I've lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for most of my life - over twenty years total. And yet, until this past August (as I was helping my parents pack up to move), I'd never seen a bear in the wild in my home state. Lucky for me, one last trip over to Skyline Drive changed that!
Skyline Drive is a road that cuts through Shenandoah National Park, running along top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like most mountains in the eastern part of the US, the Blue Ridge is a fairly low and rolling range, and gets its name from the haze that makes the mountains appear blue as they recede into the distance. Most visitors head for the park in the fall, as the leaves put on one of the most colorful shows in the United States when they change.
Map of the park and route.
Black bears are not uncommon in the western part of Virginia. Growing up, one of my best friends, who lived a few miles up the mountain from me, saw them in her backyard occasionally. Within the past few years, a couple bears had decided that the dumpsters at the edge of the town of Front Royal were a good place to snack. On her morning walks, my mom used to see them hanging out by the elementary school where she taught. So while I'd seen foxes, racoons, opossums, and (literally) thousands of deer around the area, it was a little surprising I'd never managed to catch a glimpse of a wild bear.
And then - we turned a curve and there he was! We couldn't see him at first, but the stopped traffic made it clear that there was a bear in the nearby woods. We slowed to a crawl before pulling over and watched as the young bear rambled out of the trees and snuffled around in the dirt for bugs or grubs.
It felt like a fitting end to a major chapter of my life. Even though my home is no longer in the Shenandoah Valley, this quietly beautiful region of Virginia will always be home in a way.