"The thing about waking up in the mountains like this," she said, "is that you know whatever happens will be because you made it happen.

"When I wake up in the city I feel like everything is already going on -- people on their way to work, the traffic backing up, the Metro rumbling downtown.

"Whether I get up or stay in bed doesn't make any difference. Out here if I bump into somebody while I'm hiking on the trail, or if I go down the river in the canoe and see some wood ducks or if I pick some wildflowers in the woods, it's as if I've really done something."

"And why do you suppose it's so beautiful over in the valley, with the Blue Ridge on one side and the Massanutten on the other?" I asked her.

"Because the mountains humble everything around them," she said without even pausing to think.

Mack got there first, to the log cabin at the foot of Old Tom Mountain. He's retired Air Force and knows how to get things going. He had a fire of round logs blazing in the stone hearth and food and beer already stashed in the kitchen.

"How'd you get the fire going so good?"

"Old Indian trick," Mack said. "Lighter fluid."

We were five already, with three more grownups and assorted kids yet to arrive. There were 15 bunks, more than enough.

The idea of this trip was to get a bunch of people together to explore by canoe some of the wonderful little rivers that flow down the east side of the Blue Ridge. One ran right outside the cabin, the Rose River. Then there were the Thornton and the Hughes, the Covington and the Rapidan.

They are spring runs. Flooded with runoff, snowmelt and heavy seasonal rains they go crashing along their rocky mountain beds on the way to the mighty Rappahannock.

But this year they aren't crashing anywhere.

"It was dry like this once before, about five or six years ago," said the country girl who works at Graves Mountain Lodge. "We just barely made it through the summer."

They could call it the Blue Ridge Tinderbox. And they could call the barren little spring canoeing streams the rock gardens.

There was nothing to do but enjoy the mountains.

"Listen" she said."Can you hear that?"

Outside the bedroom window under warm, starry skied, the little Rose River murmured as it trickled along in its bank. Is is the third-soothingest sound in the world, after see water lapping at the hull of a sailing ship and a sweet baby's sigh.

The baby sighed.

It was not hard sleeping that night in the cabin at the foot of Old Tom.

The country girl said her favorite hiking trail was along the Rose and up Old Tom. It's the back way into Dark Hollow Falls, one of the most popular Shenandoah National Park trails off the Skyline Drive.

"It's so cool there in the summertime," she said. "The hemlocks are like a canopy over the trail and you can hear the stream all along the way."

Jane hoisted Scott, all 28 pounds of him, onto her back pack and carried him all day without a whimper. Fran loaded Madeleine, who weighs 10 pounds, onto a front pack and the others carried food or nothing at all.

Johnny and Craig had carved wooden spears with their knives and they went the other way, planning to spear trout, which is impossible. Jenny and Alicia stayed home to try on clothes, which is what 12-year-old girls do.

Mack had turned his ankle on some rocks so he stayed around the cabin to drink beer and listen to the river.


"What was that?"

A grouse, exploding from a thicket.

On the trail there was a little pile of weightless gray matter. When an owl catches a field mouse he swallows it whole. Then his digestive system separates the meat from the fur and bones. The meat goes into the owl's system and the rest comes back out its throat in dry fur balls. A mouse died here.

A hawk shrieked somewhere beyond the high trees.

At lunch you could rest your feet in the river, so cold you could only stand it for a minute or two, so clean you could drink it.

It was hot like summer but the days are still short. Soon it was time to go.

You drive out through valleys of emerald-green fresh rye. You turn your back to the smokey, craggy, hazy blue of the Blue Ridge and set the speed on 55, racing home to the glitter and the crashing noise and the crowds.

Graves Mountin Lodge in Syria, Va., has six cabins to rent and 38 rooms in the lodge. The 15-bed cabin at the foot of Old Tom goes for $70 a night and is booked solid on weekends through the summer. Weekdays there is still room.

Graves Mountain is a place noted for its serene setting, the trout streams (Virginia season opens Saturday), the working farm on the 6,000-acre premises. But mostly it's known for the food, served country style and plenty of it.

"There's a lot of eating goes on here in the summer," said the country girl who works there. "A whole lot of eating."