Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Babies, Basalts and the Dreaded Black Tank


We woke early and quickly showered, anxious to see the Shenandoah Valley. But first we had to hose Benny down. He's such a game little kid, cheerfully sat naked on the shower floor, holding a small toy Weeble.

Then I turned the water on. Benny screeched as the water came out first icy cold, then scalding hot. I frantically adjusted the settings, pointing the shower head away from my panicked toddler. Benny lunged for the door. I held him down with one hand and sprinkled reasonably tepid water on him with the other. Somehow, I got him clean, but I don't dare repeat the experience.

We dressed Benny and took him outside to help him recover from his ordeal. Ron blew soap bubbles and taught him how to toss the surrounding trees' “whirly seeds” into the air. Benny was a bit hazy on the concept, preferring to tear each tree seed in half and toss both halves over his head.

It was now time to address the dreaded Black Tank. I strapped Benny into his carseat with a box of raisins and reluctantly met Ron outside. We emptied the gray tank with no difficulty, but the Black Tank was a real pill. It emptied fine, but then I was forced to fill empty gallon jugs from the city faucet and pour them down the RV toilet. Then Ron took the water hose and rinsed the Black Tank hose for about two hours. I think he would have doused the whole site in bleach with a side dose of nuclear radiation if he could.

We finally finished and left Walnut Hills, creeping down a steep hill. This wasn't by choice; it's not easy to creep downhill when you're driving a zillion-ton RV. We were forced to creep because we were following a very strange man. He was suited up in full biker regalia: the long hair, the leather coat, the chaps. But he was riding a moped, his long, silver-studded legs sticking out, bandanna flapping in the small breeze generated by his 24-mph speed. We loomed behind and tried not to crush him.

Our little friend turned down a dirt road, and we headed east on Interstate 64. People in passing cars turned and stared at the RV -- even Ron felt a bit self-conscious. There he was, after all, at age 40, driving a luridly painted rental RV and sipping a tiny Juicy Juice box. “I never dreamed I would be so cool,” he said.

I assume that the National Park Service WANTS people to visit the Shenandoah Valley, but you wouldn't know it from the signage around Waynesboro, Virginia. We nearly left the state by accident, with a side trip to a pitiful regional visitor's center that had nothing to do with the Valley. But we persevered and began the winding ascension of Skyline Drive, a sweet highway through the stunning Shendoah Valley.

The scenery was gorgeous and we stopped at overlooks for Calf Mountain and Turk Gap and Moormans River. But our hearts weren't in it. I tried to liven things up with my giant textbook “Geology of the National Parks.”

“Field investigations,” I read, “have shown that some Catoctin flows that exhibit columnar jointing erupted subaerially.”

It didn't exactly set the pulse racing.

Perhaps we were just hungry. We stopped at Loft's Mountain and bought Benny a stuffed animal - a large black bear - and ate surprisingly good hamburgers at their restaurant. We set off once more, but the weather turned cool and rainy, ebbing away our enthusiasm. We decided to stop at Big Meadow campground and tackle the mountain another day.

It was damn cold at Big Meadow and there were no hookups for the RV. Without an electricity hookup, we couldn't run the furnace for more than an hour. The furnace itself runs on propane, but the blower needs electricity and will run down the RV's auxiliary battery. So we put on every piece of clothing we owned and shivered until we could decently go to bed at 7 p.m. Ron slept with Benny in the back of the RV and I buried myself in my sleeping bag over the cab.

Ron and Benny fell asleep instantly, but I stayed awake for almost two hours, reading my new book bought at Loft's Mountain, called “Geology Along Skyline Drive.” This guy was definitely writing for doofuses like me. He laid out the Valley geology in terms I could understand, beginning with the granites, Shenandoah's “basement rocks.” These were part of the ancient Grenville Mountains, which formed a billion years ago and stretched from Newfoundland to Texas. Once the Grenvilles were the size of the Himalayas; now only their roots remain.

After the Grenvilles were eroded away by wind and rain, leaving only bare hills (plants hadn't evolved on land yet), North America started to break up. A rift valley formed, spewing out black lava, which covered the landscape. After millions of years, the volcanism stopped and an ocean appeared, depositing mud and sand.

That history was why Shenandoah geologists found granite on the bottom, topped by a metabasaltic rock called greenstone, which was then covered by shale and sandstone. It all sounded great. I could hardly wait to see a few weathered amygdules and some six-side columnar jointing. Dreaming of Pedlar granites, I fell asleep.


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