Hughes River

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My grandpa loved to drive. Raised on a farm in Madison County Virginia, he joined the Army near the end of WWII as a transport operator, was a plumber by trade, ran a side business mowing what seemed like a dozen yards, and had a room filled with bowling trophies. After he retired, he was always going somewhere, even if for no other reason than just to go and come back.

It’s no surprise he got a part-time job delivering and picking up cars and trucks for local dealerships. Sometimes he’d take me on longer trips to Philadelphia or Morgantown, West Virginia. Every so often the dealer would request several cars and we would be part of a small convoy. I liked it because I felt like I was in a parade, and because we almost always stopped at buffets that I’m not quite sure how they knew about, for this was before practically everyone had the internet in their home. My grandparents lived well into the 2000s and never did have the internet.

The Hughes River forms part of the natural boundary between Madison and Rappahannock counties. South of the river, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, are the small communities of Banco, Criglersville, Etlan, Nethers, and Syria. Old Rag, is a rocky promontory mountain that seems to stand alone from the rest of the surrounding mountains. Although a strenuous hike of almost nine miles, with a rock staircase, tight passages that require special maneuvering for anyone of size, and a 360 degree view from the top, it’s a favorite for locals and visitors that make it a weekend trip.

Beginning as a confluence of several tributaries from the top of the peaks and ridges in Shenandoah National Park, the Hughes River flows down the eastern side of the steep hollows until the land plateaus just before reaching Nethers. As a young boy, my grandpa would take me to Hughes to go trout fishing when the leaves began to change. Fishing was less a hobby for him, but more of an excuse to just get out and go somewhere. The entire watershed of the Hughes River is stunning in the fall; the orange and red of the oak and maple combined with the yellow of elm and poplar turn the banks of the river and nearby mountains to a landscape of fire against the crisp blue sky. We’d place a sinker or two about three inches above a tiny hook baited with a salmon egg, so that it floated just above the river bottom, and wait for a tug on the line.

The old mill at Nethers, which my fourth great grandfather Arnold Nethers took over in the mid-nineteenth century, was the only mill in the area that has survived. Over a century and a half ago it served multiple purposes including a polling location and post office. The current owners are in the process of restoring it to working condition. I was fortunate one day a few years ago to get a personal tour while I was…. you guessed it, trout fishing. Later, the small village of Nethers built a post office and general store. A picture Arthur Rothstein took in 1935 shows a group of work-worn men sitting on the front porch underneath a hanging metal tobacco sign and a young girl wearing a cardigan over her dress, casually leaning on a wooden post propping up the tin roof. Most buildings in the former communities of Corbin Hollow and Weakley Hollow no longer exist after the residents were forced off their land for the building of Shenandoah National Park. I had distant relatives that were forced off their land and my grandpa was born before this took place, but he never talked about it.

I like to drive. I attribute a lot of that to my grandpa. I like to ride too. Some years I put more miles on my motorcycle than my car. When I was in high school I decided to become a pilot, which in some ways is just like my grandpa picking up or retrieving cars. He’d go somewhere, turn around, and come back. I’d often drive or ride in the direction of the mountains. Most of the time when I crossed the bridge over the Hughes River on Route 231, I’d make the turn and drive down Nethers Road and pull over by the river to just sit and watch the water and the chubs, bluegill, smallmouth bass, or trout dart around.

My grandma liked to ride around in the car also. In her almost 90 years, she never obtained her driver’s license. After my grandpa died, one day I took her up to the Hughes River to see the fall foliage. On a gravel back road lined with farms we just stopped. Near us, the field of tall golden grasses were gently swaying in the wind. In the middle of the field was a newly painted bright red barn. The backdrop was Old Rag in its pristine fall prominence with its jagged boulders on top reaching into the sky. That was the last time my grandma was ever there, and those few seconds we stopped are still my most vivid memory of the area.

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