Front Royal: Why I Moved West

Two years ago and two months, I moved with my three children to Front Royal, Virginia. For you Jersey natives who go by exits, that’s exit 13 off Route 66, which runs from DC all the way to its end point thirteen miles west of Front Royal. If you’re looking at a map, this is also where I-66 intersects with I-81 North and South. I-81 also has a story of its own: it runs from its northern terminus at the tip of New York, just shy of the Canadian border, to its southern end point in Dandridge Tennessee. As Wikipedia explains, “Interstate 81 largely traces the paths created down the length of the Appalachian Mountains by migrating animals, American Indians, and early settlers. It also follows a major corridor for troop movements during the Civil War.”

I could have settled anywhere in Virginia, but something deep inside me told me to head due west. I picked Front Royal as our new home when my marriage was coming to a grinding end. That last year, when things got hairy at our home in Northern Virginia, my kids and I (especially the corner kids) would leave for an adventure. Sometimes we headed south to Fountainhead Park for a hike along the Occoquan River, but usually we went west. Like early settlers, we were searching for something akin to freedom, and when we went west, we took an exit that read: I-66 West—Front Royal. It might sound too simple, but I basically chose a new home based on a feeling it gave me when I drove in its direction.

While driving west, I felt safe inside. The kids and I would journey through Front Royal until we arrived at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. We’d drive along the twisting road called “Skyline Drive,” where the speed limit is 35, until we reached a good hiking spot. By the way, as an aside, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression, when the government initiated a working program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to put the unemployed to work. The CCC was a beautiful project in the sense that it gave the men working under it a means to maintain their own homes and families.

Anyway, we’d drive to the northern entrance of Skyline drive and stop at the gate to speak with a ranger. I bought an Interagency Annual pass for $80 that allows you to visit more than 2,000 federal parks an unlimited number of times over the year. We use the heck out of our Annual Pass(es). Anyway, I’d talk to the ranger for a couple minutes, and then we’d head north on Skyline Drive. I’ve always been a fast-lane kind of driver, but driving fast and driving on Skyline Drive don’t mesh. It’s one of those inconsistencies that life throws at you to teach you a lesson. In my case, the lesson is patience. Once we were inside the park, we’d drive at an impossibly slow speed because of the trailers and out-of-towners who meander along as if every drive were a Sunday drive.

You can hike almost anywhere you want in the Shenandoahs, but we have found some special spots. Our favorite hike back then was at mile 19.4, where several trails extend out on Hogback Mountain. As Hiking Upwards states, “The Hogback Mountain hike, with its spectacular views west towards the Massanutten ranges, is located in an area of the SNP that has several beautiful hikes including Piney Branch and Little Devil Stairs. With just over 1,200ft of vertical gain and 7.5 miles, this is a pleasant moderate day hike.”

If you wanted to look up the trail names (which include the beautifully titled “Little Devils Stair Trail”) you can go here. The parking lot for Hogback is full in the summer and fall, but pretty deserted in November and through the winter. Once you park, you can choose a direction or route. Instead of following a loop, I always go on down and backs because I have the tendency to get lost. Growing up, my children accepted my version of getting lost. I’d giggle and say, “we’re taking a ‘longcut’ kids.” That works great when you’re driving your SUV, but it’s not so great when your “childers” have to hike your longcut.

So I go with the safest way of hiking for me: a down and back. This term simply refers to a hike where you go aways and then turn and come back the other way. Hogback isn’t easy, but it’s deceptive, because you go down a big hill for an hour and you’re happy. Then you turn around and realize, “Oh man, we’re going uphill until we reach the car.” Or if you turn the phrase around you come up with: “we won’t reach the car unless we make it back up that hill.”

Back up the Hill

As we walked and talked down then back up Hogback, we’d plan for our future. I need to take a longcut right now around a hard subject. My divorce.

I’ve been almost spectral-quiet about the divorce. And I’ll probably remain that way. Like a lot of women who went through the sort of thing I did, I am still scared of getting in trouble. I also don’t think it’s fair to use my platform to say whatever I want to say about my ex-husband. This goes at odds with my usual way of speaking, which is to be honest and straightforward, and to speak about the most personal matters without fear. So I’ve been paralyzed a bit, at least on this blog, for over two years now. Yet I feel like I’ve worked it out in my writing. My characters are free to tell my story, sort of, but it’s fictional there and it feels safe. And I’ve finally came to a place where I realize my need to speak freely is more important than my need to speak freely about every aspect of my life, and that one aspect I need to keep private for my family’s sake is the saga of my divorce.

So (I hope) that’s all I’ll ever say directly about why I left.

All of that is a long aside, and I want to end on a happy note.

It’s been almost three years now, and these visits to Hogback took me to a place where I felt safe enough to figure out my next steps. It’s also where I found my new home—off exit 13, in the small town of Front Royal. In the upcoming days, I’m going to write about how we settled here. There will be stories about stinkbugs and ladybugs, mice invasions and mouse family holocausts. I’ll talk about adapting to a smaller, more modest lifestyle in a place where ironically enough the distance between my neighbors is much larger than it used to be. And I’ll talk about how people help one another feel at home in my new home: Front Royal.

Please grab a chair and make yourselves at home. With me. In my new home that’s far, far away from the old hell I used to write about when this blog was titled, “Running from Hell with El.” Because now, I’m walking Home, and I’m walking there with friends and family always at my side.

We all need a place we call home, and now, that place for us is Front Royal.

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