We left Wisconsin at the beginning of April heading south east in the hope of finding warmer weather and the first signs of spring. The daffodils and crocuses across Ohio and into the Virginias belied the reality: it snowed on our first night in Virginia. Anticipation of seasonal change conjures up unrealistic expectations for us and the rain and accompanying temperatures over the following weeks proves the point once again. The unpredictability of April weather has had us in and out of shorts, wrapped in numerous layers of fleece one day, wearing t-shirts the next, trapped in the camper by pouring rain more times than I care to remember, out on the trails a few hours later – what did we expect? It's Spring!
The wooded hills were still in their wintry bareness when we arrived, our first real sign of change being in West Virginia at the New River Gorge. The microclimate of the gorge gives it a head start on the surrounding area and coming from Camp Creek State Park in Virginia, still in it's winter stasis, the experience seems dramatic. The burgeoning leaves burst forth transforming the woods, vivid splashes of purplish-pink Redbud blossom and the large white flowers of American Dogwood sing out amongst the bright spring green. The Glade Creek trail follows its namesake watercourse, sunshine glinting off the fast running creek, flowers littering the ground in swathes of blue, yellow and the dark rich red of Wakerobin Trillium. We heard the process referred to as “the greening up” and we were lucky enough to experience it a number of times as we moved back and forth across the two states over the following weeks.
The New River Gorge Bridge has become entwined with the identity of West Virginia; captured on the state quarter, celebrated in an annual festival, it is the symbol of the state. Given its relative youth this is quite an achievement. The beautiful line of the arch spans the wooded slopes of the gorge, the simplicity of the structure a delight, perhaps explaining its position in the hearts of West Virginians since it's completion in 1977.
West Virginia’s other claim to fame is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank and of course we have to pay a visit. The main attraction is the Green Bank Telescope aka the Great Big Telescope or GBT - a reminder for us of the VLA. Unfortunately even on the guided tour it’s not possible to get quite as close as we’d like and digital cameras are not allowed within the telescope area. It’s still quite impressive and whilst eating lunch in the visitor centre we get to watch the dish reposition to listen to a different area of space. Outside the visitor centre is a much smaller radio telescope reassembled here from its original birthplace in a suburb of Chicago. It was the first radio telescope in the world and was built by Grote Reber at his own expense in his mother’s back yard, its size determined by the longest pieces of timber available at his local lumber yard.
We have been in the Virginias for nearly six weeks, restricted in our travels by the need to resolve the dental saga that began in New Mexico back in March. Numerous visits to various dentists have necessitated returns to Roanoke in Virginia on a tediously regular basis. Suffice to say more antibiotics and painkillers have been involved. In between these delightful appointments we have attempted to see something of the nearby Appalachians and surrounding area.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests have afforded us some good stops between returns to town. One of the most enjoyable of these is The Pines campground. On arriving there the first time we cruised the loop looking for a good spot noticing that the prime site was the only one already taken. As we made a second pass around, the occupants flagged us down. They had to leave and wondered if we wanted the site along with the huge roaring fire they had built. We didn't need asking twice; what a wonderful gift. An owl came visiting that evening hooting from a nearby tree and answered by the Lesser Mancunian owl in the party. Our stay coincided with a warm spell and we slept with windows and vents open waking to the most wonderful woodland smells in the mornings.
Another memorable stop has been Bluestone State Park in West Virginia where we parked next to the lake, and in between working, whiled away time watching the various birds including a Green heron, a pair of Wood ducks, a Redstart and a Pileated woodpecker. Spotted sandpiper were busy along the shoreline when we arrived but the water level rose while we slept the first night, removing their preferred feeding ground.
Gatewood Lake Park in Virginia also proved a delightful spot for birdwatching with Bald eagle, Osprey, Common loons and numerous broods of gosling adding to the interest. Being able to look across the water instead of being surrounded by trees adds to the pleasure of these water side sites. While the woods have their own interest and beauty both Sterling and I favour the wide open spaces of the west and feel a sense of pleasure at the more expansive views. We have stayed at Gatewood a couple of times now and experienced the lake in it's different moods; fresh green reflections of the surrounding hillsides mirrored in the water, ripples scurrying across in the brisk winds, heavy rain churning the surface and early morning mist swirling and gradually lifting from the mill pond beneath. As evening arrives the newts start their mating rituals causing ripples and splashes in the shallow waters. A little later, the first notes ring out as the Spring Peepers start their nightly chorus, singing at a volume completely out of keeping with their tiny bodies.