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No Dead Otters!
The last day of our Otter Creek Campground stay, Harold and I have a chance meeting with a kindly gentleman who speaks highly of Johnson's Orchard, located an exit or two south along Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. The thought of replenishing our exhausted stock of apple butter excites me. On the return walk to our campsite, I ask Harold if he's willing to stir apple pulp for hours and hours. His enthusiastic response seems tainted with hesitation.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"I don't know how to get back to Richmond from Bedford."
"I can get us back," I proclaim. "Trust me."
His expression makes me understand that he's not convinced. I've not convinced him of my competency after twenty-two years of marriage? Humph! Just because . . . Errrr, ummm, never mind that.
His skepticism strengthens my resolve. "I'll show you on the map when we get back to the car." And I do. I win him over. After all, we have the kindly gentleman's instructions: "You'll see a huge sign for an orchard on the left," he'd said. "Johnson's Orchard is on the right." With those instructions and my trusty map, how can we go wrong?
Do I still detect hesitation in Harold's agreement? Naw! It was just some catch in his breathing. We are, after all, on top of a mountain, albeit surrounded by forest, and he is, after all, afraid of heights.
We break camp, pack the car, and head south along the Blue Ridge Parkway, eventually reaching "the highest elevation in the State of Virginia"--nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. "Look at the view!" I gush, agog over the panorama of valleys and slopes: the mountains of West Virginia to the west, the foothills and flatlands of Virginia to the east.
"I'm driving," I hear, reminded anew of Harold's sacrifice in taking me to the mountains I love despite the heights that terrify him. The first time I'd taken him camping, we'd reached the mountains on a pitch-black night. My bladder about to burst, we'd seen no signpost for a rest area for miles. I convinced him to pull over so I could relieve myself behind a tree. "Don't go that far!" he'd shouted, startling me. "You'll fall off a cliff." On another trip, when I'd advanced to the barren rock rim of a cliff to admire the fantastic view, he'd yelled, "Get back here! You're going to fall!"
"No, I'm not!" came my laughing reaction each time.
We snake down the mountain without stopping at an overlook, find the correct exit, see the huge sign for the orchard we don't want and not a sign for the orchard we do want.
"Peaks of Otter Winery," Harold reads a sign on the right.
"There should be a sign for Johnson's Orchard along here somewhere," I say. Fenced fields stretch to distant tree lines. We see cattle, begin to see scattered houses, then a sign for the town of Bedford, and finally the town itself. "Did you see any sign for Johnson's Orchard?" I ask Harold, disappointed and confused.
"No," he answers. We stop at a major crossroads and peer left, then right. No sign indicating which way we should turn. This crossroads wasn't in the kindly gentleman's directions.
"I'm going to ask for directions," Harold proclaims, and pulls into the gas station on the corner. I follow him into the mini mart, welcoming the opportunity to stretch my legs and search out a restroom.
"It's back the way we came," he says when we rejoin. "The guy that runs the place lives back up that way. We need to follow the signs for the Winery." I squint suspiciously. That announcement is a bit too gleeful. Nevertheless, we purchase soft drinks, return to the car, and have a second chance to admire the peacefully grazing cows and the touristy clapboard store with the worm fence and the big sign offering homemade peach ice cream and mountain grown apples. We reach the Winery sign and turn left. "It should be about three miles down," Harold says confidently.
I'm sure we've gone three miles and passed that milepost when I spot a furry thing lying in the road. "That's a dead otter!" I cry, sitting straighter and craning my neck. It looks just like the stuffed toy otters offered for sale at Otter Creek's gift shop. "What a great souvenir. Stop the car!" Why buy a fake otter when I can own the real thing? What a memento. After all, every physical feature in the area is named Otter-something. Otter Creek, Peaks of Otter, Two Otter Creek, Peaks of Otter Winery . . . .
Harold doesn't deign to answer and doesn't stop the car. I slump against the seat, mutter, "Spoil sport," and return my attention to the scenery. A house! That goes by. More fields. Up a slope. Down a slope. Up another. We're still in the valley, but even Harold starts to fidget. "We should have seen something by now, don't you think?" I ask.
"This has to be the right road. We haven't seen another one." We continue on, and in the distance spot a crossroad. On the right is a farmhouse, a small s-shaped curve, and in the juncture of the curve, a sign. Large letters proclaim Peaks of Otter Winery above an arrow. At the bottom of the sign in tiny print are the words "Johnson's Orchard." Hallelujah! We turn right. The road angles up a slope. We pass land for sale. We pass a farmhouse. We pass another. We come to peach trees with limbs bent to the ground under a burden of ripe fruit. Row upon row of apple trees stretch beyond sight, burdened with red and yellow apples, branches so burdened that some have broken, their tips lying on the ground. Maybe the owners will hire me as a migrant worker, I fantasize. What heaven!
We locate the orchard’s entrance, then a gray weathered barn with a graveled parking area. Farther down the road, fat, dark grapes hang from wire trellises; to our right, a lone purple plum tree stands, its upright limbs wreathed with fruit like a brilliantly adorned Christmas tree.
Inside the enclosed barn sleeps a shaggy, clay-colored dog. He doesn't even snort as we pass him in his old man's bliss. Shelves stocked with canned goods of every sort wrap the left-hand wall; a rustic counter and cash register occupy a space in the center of the floor. In the wide-open space beyond the cash register stand wooden bins, each marked with the name of an apple or peach. Some names I recognize; some I don't. But it's the fruit, not the names, that draw me. Red apples, yellow apples, golden apples, red-and-greenish-gold-striped apples; peaches wafting a scent more alluring than perfume. In a canner's daze, I stutter questions to someone who looks like he works there and receive directions on how to sate the fruits of my desire. Harold and I consult and decide to pick our own apples. It's a way to remain in this heaven of God's bounty as long as possible.
We leave the barn with the employee, are pointed in the direction of ripe apples, and begin picking, mostly yellowish-green apples, some red. If they had names, I never learned them. All I knew were their full, beautiful, squat apple shapes and the hot scent of an apple orchard drowsing, like the old dog, under a late summer sun. Harold picks until I sound the poison ivy alert, then he retreats to the picnic tables arranged in rows under a tin-roofed, open air shed, leaving me to wander the dusty rows of scattered weeds and broken limbed fruit trees, choosing and picking the most perfect apples from many different trees.
When I can fit no more apples into my half-bushel bags, I locate Harold and we return to the commercial barn. I gather a half-bushel of peaches from the interior bins while Harold samples the orchard's wines. I locate their samples of apple cider and point Harold in that direction. He points me to the canned goods samples: jams, jellies, chutneys, relishes, butters. I taste pumpkin butter for the first time. Finally, we pay for our fruit purchases, locate sandwich items from our camping supplies, and return to the picnic tables for a late lunch and enjoyment of the breeze that blows up the slope. The clay-colored dog joins us and receives a crusty bit of bread for his patient companionship.
Even without the dead otter, this day provides the perfect end to our mountain vacation.
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