We made it to Big Meadows Campground off the Skyline Drive in Virginia just as the sun was setting. As we arrived to the gate, the park ranger who rented the spots was in the process of locking up her station for the night. Even though the campground has 200 sites and this was a Monday night, we got one of the last spots. If we’d wanted to stay for two nights, there wouldn’t have been any openings. I told the park ranger it was my girls’ first night of camping. She assigned us to a spot that would require a bit of hauling our stuff but would put us on the edge of the campground.
“You’ll be a little more isolated on the edge,” she said.
It took us a while to figure out the layout of the campsites and to find our spot. Once we did that, Megan and the girls went off to find a restroom and get ready for bed, and I worked on getting the tent set up. As I unwrapped it from its packaging, I noticed a deer and two fawns watching me from about ten yards away. Their approach, at least at first, went undetected by our dog Indy. The deer and my dog saw each other at about the same time. Each took a few tentative steps toward the other, and then the deer charged. Indy charged right back, and for a second I imagined my dog tearing into the deer’s throat or else the deer impaling my dog with one of its hooves. At the last second, Indy barked and the deer veered away and ran into the woods. Her fawns trotted after her. Soon after, Megan and the girls returned from the restroom with their own reports of deer sightings.
Here are two of the many deer we saw at the Big Meadows Campground off of the Skyline Drive.
The tent proved to be just about as easy to set up as the packaging claimed. Megan, the girls, and Indy slept in the tent while I slept in the screened in “front room.” No matter how the girls arranged themselves, Indy kept crawling her way back over to Isabel and practically slept on top of her. I think Indy believed Isabel needed her protection.
Thousands of lightening bugs filled the air. Now that it was dark and we were all having trouble falling asleep, I realized I set up the tent on uneven ground and atop quite a few sharp rocks. Rookie mistakes had been made. None of us slept well, but our family shared a lot of laughs during the night.
Indy the dog outside the family tent at Big Meadows Campground.
In the morning, we decided to go on a hike described in one of the guide books as moderate with a waterfall and a good swimming hole at the end. As we drove out of the campground and headed for the trail, we saw more bears, none of which barreled into our van.
The hike began with a steep descent and thirty minutes into it my daughter Charlotte’s Chaco sandals had rubbed a spot her ankle raw and bloody. We talked about abandoning the hike, but I decided I would run back to the car to get some socks for the girls. I have completed three marathons and still nearly weekly run five miles or so, and my thought process was that I would be running and it wouldn’t take me very long to get to the car and back.
My run up the steep incline back to the car turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. I had to stop and walk several times to catch my breath. Eventually, I came back with the socks, and we hiked further and further down the steep incline. Megan and I returned to our discussion of turning back, but having invested so much time and energy, we wanted to get to the waterfall and swimming hole. We hiked another hour and still hadn’t reached our destination. Every step we’d taken had been a steep step down. In several places, we had to pick our way through thick foliage that engulfed the trail until we finally made it to the end. Having lived in Asheville, there were places such as Dupont State Park near Brevard and Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway where mountain streams dropped into pools in sunny spaces. This spot we’d come so far to see was under a canopy of trees and surrounded by thick underbrush. Megan called it “snaky looking,” and I agreed that it looked like the perfect habitat for a reptilian monster. A light breeze and some sunlight can do a lot to keep bugs at bay, but this place was under a canopy of trees and all kinds of plants crowded the edge of the pool. Mostly, Isabel was the one who tried to make the best of it. She and I waded into the dark water to the base of the waterfall where we splashed around for a bit. I tried not to think about the hike back up to the van.
Isabel makes the most of the pool at the halfway point of our long and difficult hike.
An hour into the return hike, Isabel began to cry. Several times, she sat down in the middle of the trail and refused to go another step. We still had several miles to go and so there wasn’t much to do other than to keep walking. We all faced a pretty tough physical test to get back to the car. This is a moment where I usually–possibly not so effectively–try to make the argument to the family that we have all been presented with the opportunity to demonstrate physical and emotional toughness. With me more apt to try and push the girls through difficult situations, Megan is more apt to try and comfort them. In this case, Megan felt her presence around Isabel encouraged her to cry and sit down in the trail. The next time Isabel sat down, Megan walked ahead. Charlotte watched her mom go for a bit, and then began to follow her. By the time I finally convinced Isabel to stand back up and start walking again, Megan was probably fifteen yards ahead of Charlotte, and Isabel and I were fifteen more yards behind her. We were all spaced out on the trail. Quite the family hike we were having. So much for togetherness!
As we intermittently passed hikers headed the opposite direction from us, I felt embarrassed that my family was so spread apart and that my youngest had obviously been crying. I thought of the father in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini novel who bullied his family into early morning wake ups and feats of perseverance. I thought too of how we’d taken a chance the night before in pressing ahead to Big Meadows Campground and been rewarded with a bear sighting and a good camping spot. Now, on this hike, we were experiencing the other side of luck. We took a chance on what the guidebook described as a moderate hike and ideal swimming hole, but what we experienced was less than pleasant.
A trail crossed the one we were on, and I thought this new trail would save us the time of picking our way through the tricky rocks and take us on a more direct line back to the car. I turned out to be wrong. The trail took us straight to the edge of the Skyline Drive rather than our parking spot about a mile away. By the time we reached the Skyline, my ankles and the tops of my feet were also bloody from where my sandals rubbed. Megan and the girls sat on the side of the road while I jogged back to the van. The entire episode took about four hours. It wasn’t even yet 11:00 o’clock and our whole family was cranky and gassed. With over three hundred miles of Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway to traverse before we reached home, I hoped we’d come upon a few things to cheer up the kids along the way.
Thanks for reading part 5 of our French Broad River story. More posts coming soon!