I had really good intentions. In my planner for that day I wrote, in all caps, “GO OUTSIDE, DUMMY,” and I woke up early with every intention of doing just that. I fed the dogs, put on my hiking boots and headed west, aiming myself toward Shenandoah National Park.
The park is only about an hour and half west of Richmond and the drive there was foggy, but easy. I filled it with my favorite songs and an occasional podcast. I was excited, vibrating with that familiar National Park-related joy I’ve come to know so well.
When I got there, before 10 a.m., access to the Skyline Drive was blocked. I needed the Skyline Drive. There’s no way to drive into the park without driving on the Skyline Drive, which runs through Shenandoah, climbing some of the park’s highest peaks and rolling alongside the Appalachian Trail, a 2,181 mile trail that runs from Maine all the way to Georgia.
Confused, I parked and pulled out my phone. I checked Facebook, Twitter. And there it was. All of Skyline Drive was closed due to snow and ice.
It was nearing 50° F at the park entrance but on top of Virginia’s mountains, which peak at about 4,000 feet above sea level, it was still cold as fuck and well below freezing.
LESSON #1: CHECK FOR PARK CLOSURES BEFORE VISITING THE PARK.
I really did know better. I should have checked. I should have made sure it was all ok, but on such a lovely late winter day, the thought of a park closure didn’t even occur to me.
I decided to wait, to see what happened. I needed to charge my phone anyway, I’d brought a book and I figured I could give it an hour and see if anything changed before heading home.
But an hour went by and the park was still closed. The number of cars waiting in the parking lot outside the park had nearly tripled when a woman came up and asked if I could pull forward a little bit so she and her friend could park their truck behind me.
“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
Except that I’d sat there for an hour with my engine off, my lights on and my electronics charging and so when I tried to start my car it did not start because I had, in that hour, almost completely drained my battery.
LESSON #2: ACTUALLY TURN THE CAR OFF, DUMMY.
I got out of the car, walked to the truck behind me, smiled.
“It won’t start,” I said.
“Do you think you need a jump?”
“I hope so,” I said. “Also, thank you and I’m sorry.”
They maneuvered their truck around, gave me a jump and I pointed my car back toward Richmond, grumpy and sad. The drive home was significantly less gleeful and I spent it debating my options.
There’s always Richmond, I said to myself. You love Richmond.
LESSON #3: YOU CAN ADVENTURE LOCALLY.
I decided to head downtown, to wander along the Pipeline Walkway and take in some street art along the way. Street art in Richmond is a whole thing and Richmond is the only American city with Class IV rapids that run through the city limits. The Pipeline overlooks a Class III section of the rapids and allows for an up close and personal view of the James River.
By the end of my Richmond explorations, I was less cranky. It was a beautiful and warm February day, so I went home, grabbed a beer and the book I’d read while draining my car battery outside the entrance to Shenandoah, and sat on my back deck, soaking in the sun.
That was my one chance to visit a national park in February and it was foiled. I was bummed, for sure, but it was a good reminder that I live in a place I love and that there’s still so much of this city I have yet to explore and experience.
A few weeks ago I tried again with Shenandoah. I wrote it in my planner again and kept my fingers crossed real, real tight. The Friday before I planned to head out there I checked Twitter and, sure enough, snow and ice shuttered the Skyline Drive yet again. The good news is that I learned that from the comfort of my living room and not after driving across the state.
LESSON #4: THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT MONTH. OR THE MONTH AFTER THAT.
My third attempt at visiting Shenandoah will commence this Saturday. As of this very moment, the park is open and has been open for the past two days. So far, the weather looks good, my fingers are crossed and all I can do is hope like hell March decides to go out like a lamb and I can get my hike on.
For the latest status on the Skyline Drive, call 540-999-3500, select option 1, then option 1. They also usually post closure updates on Facebook and Twitter. Even when the Skyline Drive is closed, visitors can still enter the park on foot, which would obviously take some additional planning considerations.