Monday, December 5, 2016

Gunther, I Hate You

Compton Peak Panorama
"Fuck my life!" I exclaimed while sitting on the back bumper of the Jeep putting on my hiking shoes Sunday at the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive just minutes after 10am. A vast white tour bus with its noisy diesel engine pulled up, stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, and vomited 30 or 40 seniors dressed in hiking gear. "Are you kidding me?" I asked myself as I wandered over to the herd and asked where they were headed; the reply "To Big Devil Stairs, looping back to Jenkins Gap."

I blame it on the piebald deer we saw earlier. Is a piebald deer good luck or bad luck? I'm going with the latter. What else explains on a random cold December Sunday with zero traffic on Skyline Drive that we decide to hike the one damned place, a place that is one of the lesser visited hikes in the park, that a bus full of seniors is also hiking at the same time? "We're going elsewhere," I grumped at their general direction. Nothing against them, really; I just don't hike in crowds. Ann and I are out to get away.

Now, this bus, a huge white coach with "Gunther" emblazoned on the side in huge red letters, and I, we already have history. Earlier, coming south down Skyline Drive, we came upon a bus stopped in the road just before a curve making it damn near impossible to see around it, to see if it is safe to pass. "Pull off the road!" I shout at the driver as I creep around the bus, knowing full well that he cannot hear me, and more than likely, doesn't give a crap what I think. Passengers are milling about the 15-yard wide margin on the side of road where you could have parked a fleet of busses. As we pass by, I am thankful they are not near us. I am so wrong.

Flashing back to a happier part of the day, we got up and going about 8 am. I had promised Ann the day before to take her to a funky little coffee bar in downtown called Steamy's for coffee and a bagel before the hike. Although I like to get up and hiking in the mornings, with a planned hike of less than six miles, there was no particular pressure to hurry, more so now that it is winter and we are actually waiting for the sun to get up as opposed to trying to get our hike completed before the sun comes up.

We both had bacon, egg, and cheese bagels with our coffee. I think that this is the first time that we have started a hike with a belly full of a real breakfast rather than just a couple of granola bars. It was enough to keep me going through 1:00 in the afternoon; Ann lasted even longer. I'm not a fan of breakfast, but I kind of like the energy it gave me.

Bagel and Coffee at Steamy's in Winchester
Back to the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot, I was having zero luck getting enough signal on my phone to try to determine an alternate hike when I had a "Doh!" moment. Whenever we are hiking the AT or nearby, I always carry the NatGeo guide for the section in my pack. We chose Big Devil Stairs because of our plans later in the day. Jeff had invited us by the winery for a prerelease cellar tasting, so we wanted to have a quick hike near the winery before going to join that particular party.

In looking at the map, two hikes stuck out at me as short hikes nearby, both of which we have hiked before: Compton Peak and Overall Run Falls. Compton Peak, being closer to the winery, won, but the climb up from Compton Gap is very, very short, albeit a short hike that really kicked our butts a couple of summers ago when we were really out of shape and not hiking regularly. We also wanted to go climb that hill again and laugh at how sadly out of shape we were.

We decided to tack on some AT mileage to get a short 6-7 mile hike and approach Compton Peak from the south rather than the north and Compton Gap, so we found a suitable place where the AT crossed Skyline Drive between Browntown Overlook and Hogwallow Flats Overlook.

The Start of our Hike
One of the downsides to hiking the AT in Shenandoah National Park is that you are rarely more than a few yards from Skyline Drive and in winter not only do you hear the traffic as it goes by, but with no leaves on the trees, you can often see the traffic as well. As we had started our walk north towards Jenkins Gap and Compton Peak, the big bus came roaring back past us. And by the time we had got within a half a mile of Jenkins Gap, we could hear the bus idling in the parking lot there. We had to listen to that engine idling for a good twenty minutes of both the out- and back-legs of the hike. Gunther, I hate you.

Gunther, our Nemesis
The walk along the AT went through quite varied areas. We started in what was clearly old farm land with no really old trees, only black locusts reaching maturity, undergrown with large stands of greenbrier, raspberries, and pokeweed. And then we moved on to quite sandy soil with mountain laurel encroaching on the path. Then we moved to a stand of very young maples and then to a burned over part of the forest.

Sandy Soil; Mountain Laurels

Raspberries, Beautiful in Winter

Long Fern-Clad North-Facing Slopes

Bird's Nest in Young Maple

Random Trail Marker

Lots of Brilliant White Shelf Fungi

Lunch: Cream Cheese and Olive Wraps
Up top, we had Compton Peak to ourselves. Although we passed a threesome going north up the AT, they clearly did not take the side trail to the peak. The last time we were up top, we had to share the rocks with several others. The weather was pleasant enough, just above freezing, but it was extremely overcast and hazy: the views were not as good as the last time we were here.

Shenandoah River in the Haze

Annie Takes in the View

Happy Girl

Shot of a Boot Shot in Progress

The Sun Tried to no Avail
After the hike, as we drove back north along Skyline Drive, I kept joking with Ann that if we just turned left off the roadway, we could be at Jeff and Kelly's in just a couple minutes. The farm is nestled in the hollow just below the Gooney Run and Gooney Manor overlooks. Twenty-five minutes later, we pulled up to a busy tasting room and after catching up with Kelly for a couple of minutes, headed down into the cellar to see Jeff. The last I saw him was mid-August just before harvest. I won't bother him during harvest.

Kelly Orchestrating the Tasting Counter

The Tasting Line Up

Tonnato and Bread
In the cellar, we tasted a wonderful 2016 Sauvignon Blanc barrel sample, the newly bottled 2014 Petit Verdot, and 2014 Hodder Hill Bordeaux blend. Ann decided that upstairs, we should get a bottle of the 2014 Hodder Hill, which leads with acid rather than fruit. While I got that, she managed to get us some space at a table with Bob and Carol to whom we introduced ourselves and with whom we chatted away the rest of the afternoon. Ann also managed to get a little bit of bread and some tonnato from Kelly, which combined with the rest of our leftover lunch, helped kill off a little of our hunger.

We were getting ready to leave when Jeff came up from the cellar and opened the bottle of 2012 Albariño that I brought for them to add to their next blind tasting. I wasn't expecting the bottle to be opened same day, but it was, so we hung around and tasted it. I brought it to show everyone that Albariño really can benefit from some bottle age.

By the time we wound our way back home on the long drive in the dark, it was a long day and in spite of dear friend Gunther, a good one.

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