Everything in Virginia wants to tell you it’s for lovers, but it’s mostly for dead presidents. We leave most of the Confederate flags behind, but the patriotism lingers. It’s big and green and all-American. Winding up Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains, you look down and feel like you could claim something. Nothing is higher than you. Your ears pop and you feel like an eagle, like a flag, like something riding the wind. You are not, you are riding the road. We speed, beating the GPS time estimates, passing motorcyclists pulled out at the overlooks, all black leather baking in the sun.
Virginia is split down the middle. Act One: sunny and glorious with the perfect campsite, rolling through America’s presidential scenic byway. In Act Two a sheer sheet is dropped and the mountainous glory is covered by a thick sheen of mist, our wood soaked, our hands cold, our perfect campsite sunk.
While the state is still solidly in Act One we meet a woman working at the gift shop who desperately wants to be able to answer our question about campsites and ranger stations, but she doesn’t know the answer. I admire her. We see a moving van trundle along through the mountain pass, waving lazily at every car and biker that passes. What a way to move – to take the intermediary stage as a joyful component, to wave at everyone you pass.
At Big Meadows, a ranger who looks like some romantic older heroine in a movie about National Parks tells me the best sites to camp. She gives me meticulous hiking directions, throwing in the detail that “Jackson and his troops used this road,” and highlighting landmarks along the Appalachian Trail. I hunt for some political statement in her eyes. I see none. You can be into America unironically here. That brand of America carved violently and heroically by white dudes who grace dollar bills and get taught in public school history class.
We hike to a waterfall named after one of these guys and we marvel and we go too far, missing a turn to the secret viewpoint exactly where the ranger said we would, and we turn back and take switchbacks down the mountain to the overlook of falls, where we see across from us a slate gray cloud pushing across the sky.
During intermission we trip up the rest of the hike, a thick mist rolling in, blanketing Virginia in a quilt that looks like England. The mist hardens and starts to spatter rain and we run, we run past the Appalachian Trail, through the rest of the campsites, toward our soaked campsite and water logged wood.
In Act 2 we silently moan that our one night of ‘easy camping’ has been yanked from our trembling grasp, while we haul a cooler to a tree as a makeshift ladder to hang a tarp, and deadlift tree stumps to keep the tarp still. We try to recoup. We keep believing the rain has stopped, and our efforts will go to waste, but the rain doesn’t stop. We huddle under the blue plastic and read about more dead presidents who vacationed in these mountains, remembering even older dead presidents as they did.
Cooking under the water laden tarp as our fingers go numb feels like it lasts until morning: in one iteration making rice and vegetables and roasting marshmallows on our camp stove because we can’t make a fire in the rain like the couple from Maine we envy; in another making toast with peanut butter, watching the morning amble of a group of deer.
In the morning fog rolls in as we finish our coffee. We are still driving above everything, but now it’s completely invisible. Every pullout is a vast, white blank. What good is that colonial elevation when it’s invisible to you? Does seeing things mean owning them? We never really saw. We never owned.
Act Two persists two days later while driving through the East Coast. Finding a tick behind my ear, I will think about how it looked out over my vast expanse of white and felt like a god, like a conqueror. Going 70 miles an hour, I’ll pull it from my skin and throw it out the window.
The hitchhiker gone, the sludge of that night finished, the curtain drops.