French Broad River Story #4: A Bear in the Road

The family rolled into Front Royal, Virginia in low spirits. The girls were mad we didn’t stay at the campground in Harper’s Ferry plus they were hungry. The town of Front Royal sits at the north end of the Sklyine Drive, and I thought it would probably be our last chance to get something for dinner before hopefully finding a camp site for the night. Megan had packed dried fruit, energy bars and trail mix, but our girls were clamoring for what they call real food, maybe meaning hot but probably just something from a restaurant. There were lots of places to eat, but I didn’t see anything that wasn’t a chain. I understood everyone was hungry, but for me one of the features of a road trip should be eating at one of a kind restaurants when possible. I also hoped we could get our food to go and find a spot on the Skyline Drive to eat. Of course this was a bit of a risk. That’s how it goes. You do the best you can with the information in front of you. There are chances to be taken that might or might not pay off with a good meal at a pretty spot.

Just when I was ready to give up on finding a local eatery, we spotted a large crowd at a place called Spelunker’s Drive-Thru. For me, the large crowd at the restaurant was more reliable than any guidebook recommendation. The building had a fresh coat of white paint, a blue roof, and the tables out front were shaded by umbrellas that matched the roof. It was a hamburger and milkshake joint. Because the Spelunker’s lot was full, I dropped Megan off at the restaurant, and the girls and I parked down the street. Megan had to wait quite awhile for our food, but eventually we were back on the road with our dinner in paper-white sacks.

There wasn’t anywhere to stop the car to eat at the entrance to the Skyline Drive, just an old-school toll booth where we paid the $20 fee to use the road. Just over four miles later we arrived to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. There was a parking area, a store that had closed for the night, restrooms, and best of all a large field of grass with the sort of view you have in mind when you take a trip through the mountains. Rather than the river view we might have had in Harpers Ferry, we spread out on the grass before a mountaintop view of the Shenandoah River State Park. The food, the view, and the wide open spaces elevated my girls’ spirits. We had our good mojo back.

Skyline Drive, Virginia, picnic spot, dinner

Worth the wait: Charlotte, Megan, and Isabel pictured at their dinner spot along the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

While we ate, I leafed through the guidebooks I’d checked out from the library and saw that there were several campgrounds along the Skyline Drive. With just a few hours of daylight left, we set out for what was called Mathews Arm Campground. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through Asheville, the Skyline is a scenic road that snakes through the peaks of the mountains. After an eighteen mile drive, we arrived to find a road that curled through dense trees. Since it was a Monday, there were very few campers around. I started to figure out that when we four Torgs pictured ourselves camping, we all pictured some form of an actual place we’d been called Max Patch. It’s a grassy bald along the Appalachian Trail with gorgeous views in every direction. I realized I’d been thinking we would pull off the Skyline Drive next to a deserted grassy meadow with tremendous views. The girls would run around in the grass while I set up the camp. We’d sit in the screened in porch section of our tent and watch the sun set while deer munched on grass. On the other side of the meadow a mama bear would pass with her cubs trailing behind. The Mathews Arm campground before us had no view and as campers we would set up directly next to other campsites on a bed of gravel. If we stayed here, we’d sit in our chairs off a narrow road and watch our girls turn over the gravel in the empty adjacent campsites. There was nothing wrong with Mathews Arm other than it wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined.

Spontaneous trips like the one we were on are full of decisions in which any of the available choices could be right or wrong and there wasn’t that much information to go on. Should we stay at Mathews Arm or drive another thirty miles south on the Skyline to Big Meadows Campground? It certainly had the kind of name that suggested it would be more in line with what I’d been hoping for. Darkness wasn’t too far away. The speed limit on the Skyline was a constant 35 mph. There was nothing spectacular to see or do at Matthews Arm, but we would have plenty of daylight left to set up the tent. The Skyline Lodge was between us and Big Meadows, and if we stayed put, we could stop off at the Lodge in the morning for a cup of coffee and hot breakfast. There was a slight possibility, I imagined, that Big Meadows could be full. I remembered reading that over two million people visited the area each year. I had gathered from one of the guidebooks that Big Meadows was by far the most popular camping spot. With our dog Indy along, hotels were probably out of the question. Megan said we should drive on to Big Meadows. I had no objections and so that’s what we did.

“Be a good time to see critters,” I said, as we pulled out of Mathews Arm and back onto the Skyline. It’s something I always say, believing that animals move around more at sunrise, sunset, and when a storm is brewing. A zoo employee, I think, told me that once. The road was curvy and just after a few miles, I could see cars up ahead pulled off onto the shoulder and one stopped right in the middle of the road.

“A bear!” one of the girls yelled from the backseat. The older Isabel and Charlotte get, the more they sound alike. I often have to ask which one of them I am talking to when I’m on the phone.

“Baby bears too!” Isabel said.

“I don’t see them,” I said. I looked out my side window, and then I could make out the dark outline of a bear high up in a tree. I was just barely aware that bears climb trees but had no idea that one as big as the one I was looking at could get up so high. Isn’t it a thing to hang your food in a tree to keep it from bears? I guess a bear isn’t going to rappel down a rope to get a sack of food hanging thirty feet from the ground. I eased our van around the car in the middle of the road and pulled off onto the shoulder.

An Indian man stood in the middle of the road and gestured wildly at us indicating, I think, that a bear had run in front of his car and into the woods. The man’s wife and children peered up in the tree at the bear. Isabel tugged on my hand because she wanted to see the baby bears she’d claimed were here but I wasn’t sure I believed in. Isabel was right about the baby bears. Having moved, we had a different line of sight into the tree, and I could see two cubs had climbed higher than the adult. We took pictures and watched the bears for awhile before getting back into our car. “We were rewarded for continuing on,” I claimed. I’m always looking back on the decisions we make and seeing if I think there was a pay off. “We finally saw a bear.”

“Three bears,” Charlotte corrected, pulling out her iPhone. She’d recently been given the old phone when Megan and I upgraded. Charlotte especially likes to bring hers on trips so she can take pictures. She announced she was going to start taking notes on her phone about the wildlife we saw.

bears, Sklyine Drive, Virginia

Here are three bears–one adult and two cubs–in the tree along the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Driving into the sunset, it was hard to see the road, and I was worried about deer. On the night Charlotte was born in Macon, Georgia, we hit a deer while driving to the hospital. I was particularly concerned that on the right side of this road there was only a guard rail between us and a great chasm. I tried to ingrain it in my head that I wouldn’t swerve if I saw a deer, or if I did, it would be to my left into the mountain and not to the right over the cliff. I remembered when we’d travelled this road before and stayed at the Skyline Lodge, there had been at least fifteen deer in the parking lot and more behind our deck off the hotel room. It’s better to hit the deer, I told myself, than go over the cliff.

I could just barely sense that a large black shadow darted into my vision from the left, and so I hit the brakes and despite what I’d promised myself I edged the car just slightly to the right and toward the cliff side of the road. A loud thunk sounded on the front left bumper, and I realized we’d hit something big. In the next instant, I realized that I was seeing a bear. Megan, who has the tendency to get very excited and yell in times of pressure, screamed, “A bear!”

The bear was there in the road. There had been the thunk of it hitting our van, and now it was gone.

I slowed to nearly a stop and glanced into my rear-view mirror. I expected to see a dead or injured bear in the road but there wasn’t one. I expected to hear the sound of a flat tire thunking on the road or part of our van dragging on the pavement, but everything sounded as it should. With thick woods and rock on the left and a cliff on the right, there wasn’t anywhere to pull over. I drove about a quarter of a mile until there was an overlook where we could pull over and check on the car. The front left bumper had a small scratch on it and was covered in slobber. There were a few hairs stuck in the crease where the front left panel of the van met the body. There was no blood.

“Just bear slobber,” I announced getting back into the car.

“My hands are still shaking,” Megan said. We’d just dodged some major problems. I had never considered the possibility that people hit bears with their cars. The van could have been rendered un-drivable. There didn’t seem to be any businesses on the Skyline other than a gas station and convenience store. It would have been a long wait for a rental car and to get the van towed somewhere for a repair. It seemed as if the bear was okay, at least mobile enough to run off into the woods. I pointed to the sky in thanks to God that we were safe. It was already getting dark. I hoped there was a spot for us at the Big Meadows Campground.

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