August 2: From Matthew’s Arm campground, Shenandoah to Luray Caverns to Limberlost Trail to Dark Hollow Falls and the Cave Cemetery to Waynesboro
Soundtrack: Townes Van Zandt Live; Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde; Brandenburg Concertos 1-4
“...I used to know St. Louis, even collected epitaphs.”
“Did you, sir? You’ll remember the queer one then.”
“If it’s the same one, I tried to memorize it. You mean that one that starts, ‘Alas that one whose darnthly joy...’”
“That’s it. Robert John Cresswell, died 1845 aged twenty-six.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
In the morning, 75º already with hundreds of birds calling invisibly from the canopy above, I sat at the picnic table, longing for coffee and drinking water, and got my first mosquito bite. Out came the Off and the park paper to plan my escape. A blurb about Luray Caverns captured my interest. Charlie and I never made a road trip without taking in a cave, so I drove down the mountain at 8:30, thinking to take in an early tour and stay cool. In the gift shop I changed my earrings for tiger swallowtail butterflies, bought a bottle of local wine, and walked around drinking coffee until the tour was called.
Luray is lovely, compact little cave, still growing and dripping water. At the bottom there is a programmable pipe organ made of stalactites where live concerts are staged, though we only got the automated demonstration and dropping water down the back of the neck from the ceiling. Your cave ticket buys another air-conditioned hour in the car museum next door, an unexpected diversion that displayed beautifully restored early 20th century vehicles and the local Black Maria from the Police Department up the road. When I left at noon it was 103º in the parking lot, but an hour later the temperature in Shenandoah was 88º.
Now the park card came into play and I consulted the park paper for hikes and peak experiences, with the standard issue park map as a guide. In Joshua Tree, we had pretty much hit all the viewpoints and one of the last things I did with Charlie was to watch a ranger slide show on the history of Desert Queen Ranch and walk the Jumbo Rocks Trail by the light of the full moon. Today there was a advertised ranger talk about the Girl of the Limberlost, one of my mother’s favorite books although I never had read it. (Her favorite author was Harold Bell Wright and I didn’t share her literary taste in general).
The prospective hikers met at 2:00 at the trailhead; it was 84º in the shade as six of us strangers started down a loop trail though cut and dying forests and saw the requisite fawn, chipmunks, woodpeckers, warblers, and terrapins on the way. The ranger, Ms. Ives, was married to a park botanist and explained to us that the naked standing trees (snags) that infested the park were hemlocks, being slowly wiped out by a pest that had worked its way south and was beginning to decimate the hemlocks in Great Smoky Mountains as well. In this part of the forest there had been so many standing trees that the Park Service became alarmed and went in to cut them down wholesale after a windstorm knocked a few over. The effect was like a logged-over forest with the logs left to decay and new species shooting up through the gray corpses of the dead. As for the “Girl of the Limberlost,” its lady author (an oxymoron according to Steinbeck) had simply appropriated the name for its “ring” and there was no such person. There had been people living in this neck of the woods, however and a few fruit trees and introduced shrubbery marked the site of their former homestead.
The other hikers were a schoolteacher from North Carolina who had been coming here for years on vacation and a couple with their grown son and his fiancee. From them I heard the first of the fallout stories from Katrina: the boy had been a graduate student at Tulane with a full scholarship to get his doctorate in medicine, but the funds had dried up after the hurricane, his program was canceled, and now he was casting about to find another way to pay for his medical training. We all wished each other luck, for the boy with his school, the teacher with her outing, me with my cross-country quest, and the ranger with encroaching non-native species; I drove on down Skyline Drive, past the Hawksbill, still 83º, at the top of the park, to where a sign for Dark Hollow Falls offered an opportinity for exercise and scenery.
Although the skies threatened, the cool wind was refreshing and the hike into shade was a welcome relief. With the rain parka tied around my waist, just in case, I set out. At the upper falls a few locals had brought their kids in bathing suits and they larked about; persevering, there was another falls below that was quieter. I sat on a rock looking into the jewel-like stones through clear water, wishing Charlie were along to enjoy it with me. Rain began to fall gently. The lower trail was sheltered with tall trees and in the occasional shower it was possible to stop under pine branches for a minute and stay fairly dry, but how to get back to the main road without getting soaked? I took a rutted trail that headed toward the Drive and found, instead, the Cave Family Cemetery on a grassy rise in the middle of the National Park.
Like Steinbeck and his ci gits, I seemed fated to uncover epitaphs, though there was no pale gentleman to interpret them on this trip. A neat grave with the dates June 14, 1958 – June 14, 1996 marked the short life of one M. Dale Foster with the cryptic(!) note, “A white piece of leather well put together.” I thought of Richard Cory, “Clean-favored and imperially slim.” Who but a suicide would die so early, and on their birthday. Maybe facing forty was too much.
It was a wet walk out of there, but the trail finally intersected the highway , which led to a Days Inn in Waynesboro, one of the many towns named for Mad Anthony. In the most generic and freeway-accessible of rooms, I found all kinds of treats for hikers, including money-saving coupons and free toothpaste and granola bars. Unfortunately, the hot water in my room was out, so I was moved down the line to another room, with an identical set of freebies. Life was sweet.