My first goal when I headed off on Friday morning was not propane: it was cell service/internet. Without GPS, I had no idea where I was going. Serenity has a compass on the dash and I used it to keep myself roughly oriented south-east, since I knew that’s where I would want to wind up, but I wandered around winding back roads of the forest for a while before stumbling into Shenandoah National Park. 

It was a gorgeous day for it. It was foggy in the forest, all shadowed green trees with wisps of cloud hovering between them, a perfect setting for a fairy tale or a horror movie. But as the road wound up, I drove out of the fog and into pure sunshine, with the light reflecting off the bank of clouds beneath me. So beautiful. Like being on an airplane, that moment when you truly feel like you’ve entered the sky, except that my sky was still surrounded by trees and nature. I tried, of course, to capture the beauty by stopping at scenic overlooks to take pictures, but it’s impossible to do it justice. Plus, as with all national parks, half a dozen people or more were always admiring the same view/cluttering up the scene. Oh, well. It was a chance to add to my collection of Pictures of People Taking Pictures. (Someday I will make a slideshow of those.) 

As promised by the National Parks Guide, I saw white-tailed deer and plenty of birds. A blue jay darted across the road with a flash of his blue wings and made me gasp. Literally, because I thought I was going to hit it and that would have been awful. Fortunately, I missed or he missed, and the next second he was gone. Eventually, I found the visitors center, watched the movie about the founding of the park, got a stamp in my parks passport, and spent the next hour on the internet, catching up on my email, posting to my blog, responding to messages, and using my gps and camping apps to figure out my next steps.

How did I forget it was a holiday weekend? It just hadn’t occurred to me. But all the campgrounds in Shenandoah were full, plus I still needed propane, so I headed south, thinking I’d try to make it halfway to Asheville. The Skyline drive in Shenandoah was beautiful, but the search for propane put me on 81 and it was horrible — stop-and-go traffic in spots, always crowded, always a generic highway. Not the worst generic highway, but a highway is a highway is a highway. Within an hour, all of my morning delight was gone in the reminder of why I am sick of driving. I pulled over at the first rest stop I could find and revised my plan. It took another hour, but I got off 81, found the Blue Ridge Parkway, and took the very last spot at the first campground on the parkway, Otter Creek Campground. 

The very last spot is lovely. For parking purposes, it’s tiny — I actually had my doubts whether the van would fit when I looked at it. But there’s plenty of room for a tent or even two, a picnic table, a fire ring, and it overlooks the creek. The campground has a dump station and potable water, so I emptied my tanks and refilled my tanks, and settled in. And super nice people. I chatted with a park volunteer, Bobby, for a solid hour — set up my chairs and everything — about campgrounds in Florida & the Great Smokeys, writing, and the camping life. When it was getting dark, the campground host wandered by to let me know that at 5:30AM, he’d be setting up an extension cord on his picnic table for people who needed a little electricity for coffeemakers in the morning. 

On the other hand, the very last spot does have one rather big problem, so I will say, for the sake of any reader who might actually be using my blog for campground advice: avoid #68.

the van camped right next to the dump station

If I was a Photoshop maven — well, and if I owned Photoshop — I could probably tweak the light balance on this photo so that you could read the words on the sign. But they say Dump Station (or something similar). Yes, the place where people pour their sewage into the ground is a stone’s throw from my campsite and yes, that means the whiff of sewage is a regular guest. Not my favorite natural smell ever.

I had intended not to stop for longer than a night until I made it to Asheville, but given the holiday weekend situation, I changed my plans and paid for two nights. But the Blue Ridge Mountains are apparently just as bad for internet as the George Washington National Forest was — no cell signal or internet at all, not even a flicker — so I’ll probably be posting this on Monday. 

I also discovered something really obvious at Otter Creek — something I should have figured out a long time ago. I always have a hard time writing in parking lots, and busy campgrounds are almost as bad. It’s because they’re busy, obviously. It was a big campground, full for the holiday weekend, and I simply could not settle into my imagination at all. People wandered by, kids played in the creek, the aforementioned dump station meant I got to watch multiple other people’s dumping techniques… and abruptly, the writing was just as bad as when I drove east this summer. I was in the middle of a major scene and I couldn’t find any words. So frustrating. 

But Z and I had a really nice walk through the woods — the longest walk she’s been willing to take for a while. We also waded in the creek, although only she got her feet wet. So I guess I wasn’t wading, I was hopping along the stepping stones. 🙂 

I also spent some time cleaning and organizing the van. Campgrounds in the forest in autumn -> tracking in leaf mulch and more leaf mulch and more of it. But the van felt clean for two or three minutes, anyway. 

And I’m glad to get on the road again. Not sure where I’ll be camping next, but I will definitely be paying attention to where the dump station is before I make any commitments!