Camping in Glorious Shenandoah

Made golden through the patchy fog, the dwindling light of sunset greets us as we head into Shenandoah National Park. The multi-lane highway gradually drops off to a one lane, tree-lined road whose meandering, curving rise into the mountains is offset by sudden switchback turns. Mist, indecisive between opaque and translucent, rolls up around the car, obscuring the road a few feet away and then, breaking swiftly to reveal trees dripping with moisture and leaves starting to turn yellow.

We arrive at Big Meadows campground and night immediately falls. Since I hate driving at night, I strangely feel that the twilight has been holding onto the sun as long as the car is on and drops it under the horizon right as the engine stops. As we get out and stretch our legs, stiff from the drive and the workweek, a familiar campground smell surrounds us- earthy and smoky. A friendly ranger directs us to our spot, and we set up our campsite in the gleam of LED lanterns and yellow car headlights.

Thank goodness we have brought a couple portable gas stoves with us, because everything about the campsite is wet. A light rain threatens us a couple times, but we manage to rustle up a hot dinner and even roast some marshmallows on the little flames. It’s our first time camping together, but it comes naturally. I reminisce about past trips with my family; A is excited to try out all our new camping gadgets.

When I booked the campsite a month before, we had just finished an epic five-week trip across the US and up the California Coast after living overseas for two years. At the time, we’d had enough of traveling and living out of cars and suitcases, but even then, I knew that after a month of settling back into the DC metro area, we’d be itching for at least a small trip. Not just because we love to roam and explore, but because reverse culture shock is real and requires breaks. Now in Shenandoah, I feel relief spread across my shoulders, urging me to relax.

After persistently working on adjusting to China, I find myself doing it all again to re-acclimate to somewhere that should be extremely familiar but now feels weirdly foreign. Why do people leave so much space between each other on the escalator? Why can’t I just aggressively wave at my server when I need things? Can we just eat family style always? Will people please just hurry up and cram themselves en masse into the metro? How come no one’s celebrating mid-Autumn Festival, and where are all the moon cakes? Whenever I hear Mandarin (which turns out to be every day), my ears perk up and I feel briefly more at ease for a somewhat inexplicable reason. I remind myself over and over, this is home.

Camping feels like a celebration of getting through all the beginnings and transitions.

Our first night in Big Meadows we roll around on the hard ground trying to get comfortable. Thunderously loud wind whips around the tent. Half asleep, I’m convinced that we are about to be blown down the hill our tent is slanted on. Thankfully, A rammed the tent pegs firmly into the muddy ground, and we stay securely fastened to the earth.

In the morning, camping smells like wet grass, smoke, and the plasticky newness of our tent. Despite barely sleeping and getting up at the crack of dawn, I feel recharged as I scramble out of my sleeping bag and walk to the car to get breakfast started. I usually hate eggs, but our scrambled eggs on unbuttered toast tastes heavenly.

Of course, we forgot our small cooler bag at home with delicacies like sausages, butter, and cheese, oh and we left behind our pillows. My neck crackles a bit as I bend over the little camp stove to make the coffee.

We head out around 10am, the road blanketed in mist that seems here to stay. At a nearby camp store, we buy some supplies and stop for a mid-morning snack of pumpkin pie and coffee not made over a small burner. Surprisingly, the fog gradually lifts as we eat. Around us, the forests beckon for us to go on a long, satisfying hike. We walk down to Dark Hollows Falls, our knees protesting on the steep steps and other hikers groaning as they head past us back up the trail. I generally feel that a hike should start with uphill and end with downhill, but this particular waterfall refuses to cooperate on that point.


I seek out the famous fall colors Shenandoah is known for and am rewarded with a few trees turning yellow and brown. No leaves crackle underfoot, though, the path wet and slippery due to thin rivulets of water that cascade downwards, making small overflowing pools in places and soaking our feet. More than once, I am transported to hiking the Long Ji Rice Terraces. Here and there, everything is wet, verdant, and growing.

We peel off our layers for the hike back up and work up an appetite for our picnic lunch. A grimaces at my Marmite sandwich and sticks to ham and cheese.

Full and happy, we head along the Lower Hawksbill Trail, which meets my expectation that it be a grueling uphill slog to a worthwhile view. Looking out to the misty mountains and down to the rural towns in the valleys below, I let the expanse of open wilderness hold me and my fear of change for a while.

In my Chinese classes, my teachers often conflated the English “a while” as meaning a short time (the Chinese guò 过). They would accidentally say that an exercise would “take a while” when meaning it would “take a short time.” The English language shifts and twists as it needs to. A “while” can be short, a little, a long. Waiting in line, we are told, “it will be a while,” and we know to settle in for a long wait. “See you in a while,” and we’ll see you again pretty soon.

A friend asked me this week for an example of how living in China has changed me. Of course, I have changed in a myriad ways, big and small, but most of all, I think my perspective of myself, home, and my own language has become more inquisitive. It is trite to say I take less for granted, but it is true.

I stand at the top of the mountain for a while. It is a long and short moment of sweeping expanse and quiet thought. Then, I turn around and ask A to snap a picture, because I’m still me.

We spend most of the evening trying to keep our sputtering campfire alive in steadily insistent rain. Our umbrellas will certainly smell of smoke for months after being used to shelter the precious flames heating our foil-wrapped baked potatoes.

After a dinner of slightly raw potatoes and canned soup, we clean up our camp and head into our tent for an early night. Now heavy, the rain pours down, sounding like a rushing river. Once again, I am awoken by stress visions of our tent rolling down the hill, this time in a torrent of water.

We stay firmly put.

Making breakfast in pouring rain under two umbrellas is an interesting feat of creativity and perseverance. After successfully wolfing it all down, I ask A what he wants to do that day. His head is covered up by his rain jacket’s hood so only his small face is peeping out, “I’m ready to go home now.”

Thoroughly camped out, we pack up the car and head out in a steady downpour that follows us all the way home. We leave feeling refreshed from the great outdoors, but equally appreciative of the pillows, mattress, and cozy indoors waiting for us back in the city.

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