My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration. Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast. It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park. I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it. Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose. Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction. I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids. He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.
The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased. This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home. I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip. One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected. In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The views were indeed breathtaking. The boys, however, were not appreciating them. They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping. Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops. To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel. I too was feeling nauseous. And the going was very slow. I admitted defeat. We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.
This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip. Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited. That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips. I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow. It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip. That is not to say that it was not worth it. I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time. It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited. Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is. The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint. In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring. I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else. The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states. I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage. But maybe not for a while. I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.
The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park. As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town. We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town. It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town. The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation. It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry. Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal. It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.
Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge. This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights. The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage. We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal. The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal. We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views. Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain. Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.
Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort. The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion. Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure. They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house. It all went horribly wrong from there. The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege. They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time. That brought the raid to an end. Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War. The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times. Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II. In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.
That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town. The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines. The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries. I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings. We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.
We then popped into a confectionery shop. This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history. The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history. The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties. There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards. I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section. Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras. We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.
Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car. Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side. It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch. The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town. I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit. The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal. We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water. The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.