A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office working away on the magazine, feeling sorry for myself. I felt cooped up by spending way too many hours doing both editorial and technical work that on the magazine that I had no time to get out and do my own photography. Then I received a text from Mike Ruggiero, a documentary photographer, who recently moved to my area, telling me it’s time to get out and shoot something. In fact I interviewed Mike on our podcast two years ago. Check it out, he has quite a story.
He was absolutely right and I knew exactly where to go. I suggested we explore two abandon buildings on Afton Mountain at Rockfish Gap about 18 miles west of town.
I’ve seen an empty Howard Johnsons restaurant/motor lodge and Afton Inn near the entrance to Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway many times. Having recently discovered the urban explorers movement (urbex) I was intrigued with the idea of photographing these abandon properties myself. And I knew Mike would be interested too.
Although Mike is new to this area, he has been diligent about exploring the historical towns and villages nearby. I on the other hand haven’t wandered much farther than Charlottesville and several surrounding wineries. It was time to get out of the house and stretch my wings a bit.
When Mike and I met up the day of the trip he showed up with a paper bag full of old cameras. He brought them to donate to a Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton (pronounced Stan-tin) on the other side of the mountain. “Camera museum?” I said, “I’m in.”
Rockfish Gap at 1900 feet on Afton Mountain Virginia’s main passage across the Blue Ridge which averages 3,000 feet. Interstate 64 and US 250, meet at the top of the gap. The Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost Zero on an overpass above the highways. Over 6 million people travel through Rockfish Gap each year including hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
During the Revolutionary War the Continental Army secured thegap to prevent the British from invading the Shenandoah Valley and later drove them to Yorktown near the Chesapeake where they were eventually defeated.
After Word War II the area became a popular tourist destination for travelers driving the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive or passing though on US 250. It was an ideal location for a Howard Johnsons restaurant and The Afton Inn (once a Holiday Inn) at the very top of the mountain. The properties have breathtaking views of Rockfish Valley and the Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
The HoJos closed in 1998 followed by the Afton Inn in the early 2000s. Left to rot by the owners, both properties fell into disrepair becoming eyesores on an otherwise beautiful landscape.
The day before our road trip we had a steady rain with near freezing temperatures which resulted in ice warnings. Fortunately the temperature at the lower elevations in town remained above freezing just making it a very wet day. But as we drove up the mountain the trees near the top began to look unusually white. Once we reached the top near the abandoned hotels we saw that the trees and buildings were coated in a beautiful shiny layer of thick ice. I had never see anything like it. We jumped out of the truck and went in separate directions to capture the scene before the ice melted.
A few months ago I made a commitment to myself to shoot only monochrome and this day was no exception. I like to place constraints on myself and force myself to work within them when I shoot. On this day I brought only my Q2 Monochrom with a fixed 28mm lens as my “one camera/one lens” for the day. Doing this prevents me from second guessing my lens choice and camera settings and forces me to make the best of what I have.
I began with the abandoned Howard Johnsons walking carefully in the rear of the building to avoid disturbing the ice that covered the vegetation and parts of the building. In the back I discovered several open or missing doors which gave me access to the inside of the structure. However I avoided going any further than a step or two into the building because the ceiling was falling in (an inch of ice didn’t make it any safer) and I got the feeling that someone was living there.
I was able to make several frames just inside the doorway and even capturing an empty box of sugar cones which must have been left behind after the restaurant closed in 1998. If any remained in the box, I suspect they were no longer fresh.
A low ceiling of chaotic stratocumulus clouds gave the scene an ominous, other worldly feeling. It magnified the creepiness of the deteriorating buildings. This was good news because bright sunshine would have melted the ice before we arrived.
After we tired of HoJos we proceeded to the top of the mountain to have a look at the abandoned Afton Inn. The parking lot was full of Dominion Energy and tree service trucks which were in the area to restore electrical service after the ice storm.
Honoring the “No Trespassing” signs we did not attempt to enter the building. Besides, the graffiti covered exterior outside are sufficiently creepy. The derelict swimming pool filled with dirty rainwater overlooking the picturesque Rockfish Valley reminded me of a scene from a post apocalyptic movie. Looking inside a large plate glass window I saw a makeshift office with tables crammed with file boxes with loose papers, newspapers and beverages left in place almost two decades ago. Several notorious scenarios crossed my mind as I tried to make sense of the scene.
The ice was melting so we had to move quickly to record the scene while it still sparkled. We spend a good hour shooting the spooky scene from every angle.
After getting our fill of the old hotel we made a beeline for Staunton about 15 miles west of the Blue Ridge. Staunton is a small historical city of about 27,000 people. It’s the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson and home of his presidential library. And it’s the unlikely location of The American Shakespeare Center. Our objective on this day was to visit the Camera Heritage Museum. So off we went.
I had only visited Stanton one time at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Like every place else at that time, it looked like a ghost town. I was intrigued by the architecture and geography and vowed to return to do some street photography when life got back to normal.
During my initial visit I spotted the Stonewall Jackson hotel. It is a very interesting looking structure at the top of a very steep narrow street. Stonewall Jackson remains a hero in the Shenandoah valley to this day. Jackson gained fame by leading the Shenandoah Valley Campaign during the Civil War using his 16,000 troops to keep the much larger Union forces frustrated and off balance. He only attacked when the odds were heavily in his favor.
The Camera Heritage Museum, located in downtown Staunton, was founded by David Schwartz, a former White House photographer from the George HW Bush administration. Mr. Schwartz is the museum’s curator/director. He is an expert on just about any camera ever made and the history of photography. A conversation with him is well worth a visit to the museum.
On display are over 6500 cameras and accessories that range the entire 150 year history of photography. You can find cameras of any make and model ever produced.
Mike, had been to the museum a few weeks earlier to donate some camera equipment. He wanted to return during our trip to give the museum a few more cameras from his collection. While he chatted with Mr. Schwartz. I was able to wander through the museum to make photographs of the well organized collection.
The museum is almost overwhelming at first because of thehe sheer volume of camera gear in a relatively small space. However the museum has an audio tour to guide you through the collection. I didn’t have time to do it on this trip but will definitely do it next time.
If you plan to travel through Virginia on Interstate 81 or Interstate 64 I highly recommend you make time to visit the museum. Downtown Staunton is just a few minutes off the combined highways.
After the museum we wandered the empty streets and stopped at the historic railroad station. It was a major stop on the former Virginia Central Railroad and served as a supply depot during the Civil War.
I love to visit train stations so the historic Staunton station was an unexpected treat. The. Only people at the station were awaiting the Amtrak on the platform so we decided to explore a footbridge that crosses the tracks. We hoped the passenger train would arrive while we were on the bridge, but it was late…as usual. However the bridge’s steel structure provided nice leading lines and a nice frame for a photo of Mike at the other end. I haven’t shown this to him yet. Maybe he’ll see it here.
It was getting late after our visit to the train station, so we didn’t have time to see the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. That’s OK, it will be there for my next visit.
I’m grateful to Mike Ruggiero for getting me out of the house for an impromptu photo adventure. It’s amazing what you can find only a few miles from home when you look with fresh eyes.
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