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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life

I can't lie. I've never gone to Pigeon Forge. I love me some Dolly, but the sprawling mess of fun centers, wax museums, and chain restaurants that sprung up near her park has always sounded like the third rung of Hell to me.
[caption id="attachment_9115" align="alignright" width="168"]A feathered friend helps with an outdoor session. A feathered friend helps with an outdoor session.[/caption]
Given that, you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Wilderness Wildlife Week, eight days of hikes and outdoorsy workshops smack dab in the middle of Pigeon Forge, and I found myself thinking, "Man, I wanna go!"
I mean—outdoor owl prowls, a photo trek in Cades Cove, a strenuous 11-mile hike to Mt. Cammerer, and a four-mile walk through the Elkmont historic district—it has me second guessing my longstanding angst towards this town.
Turns out, these excursions are just the start. Between January 25 and February 1, the city's LeConte Center, an event venue modeled after a Smoky Mountain lodge (that even I admit is pretty), will host indoor workshops that cover every imaginable topic for outdoor lovers—wildlife folklore, songs of the Carter Family, learning to use a map and compass, taking great cell phone photos. Fly fishing alone has anentire suite of sessions devoted to it.  
As if the event's 300+ workshops weren't enough, I stumbled upon this quote from Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism:
[caption id="attachment_9118" align="alignleft" width="222"]Pigeon Forge's new LeConte Center. Pigeon Forge's new LeConte Center.[/caption]
“Wilderness Wildlife Weekis a time for people to learn about many aspects of the outdoor world, about the culture of the Southern Appalachians and about the people who make this area special."
Leon, you wooer you. You had me at "culture of the Southern Appalachians."
I swear, if I didn't already have plans to visit Roanoke next week, I'd be on a plane to Tennessee.  While I can't make it  this year, I would love to hear from anyone who has gone. How were the hikes? Which workshops did you attend? And do you think it's time for me to adjust my attitude about Pigeon Forge?
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This month, tens of thousands of people will cruise Skyline Drive, the famous 105-mile-long parkway that winds atop Shenandoah National Park. The views right now are breathtaking, red and orange leaves on every mountain, but the traffic can be too. During the height of leaf season, peepers cause actual traffic jams right there in the middle of the forest.
Smart park visitors, though, know how to escape. They ditch their cars and hop a shuttle or hit a trail, making their way to one of America's quirkiest pieces of presidential history.
[caption id="attachment_8819" align="alignright" width="236"]Rapidan Camp today. Photo provided by sfgamchick on Flickr. Rapidan Camp today. Photo provided by sfgamchick on Flickr.[/caption]
Completed in 1929, just as the Great Depression took hold, Camp Rapidan was built under President Herbert Hoover. Not surprisingly, government spending was being scrutinized at the time, so the camp was constructed on the cheap, with labor provided at no additional cost by U.S. Marines.
Unlike its successor, Camp David, Rapidan has no helipad or driving range. There's no paved access road or even insulation in the walls of the main cabin, which was affectionately called the Brown House in contrast to The White House. Slats of German siding nailed directly to studs were the only things that stood between President Hoover and the elements, and that was fine by him.
Hoover and his wife Lou Henry had spent a decade in mining camps. They knew the value of backwoods living, and they knew how to catch their own food. The president was an avid fisherman. He had nearby rivers and streams stocked with trout, and he was thrilled whenever he could slip away from the Secret Service to fish on his own. As the story goes, he would find a secluded bluff during these solo adventures and watch search parties hunt for him.
The First Lady, who often drove her own car to Rapidan, once contrasted the rustic camp against peculiar amenities that only a president could command. "[It is] at the end of nowhere, with a road that in wet weather lets you sink to your hubs in slushy mush and while there bump over the most amazing boulders…[it] has electric lights and a telephone and its morning papers. The mail is dropped from an airplane!”
[caption id="attachment_8826" align="alignleft" width="191"]President Hoover fishing at Rapidan Camp. President Hoover fishing at Rapidan Camp.[/caption]
This strange combination of rustic charm and presidential touches attracted some of the biggest names of the day. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh visited. In fact, according to the humorist Will Rogers, Lindbergh helped the president build dams along Mill Prong to form trout pools. Mrs. Thomas A. Edison, the Edsel Fords, Henry Luce, and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. were also guests.
Eighty-four years ago this month, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald spent a week at the camp. His visit included a history-making discussion on a downed tree. It is said that he and the president sat on opposite ends of a log and devised a strategy for limiting naval armament worldwide.
While the camp fit the Hoovers perfectly, subsequent presidents ignored it. The terrain was too bumpy for Franklin Roosevelt's wheelchair, and no other president bothered to visit until Carter took a trip decades later. Over time, the buildings decayed and many had to be torn down. Of the thirteen original structures, which included lodging for servants, secretaries, and the Secret Service, only three remain. Two of those however—the president's Brown House and a guest house aptly called The Prime Minister—have been restored to their 193o's-era glory.
You can see for yourself with a visit to Rapidan Camp. If you're feeling adventurous the hikeis about four miles each way and begins at the Milam Gap Overlook. You can also hop a shuttle from the visitor's center at Big Meadows. The fifteen minute ride is bumpy, but I guarantee that you won't get stuck behind a mini-van full of leaf peepers on the way.
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This fall you can do a trick and get treats with Harpers Ferry Hallows, a nighttime zipline tour.
The trick is flying through the autumn sky like an airborne ghoul, sensing limbs just beyond your grasp and smelling October leaves in a way you never have before—at their height, in the dark. It's like their scent has been turned up high as you whip between black trees with the wind in your face and your heart racing.
Andrea Tracewell from River Riders, the outfitter that organized the tour, calls it a howling good time, and she says the thrills don't stop there.
While watching the sun set over the Shenandoah Valley, you'll tackle the park's five aerial climbing courses. You'll enjoy cider and granola bars. And you'll take a hayride through a jack-o-lantern lit field. That's all before you even get to the eight ziplines where, as the Website points out, you don't need a broomstick to soar through the sky.
See—you get both tricks and treats, but only for a limited time. The final Harpers Ferry Hallows tour is November 2.
So what do you think? Ever done a zipline, and are you ready to take flight in the dark?
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Chattanooga has been on my "to visit" list for years, but its latest attraction has moved it to the top spot. I'm not talking about a river walk, restored historic theater, or arts district. Chattown has had those for a while. What's interesting nowadays is how you get between them. Bike Chattanooga kicked into gear just about a year ago, and this outdoorsy mountain city has done bike share right. With more than thirty stations and 300 bikes, visitors and locals alike can find bicycles all over town. As an avid bike share user (albeit in DC), I'd say that having lots of stations matters. When it's easy to pick-up and drop-off bikes, folks are more likely to pedal to work, take leisure rides, or zip across town to meet friends. In Chattanooga, the commitment is paying off. Forbes just ranked this quaint mountain town right alongside Paris, London, and Montreal as one of ten places where "bikes rule," and riders have racked up some amazing numbers. In the service's first year, people in Chattanooga took more than 31,000 bike share trips and burned a whopping 3.4 million calories. That's important said Phill Pugliese, the bicycle coordinator for Outdoor Chattanooga, which runs the bike share. "We are in what is often termed the Stroke Belt," he said in a recent interview. "While Chattanooga's recognized as an outdoor adventure city...we have high rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity." Biking can be a tough sale with folks who were raised to think that after age 16 you stow the Shwinn and get your real wheels, but Phil says even they are coming around. "We’ve had people who haven’t been on a bike… in 20 plus years, and they get out, and are now riding their bike out to lunch." It helps that the price is right. With an ongoing membership or a $5 daily fee, using the bikes is free—just as long as you check into a kiosk every hour, and  24/7 access means you can pedal whenever you want, morning, noon, or night. So what do you think—should we all meet up in Chattanooga and show off our pedal power? And what if you had bike share where you live? How would you use it?
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You can't live in the Appalachians without having a favorite hiking trail...or ten. This Saturday, June 1, 2013 presents the perfect opportunity to celebrate yours. National Trails Day, led by the American Hiking Society, has inspired trail-themed activities all across the region.
In Shenandoah National Park, you'll find ranger-led hikes, demonstrations, and presentations throughout the day as part of the Beyond the Trailhead event at the Byrd Visitor Center, mile 51 on Skyline Drive.
Continuing its seventeen year tradition, Great Smoky Mountain National Park will host Appalachian Trail Work Day, a day of volunteering in the park. You can help clean and replace water bars, rehabilitate steps and turnpikes, and maintain sections of the Appalachian Trail. The work day concludes with a barbecue picnic at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.
State parks across the region will offer all kinds of events, including hiking, birding, historic tours, games, volunteer opportunities ranging from trail repair to building a butterfly habitat, pontoon cruises, cave tours, wildflower watches, and more. Whatever you like to do outdoors, there is bound to be something to fit your interests. Check these park Websites for events near you--West Virginia State Parks, Kentucky State Parks, Georgia State Parks, Virginia State Parks, and Tennessee State Parks--or search the national map of activities on the American Hiking Society Website.
And tell us about your favorite spots. What trails do you think are worth celebrating?
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When I can't find anything nice to say about DC--and there are those days--I tell people that it's a great city to escape. Within a two hour drive, we have funky towns like Baltimore and Richmond; the broad, crab-filled waters of the Chesapeake Bay; and, of course, the hills and hollers of my homeland.
With all these options, it's sometimes tough to pick a getaway. (I know--such a first world problem.) But when it came to our anniversary weekend, we knew exactly where we wanted to go.
Ryan and I had been to Shepherdstown just once together. It was four years back, but ever since, we've talked about meandering through West Virginia's oldest town and an outstanding pancake breakfast we had there.
We thought our fifth anniversary was the perfect excuse to go back, and I figured that, since a historic university all but defines the town, we'd find a slew of B&B and rental cottage options.
Click. Click. Click. 
It's amazing how quickly you can discover you're wrong these days. A Web search revealed that people who own houses in this charming hamlet have little interest in renting them to come-and-go weekenders, and there's just one B&B. It was fully booked.
[caption id="attachment_8224" align="alignright" width="244"]A Potomac View from the C&O Canal. A Potomac View from the C&O Canal.[/caption]
While shaking my fist at the town's property owners, I expanded my search and, within minutes, was glad I did. Just four miles away, the Antietam Guest House, an 1856 beauty named after the nearby battlefield, was ready and waiting.
When we pulled into the house's lot, the first thing I noticed was that it backed against a cow pasture. This wouldn't be so unusual, except that it was also just one block from the town's main street. You can't find a better balance of town and country, I'd say.
We entered through the house's back door and inside, discovered charm galore. The transom over the front door was filled with old, brightly colored glass. A stone outcropping, presumably a natural part of the landscape, defined one wall of the finished basement. And at the top of the steep Victorian stairs, waited an intimate sitting area full of local books.
[caption id="attachment_8226" align="alignleft" width="232"]Crab cake at Captain Bender's. Crab cake at Captain Bender's.[/caption]
It was tempting to wile the entire weekend at Antietam Guest House, but we had a town to explore...two actually. Over the course of the next few days we kept the four miles between Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown hot, running back and forth, holding our noses when we passed what we believed to be a pig farm, stopping at an estate sale, and finding new favorites places that we're excited to share with you. If you've been to either of these towns, we hope you'll to tell us your favorites too!


Captain Bender's Tavern: Our first night started with an hour and a half drive from DC, and we didn't feel like getting back behind the wheel. For dinner, we walked through sleepy Sharpsburg to a local eatery, picked largely because I liked the old-time sign out front. Inside, the bar was quiet, a few locals talked low at their tables, and as it turned out, the sign was the most interesting part of the decor. We settled in an understated dining room, sure they had bourbon and Coke. Beyond that, our expectations were low.
[caption id="attachment_8227" align="alignright" width="222"]Mecklenburg Inn. Mecklenburg Inn.[/caption]
We ordered clam chowder to start. After living for eight years in Boston, I know a little about this dish. If it's too soupy, it's broth not chowder. If it's short on clams, then you just feel cheated. Imagine my surprise when a mug of thick chowder landed in front of me with clams literally poking from the top. It was pipping hot and seasoned with something I still can't place--Old Bay maybe. Whatever it was, it gave the chowder just the perfect bite, a new flavor and something I never experienced in New England. This followed by more surprises--perfectly fried pickle chips, a crab crake with a lot more crab than filler, and crispy, golden onion rings. All told, it was an easy, tasty inaugural meal. Click here to read the full report.
Nutter's Ice Cream: A block away from Bender's Tavern, we stumbled across the local ice cream parlor. Like Bender's, there was zero pretense at Nutter's, just good ice cream and happy locals eating it. After plates filled with deep fried goodness, I figured some light peach yogurt was the way to go. Though guilt free, it was creamy and really peachy, and the "small" scoop was big enough to go in the freezer and last for two nights.
Mecklenburg Inn: Best known for its live music and nighttime scene, we stopped at Mecklenburg Inn (affectionately known as The Meck) for lunch one sunny afternoon. It was quiet at mid-day, and, at points, we had its picture perfect back patio all to ourselves. Our basic bar food--grilled cheese for Ryan and a hot dog for me--couldn't have tasted better than it did in our garden nook, surrounded by an array of plants and big trees. The largest of them, in the far back, had a two-seater swing hanging from a massive limb. While we didn't make it back after dark, I imagine this is the perfect spot to snuggle with your honey, a beer in hand and live bluegrass wafting through the leaves.
[caption id="attachment_8228" align="alignleft" width="160"]Trestle over the Potomac. Trestle over the Potomac.[/caption]
C & O Canal: Did I mention that the Potomac River runs alongside Shepherdstown? Wide and slow flowing, it defines the line between West Virginia and Maryland, and it's bordered by another channel, the now dry C&O Canal. Opened in 1831, this 184 mile waterway was constructed between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Maryland to transport goods upstream. Today, the canal is a national park. A flat, even trail runs along the old towpath, which mules walked while pulling specially outfitted boats. Thankfully, all we had to pull was our dog. From time to time Beasley tried to chase squirrels down into the dry canal bed. Otherwise, it was a tranquil walk. From the path, we had a great view of the river. Old bridge pilings and languid trees gave my inner-shutterbug plenty to shoot.
Four Seasons Books: Shepherdstown has dozens of charming shops. You can find  everything from honey made down the road to fly fishing gear to dust pans fashioned from old license plates. (Yes, you read that right.) Perhaps my favorite of these offbeat stores is Four Seasons Books. It has two stories of new and used finds, along with an outstanding magazine selection. Ryan and I spent a solid hour perusing its shelves and could have easily lingered for two more. I walked out with a copy of Crapalachia, which you might remember sparked great discussion on The Revivalist a while back.
Blue Moon Cafe: After lunch at Mecklenburg Inn, we figured we'd already hit the pinnacle in patios. Imagine our surprise when we spotted the natural creek that runs through the patio at Blue Moon Cafe. Walled on both sides, the water gurgles past diners as they enjoy locally brewed beer and great eats. We took our pup with us, and the waitress was quick to bring him his own water bowl. He lapped away while we enjoyed a hot-but-not-too-hot buffalo chicken wrap and moist, flavorful meatloaf that would even get your mama's seal of approval.
[caption id="attachment_8223" align="alignnone" width="574"]The patio and creek at Blue Moon Cafe. The patio at Blue Moon Cafe.[/caption]
[nggallery id=shepherdstown]
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Next Saturday, folks from across the region and around the world will make their way to the Star City of the South. Roanoke, Virginia plays host to the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon, which has been ranked among the most grueling race courses in the world.
The Weather Channel named it number eight in its listing of the “World’s 15 Toughest Marathons.” Wenger says it's one of the 7 hardest in the world. The race even bills itself as "America’s Toughest Road Marathon," and it's no hollow boast. With more than 7,200 feet of elevation change over its 26.2 miles, the course is challenging to even the most experienced runner.
Former American Marathon record holder Bill Rodgers has run the race. He said it's "a destination race." He called it challenging and beautiful, adding, "That's a great combination."
The race starts in downtown Roanoke. Runners weave their way through historic neighborhoods and then traverse the side of Mill Mountain. From there, full marathoners continue along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Roanoke Mountain. Coming back, they pass the soaring local landmark, Mill Mountain Star. Half marathoners have a shorter but still challenging course. All participants experience breathtaking mountain views and all are invited to finish the race with a little culture. They receive free admission to the Taubman Museum, Roanoke's premiere art space, which is adjacent to the race's start and finish lines.
If you're like me, your joints aren't up for a half mile run, much less mention 26 miles, and that's okay. Organizers have created a special Web section for spectactors, who play an important role too. "Running a marathon may seem like a solitary, even lonely, accomplishment," explains the race's site, "But it really rests upon the aid of friends, family, and a bunch of complete strangers."
Check out the below video for some of the course's beautiful views and challenging stretches. And let us know what you think. Ever run a marathon? Are you more likely to do one with mountain views?
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About this time every year, the Southern Environmental Law Centerreleases a list of 10 places in the South that face immediate, potentially irreparable, environmental threats. If ever there's a list you don't want your homeland to make, it's this one.
endangered appalachiaUnfortunately, precious spots in Appalachia are always included. In fact, this year I was startled to count five of them. That's right, half of the most endangered Southern places are in our mountains. From their farthest reaches in Alabama to their eastern edge in Charlottesville, the Southern Appalachians are under threat. The culprits include fracking, timber sales, roadway development, and mountain top removal mining.
I shouldn't be surprised. Our region has extraordinary natural resources, and for nearly all of our recorded history, they've attracted those who would carelessly exploit them. I'm reminded of the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingstown, Tennessee; the more than 500 mountains that have already been severely impacted or destroyed by mountain top removal mining; and the wholesale destruction of our ancient forests throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Environmental degradation is not new, but neither are environmental successes. The Southern Environmental Law Center has been pursuing and winning environmental cases in the South for more than twenty-five years. Check out this video on their important work and find out how you can help save our most endangered places.
Know any of these places? What do they mean to you? And what do you think of the work of The Southern Environmental Law Center?
Leave a comment below.
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I woke up yesterday thinking about hiking. I haven't been since the fall, back when the air was crisp but not so cold I needed hand-warmers in my front and back pockets, double socks, and a parka. As much as I like the idea of a long winter's hike, I'm on the skinny side. I'd have to buy two or more pairs of long johns just to keep my blood from icing over.
Now, I know what you're thinking. We have had some freakishly warm winter days, but you can't just run around enjoying those. If we start having fun with climate change, then we're just begging for a giant hurritornami to wipe us off the map.
So I stayed home yesterday. Huddled under a double-lined quilt and a toasty, snoring puggle, I browsed Appalachian websites, prepared to fail epically in my search for a digital mountain fix. I clicked through site after site. Mediocre mountain view after mediocre mountain view. Cabin rental ad after cabin rental ad. They led me down a crooked path to the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
If you know nothing else when you hit the association's site, you know that they released a Grammy nominated album. It features songs dating to 1939, recorded by people who lived in what is now Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I listened to a few tunes. There were neat but didn't quite scratch my itch.
Click. Click. Click.
I landed on their video and photos page, and right there at the top was a clip called Rainbow Falls Trail Hike.
Hmmmm. Click.
Bingo! Up popped the below gem, a video hike to one of the park's most beloved spots--Rainbow Falls. In it, a small, cheery group of hikers weaved their way up the mountainside, crossing the icy Leconte Creek and capturing lovely images of frozen rocks and rhododendron along the way.
When they reached the top, they paused and gave me, the fella sitting snug on his sofa five hundred miles away, some lingering shots of the falls. Aside from the fact that I wasn't panting or frostbitten, it felt as if I'd hiked up right alongside them, like I was taking it all in. Slow shots showed bare iced trees and frozen water at the falls' base.
Even viewing it on a thirteen inch screen, I could tell that this spot was uniquely beautiful in the winter, and for a hot second, I regretted not getting off the couch. I'm active and young enough to handle a winter hike. I started to stand, ready to rummage through the closet for my boots. But before my rump was off the cushion, the sleeping pup on my lap snuggled his nose against our shared blanket.
I settled back into place. Rather than disturb my snoozing lap-warmer, I reached for my phone. In my Reminders app, I typed "Check Out Rainbow Falls" and, in the date section, dialed right past February and March. I'll be ready to talk about the falls again on April 15.
So are you a winter hiker? Ever gone to Rainbow Falls this time of year? What are your favorite cold weather hiking spots?
Share a comment below.
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You've probably seen them when you were driving down some winding state route. Maybe it was this time of year. Maybe you were cruising a little too fast. Maybe you came over one of those knolls that puts your stomach in your throat, and just as it settled back where it belonged, something caught your eye.
It was off to the side of the road. Amidst the blur of gold leaves and bent corn stalks, you spotted a purple triangle and a blue diamond. But you were in the middle of farm land where the signature colors were red for roofs and brown for nearly everything else. These quirky shapes seemed so unlikely you did a double take. You slowed down. Maybe you even backed up, and that's when you saw that it wasn't just two strange shapes. They had friends, other triangles and other squares in other colors. They were locked together in a geometric hodgepodge that added up to something greater. Back to back and side to side, they formed a giant square--a quilt square--and it was hanging like fine art from someone's rickety barn.
The first time I spotted one of these enormous beauties, I thought it was one farmer's inspired self expression, but boy, was I wrong. The quilt squares are a full-fledged movement. After starting in Ohio in 2001, they've popped up in at least 28 states and two Canadian provinces. They symbolize a renewed interest in simple living, and this time of year, they give leaf peeping a whole new shape.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"]Quilt art on a barn in Bluff City, Tenn. Bluff City, Tennessee. Photo provided by Patrick Beeson on Flickr.[/caption]
Rather than brave the crowded tourist trails (yes, I'm looking at you Skyline Drive), maybe we should all go quilt square hopping instead. We'll avoid the stop--and-go traffic and see the leaves like locals see them--from back country roads, across beautiful autumn fields, as the backdrop to daily life. With a little help from our local quilt square groups, we can even make new friends and find favorite restaurants along the way.
Eastern Tennessee: Appalachian Quilt Trails promotes the squares in eastern Tennessee, but this group doesn't stop with farms and barns. They offer visitors dining tips, lists of local attractions, referrals to historic sites, and more. "Whether you are in search of colleges or covered bridges, llamas or cranberry bogs, country fairs or wineries," says the site, "You are sure to find something to please along the Appalachian Quilt Trail." Trail organizers are also giving The Revivalist's readers a sneak peak at the new local map for Kyles Ford, Tennessee. Watch the site for the official release of this map and others in the area.
- Western North Carolina: Across the border in Western North Carolina, they also have downloadable tour guides and you can order a quilt square of your own from their site. With prices starting at about $200, they're an affordable way to join this growing movement.
- Eastern Kentucky: With more than a hundred quilt squares lining four trails that traverse eight counties, Eastern Kentucky is quilt square heaven. The folks at Kentucky Quilt Trails make it easy to experience this outdoor art installation with clear trail directions and pictures of area squares. All you have to do is pick your favorite designs and hit the road.
- West Virginia: The quilt square movement has its roots in The Mountain State. The first quilt square, created by Donna Sue Groves, was dedicated to her mother Nina Maxine Groves, a fifth generation quilter from Roane County, West Virginia. Fittingly, West Virginia has not one, not two, but three quilt square groups, including an unusual urban trail dedicated to the city of Huntington.
- Virginia's Shenandoah Valley: Across the border in Harrisonburg, a second urban quilt square trail has popped up. Formed in 2011, the Shenandoah Valley Quilt Trail is walkable. It takes you to a farmer's market, a food co-op, the historic Hardesty-Higgins House, and, to the delight of every quilt lover, The Virginia Quilt Museum, which houses quilts dating back to the Civil War.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="213"]Barn Quilt Block, McDowell County, NC McDowell County, North Carolina. Photo provided by BuckeyeinTriad on Flickr.[/caption]
- North Georgia: The North Georgia Quilt Trail is centered in Gilmore County, the Apple Capital of Georgia, which makes this trail a triple header. You can take in North Georgia's breathtaking fall scenery, visit the quilt squares, and enjoy the bounty of Gilmore's signature fruit.
- Western Maryland: Launched with help from quilt squares founder, Donna Sue Groves, the Barn Quilt Association of Garrett County boasts Maryland's first quilt trail. This innovative group has added a cell phone tour and a store to its mix. On this website, you can purchase barn quilt lapel pins, posters, and fridge magnets.
So are you ready to hit the road? Where's your favorite quilt square? Do you have one of these beauties on your house or barn? If so, tell us what inspired you to put it up, and when we should drop by to see it!
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There are many creatures you don't want to cross in Appalachian forests. Boar are vicious. Bear are strong. Bobcats will scratch your face off. But none are as brutal or dogged as the great horned owl. As William Funk explains in the below guest post, these mighty birds can be terrors, killing prey without mercy and in one horrific case, brutalizing an entire Kentucky family.

William should know. He is a nature lover, freelance writer, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on wildlife and land preservation. He lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and as you'll see at the end of the piece, he has had his own run-in with the great horned owl.

Have you had one too? If the great-horned has ever scared, startled, or amazed you, be sure to leave a comment and tell us about it.


Around 8:00 on the night of August 21, 1955, the Sutton farm near the hamlet of Kelly, Kentucky was visited by a mysterious and terrifying phenomenon. An hour after a brilliant streak of light had disappeared behind the brooding treeline surrounding the farmhouse, the family dog alerted Elmer “Lucky” Sutton and a visiting friend to strange goings-on in the backyard. Armed with a shotgun and a .22 rifle, the two men slipped quietly out the door to confront what was later described as a misshapen dwarf enveloped in “a greenish silver glow” lurking on a tree limb, a being possessed of an outsized head, “long arms” and “pointed ears.” Menacing yellow eyes glared down at them through the gloom. The two men opened fire, naturally, spraying the general vicinity with panicked bursts of birdshot and bullets, actions they said caused the apparition to “float” down to the ground, before they fled back into the house.

For the next three hours the family was besieged by a ruthless and unknowable presence. At one point an inhuman, staring face thrust itself before a kitchen window and was fired upon. Poking his head outside the back door, another friend who had been at the house that evening had his scalp torn open by one of the creatures that had positioned itself on the roof. This gentleman, a Billy Ray Taylor, later recalled that the beast had long “spindly” legs as well as fearsome claws. This first physical assault initiated a full-fledged panic and caused the eleven people within the farmhouse—including eight full-grown adults—to pile themselves into several automobiles and hightail it eight miles south to the Hopkinsville police department. Subsequent investigation by city, county and state officials (later joined, allegedly, by agents of the United States Air Force) failed to provide any evidence of the night’s encounter other than the hole in the kitchen window screen produced by a jittery shotgun blast.
What evil presence was behind this sinister visitation? Meteor activity had been widely reported over the region that night which might explain the UFO-like streak of light but what about the yellow-eyed monsters that trapped an entire extended family of taxpayers in their home for three solid hours? Was it cabin fever? Bad whiskey? Mass hysteria? Or perhaps it was something even stranger than the fictional aliens the Sutton family still swears by, creatures every bit as eerie, formidable and bizarre as they were described, but beings decidedly of this planet.
While we will never know exactly what went on that weird moonlit night, it seems probable that the Sutton’s uncanny visitors were specimens of Bubo virginianus, the great horned owl, known as the “flying tiger” for its single-minded savagery when hunting. Not even eagles, not even the peregrine falcon or northern goshawk, can match the horned owl’s pitiless devotion to the slaughter of such a wide variety of prey. Contributing to its diverse larder is the fact that horned owls are sexually dimorphous, with females often significantly larger than males. Males average a little over three pounds, while females can weigh up to five pounds. This trait provides the great horned with a wide array of prey species from which a pair may select on any given night. And when a horned owl goes in for the kill it keeps fighting until either it or its quarry is dead—there is no retreat.
[caption id="attachment_6223" align="alignright" width="222"] Photo provided by Sandy and Chuck Harris.[/caption]
Standing two feet tall and boasting a five-foot wingspan, the great horned owl is a common bird throughout its North American range. While there is a great deal of dissimilarity among even local populations, horned owls in the southern Appalachians generally display a rustier coloration than their gray northern cousins. The great horned owl’s feathers are richly patterned in variations of maple, black and pale gray, with a buff undercoat barred with heavy streaks of chocolate.
This cryptic coloration makes for excellent camouflage when the owl naps in the afternoons, perched on a tree limb near the trunk and elongating its body to blend into the bark. Tufted “horns” (plumicorns) used for both camouflage and non-vocal communication can accentuate the deception. While regurgitated pellets of indigestible hair, teeth and toenails on the forest floor may give away their proximity, hunters and hikers routinely pass unknowingly beneath dozing owls, whose ability to mold their feather conformation and body shape to blend into their environment is without parallel among American birds.
All adult great horned owls have outsize eyes with radiant golden irises, jammed with rods to facilitate a night vision 100 times greater than our own. The eyes deliver 10X sharper vision than ours and are fully the size of an adult human’s, so large that they are immobile within their sockets, a physiological necessity which gave rise to the owl’s fourteen neck vertebrae (twice that of other birds) and 270˚ head rotation. A semi-transparent nictating membrane is used as a third eyelid to regularly clean the lenses and provide protection just before an attack. The pupils are capable of independent dilation, and the great horned owl, like many raptors, can stare unfazed into the noonday sun.
If the horned owl’s vision is supernal, its hearing is even more astonishing. The great horned’s eyes are set within concave partial facial discs that channel the faintest vibration directly to its ear holes, which are placed asymmetrically on the head to facilitate the triangulation of sound emissions and help the owl pinpoint the location of prey in dim light.
Possessed of uncanny sight and hearing, enormously powerful, relentless, insatiable, and utterly without fear, the great horned owl exerts dominion over all other creatures of the American night. While rabbits are generally preferred, prey species run the taxonomic scale: crayfish, snakes, shrews, hares, squirrels, sandpipers, bats, rats, mice, fish, hawks, owls, pigeons, possums, herons, groundhogs, weasels, woodpeckers, geese, crows, porcupines, skunks, housecats—in short, anything the owl can physically overcome.
Great horned owls hunt by perching on limbs and waiting in silence for their extraordinary senses to betray the presence of prey on the ground. Once detected by a healthy adult, the victim stands little chance of escape.
Like many raptors (Latin for “one who seizes by force”), horned owls employ what is best described as fury when subduing large prey, maximizing the damage they inflict so as to ensure a quick kill and little or no dangerous resistance. The great horned owl is, after all, only a bird, and birds are delicate, hollow-boned creatures, half air themselves, and cannot withstand the concussive blows that solid-boned mammals may shrug off. The legendary ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey (1937), recorded the horned owl’s killing rage:
“A few feet in front of me was a large Horned Owl in a sort of sitting posture. His back and head were against an old log. His feet were thrust forward, and firmly grasped a full-grown skunk. One foot had hold of the skunk’s head and the other clutched it tightly by the middle f the back. The animal seemed to be nearly dead, but still had strength enough to leap occasionally into the air in its endeavors to shake off its captor. During the struggle, the Owls’ eyes would fairly blaze, and he would snap his beak with a noise like the clapping of your hands.”
Yet this killing machine, ferocious without peer, is also a devoted parent; in fact much of the hunting by a mated pair is done for that most elemental and noble of motives—perpetuation of the species. Horned owls are savagely protective of their offspring, and the murderous strength unsheathed in combat is easily turned on interlopers who dare to approach an occupied nest. Bent recollects one incautious egg collector’s description of a typical two-pronged attack:
“Swiftly the old bird came straight as an arrow from behind and drove her sharp claws into my side, causing a deep dull pain and unnerving me, and no sooner had she done this than the other attacked from the front and sank his talons deep in my right arm causing blood to flow freely, and a third attack and my shirtsleeve was torn to shreds for they had struck me a third terrible blow on my right arm tearing three long, deep gashes, four inches long; also one claw went through the sinew of my arm, which about paralyzed the whole arm.”
The horned owl’s drive to satisfy the hunger of its young is such that it kills more, sometimes much more, than even gluttonous owlets can eat. Young great horned owls are fierce competitors for meat and will sometimes kill one another when provender is insufficient, but the parents’ hunting prowess is such that in most years this is rarely a concern. According to Bent, one nest contained “a mouse, a young muskrat, two eels, four bullheads [catfish of the genus Ameiurus], a woodcock, four ruffed grouse, one rabbit, and eleven rats. The food taken out of the nest weighed almost eighteen pounds.”
Great horned owls mate for life but live separately for about a quarter of each year. After spending the fall and early winter hunting apart from one another a mated pair is eager to renew their bond, with hooting courtship serenades beginning in the frigid depths of January, earlier than any other North American avian species. The courtship ritual is purposefully seductive and even touching: after gentle hooting has lured her within range the male softly approaches the larger female, strokes her with his bill, lowers his wings and makes a series of solemn bows to her before renewing his tender caresses.
Eventually the pair flies off together to mate and find a home to rear their young, usually the abandoned nest of a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel situated 30-70 feet above the ground. If they are unable to find a suitable empty nest before the female is ready to lay eggs, the mated pair will simply appropriate an occupied one, driving away or killing the residents. Attacked during the night when they are at their most vulnerable, even the largest hawks are unable to withstand the great horned owl.
A few years ago, having finally talked my girlfriend at the time into a camping trip, we were comfortably ensconced at the campground of Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina, a mountainous island of southern Appalachia set in the undulating western Piedmont. It was late November (an initial source of friction) and we were hunkered down by the side of the dying campfire, preparing to turn in, when turning to say something to me she suddenly stared wildly over my shoulder and screamed. I whirled around but saw nothing. “Someone was in that tree,” she whispered, seizing my arm. “I saw his eyes in the firelight, looking down right at us!”
Assurances of safety were useless; nothing would do but that I make a dutiful patrol around the perimeter with my flashlight, my mind on other things, and scan the star-rimmed pines for arboreal rapists. Finally she calmed down enough for us to retire, still insisting she’d seen someone staring at her with great yellow eyes from midway up the pitch pine on the edge of our campsite.

Hours later I was jolted from sleep by the screams of a child far out in the woods. It went on, horribly, for perhaps ten seconds, when it was abruptly stifled. Thankfully my companion had remained asleep—this would have been the last straw, occasioning a panicked midnight retreat back to Raleigh. I’d tried to tell her what our visitor had likely been, and the dying rabbit I’d just heard, now being carried off to another world, was unmistakable confirmation. The great horned owl she had seen had simply been investigating these latest visitors to its kingdom and, having satisfied its burning curiosity, without a sound had vanished back into the woods, where it had other business.
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If you've driven within sixty miles of Luray, you know the town. Its most noted feature, Luray Caverns, dominates roadside advertising with bright yellow billboard signs, drawing thousands of tourists annually.
I'm afraid, though, that most folks head underground, tour the caves, and get back on the road. Having spent the better part of a week here, I've been surprised at how few tourists I've seen downtown. In fact, I'm about ready to drive over to the cavern's parking lot and tell people to stick around. Luray and the surrounding countryside have some great stuff going on. Here are a few of our favorites:
Gathering Grounds
This downtown coffee shop and cafe has been our second home. We've spent hours here feeding our internet habits and also our bellies with snickerdoodles and delicious smoothies. The wait staff is happy to tell you about local sights or just chat. We've covered everything from the best dishes on the menu to horrific computer crash stories.
Luray Fitness Center
If you try to stay in shape when you travel, you're probably used to the $20 guest workout fee. When the fit, tan lady behind the counter at Luray Fitness Center told me that I only needed to pay $5, I was ready to hug her. Then she set up my niece and nephew on comfy couches with a TV. At that point, I was ready to buy a year-long membership even though I lived a hundred miles away. While this gym's equipment is older, it's in pristine shape, and there was plenty of it. No need for sign-up sheets to use the elliptical here.
Shenandoah River Outfitters
One of my favorite outfitters is just outside of town. I thought it would a great spot for the kid's first kayak adventure, and I was right. The staff was friendly. The boats were in good shape. They had showers on-site (which was a Godsend after bathing for a few days in an old tub). Most importantly, the scenery was beautiful--farmland interspersed with soaring cliffs on one side and George Washington National Forest on the other. As you can see in the pics below, it was a great ride.
Warehouse Art Gallery
The other day we were dropping mail at the town's historic post office (which itself is worth a peek), and we spied a big, bug eyed statue across the street. Turns out his name is SlugBoy, and he greets folks at The Warehouse Art Gallery. Inside, there are more than 7,000 square feet of art displayed in beautiful open, warehouse studios, and we're not just talking the typical landscapes and fruit still lives. The gallery has beautiful examples of those but also a lot of clever, thoughtful, and sometimes downright challenging pieces. Check out our favorites below, along with other miscellaneous photos from our week in Luray.
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