My Favorite New Channel

Our most recent outing here in Southwest Virginia was a hike in the Channels Natural Area Preserve near Abingdon. I hadn’t heard of the Channels until a few weeks ago, so they were another new place for me–even as they are a very old place (they were formed during the last ice age).

Prior to 2014, the Channels were known to just a handful of insiders. Located on private property and with a long hike to access, not many folks made it up here. But then the Nature Conservancy stepped in and bought the land, and a non-profit called Mountain Heritage created the Brumley Mountain Trail. The result is a seven mile round trip hike out of Hayters Gap, well within reach for a day hike.

Even with the shorter approach, visiting the Channels feels like exposing a secret. Once you reach the high point of the access trail, you duck through a tiny tunnel of vegetation and down a nondescript ravine. Just as you start doubting your directions, the place seems to jump out in front of you. There’s nothing intuitive at all about the hike, although good signage from the Preserve helps quite a bit.

The Channels themselves are pathways between huge boulders, and visiting entails walking and climbing around tight slots through beautiful moss-covered walls.

There are lots of shadows and random rays of sunlight, and the textures on the rock vary quite a bit.

The whole area is about 20 acres, and every turn seems to reveal another passage. And in those spots when the sun sneaks through, it feels almost magical. Souzz said it felt other-worldly to her, like the Upside Down in the Netflix series Stranger Things (well, except we didn’t see a single Demogorgon).

This whole feature feels delightfully out of place, like something you might find in Utah. The sandstone is darker and the scale certainly isn’t Canyonlands, but dropping into the Channels is a pleasant surprise in that “what is this even doing here?” kind of way–like when your high school crush shows up at computer club.

This is the most unique place I’ve visited in my home state, and one of the nicest hikes I’ve taken anywhere.

I wish I knew more about geology, as I really have no idea how a place like this forms (although I did see the movie Ice Age on a flight to Atlanta once). Thanks go out to mother nature for taking ages to carve something like this. And thanks to the Nature Conservancy and Mountain Heritage for making our hike possible!

A Gap in Experience

I’ve lived in Virginia for decades, and yet there are still a bunch of spots here that I’ve never seen. We just visited one of them, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, in the far southwest corner of the state.

While I’d not been down here before, it turns out that I’m not the first person to experience this place. For thousands of years, people have migrated through the gap, which was historically one of just a handful of ways west through the Appalachian chain. Native Americans hunted and fished their way across the gap dating back hundreds of years, and a quarter million settlers passed through on their way to Kentucky and the Ohio Valley in the early 1800s.

My trip came by way of modern highways, of course, while the settlers’ journey was made possible in part by Daniel Boone. His explorations of Virginia and Kentucky made him one of the first folk heroes in the United States—and inspired a coonskin-capped character in an incredibly stupid 1960s TV show (I stumbled onto it recently, and, much like my childhood moptop, it didn’t really stand the test of time).

In 1775, Boone and his men built the route through the gap, called the Wilderness Road. He left his mark here and all across the region, and a lot of things in the area still bear his name–including Boonesboro, Kentucky, Boone, North Carolina, Daniel Boone State Forest, counties named Boone in seven different states, and of course Boone’s Farm strawberry wine (maybe the coonskin cap was for headaches?).

Planning for our trip to Cumberland Gap was helped along by Brittony, a friendly and knowledgeable ranger with the Park Service. She was a fantastic resource and went out of her way to help us plan an interesting hike. At one point, I thanked her for all that she was doing for her park. She replied “thank you so much for visiting YOUR national park!”

During our visit, we headed up to Sand Cave, a unique feature on a high ridge with a great overlook nearby. Getting to the cave and overlook required about a nine mile hike round trip, but it was well worth the trek.

Sand Cave is a cleft in Greenbrier limestone that was carved out by the wind, one of about thirty caves on the south face of Cumberland Mountain. It’s opening is 250 feet across and at least 100 feet deep, and the sand is several feet deep in the middle. The cave’s ceiling is filled with color, and there are some amazing reds and golds and browns. It was incredible to see all of that color and all of that sand so high up on the mountain.

After the cave, our next stop was White Rock Cliffs, just a mile or so to the east. It offered views of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and we enjoyed lunch as we were literally looking down on birds in flight.

While the natural beauty of the gap is a constant, the human history keeps writing new chapters–most recently in the mid-1990s when the Cumberland Gap Tunnel opened *below* the park. The mile-long tunnel replaced a section of the historic Wilderness Road.

I can’t imagine what Daniel Boone would say about a modern tunnel replacing his wagon road, but that seems a lot more like progress than making strawberry wine.

Off To See The Wizard

We’re basing our summer vacation this year in Konnarock, on the flanks of Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers. It’s a return visit for us to Southwest Virginia after scratching the surface here last month. There’s a lot to do, and much of it is outdoors. We started our trip biking on the Virginia Creeper trail, this time on the stretch from Damascus to Abingdon.

In addition to enjoying outdoor stuff, we love taking in local culture during our travels–but so much of culture is typically indoors, and there’s sadly not a lot of comfort indoors these days. However, with challenge comes opportunity, and the pandemic has spawned some new approaches to familiar experiences. A great example is this summer’s season at Abingdon’s Barter Theatre.

The Barter was founded in 1932 and bills itself as the longest running professional equity theater in the US. So what’s an “equity” theater, you might ask? Well, in the midst of the Depression, the performing arts were struggling to stay afloat, along with most everything else (sounds a little bit familiar). The Barter’s solution was to have actors perform in exchange for farm goods…hence the name “Barter.”

This year promised to be different for the Barter, and the season was nearly cancelled. But they put their heads together and figured out a plan to move shows outdoors to an old drive in, the Moonlite, on the outskirts of town. The Moonlite had been in foreclosure since 2017 and was overgrown and falling apart…but no more. On Saturday night, we joined 200+ of our closest friends (but not too close) at the newly refurbished Moonlite for a live production of the Wizard of Oz.

Things were very well thought out at the Moonlite. Admission and parking were touch-less and socially distant, the stage was covered, the show was simulcast on the drive in screen, and the audio was through FM radio (the 2020 adaptation of those crappy metal drive in speakers). Perhaps best of all, the place was filled with folks that were thrilled to be able to safely enjoy live theater.

We brought along homemade pizza, antipasta, and a few beverages and enjoyed a little tailgate ahead of the show.

As we waited for things to start, we swapped stories of childhood experiences at our local drive ins (sadly, gone are the days when it was appropriate for us to put on pajamas before heading out to a show).

The Barter troupe put on a terrific performance, with a lot of very talented folks and a high production value…not your typical drive in fare. The choreography was great and the voices were amazing. The show was headlined by a fabulous version of Dorothy played by a young actor named Libby Zabit. After each song, headlights blinked and horns honked, which must have been a new experience this year for Libby and a lot of the on-stage talent.

This was a great way to enjoy a musical in the midst of a pandemic…or, really any time. In addition to being a great show, it reassured us that the world is adapting in ways large and small. It shouldn’t be surprising that the creative people in the performing arts are some of the most creative among us.

In the end, we got to experience an old show in a new way–and we did it at a venue from a bygone era. Hard not to smile at all of that!

Looking around before the show, there were lots of smiles and laughter– and even a few pajamas–and you could sense the anticipation. After the show, we were smiling and laughing ourselves amidst the honking horns and flashing lights.

In the end, it was just a night at the drive in, a simple thing in a complex time. But it felt like something to be happy about, and we were. And as the Tin Man reminded us on this night, “happiness is the best thing in the world.”

Vacationing at a Distance

This summer we had originally planned a trip far afield…but then COVID-19 changed the world and changed our plans. So we decided to stay closer in order to have more distance, and the Grayson Highlands of Virginia and the mountains of western North Carolina seemed to fit the bill. Both areas are just a short drive away and offered a lot of adventure opportunities…oh, and a chance to do a little cooking, too.

I suppose there’s no such thing as 100% safe travel during COVID–but we tried to manage things down to what we thought was a risk worth taking. Our adventures were socially distant and pretty self-contained, and we followed all of the rules.

With so much uncertainty, it’s ironic that the great outdoors is what’s certain right now. Getting away from the crowds is trickier, but still do-able. And the backcountry feels comfortable and familiar to us, even when we are in an new place.

We got our trip rolling on the Virginia Creeper Trail near the town of Damascus, after a recommendation from my friend KB. The Creeper is a rails-to-trails bike route that drops from 3500 feet of elevation to 1900 feet over 17 miles. The physics of downhill reward heavier riders, so this was the perfect ride for me! We shuttled with Blue Blaze Bike and Shuttle, and they were great folks to work with.

The Creeper trail goes through beautiful farmland and then passes through a tight gorge along the clear waters of Whitetop Laurel Creek. It’s a real gem, one of the nicest rides in the state.

After enjoying the Creeper, we headed further south to western North Carolina to a nice rental cabin overlooking Nantahala Lake. The cabin was super-clean, and we brought along a few things to make it a little cleaner still. We also brought all of our own food–meticulously planning right down to the amount of mustard for lunches. That enabled us to avoid indoor public places on our trip (the food planning, not the mustard).

The pandemic has certainly changed how we experience local culture and how (or if, or when) we shop. But it has changed very little in how we eat (I told Souzz I was preparing for future downhill bike rides).

Over the next few days, we biked in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock National Forest, packrafted the Nantahala River, and took a hike out to Wayah Bald.

On the way homeward, we stopped back through the Grayson Highlands and took a beautiful hike out to Whitetop Mountain (after waiting out a pretty good rain while sitting in the car; even goretex-clad adventurers have their limits).

Much of the trail to Whitetop was above treeline and through a pasture (with clueless cows that had zero concept of social distance). The views were spectacular, seemingly even more so after a rain. The highlands are a part of Virginia that we didn’t know much about, but we will definitely be back.

As we waited out the rain, we thought about what feels like a new perspective–one of this year’s gifts. In the meantime, we will keep seeking adventure, ideally in places where we can see the storm clouds coming.

The pandemic has changed things for all of us, in big and small ways, and it’s not exactly a hardship to adjust vacation plans (especially with so many others dealing with serious stuff). Borrowing from a Buddhist saying that is a favorite of my brother’s, this is not the adventure that we wanted, but it’s the one that we’ve got. And the freedom comes from what we do with it.

Known Firsts

Before the COVID-19 quarantines started some weeks back, Souzz and I snuck in an overnight paddling trip to Hopeville Canyon in West Virginia. We’d run that stretch on day trips several times before, so a packrafting camping trip was a new twist in a familiar place (and a socially distant twist at that).

On the drive up, Souzz asked if I knew anyone that had camped in the canyon before. I answered that I didn’t know anybody, that the run was a “known first.” This little fun fact added to the anticipation for me, but it made Souzz a bit anxious. She remembered plenty of those kinds of trips in the past, like the time when an escaped cow wandered through our camp, or the time when daylight revealed a giant pile of trash next to our late night bivouac.

Her reaction was an amusing contrast in our partnership: one of us balances adventure with sensibility, and the other unwittingly camps next to garbage dumps.

Even with all of the sunshine, it was a pretty raw day, and my hands were freezing as I biked the shuttle back from the takeout (after dropping off the car).

An hour after launching, we were sitting streamside next to a roaring fire—staying plenty warm despite a brisk wind and temps in the high 30s.