by Matt van Swol
“There is only one thing we are guaranteed in life, the adventure of it.” – Unknown
When I first started thinking of taking this road trip to Shenandoah National Park, my mind immediately jumped to childhood memories. The last time I entered the park, I had just graduated high school, still very much unsure of what I wanted to do or be. My dad had been planning this quintessential backpacking trip for the better part of three years. It was mapped out with so much detail the Parks Service would have been proud. A highly ambitious 7-day, 100 mile backpacking trip deep in the Virginia woods. However, like every good road trip and in every good story, almost none of that plan ended up working out. We barely made it three days backpacking in the woods. Instead, we spent the better part of a week resting and driving along Skyline Drive, taking in the views and pulling over to hike small side trails for hours and then catching sunsets on our way back to the campground. Those memories stuck with me. I still have, and often go back and look at, photos of that trip – especially the ones with my siblings and dad. Those kinds of memories are invaluable and one of the reasons I became a photographer. Essentially, photographers are “memory catchers” in that we can perpetuate the emotion or memory of the past into the present and, with any luck, share that experience and emotion with others. So when I was thinking about taking this road trip to Shenandoah, I looked back at all those old photos I had taken and decided I was going to drive Skyline Drive from beginning to end, but I was going to stop at every single lookout point along the way.
Skyline Drive stretches an impressive 105 miles from its southern entrance near Waynesville, VA all the way to Front Royal, VA with near 360-degree views of the mountains at every winding turn. In those 105 miles there are 75 individually designated lookout points, and the plan was to stop at every single one of them. I started my journey at Tires Plus in Augusta Georgia and 7 hours later I had driven the 425 miles through four states to get to the southern entrance of the park. Along the way, I could see the landscape shifting as I traveled further north. The flat wooded farmland plains of Georgia and South Carolina began shifting into rolling hills and small mountains once I reached North Carolina. From there, I began to catch glimpses of the Blue Ridge mountains off in the distance and eventually, once I entered Virginia, the ground seemingly erupted in mountains. Nothing was flat. Every house was built on an angle, every farm had at least a dozen hills between it and the road. It was stunningly beautiful. Huge vineyards seemed to come out of nowhere as I got progressively closer to Shenandoah, huge rolling hills with grapes vines for miles on end was spectacular to see.
It was dark by the time I got to my little cabin in the woods and it was still dark when I woke up the next morning to try and catch the sunrise. I paid the park entrance fee and was almost immediately treated to an explosion of wildlife. Tens of deer grazing along the side of the road, rabbits jumping in and out the woods, the sounds of hundreds of birds calling to each other in the trees was absolutely magical. I took the top off of my convertible when I entered the park and I did not put it back up until I left. That morning I had the park almost entirely to myself, I drove and pulled off at each viewpoint for 30 miles before ever passing another car. Each viewpoint was uniquely different as the mountains wrapped around lakes, cities and valleys. The views were spectacular but what hit me hardest were the memories. Certain viewpoints I remembered vividly and I caught myself taking the same photos I had taken almost eight years ago, all over again. I eventually did make it to the end of Skyline Drive, with all of the stopping and wandering, the day had flown by and I hadn’t noticed until the return journey that the sun had started to set. In that moment, I decided to make a memory of my own and stop and simply watch the sun set behind the mountains. As the colors faded into deeper shades of red and violet, I set my camera down to watch the last rays of the sun fade behind the furthest mountain and soak in all of the memories of the past while making a new one in the present.
Before you head out on your adventures this year, make sure you book an appointment with Tires Plus. Getting a new set of tires not only makes the trip smoother, but gives you more peace of mind on the open road. Speaking of open roads, where will you road trip to this year?