OUT IN THE parking lot of the Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park, the licenses still read like the roll call of the states -- Michigan, Texas, Illinois, Vermont, New Jersey (why are there always more New Jersey cars on the road than any others?.
The Shenandoah forests are lush now and city-weary motorists have been taking their chances with the gas shortage to be there when the pink swamp rose opens its bud, to walk the foot trails under the green hardwood canopy and listen to the red-eyed verio proclaiming his nesting territory. Camping sites in the Shenandoah sold out the first week they were offered.
The park is at the peak of its biological cycle in June and early July, and well within a tank of gas from Washington lies a fascinating world you can discover on foot. The beautiful mountains lie blue on the horizon at the end of pretty little Rte. 211; and with every mile you drive into sweetly rural Fauquier and Rappahanock countries, the gas-pump fever fades into a pale citybred difficulty no longer real.
The Sunday my daughter and I chose to go to Shenandoah dawned gray and threatening and, by Warrenton, a dense fog with visibility of no more than 150 yards had developed. We could barely see the Confederate flags and the cider jugs by the roadside and only a foot or two of green pastureland beyond the fences. Intimidated by the driving conditions, we stopped at an Arco station near Washington, Va., to fill the tank we had not topped off when the long weekend lines formed at home.
In Rappahanock County they know about the shortage, but to residents it's a little like urban crime -- not really happening to them. [This may no longer be the case. Reports last week indicated the gas shortage is spreading outside the Washington area.] Mrs. Donald Keithley, who sold us our gas [at city prices], said she had run out just once and has always kept open weekends for tourists.
At the entrance to the park, the rangers had posted a sign declaring driving conditions dangerous and advised us against entering, but we wanted to see the mountains under this strange white shroud. So we paid our admission [ $2] and were allowed to pass with a warning to be especially careful not to hit the deer. We inched up the hairpin turns, defroster running on high and the windows sweating like bathroom windows when you're taking a hot shower. Nine miles south of Mary's Rock Tunnel we turned thankfully into Skyland Lodge parking lot, where a man in the space next to us rolled down the window to remark that even the owls were walking the highway in the fog.
Skyland, built in 1894 by George Freeman Pollek, was once a retreat of the rich so removed that mail arrived by donkey over the last seven miles. Today it is an attractive rustic lodge with accommodations that cost between $14 and $23.50 for a double, and a dinning room with full service offering a menu with such southern dishes as Virgina ham and chicken at moderate prices.
Skyland's big fireplace was burning cheerfully, but lunch was 45 minutes away. We asked the desk clerk for information about the nearest nature trail, and she directed us to Stony Man just down the road. We set off, telling each other stoutly that the woods in the rain, now pelting down, would have its own charm.
Trail walkers from the lodge should re-park their cars at the nature trail parking lot, but an uninterested clerk did not make this clear to us. We were assured that maps would be available at the start of the trail, so we hoisted an enormous golf umbrella and set off.
Only a box empty of maps greeted us, but the markers on the trail seemed frequent and clear, so well started up pleased with the smell of wild azalea and the moist dark woods. At Marker .32, after a steady climb, we emerged into a clearing where a number of horse trails converged, selected a path to continue and got thoroughly lost.
"Unmarked trails," said a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club map which we later purchased, "are generally remnants of foots trails and roads formerly used by the mountain people who lived here before the Park was established . . . They are not maintained and are often obscure . . .None should be used by inexperienced hikers lest they become lost."
Soaked to the skin and no longer exclaiming over the carpet of bluets and the wild mustard, we reversed our direction to try to find the way we had come. Although both of us have the usual circle of friends and business contacts, neither of us could think of anyone who would more than idly wonder about our whereabouts if we didn't appear for a couple of days. We wondered how long before the car would be noticed unmoved in the parking lot and regretted forgetting the old Adirondack warning never to go into the woods without telling somebody when you expect to be back.
We were never able to find the rest of the trail markers but eventually discovered the path by which we had arrived at the clearing. Some 30 minutes later we emerged at the start of the trail, shaken, dripping and chastened. True wilderness is only a misstep away from the path in the Shenandoah.
A complaint at the Skyland desk that the trail was badly marked brought nothing but the information the trails were the responsibility of park rangers. At Big Meadows, which we visited later, a ranger shrugged and suggested the markers might have been vandalized. But our waiter at Skyland told us that on Stony Man it is easy to lose the trail.
Our drenched appearance at lunch enabled us to scrape acquaintance with our neighbors, among whom gasoline worries were scarce. Behind us a group of Washingtons shrugged and pointed out there was gas, if you needed it, along the way. A couple from Gulfport, Miss., told us they encountered no difficulty on the entire trip north, thought they were careful not to motor on Sundays. Energy worries, we agreed, are apparently the sole concerns of both coasts. We saw almost no one on 1-66 exceeding the speed limit, but we were told that cars zip along at 75 and 80 mph on Rte. 81.
Big Meadows is 10 miles south of Skyland and it is here that visitors can learn the history of this wild beautiful park. Shenandoah was once an eroded and depleted land, too poor to support the mountain folk the chestnut blight wiped out the valuable forest. Now it is covered with verdant regrowth and since 1936 has been a national park, home to a protected chain of life ranging from the lichen that cling to the rock outcroppings to the black bear, a powerful, unpredictable animal of up to 700 pounds. Literature for sale at Big Meadows tells vistors to avoid the bear, which has poor eyesight, and "if surprised at close range, could accidentally run over a person in an attempt to escape."
Well-mounted displays trace the history on the wall and a handy file is available to help identify the wild flowers you encounter on your walks. A 10-minute introduction to the park is offered frequently on slides, accompanied by a rather moralistic lecture on ecology addressed to what must surely be an already convinced audience. Frequent guided walks with the rangers are scheduled, and just 200 yards around the corner is one of the park's two gas stations. And there's no line.
"Gas is no problem in these parts," said the owner of the gas station whose pumps we stopped to check on the homeward drive. "It's panic makes those long lines in the city." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, National Park Service