I Brake for Butterflies

This week I realized that I have had no vacation this summer–it’s been work, work, work, except for the times I’ve carved out to play on this blog. And while I like work, and lord knows I need to work–hard and fast–to complete this project, I also needed … a change of pace.

That’s how I found myself braking for butterflies on the Blue Ridge Parkway.


The Rockfish Gap Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Now you may find this hard to believe, but though I live less than 20 minutes from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway/Shenandoah National Park, I’ve visited precisely once in the fourteen years I’ve lived here. Earlier this week, I had to go “over the mountain” — as we say when we cross Afton Mountain into the Shenandoah River Valley — on business. I wrapped that up by ten, so instead of coming straight home on the interstate, I took the dogleg onto the parkway and drove … for hours.
Homestead with chicken coop in the backdrop

Now I’m familiar with the work of Chuck and Nan Perdue, folklorists at the University of Virginia, so I knew that thousands of families had been moved off their lands to create the parkway and the park. But it never clicked until I found this cabin, part of a farm “exhibit” near Humpback Rocks that included a tiny garden, a chicken coop that was more like a palace, a root cellar, a springhouse, and a cow byre.

These, mind you, are real buildings assembled from farms from which the owners had been displaced. Beautifully crafted–they were built to last–and meticulously maintained by the National Park Service, the buildings allow visitors to the park to experience selected sights of farm life without any of the sounds or smells. No sweaty humans with funny accents and guns to chase off the unwelcome visitor. No animals except for a single, exceedingly fat hen. The only sounds were the voice of the costumed interpreter, bird song, and the buzzing of insects.
Pipevine swallowtail in ecstatic communion with coneflowers

I stood in deep woods looking at the springhouse, the care with which it had been built from stone, wood, and mud mortar, and my body, which had been vibrating with fear and anxiety for weeks, began to relax. I stood marveling at the temperature–it was at least 10 degrees cooler than the city. I daydreamed amid massive flowering wands of black cohosh, drifts and drifts of them, with Humpback Rocks looming above … and gradually the shattering cacophony of bird voices began to resolve into individual songs: the fluting of wood thrushes, the peter-peter-peter of tufted titmice, the wicka-wicka-wicka of flickers.

My only companions were the insects: The forest was simply alive with insects. The occasional hornet. Bees and beetles aplenty. But especially (marvellously) butterflies. Thousands of them. Spotted. Tiger-striped. Giant and swallowtailed. Tiny as my thumbnail and silvery white… Lazily fanning their wings as they fed on the coneflowers and zinnias that surrounded the farmhouse. Dancing by the dozens in ecstatic spiral flights at the side of the road.

I bought a souvenir at the National Parks gift shop and hit the road after about an hour of that, but found my reverence for the butterflies lingering. I slowed my car when they launched themselves across the tiny ribbon of asphalt ahead of me. When I saw a huge swallowtail just chilling in the middle of my lane, I actually stopped the car , backed up, and drove slowly around it…

By this time hours had passed, and I was starved. So I exited the Parkway at VA 646–which, going east, leads to the ski-and-spa resort at Wintergreen and, heading west, leads to Sherando Lake, a swimming-camping-fishing complex around a beautiful spring-fed lake that, even though it was built by the CCC during the Depression, remains something of a secret.

“Beautiful people” or “regular people”? Four-star restaurant and spectacular views or fried chicken (if I was lucky) at the gas station up the road from the lake?
Royal Oaks Country Store in Love, VA

As it turned out, it was neither. I ended up in a country store in Love, Virginia. I chatted with the young man behind the counter about his garden–and the three dozens squash and cucumbers it was pumping out daily. “I’m so sick of squash–squash casserole, squash with butter and onions, squash any kinda way you could think of–I just told my wife to start giving it away,” he chuckled.

I couldn’t resist ordering a “Love Sub” and, while he made it, I browsed among the Appalachian kitsch in his gift shop: homemade soaps and jams and jellies, alternating with arrows fletched with fake hawk feathers and Indian maiden statuettes with angel wings.

Then, loaded down with the sandwich, chips, soft drinks, and water, I headed to Sherando Lake.


Bathers on the beach at Sherando Lake.

There were fewer than a hundred people there. If I’d had my bathing suit, it would have been the perfect day….