Saturday, August 28, 2004

Day Ten

Out And About in Virginia, and Initiation

I slept a little better last night; I found a not-too-terrible foldout bed on the other side of the cabin which is a definite improvement over the wretched bunk bed. So I feel perkier this morning, and decide that yes, I will indulge my inner history-buff nerd and do the Shenandoah Valley Civil War crawl today. Sure enough, I'm on my own for the day, no one else is interested; the other gals are going to head into Luray and do the town thing, a little shopping and whatnot. We'll meet up again later and do a nice dinner out to celebrate our last day of the Gather.

To start, I head down to New Market. There's a very good battle site there, and a nice museum with lots and lots of old uniforms and equipment, stuff I like to look at. The Battle of New Market was fought in May of 1864, the opening of the final campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. A silly little film shown hourly at the museum makes much of the Virginia Military Institute's participation in the battle (the museum is part of the VMI's Hall Of Honor, so it makes sense) and the cadets' charge across a muddy plowed field, now remembered as "The Battle Of Lost Shoes". As part of the larger picture, New Market was an example of the Federal leadership's continuing ineptitude in the Valley. Maj Gen Breckenridge (CSA) pretty much got the drop on Gen Sigel (US) who had been blundering around with his forces for a number of days, in bad weather. It was Sigel's last big engagement before being relieved of duty, I think. That's the stuff you read in the books. Walking around on the battlefield, retracing the steps of the soldiers themselves, I am much more aware of history from the view of some unnamed, unimportant individual. Here is where the company charged. Here is the stone wall, behind which they took cover and returned fire for half an hour. The battery stood there, up on that hill to the left, firing canister into the Union line. The Federals retreated, through what is now a cornfield. Wow. I walk the battle site, communing with ghosts I do not know. I have no idea why this stuff fascinates me so much. It just does.

After I look around New Market for a while, I head north. Tom's Brook is the site of a cavalry engagement: two divisions of Federal horsemen clashed with two divisions of rebel cavalry in October of 1864, the very end of fighting in the Valley - Gen Sheridan (US) had mostly completed his burning and destruction of the Shenandoah, depriving the Confederacy of resources that allowed them to continue the war. There's not a lot marking the site, or if there is, I never found it. I do manage to find "the back road" west of the turnpike, which is the site of Brig Gen Custer's (US) advance against Maj Gen Rosser (CSA), his former West Point roommate.

Nearby is Cedar Creek. At the same time the cavalry was fighting at Tom's Brook, infantry engaged in a major battle at Cedar Creek and around the Belle Grove plantation. There is a good visitor's center there now, rather small but staffed by friendly talkative folks who love to yak about history, the best sort of people to find at a visitor's center :) Cedar Creek is the site of one of Sheridan's greatest victories, as he is credited with stemming the rout of Union forces in the morning of the battle, rallying the troops with his own personal charisma and bravery, and leading them back to the field for a counterattack and to victory. Also, the Union victory here is one of the things that directly led to Lincoln's re-election. The battle site is too big for much walking around. Many, many divisions were engaged here, covering several miles. The folks working at Cedar Creek Visitor's Center today are preparing for a major re-enactment in a few weeks. It will be the 140th anniversary of the battle. They are building entrenchments, split-rail fences, and clearing areas that will be encamped. I look around for a while and talk to various people, then head out again to the north.

The site of the First and Second Kernstown battles, a few miles south of Winchester, is now privately owned. I was hoping to find something around here but there's not much. Kernstown is the site of a rare thing indeed, a tactical defeat of Gen Stonewall Jackson (CSA) in the Shenandoah Valley. His aggressive fighting, however, prevented the Union from removing troops from the Valley and sending them to reinforce Gen McClellan (US) in his drive on Richmond. Jackson's campaign in the Valley in 1862 is seen as a strategic masterwork.

By the time I get to Winchester, the sky is looking pretty threatening and I am worrying about the weather. Winchester is the foot of the Shenandoah Valley and there are lots of things to see here - battle sites, museums, Jackson's Headquarters. I get a little lost on the freeways (hey, I'm not lost, I'm touring.) I turn myself around and stopped at a rest area, which is also the Virginia Welcome Center. I start chatting with a fellow traveler (a tourist down from PA) and he asks me if I got caught in the rain. "What rain?" I ask. The skies are certainly darkening. He's come from the north and says it's coming down in buckets, and the front is fifteen minutes away. Well, that's enough info for me, I'm outta here, cutting short my Winchester look-see.

I take off to the southeast towards Front Royal, watching the skies but still stopping at a few roadside Civil War markers. (These are usually gravesites, or "So-and-So's House was burned to the ground here in 1863," that sort of thing.) Rain catches me before I get to Front Royal and it does indeed come down in buckets! I am drenched before I can even entertain the notion of pulling over and donning my raingear. At least it's still warm so I'm not uncomfortable. Once you get soaked, it's silly to put on your gear unless you like saunas ... the rainsuit will hold the water and heat in, and it can be downright steamy. I decide to just keep riding wet. After a five-minute downpour, the rain slacks off. Not bad. I visit the courthouse in downtown Front Royal, lots of plaques in a pretty courtyard, but not a whole lot else to look at. I have a feeling I'm missing good stuff with my haphazard route, but who cares, I'm having fun. It's midafternoon by now, time to meander back home. Might as well take Skyline Drive back through the Shenandoah NP back to Luray, it was such a pretty ride yesterday. I enter the park and start into those lovely twisties, and not a mile up the road, the rain starts coming down heavy again. Oh poo, what a killjoy. I am super-cautious going through the corners, I still don't trust my wet-weather riding, but after a little while I start to feel a bit more comfortable. I guess it's just a practice thing, like everything else. The heavy rain lasts about fifteen minutes this time, tapers off to a drizzle, and eventually stops and the sun breaks out. I am almost dry by the time I reach home.

The ladies have scouted a good restaurant for us in Luray. I have time to clean up and rest a little bit before we all pile in the car and troop down to town. It's a funky little place with a good menu. They even have some nice vegetarian selections for Raven, so she's not stuck ordering the one veg thing on the menu (which happens all too frequently, I remember from my non-meateating days.) We order a couple of bottles of nice local wine, which enhances the conviviality of the evening. Everyone is in a fine, happy mood. It's been a great Gathering, and we're celebrating tonight, not even letting the tinge of sadness at having to part ways tomorrow intrude on our festivities. We laugh, tell stories, and toast each other and the Amazons who could not make it to Virginia. I have a bit of a good buzz on, and make a little speech thanking these women for being so welcoming to someone they had never met before. There are big smiles all around, and something more. Wild1 in particular looks like a cat who swallowed the canary. She turns to me and asks, "Well, now that you've ridden all the way across the country and met us, did we skeer you off?" I laugh, "Of course not!" She presses, "Well then, now that you've met us, are you still interested in joining the Amazons?" I wonder, what is she driving at? "Of course I am," I reply. "I have no intention of withdrawing my status as Prospect." (This is the alcohol talking, LOL, sometimes it makes me give these little formal-sounding speeches.) I add that I am only three months in and have another three months to go in my prospect period. Now she's positively smirking. "Nah, not necessarily," she says. "We had to check, but since you still want to be one of us, we have a little thing planned special for tonight."

I look around the table: everyone is grinning at me. "You mean ... ?" I stutter. Geeze, my shyness is kicking in something fierce all of a sudden. They confirm that yes, tonight I will be initiated into the Amazon Sisterhood, with T as my High Priestess. It's already been put to a vote. It's already arranged. The only thing left had been to confirm my willingness to take the final step to become a Sister. They are probably laughing at the wide-eyed look on my face, because I am completely bowled over. I am sure I look like a stunned duck, anyway. They explain the by-laws to me when I voice a small concern over the legality of shortening the prospect period ... yes, it's all legit. Raven adds gently, "Besides, we thought that you riding solo across country to be here says more than another three months on a message board ever could."

And finally, it sinks in. Tonight, I shall become an Amazon.

And so it is. I cannot speak of the Initiation itself, except to say that it is my honor that it is conducted under the open sky, next to a bonfire, beneath the face of the Moon our sister. Pretty cool ;)

We stay up late in the evening afterwards, talking about anything and everything, unwilling to head off to bed. Tomorrow early we will pack up and head our separate ways. But tonight, we sit as Sisters around the fire and are glad of each other's company. I love these women.

Next: Day Eleven

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