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As I look out on the distant high Sierra Mt. Alamos, foreground framed by masses of hot pink bougainvillea, bright blue swimming pool a trap for drifting blossoms, I wonder how a wintery thought could possibly bubble up in my head. It’s climbing to 100f degrees out there. After lapping up gulps at the fountain, our dogs have listlessly flopped in the shade. Local birds flutter and blither at the outrage. It’s their watering spa, and they do not like to share with those oafish beasts.

Seeing that mountain, I’m reminded of thickly frosted forests cascading downslope to a beckoning airport. There’s a town over there…at a distance, a grid of streets stands out against a few white traces of winter. We’re flying south from winter to a Texas visit, touring as we go.
“Know what?” said my attentive navigator. “The Luray Caverns are just over that ridge. Not far from the town.” He had been paging through the AOPA airport guide, a handy compendium of airports and good nearby stuff.
Luray Caverns? Notations were that those were the eastern US’s beauty challenge to the west’s Carlsbad Caverns. Here too were vast caves dripping with spires of stalactites and stalagmites. Okay then… That would certainly be a good take for our boys, now huddled for warmth in the back seat. The heater in our little Cessna didn’t have great output. They were bunched up under a pile of thick blankets, peeking out of hooded polar jackets. And making breath ice pictures on the windows, scraping out lines of tic-tac-toe.

Reducing power to drift down into the valley, I dropped to just above treetop level and slowly swept towards the airport, admiring the white frozen forest below. Although it was south and Virginia, the weather could be harsh. A quickly passing snow squall had happened overnight at the higher altitudes… the ice line dramatically melted to pine tree green when the outside temperature rose. Frosty outlines of trees evenly etched against a fresh blue sky glittered in the sunlight.

They say it’s just not true that southerners are nicer, but I can swear that south of that Mason-Dixon line, people are indeed nicer. Full of warmth and honey. At least at first impact. Nicer than the cold suspicious Yankee. We were greeted with warmth and helpfulness when we touched down and rolled out at the Luray Caverns airport.

“Well, hello there; where you all comin’ in from?” And then, “How long y’all gonna be with us?” And “Will you be needin’ fuel?” Our line guy arranged a ride to the Caverns.

Those words – and a big crinkly southern hospitality smile – made us welcome. The line man was right there to help with whatever we needed. And it wasn’t because we were fancy. Our plane was a weathered old Cessna 172, in the years before we repainted her.
“Put your money into new radios… you don’t need to get her a new dress.” Practical advice from our local airport manager/CFI. So we did that – a nav/com and a Loran, the day’s state-of-the-art navigation system (now passé and replaced by the GPS, global positioning system). Howard Cadwell, mentor of my glider towing and commercial pilot rating, the man who after 17,000 hours of flying would grin and say, “Aren’t we lucky?… Look at those miserable ground-huggers down there. They’ve no idea how beautiful it is up here.”

 

Of course when we flew to any new place, we would hide our bedraggled bird on the back line. Yeah, we were proud. One day, the new paint would make her into a beauty. But Howie was aviation through and through. He knew what was truly important. R.I.P. old friend.

 

The Caverns. Besides the eons agreeably outfitting the underground vault with arresting mineral formations of gleaming spindles and spires – someone had ingeniously rigged little hammers to tap out melodies on them, ones such as the hauntingly beautiful “Shenandoah.” (Historic Luray is in the Shenandoah Valley.) As that reverberated through the high cavern, we hummed along with “Oh Shenandoah, far across the wide Missouri.”

The boys were intrigued with it all. It was a good stop. Luray could be a bucket list destination. Who knew?

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