We have wanted to get back to Shenandoah but life has kept us tethered close to home this weekend. On Saturday the kids enjoyed a nearby hike on the Difficult Run trail. Despite its name it’s a smooth, flat path beside a stream that’s great for little people. The biggest difficulty is avoiding the many mountain bikers who use the trail.
We woke up to a chilly rain this morning. I decided it was perfect weather for an apple cider doughnut. So while M and Aaron slept, R, the early riser, and I made this apple cider doughnut cake. It was seriously delicious. Here’s the recipe.
Then we pulled on rain coats and headed out to Banshee Reeks in Loudon County. According to the park’s website, the land used to be owned and farmed by a Scotch-Irish farmer. He claimed a banshee wandered the hills and dales of his land. Such a spooky locale seemed seasonally appropriate. But when we got there I saw something much scarier than a banshee.
The sign greeting us at the visitor center reads “hunter orientation.” There’s nothing like wandering around the same woods as a bunch of amateur hunters. But luckily they seemed to stay inside while we headed onto the trail.
The soggy autumn meadow we walked through was gorgeous. Even with the low hanging grey clouds, we enjoyed a view that stretched to the rolling blue ridge. The gothic romantic in me could easily picture a lost lady ghost howling on one of the ridges.
We walked into the trees and the kids enjoyed swinging on an old vine. There were some rock outcroppings that would make fun climbing when not slippery with rain.
The trail curved down to Goose Creek. The creek is what any Westerner would call a river. Here on the East Coast it’s just a creek. Anyway, the water was clear and fast running and speckled with brightly colored leaves. It was so pretty it reminded me of Andy Goldsworthy’s leaf series. We threw a few rocks and enjoyed some more damp wandering. I hope we can return and explore some more of the trails in the future.
Today we tried out “The Underground Railroad Experience Trail” which is a part of the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail Corridor.
We’d heard of the trail a while back but I was hesitant based on its name and a description in my hiking guide which said, “Gain a better understanding of what escaped slaves endured on their trip north on this history-heavy trail.” I’m all for history but such descriptions conjured up images of dark, haunted, thorn-choked forests patrolled by vicious dogs.
Happily the trail didn’t quite live up to my over-active imagination.
The trail started on the historic grounds of a stately Quaker farm house. The place is so picturesque that set up for a wedding on the lawn was in full swing. We left the bustle of caterers and event staff for the peaceful quiet of fenced pastures. A solid grey stone barn overlooked the fields. It used to be a stop on the Underground railroad.
We passed the barn and followed the cleared fence line towards the wood. We stopped on the way to say hi to the grazing park police horses. They live on the grounds when they’re off duty.
M was hesitant to leave.
We headed into the woods. The forest was gorgeous. Sunlight illuminated the emerald canopy. Tall tulip populars towered over us and a thick and varied undergrowth crowded the trail. But the path was clear and well maintained and there were no vicious hunting dogs. We didn’t even see another human the whole hike.
We did see ironwood, a few pawpaw, thick brambles, frogs, butterflies, thistles, cardinal, hawks, goldfinches, innumerable deer beds, and spiders. The spider silk was so thick in places the forest shimmered and glistened. Huge webs hung everywhere and sparkled in the sunlight.
Based on their size, some of the trees were clearly ancient.
There was an old bridge over a sluggish creek that the kids enjoyed climbing.
The trail dumped us into a corn field which led to some happy exploring.
We headed back.
While everything about our walk was lovely I did feel a little haunted. Several times I found myself considering the impossible odds of escaping from slavery. Leaving no trace while navigating unknown terrain? Impossible. Eluding trained hunters and their dogs? Impossible. Trying to carry small children through the woods undetected? Impossible. Leaving your children enslaved to find freedom? Impossible. That is the stuff of nightmares, and it seems to cling like the broken webs to the ancient branches of the many witness trees.
Sunday morning we decided to try a new hike. I picked The Riverbend Trail because it 1) was close 2) seemed to follow alongside the river 3) was rumored to have good birding.
Nobody mentioned the pawpaws. This might be because few people realize the goodness that is a ripe pawpaw. Consequently I feel a little guilty letting the secret out. The possums are going to be mad at me. Pawpaws taste like creamy banana mango pudding. They’re indigenous to America and used to be fairly well known as the “prarie banana.” I’ve heard they were set for domestication about the same time that the blueberry, another American fruit, came to the mass market, but the pawpaw was nudged out by the actual banana which was easier to transport.
We had walked about a half mile down the trail when we noticed the path was lined with groves of pawpaw trees. Late August, early September is the season for pawpaws so A and I thought we had a good shot at finding a fruit or two. We spotted a few puny fruits high up but they were so small they were obviously not ripe. I’d shaken down a green pawpaw for the kids a week or two ago on Roosevelt Island and while it was mildly sweet, like a new banana Miriam was not impressed. Reuben liked it. It is pretty exciting to be able to forage tasty food straight out of the woods.
I was ready to give up, since pawpaws are a wild tree and a rough year can mean few fruit. Then I realized I could smell them. The forest was infused with the sweet scent of rich mango, so the fruit had to be around. And it was. We walked about a quarter mile further and pawpaws were everywhere. We could spot them on almost every tree and there was overripe fruit laying along the trail and all over the ground.
The kids had fun helping us spot and shake down a few excellent specimens. Pawpaw fruit is often too high to reach so the best way to get a fruit is to gently shake the narrow trunk. The ripe fruit falls easily. If a fruit won’t fall, it probably isn’t ripe enough anyway. Leave it for those possums.
The rest of the trail was gorgeous. We all walked along slurping up pawpaw and spitting out the seeds. There were a few other folks along the trail but nowhere near the number that come out to Great Falls. No one else seemed to show any interest in the pawpaws.
We also saw countless butterflies along the river.
And R found himself a good stick, so everyone was happy.