Dry Run Church, Fort Valley, Virginia, with western ridge of Massanutten Mountain in background
During our recent trip east to visit with kids and grandkids and attend my 55th high school reunion, Sandra and I had a free day and drove to Fort Valley, one of my favorite places in the Appalachians, about an hour and a half from our son Adam’s house near Washington, D.C.
I’d first discovered Fort Valley when I lived in the Washington area, 1978-85, while working for the U.S. Information Agency. I often drove and hiked in the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley area. The Blue Ridge, running from northeast to southwest, is the first ridge of the Appalachians you encounter when driving west from Washington. It is perhaps most famous for Skyline Drive, a gorgeous road that follows the ridge and offers a seemingly endless series of breathtaking views. Much of the Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail also follows the Blue Ridge.
Paralleling the Blue Ridge, just a short distance to the west, is Massanutten Mountain. I used to drive and hike there too, which quickly led me to discover the mountain’s secret – Fort Valley. Seen from the Shenandoah Valley floor, Massanutten looks like a long, remarkably level ridge. It is much more than that, however. You can drive onto the mountain either from its northern end, near the town of Front Royal, or from the New Market Gap, about midway along the length of the mountain.
Turning off Route 55 (a remarkably scenic route through the Virginia countryside and, seemingly, a bygone era) to the west of Front Royal, a narrow, winding road (Route 678) ascends the forested ridge, running along a lovely mountain stream. After several miles, the road emerges into a bucolic upland valley of isolated farmsteads and meadows, one of the most peaceful, heavenly places I have seen on Earth. Massanutten is not a single ridge, but two parallel ones, nestling a valley – Fort Valley – between them, elevated well above the altitude of the tightly meandering north and south forks of the Shenandoah River that flank Massanutten.
While its rustic beauty alone makes the visit worthwhile, Fort Valley offers one final, delightfully bizarre surprise – a small church and graveyard in the middle of nowhere, named for a nearby stream that is often devoid of water: Dry Run.* The church is called Dry Run Church, and the graveyard Dry Run Cemetery. Ever since I discovered the place nearly four decades ago, I have always chuckled at the name.
To me, Dry Run Cemetery sounds like a place intended for people at death’s door who are not quite ready to let go. They might be willing to try burial, but only on a “dry run” basis, as if to see whether it suits them.
* In this part of the country, streams and creeks are often called “runs.” Bull Run, the site of two early Civil War battles, is probably the most famous example of a “run.”