gear is now officially broken in.  I also begin using a new macro setting on my camera which allows me to focus up close on the subtle beauty of Wildcat.  Lichens, wood grains, thorns and glimmering snow crystals afford opportunities to view my surroundings from a different perspective.

The human eye is particularly good at recognizing patterns.  Just before descending the mountain, I enter a forested area in which all of the trees have snow clinging to just one quarter section of their trunks - the side in which the sun shines least.  Like with moss growth, the snow is pointing north.  Not that I’m lost, but nature’s compass is a welcomed and beautiful sight.

As always, nature points me in the right direction.  Transitioning from the office to the natural beauty of Wildcat Mountain this afternoon has been a wonderful course corrector in more ways than one.

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In the very early morning hours I step out of my car into an empty, dark parking lot.  Twinkles catch my eye and I turn my gaze skyward.  The view above is ablaze with the pinpoints of countless stars emanating from unfathomable distances.  It’s pure beauty.  In a usually light-polluted world, there’s rarely enough darkness to accentuate the glimmers. What great luck to stumble upon such a cool moment.  It makes me realize I simply don’t spend near enough time staring at the stars - always a welcomed, perspective-resetting experience.

In just the short time I’m staring, a meteoroid enters the atmosphere.  It’s Friday the Thirteenth, and standing quietly in the early dark dawn, I’m hoping that shooting star extends the good luck I’ve just experienced on this infamously cursed date.

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Veach Gap Anticline

Four hundred million years ago the Appalachian Mountains were formed by the incredible forces of colliding tectonic plates which thrust the earth’s crust skyward.   As the crust thrust, rocks wrinkled.  Some wrinkles were extreme, creating what geology nerds call anticlines or “ridge-shaped folds of stratified rock in which the strata slope downward from the crest”.  In other words, layers of rock shaped like horseshoes.

It was one of these horseshoe layers that I went into the woods searching for today with a handheld GPS to guide the way.  But before even turning on the handheld, I followed one of the prettier roads in the Shenandoah Valley leading me to a valley within a valley.  Fort Valley, with only thin twisty roads for access, is Brigadoon-like… and home to an ancient anticline.    

After following Veach Gap Road to its end, I set out with technology in hand.  Having done my homework though, I actually could have left the handheld in the car.  I knew the anticline had to be somewhere in the very narrow Veach Gap where erosion from Mill Run had exposed the wrinkles.  As I approached the gap, more and more rocks became exposed, most of which were covered in brilliant green lichen.  Amid a sea of lifeless brown leaves, the green rocks stood out vividly. 

As the GPS was zeroing in, I spotted a tube-shaped vein of exposed rock about 30 yards away and knew I had found the anticline.  Upon close inspection, it looked like a sliced yule log cake with rich layers; although this cake took millions of years to bake.  It’s one of the coolest things I’ve found with my GPS.  Another fifty yards away was another vein of similar shape and bake, making this a buy one, get one adventure. 

Perhaps only geology nerds like me get excited about wrinkled rocks.  Finding the Veach Gap anticlines was a really enjoyable adventure, and full of visual treats.  But for me, it was more than just rocks and fancy geologic terms.  This outing helped to keep the big picture in my mind.  Understanding how the world was formed and is changing, and appreciating the incredible time lapses involved, helps keep my own life and time lapse in perspective. 

There’s a lot to be learned from rocks.

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Highway 119

A year and a half ago, through sweltering summer heat, I helped moved my daughter to Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from the world’s most powerful city.  For nearly a year, Arlington provided a vibrant, modern, and eclectic lifestyle, full of tall buildings, urban culture, and hurried people.  Over the past few days, as the weather turned cold, I helped move her to a place where she’ll be experiencing a vastly different lifestyle.

Pikeville, Kentucky is the heart of Appalachia; home to the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s; and a place where coal is king.  Instead of tall buildings, there are tall mountains in every direction bunched up so tight that level land comes at a premium.  In fact, part of Pikeville was built in the flat riverbed of the Levisa Fork when it was re-routed in the ‘80s to keep the city from flooding.  The newly exposed level land immediately became a prized development site.  

There are many routes to Pikeville from my home, but what on a map looks to be a good decision, can easily turn out harrowing without consulting the locals first.  I was advised that the best route - seemingly illogical - was to go north at Beckley, then turn almost directly south in order to avoid a switch-backing stretch of road that would take hours to traverse if you followed your normal map instincts.  In the hills of Appalachia, you often have to go north to go south.

In the hills of Appalachia, the animals are a bit wilder too.  A thriving elk herd exists in eastern Kentucky; so much so that the normal deer warning highway signs have been replaced by massive-rack elk warning signs.  Along highway 119, just outside of Pikeville, the wildness became plainly evident.  Within a 10 miles stretch I watched a coyote dash across the road, then a few miles later spotted a beheaded elk carcass in the median.  Perhaps it was road kill and someone thought the rack might look good hanging in their living room – Appalachian-style art, I suppose.

Though the area is famous for its violent and deadly feud, I found Kentuckians to be quite friendly.  With an accent as thick as anywhere I’ve been in America, their southern draw is so hospitable you can’t help but feel welcomed.  This quality was especially evident in their waitresses – all of which on this trip were outstanding.  When they call you honey, you know everything coming out of the kitchen is gonna be just right.  Kentucky is the land of awesome waitresses.

To me, Belgium is the land of awesome beers, but the Kentucky-brewed Bourbon Barrel Ale I had in Pikeville was as good as any I’d ever had from Belgium.  The limestone hills of Kentucky act as a natural iron filter, creating groundwater ideally suited for Bourbon production.  Hence, Kentucky produces 95% of the country’s Bourbon.  Apparently, some brew-master figured out that using uncleansed Bourbon barrels in the production of beer makes for one fine tasting drink.  That unique hint of Bourbon will surely affect my beverage selections on future visits to Pikeville.

As for my daughter's future?  Who knows how this Kentucky adventure will turn out, but for now it seems to be off to a good start.  I feel comfortable knowing that my first born is in what seems to be a welcoming community with more vibrancy and heritage than I was expecting.

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: Pikeville, KY

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Bears Den Trail

In the woods of Pennsylvania, on land behind my grandfather’s sawmill, I first became fascinated with the wonders of the outdoors.  My father led my brothers and I along a path to a bubbling natural spring, pointing out the edible and delicious teaberry plants along the way.  Across the valley, my other grandfather owned some Pennsylvania woodlands as well.  Here too my father led his boys to special places, like the mountain stream bisecting the property that was clean enough to drink from with cupped hands.   The Pennsylvania woods provided powerful childhood experiences that fuel my now-adult and therapeutic desire to walk in the woods every now and then.

So too has the Pennsylvania woods influenced my 81 year old mother.  As part of a delayed mid-life crisis, she recently declared a desire to hike up a mountain.  She attributes this aspiration, in part, to fond memories of her own childhood outdoor experiences.  Sunday drives through Pennsylvania mountain valleys with her parents long ago often included pullovers at trailheads where her connections to the woods were formed.  

At first, my mother wanted to hike Old Rag Mountain, but her doctor and I talked her out of that ambitious goal.  A more realistic option was offered: Bear’s Den near Berryville; a shorter and less-steep trail, though not without challenge for an 81 year old hiker.  To minimize complications, we chose a day of ideal conditions – cool temperatures, dry footing, and blue skies.  It was a perfect day for a mid-life crisis.

It was but after the first few steps on the trail that I knew this was going to be a great experience for her. She immediately and continuously commented on how pretty the woods looked on this bright fall day.   Though she was very cautious over the rocky sections, and needed her hand held, she was a strong woods walker.  The hills were not nearly the challenge I was expecting them to be; her surprisingly strong legs pushed her almost effortlessly upward.

While videotaping mom’s arrival at the top, my wife asked for her first impression.  With little hesitation, mom uttered a single word: Heavenly.  We sat atop Bear’s Den for quite a while enjoying the heavenly view, resting, and toasting the accomplishment with a bottle of Perrier from my backpack.

On the way back down, we stopped for one last rest before leaving the woods.  Mom and my wife sat side-by-side quietly enjoying the beauty.  Of all the special moments from this adventure, it may be this rest stop that I’ll remember most.  Contentment had settled upon us all as the success of this challenge was becoming clear.  Mom was tired, but as she said, it was a good tired.  

Like with my dad when we drank with cupped hands from a Pennsylvania mountain stream long ago, walks in the woods have provided some of the fonder memories in my life.

Like just recently with my brother when we hiked the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

Or with my other brother as we enjoyed a cigar atop Old Rag Mountain.

Or leading my own daughters through White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park years ago.

Or the many weekend walks my wife and I enjoy now that we’re empty-nesters.

Leading mom on her walk to Bear’s Den completes the cycle of meaningful walks in the woods with the people I care most about.  At the very end of our walk, with the video camera rolling, mom emphatically declared the day a wonderful experience.  And my wife and I couldn’t have agreed more.

Bears Den Trail

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Wildcat Mountain Kiosk

Today was supposed to complete the cycle, but Mother Nature had other plans…

I’ve hiked Wildcat Mountain in three of the four seasons this year.   I was hoping for the colors of autumn to finish the rotation today, but Mother Nature was holding out; her foliage still mostly green.  Worse yet, she stalled a massive tropical front over the area.

As a volunteer preserve monitor for Wildcat, my assigned responsibility for trail maintenance was through the week ending Oct 13th.  Unfortunately, the front wasn’t forecast to pass until the 14th; meaning rain gear was needed for my volunteering.  Once I acknowledged this watery challenge, I actually embraced it and became enthused about pursuing my first deliberately-wet hiking experience.

Mother Nature either has a sense of humor or is a malicious bitch.  Most of Wildcat’s trail is along a level ridgeline, but to get there a half-mile, steep hike is required.  During my ascent, Mother Nature opened a can of whoop ass; unleashing a deluge of heavy rain as I switch-backed up the mountain.  My gear kept me somewhat dry, but the ephemeral run-off and slick surfaces of the trail made for a challenging climb.

By the time I reached the ridgeline, Mom dialed the deluge back a bit.  Here I fell into a grove with the trail.  I accepted the wetness - even found it comfortable - and let the unique experience of hiking in the rain take over.  Occasionally, I’d even peel back my rain jacket hoodie to allow for the unmuffled sounds of the rhythmic splatter and trickling water.  Rain in the forest – a peaceful and beautiful sound.

After leaving the level ridgeline and heading down the mountain, Mother Nature dropped another maliciously timed deluge on me.  This time, my gear finally broke down.  Mother had won.  I was soaked, but with a smile on my face, glad that I had the guts today to set out in such unusual hiking conditions.

Wildcat may lack the big attention-getters that other, more-popular preserves possess.  There are no waterfalls, fields of wildflowers, or exposed outcrops here.  It’s a place of understated beauty that takes time or holistic views to appreciate.  Now that I’m a regular at Wildcat, I’ve gained a deep fondness for its special, though inconspicuous, beauty.

Like the several small stream crossings encountered along the way.

Or the enormous rotting log that hides a geocache I pass shortly after reaching the ridgeline.

Or the rock garden near the middle of the circuit – a quiet place to rest and simply listen.

Or the broad ravine in which I had my most challenging trail clearing experience so far at Wildcat.

Places that stir excitement each time I come to this preserve, regardless of how Mother Nature intends for me to experience them.

Wildcat Mountain

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Spacey View

Here’s a first world problem:  Should I accept the invitation to an opulent winery from one of the biggest corporations in the world, or skip that party to selfishly explore the Space Needle?  That was my dilemma last Tuesday afternoon.

I’m a pretty dedicated employee which made the tug quite strong in favor of staying on script and going to the winery.  It was business, of course, that brought me to Seattle in the first place.  But by Tuesday afternoon, I had met all the expectations of my employer.  And frankly, I was socially whipped after three straight days of conferencing and was in need of some private time.  More importantly though, the call of two towers was just too strong.

A month ago, I was standing atop the CN Tower in Toronto.  What made that so special was knowing I’d have the opportunity to stand atop an equally iconic tower on the other side of the continent.  But as of Tuesday afternoon, I hadn’t yet addressed that possibility and a plane with my name on the manifest was leaving in the morning.  Tuesday evening was my only shot at the Space Needle.  I simply couldn’t resist.

It was actually from atop of the Space Needle that I texted my regrets.  “No worries” was the reply from my winery inviter, which helped alleviate the guilt.  Once guilt-free, the evening really took off.  The views from above Seattle, though not as high, were equally as impressive as Toronto.  The vibrancy of this emerald city was sharply evident.  A mixture of sun, clouds, shimmering waters, and distant mountains, made for a long visit atop the tower.  I lingered, burning the unique images deep into my memory.

At the base of the tower I found a bench in a bright, contemporary park and phoned home.  I told my wife I felt like I was on the set of The Jetsons.  The spacey tower was aglow in the setting sun.  Jets and float planes from nearby airports swirled around.  And the monorail was pulling in and out with regularity.  It was quite a colorful experience.

As was my dinner…

Moth-like, I was drawn to the neon of 5 Point Café, particularly the sign out front: “Cheating Tourists and Drunks Since 1982”.  Inside, this placed glowed as well.  The walls were covered haphazardly in colorful business cards, beer labels, and random scribbles.  My waiter, who looked like a plumber, spoke the bare minimum of words, which in my anti-social mood, was welcomed.  At the bar, a fat-ass was claiming to be the manager of Thin Lizzy, though he likely wasn’t born when the band formed.  As for the food?  Top notch.  My best meal in the Pacific Northwest.

On the way to catch the Monorail back to my hotel and wrap up this trip, I lingered at a crosswalk deliberately waiting for the next light cycle.  Still aglow from my meal and standing near the base of the Space Needle on a perfect weather night, I was in no mood to rush.  It has been a fantastic first trip to the Pacific Northwest.  My experiences far exceeded my expectations, especially on this last night in Seattle.

5 Point Cafe

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: Seattle, WA

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North Fork Trail, Quinault River
Having already experienced an early morning trip to one of the coolest beaches ever, and having strolled a moss enveloped path to the largest tree in Washington State, my brother and I still had some adventuring left in us.  So down the North Shore Road we went, all the way to the end of this rutted forest service single laner.  Here we picked up the North Fork trail and headed inland to continue our exploration of the Olympic Peninsula in the most elemental way: one boot step at a time.

We chose the North Fork trail due to its proximity to water.  It roughly parallels the Quinault – a river fed by the high mountains further inland.  The riparian plain of this beautiful river is quite wide due to the massive deluge of each spring’s snowmelt.  But in September, the river is at its lowest level of the year.

At times, the trail was within sight of the river.  At others, it was nowhere to be seen and just a distance rumbling if you stood still amid the massive trees and listened.  At one particular stretch, we hadn’t seen water in a while and my brother was becoming aggressively anxious to get himself to the river’s edge.  I too was ready for water, but being 3000 miles from my hiking comfort zone, and in the land of Sasquatch, I was a little hesitant to go off trail in pursuit of the rumbling.

Trusting our geographic instincts though, at a spot where the trail crossed a ravine, we decided to go off script – I more cautiously than my brother.  Down the ravine we went, knowing it was bound to intersect the Quinault.  What it intersected first however, was just a trickle of water, a side split from the main river.  This meant we had to follow the side split until it intersected the main channel.  And this is where I decided to be overly cautious.

One ravine looks like the next in this dense mountainous area, so I felt it was important to mark the one we just spilled out of.  And so, off came my shirt – the top layer, that is.  I placed the bright white fabric on my hiking pole and then stuck it in the ground flag-like. It was my way of leaving a trail of bread crumbs.

Up the side split we then went to reach what we had been craving: pristine riverside lounging.  Off came my boots, away went my cautions, and out came the cigars.  Sitting riverside along the Quinault, far from civilization in a spectacular wilderness will be a moment of special bonding with my brother that I’m sure we’ll both cherish for a long time.

This epic trip to the Pacific Northwest has been full of unplanned highlights…
Like my brother joining me at the last moment.
And chasing the sun all the way to Mt. Rainier.
And innkeepers suggesting lesser-known attractions.
And side-tripping down a pristine ravine.

Being an extreme planner, I’m hesitant to go off script; however, allowing the diversions on this trip to blossom has been exactly what’s made it so special.

Roosevelt Elk, Quinault River

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: Amanda Park, Washington

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Mt. Rainier

As flight 282 from DC to Seattle crosses a weather front, the skies below over the flatlands of mid-America become clear.  After a few minutes I orient myself when I spot Lake Sakakawea near Williston, North Dakota.  I then doze over eastern Washington State, but when I wake; a game-changing sight fills my small fuselage window.  Mt Rainier, bathed in sunshine, totally dominates the horizon.  It’s the most impressive mountain I’ve ever seen.

A trip to the Pacific Northwest is a dicey one to plan.  The weather is unpredictable, and leans toward wet disappointment.  My Pacific Northwest plan (before spotting sunny Rainier) was into the teeth of the dragon.  I had reservations for two nights on the Olympic Peninsula in a rainforest where the chance of wet disappointment is about as high as anywhere in the world.  But spotting Mt. Sunny had me changing plans before my plane even landed.  In a land where sunshine is precious, I didn’t want a golden opportunity to slip away.  Before heading to the rainforest, I was going off-script by way of a five hour side trip to Rainier.

Actually, it should have only been a four hour side trip, but a road blockage caused my off script excursion to go off script a second time.  It made for an extra winding and indirect route to my ultimate destination: Paradise.

The lodge in Paradise, Washington is located at an elevation of 5400 feet, a mere one-third the way up the massive mountain; high enough though that the trees thin out, which today afforded stunning views of the still sun-bathed summit. Through clear skies, and with the vibrancy of the mountain in full display, even the slightest change in viewing angle created works of art.  The interplay of the colors, light, and shapes as I walk around was mesmerizing.

A short hike upward leading to a waterfall marked the end of my Rainier ascent.  Here I awkwardly lingered, instinctively not wanting to declare my Rainier side trip over.  The only enticement to leave was knowing I had other Washington State exploring to do, so eventually (though still hesitant) I turned and headed downhill.

It was just a taste of this awe-inspiring place but one of my best decisions ever to go off script.  In fact, when I ultimately made it to my rainforest cabin (where, yes, it was raining), the innkeeper praised my insightfulness in choosing to take advantage of a golden opportunity.

Narada Falls near Paradise, Washington

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: Paradise, Washington

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CN Sky Pod View

Last Tuesday, I stood on a platform 1,460 feet above Toronto on one of the world’s most iconic structures – the CN Tower.  From stratospherically high above, the views of this waterfront, enormous city were amazing in every direction, made even more so by the setting sun. 

The following morning still a bit groggy from the night before, I stood on a pier jutting out into Lake Ontario watching the sun’s brilliant orange return after having gone ‘round the horn overnight.  The views - from ground level this time - were equally amazing.     

Sunset. Sunrise.

Thirty years from now when I think of Toronto, the world's tallest towers, and the Great Lakes, my thoughts will undoubtedly turn to the sun’s two-act performance over the past twelve hours.  It has left an indelible stamp.    

Lake Ontario Sunrise

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: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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Burke's Garden, Virginia

Around 1995, I purchased a topographic atlas of Virginia.  Within minutes, I found the state’s most topographically unique feature: Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County - a 20,000 acre very distinct thumbprint in the mountains.  Surrounded by a sea of seemingly random topographic contours, the symmetry of Burke’s Garden pops off the page.  Being the state’s highest valley only adds to its uniqueness.  Ever since ’95, I’ve been infatuated, but due to its distance from my home (and any other form of civilization) I’ve been unable to scratch Burke’s off the wish list until today.

In the 1880s, Burke’s Garden also became the infatuation of George Washington Vanderbilt.  It was his first location choice for building the enormous Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private residence.  But the farmers in the valley refused to sell even one acre to Vanderbilt since they valued the fertile soil and quiet solitude of Burke’s Garden as priceless.  To them, it was more important to pass their lush valley along to their children than sell to a descendant of extreme wealth.

To get to Burke’s from the interstate, you better have a good driver who knows about switch-backing mountain roads. Four large ridges need to be crossed in an area not far from Virginia’s highest mountain.  The final crossing is the sole paved access road into Burkes.  It was a dizzying drive, but amid spectacular weather today, it also was dazzling.

Upon entering Burke’s Garden, I sensed I had reached the quintessential definition of peaceful valley.  As the 360-degree view opened up, the symmetric, bowl-like features of this valley are immediately apparent.  The mountain ridges another thousand feet above the valley floor hide this geographic gem from the outside world, and add a peaceful, protected feeling to its inhabitants and wide-eyed visitors.

The valley’s five mile loop road is the perfect route to take in the unique community where everything seems singular: one general store, one church, one school, one drainage stream, one fire truck, one cemetery, and one access road.  The succinctness of Burke’s Garden is Zen-like and distinctly beautiful.  The exclusivity is even reflected in its road signs where the direction and distance to individual family homes are displayed.

The beauty of this place is astounding, though pictures and even words fail to capture the essence.  Simply put, a trip to Burke’s Garden is about a feeling.  And hours after leaving this beautiful thumbprint-shaped valley, a reflective peaceful feeling lingered.

Prior to today, marking Burke’s Garden off my wish list was an infatuation.  Having now tasted its essence, a second bowl of Burke’s peacefulness has jumped right back on my wish list.

Burke's Garden, Virginia

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: Burke's Garden, VA
: peaceful peaceful

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Wildcat Mountain Preserve

An orange orb looms ominous as it pokes above the hazy horizon to the east.  I’m on my way to work; in the back seat is a pair of boots and a backpack.  At noon, I’ll be leaving the office and heading south for some trail maintenance at Wildcat Mountain– something I signed up for two weeks ago.  But two weeks ago I had no idea today would include a heat advisory warning and a predicted heat index of 110 degrees.  As noon arrives, 110 degrees is fast approaching.  When I reach the trailhead an hour later and take my first few steps, I’m gasping and certain I didn’t bring enough water.

It’s the hottest day of the year, and the worse time of day to be out, yet I’m climbing a mountain with a backpack full of trail clearing gear.  Admittedly, charging head first into a heat advisory isn’t my smartest decision, but I have a tendency of being drawn to extremes - like six months ago when I climbed this same mountain right after a snowstorm.  Perhaps I’m drawn to these extremes in an effort to counteract, all-at-once, the hours I spend indoors.  

A snow covered trail is no match for 110 degrees.  Today represents the most challenging hiking conditions I’ve ever faced.  Switch-backing up the mountain has soaked me from head to toe.  When I reach the level ridgeline, I un-self-consciously peel off my shirt, certain that no one else is hiking in such dreadful conditions.  The bare skin provides just the slightest hint of relief from the hellfire.

Six months ago, I was hoping to find trail blockages - to give purpose to my visit.  This time though, I’m not as sparked when I came across a downed tree.  Simply keeping a grip on the sweaty handle of my folding saw is a challenge.  As is rationing my diminishing water supply.  Though lukewarm, each sip is precious and has to be evenly allotted.

Three hours after setting out into the hellfire, I return to my car.  Though a bit dazed by a melted brain and soaked through and through, I’m satisfied.  The extreme challenge has been met… and my car’s full blasting air conditioner is like a polar plunge.

A few weeks ago, a phlebotomist drew three vials of blood from me for testing.  So far, the only issue found is a vitamin D deficiency, meaning I spend too many hours indoors under cover from the sun.  Today’s oven-roasted outing has gone a long way toward solving that problem.

Wildcat Mountain Preserve

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: Marshall, VA

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Cutting through Snickers Gap in the rain, I pass a Budweiser truck.  Its spray temporarily blinds me.  My intermittent wipers aren’t due to sweep for a few more seconds.  I’m in a two ton rocket traveling 70 miles an hour and no longer sure where the road is.  Panic and exhilaration kick in at the same time.  Should I override the intermittent wiper cycle or just boldly wait it out?  The excitement feels a like a carnival ride.  My instincts are at odds.   I’m crippled into inaction, and by default, wait it out wins.  It’s a thrilling few seconds. 

When the wiper cycle kicks back in, I’m still in my lane and humdrum returns.

DSC01793

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Burncoat Head, Nova Scotia

The ideal time to visit Burncoat Head – home to the world’s most extreme tidal swings – is at low tide when the bay floor lay bare, and before the tide rushes back in.  Science provides precise charting of the cyclical nature of the tides, so if a visitor wants to see Burncoat at low tide, a few clicks of the mouse are all it takes.  But I decided not the click the mouse today opting to let fate take over.  I didn’t want the pressure of a schedule hanging over me during my last day touring Nova Scotia. 

My day started three hundred kilometers from Burncoat Head – my final destination on this trip.  In between, there were several interesting distractions, such as West Mabou Beach for one last taste of Cape Breton Island’s wave worn shoreline, and the Celtic Interpretive Centre in Judique for one last taste of foot stomping fiddling.  By ignoring the tidal chart, I was able to linger at these distractions as long as necessary without having to check the clock.  On we went capriciously through our day.  Thoughts regarding the timing of a Burncoat Head visit stayed mostly suppressed.  Luck had been on my side during this trip, and I was hopeful that the streak would continue. 

In 1941, Ted Williams faced a similar predicament.  He could have taken control of an historic situation by sitting out the last game of the season and guaranteeing a .400 batting average.  But instead, he let fate take over… and we baseball geeks know that it had a very happy ending.  Ted chose to play, and it turns out he swung the bat well, improving his average from .400 to .406 on that final day. 

I too had a very happy ending.  Like Ted, I also chose to play instead of relying on a guarantee.  And the reward was that I couldn’t have timed my late afternoon Burncoat arrival any better.  The tide was out, and for the next two hours we sat shore side amid glorious weather witnessing the rising waters.  An ideal ending to my Nova Scotia trip.

The returning tide in the Bay of Fundy is one of the world’s most unique natural phenomena and I’m thrilled that fate delivered it perfectly to me today, free of all clock-watching stresses.

Bay of Fundy, Burncoat Head, Nova Scotia

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: Noel, Nova Scotia

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White Point, Nova Scotia

I wake to the sounds of surf, take a quick shower, and then head off on a short stroll before the day really gets going.  I walk across the famous Cabot Trail and down a freshly mown path through a field of sweet grass.   In just a few minutes, I arrive at the edge of the North Atlantic on Cape Breton Island.  It’s a beach with no sand.  Instead, fist sized rounded stones worn down by eons of crashing surf line the shore.   I pocket a colorful, well-shaped stone as a keepsake. 

The weather looks much more promising than expected.  Today’s itinerary is loaded, with most stops planned around outdoor activity.  So as I head back to the inn, I’m hopeful and ready to become immersed in the tremendous natural environment by which I’m surrounded.  Today’s the day I’ve most planned for on this 5-day Nova Scotia business & pleasure trip.  Time to see if that planning will be fruitful. 

At the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the gate is open but the fee-collection window is shuttered.  We enter the park free of charge – a continuation of that good luck.  Between the weather, our timing for this full itinerary, and our energy level to deal with it all, things just keep working out.  Particularly at three amazing stops along the sunrise side of the island: Lakie's Head, Black Brook Beach, & White Point.  These will be the points I’ll remember for years to come… and White Point for the rest of my life. 

Lakie actually wasn’t on the itinerary.  It was just a whim… and a good one.  It was here that I realized I had stumbled upon a close up view of iconic Cape Breton scenery.  And the weather was ideal, so why rush off?  We lingered at this cool seaside scene until we were ready to leave, not succumbing to clock pressures.

At Black Brook Beach, the colors and sounds took us aback.  A cascade of tannin-stained water spills into one side of the cove producing a bay of dark waters and caramel colored wave crests.  When the waves crash over the stones along the shore, a loud guttural crumbling sound follows – like pasta boiling with too little water.  Caramel & crumbling… words not normally associated with a beach.

But Lakie and Black Brook were just warm-ups for our next stop. 

What made White Point epic was that it was so far off the beaten path.  Three hundred miles from the nearest international airport, we departed the two-lane Cabot Trail and followed a weather beaten side road to its end.  From there, another mile’s hike on an unmarked trial led to the edge of a bald, moss covered peninsula.  It was no surprise that we had White Point - the entire peninsula - all to ourselves. 

Imagine sitting alone on spongy moss at the far end of a continent, miles from nowhere, in perfect weather, staring trance-like out over the North Atlantic as it comes rolling ashore.  That’s how I spent one of the most enjoyable hours of my entire life.  White Point is a zenith.  Like the Grand Canyon, Dream Lake in the Rockies, & Pingvellir in Iceland, White Point has a beauty that simply cannot be improved and that very, very few places in the world can match. 

After White Point, we needed to let our time there sink in, so we only casually explored our day’s other itinerary items, such as Aspy Fault and the iconic Skyline Lookoff where all of the classic Cabot Trail photos are taken.  An hour after Skyline, we exit the Cabot Trail again.  This time, onto another trail, though much less known.  The Céilidh Trail (pronounced kay-lee) honors the Scottish heritage and Gaelic folklore of the island, including its flourishing Keltic music tradition.  In Mabou, the Red Shoe Pub is another zenith – the perfect place to experience the heartbeat of the region. The music, food, water, tea, beer, and its people all shined on this June night in Mabou.  It was an absolute perfect ending to a nearly perfect day. 

Interesting that today’s most memorable moments – White Point and Red Shoe - represent the national colors of Canada.

Red Shoe Pub

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: Mabou, NS

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Cape Smokey, Nova Scotia

Exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole lays a slab of granite known as Nouvelle-Ecosse, or more commonly, Nova Scotia.  For the past few days, I’ve been in its capital conducting business with a local software vendor.  They’ve been gracious hosts full of Canadian knowledge helping form a better understanding and appreciation for this part of the world of which I’ve never visited before.

Some interesting facts…
Road signs show three languages.
It’s home to world record setting tidal swings.
It’s one of the hardest places on earth to predict weather. 
No point on Nova Scotia is further than 33 miles from the ocean. 
Its capital experienced the world’s largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear age. 
And it’s smart too.  No other place in North America has a higher percentage of college-educated people.

After business concluded late last night, this trip’s itinerary transitioned to pleasure.  Early this morning, we headed northeast out of Halifax toward the far off highlands - Nova Scotia’s masterpiece.  A four hundred kilometer drive through geography that seemed a mix of Iceland and the Ozarks brought us to what felt like the true gateway of the highlands: the Englishtown Ferry.   The accented ferryman said I must have brought good weather with me as it had been miserable just prior to my arrival - a portending of the good luck to follow me over the next few days. 

Upon disembarking from the ferry, the mastery of the highlands became immediately apparent.  The visual treats were coming quickly as we drove along the nearly barren Cabot Trail.  A half hour later we arrived at our seaside inn, unloaded, then headed up and over Cape Smokey for a fine meal in Ingonish Beach topped off by a slice of butterscotch pie.  Our highlands adventure was off to a great start.  Tomorrow, a packed day of extraordinary sights is on tap.

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: Cape Smokey, Nova Scotia

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Shenandoah Valley

As an insurance underwriter, I’ve been researching lately in an attempt to find areas of Virginia that have the calmest weather - places where insuring buildings against weather risks would be less risky.  As I’ve scoured for information, I stumbled upon the fact that where I live – the Shenandoah Valley – is the driest area of the state.  And to use big words, here’s why:

The valley is on the leeward side of the orographic lifting of prevailing winds as they collide with the west-bordering mountain ridges.  Adiabatic compression on the valley side then creates what is known as a rain shadow.   In other words, winds blowing west to east ram into the Appalachian Mountains, and when thrust upward, precipitation is squeezed out leaving dryer air to flow over the valley.

I’ve spent the past 26 years driving to and from the Shenandoah Valley.  I live in one geographic region and work in a distinctly different one.  As I’ve crossed over from one to the other, I’ve undeniably noted through the years that the weather tends to be much better in the valley.  There have been many times when I’ve been returning home from a wet day at the office, and as I cross over into the valley, find beautiful, sunny weather.  Sure makes returning home that much more special.

I’ve jokingly bragged to my fellow co-workers, especially those that don’t live where I do, that life is always better in the Shenandoah Valley.  And now, I’ve got some big scientific words to back up that boastful claim.

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: Shenandoah Valley, VA

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“Back to a real state” I declare as we cross into Virginia after a long day on the road.  It’s the sixth state line I’ve crossed in less than 10 hours.  From Winchester to Morgantown and back following winding country roads has been an intensely driven road trip.  No sleeping at the wheel.  The turns have come fast & furious.

In Maryland, even on their thin country roads rumble strips adorn both the yellow and white lines.  In the Free State, they want you staying between the lines.  The slightest veering off course results in obnoxiously loud growling noises, similar to shitting your pants.  Being a lover of the tangent line, I’ve been frustrated driving through Maryland.  In other states free of rumble strips, I drive from apex to apex on curving roads so long as the sight is clear and no one is in the other lane.  But the government of Maryland makes that a noisy, uncomfortable driving technique.  Yes, Maryland’s legislation is trying to save my life, but sometimes a man needs to venture outside the lines.

I’m not much of a political pontificator and I rarely dig my heels in on governmental issues.  I believe the tug of war between more government and less is healthy; general contentment lies somewhere in the middle.  But I must admit that less government in Maryland would have been appreciated today.  Their life-saving rumble strips took away my driving fun.

Curve

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: United States, Maryland, Oldtown

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