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

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Perils of Irresponsible Geology


That forest ranger who said last night's temperatures could dip into the 40s was off by at least 10 degrees. When I woke up, I swear I could see my breath. Ron was pouring Benny's morning milk, looking a bit haggard after a night of keeping a restless toddler under the covers.

We had hot water though, and were able to shower. I took Benny to the women's bathhouse with me (it was blessedly heated) so I could blow dry my hair and powder my nose without my teeth chattering. Benny cavorted around the room, talking about the puppy we saw on the way. The rain had stopped and the sun occasionally peeked through thinning clouds.

We gobbled a hot breakfast at Big Meadow's restaurant and visited the souvenir shop. I bought a container of creepy rubber bugs for Benny and a pink Shenandoah baseball cap for myself. Then it was on to Dark Hollow Falls, where water cascaded over the volcanic metabasalts of the Catoctin Formation, according to my book.

All very wonderful, but reaching these falls required a steep, 1.5-mile roundtrip hike, so Ron and I tucked Benny into his Jeep stroller. Although its packaging claimed the stroller was “all-terrain,” we generally used it to push Benny through malls and Ann Arbor's downtown streets. It was about to get a workout.

The trail WAS steep, and rocky and winding. Benny bounced happily as I pushed him through gravel paths and over logs. Ron followed, his hood pulled around his unshaven face, looking a bit grim. I learned later that he'd seen evidence of bears on the trail, and was imagining violent scenarios where he offered himself for mauling while I escaped with Benny. Occasionally we were met by other hikers, who stared with undisguised wonder as we hauled Benny and stroller down yet another set of tree-root stairs. Our chosen technique meant that Benny was sometimes flat on his back, staring up at the trees, and he responded by yelling and squirming madly.

We heaved a sigh of relief as we approached the falls: silvery water splashing over greenstone steps. Each large step represented a separate lava flow. Benny cooed over the water, I cooed over the rocks, but Ron could only think of the ascent back to the parking lot, and perhaps of bears waiting to rip the Juicy Fruit gum out of his clenched jaw.

So back up we went, and it was awful. The going was very slow. Benny was on his back a lot. We met strolling hikers carrying nothing but pamphlets who asked, “Is it much farther?” as we staggered up the ravine. But we were too winded to give them the withering reply they deserved. We briefly rested at a gurgling stream, trudged up another mountain or two, and then I asked, “Where's the backpack?”

“I thought YOU had it,” Ron almost wailed. There was nothing else to do. I slid back down the trail while Ron toiled onward. The backpack was, of course, at the gurgling stream. I climbed back up the trail, panting worse than ever, half expecting to see Ron collapsed on a rock.

They were waiting for me at the parking lot and Ron snapped pictures of me flogging my butt up the last hill. We practically fell into the RV: Benny chugged milk, I chugged Snapple, and Ron chugged Coke and wished for bourbon.

We continued on. Fog wreathed the Blue Ridge Mountains, making driving treacherous. Benny fell asleep as we wound slowly down the mountains. The fog lifted a bit at 2000 feet and I started to plan my next crazy escapade.

My new goal was Little Devils Stairs Overlook, where several basaltic dikes “intrude” on the Pedlar granite. The wording made it sound like the black lava knocked on the granites' doors 570 million years ago, then rudely pushed their way in for a free dinner.

What actually happened was that black lava bubbling underground escaped to the surface through narrow passageways, or dikes, then spewed all over the landscape. Some lava hardened inside the dikes and turned in narrow strips of black rock surrounded by pale granite.

Unfortunately, to see these fabulous dikes, I'd have to leave the RV at a mountain overlook, cross the winding road, then walk beside the road for 500 feet. This I did, with Ron remaining behind with a sleeping Ben. I walked through the sopping wet grass, clinging to the rockface as an SUV or giant trailer roared past.

I found the designated milepost and began counting my steps, eyeing the sheer cliffs to my left. I saw the dark basalts glistening beside the granite, but the rain was too heavy and the rock too weathered to see anything well.

I'd almost given up when there it was, clear as crystal, a thick green-black line, about 2 feet across, shooting up from the ground through the pale gray granite. I touched the wet rock, trying to imagine it as black lava flowing upwards from the Earth's mantle to spread out over the ancient mountains.

The roar of traffic brought me back to my senses and I trudged back, soaked and triumphant. Ron listened politely to my description, clearly relieved to have me back in the RV. Benny woke up and we celebrated with peanut butter sandwiches.

The fog was back, but we were content, already plotting our route out of the Shenandoah and toward Manassas, or Bull Run. I bought some posters of Dark Hollow Falls at the park's last visitor center and we passed through Front Royal and onto Interstate 66.

Ron had found a likely campground at Bull Run Regional Park, 27 miles from Washington, D.C., and it was a lovely place. The weather was warmer at this altitude, but since we had an electrical hookup, we ran the furnace anyway. I made sweet-and-sour chicken for dinner and Benny demonstrated how one tiny bowl of rice can cover an RV's entire floorspace.

It's still a little rainy, but the forecast predicts it will be warmer and only mostly cloudy. We go to sleep and hope for a good day to tour the Civil War battlefield at Manassas.


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