Barbara Cook and I struggled up a five mile climb to Skyline Drive in the wake of our favorite naturalist, Bob Pickett -- drive time about an hour, but we would have missed Prof. Pickett's trailside explanations on natural history along the way.
We learned how to identify basalt, two kinds of granite and quartz intrusions (quartz has the lowest melting point of the igneous minerals, which explains how cracks are filled with it, who knew?), sweet cicely-- try a few leaves, tastes like anise-- moonwart, blueberry versus raspberry bushes, and non-indigenous cherry trees that planted by Scots-Irish settlers as a fruit source for alcoholic beverages, which, like apples, were much easier than the fruit to bring down the mountains and sell to the lowlanders -- aand --
-- how those homesteaders saw their mountaintop livelihoods undermined by exhaustion of the lands' ability to raise crops, by the loss of high value hardwoods like the chestnuts, and by centralization of the tanning industry with the government-supported extension of railroads down the Shenandoah valley. The last of the homesteaders died in 1966, over thirty years after the government began the eviction process that formed the Shenandoah National Park.
And more. Everyone quietly agreed that if he had given an exam at the end, we would all have failed miserably.
Oh, I forgot to mention inspection of various animal scat and of the remains of a small animal that had been consumed by a predator. Also, a mnemonic (for the exam?) MADCAP Horse, to remember the broad leaved woody plants: Maple, Ash, Dogwood -- CAPrifoliaceae (the formal subspecies name) -- "Horse" chestnut, the latter of which is sadly extinct. Sigh.
Also, bear estrous cycles and the placement of nipples on a mother bear.
No, wait, there's more! But I've forgotten it already.
Having climbed a "gentle" ascent and strolled along a long "level" ridge, Bob Pickett led us down a "moderate" descent below an awe-inspiring sight -- a boulder made of the tops of more or less hexagonal hundred-plus foot tall columns of basalt formed during the magma upwellings thousands of millenia ago when the South American continent separated from the North American continent. [Better photo follows with a model posed for scale; the ends of each column are about a foot square.]
Magic times, full of exhausted amazement over evidence of the deep ecological, social, and geologic times that have formed the world in which we live.
Compton Peak? Oh, that was the high point we passed over a little while back. Nothing much to see there.