Monday, April 30, 2012

Virginia Moving Forward with Rail - Will Virginia Beach?

Amtrak in StauntonDespite a Congress that's more interested in pandering to the austerity crowd than actually solving America's problems, Virginia is moving to create jobs & boost our economy with several new rail projects:
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is forging ahead on several state rail improvement and expansion projects using mostly state funding, concerned that even promised federal funds won’t materialize in time.

[Department of Rail and Public Transportation Director Thelma] Drake said that her department was hard at work on an Amtrak extension that would connect Richmond to Norfolk (some 111 miles apart, see diagram at top). The project’s cost recently swelled by about $13 million to a total $114.6 million, due to added safety and infrastructure costs, all paid for in state transportation funding. The state believes the service, which will cost $33 for a one-way ticket between Norfolk and Washington, will pay for itself.
Depending on your mileage, it costs about $30 just for gas to drive from Norfolk to DC, so $33 for a one-way ticket would be a huge bargain. (And yes, note the time for posterity - I just said something nice about Bob McDonnell & Thelma Drake. Given how much the McDonnell administration is bungling Metro's Silver Line, don't get used to it.)

Meanwhile, the Virginian-Pilot editorializes in favor of a fresh look at light rail in Virginia Beach:
People in Virginia Beach have been talking about light rail since the 1970s. In 1999, the last time they were asked whether to bring it to the city, about 42,000 voters said no. But that didn't stop the discussions, arguments, affirmations - or the second-guessing - for a dozen years.

In November, the issue is back on the ballot. The City Council wants to take the pulse of the citizens, hundreds of thousands of them this time, on whether to pursue an extension of Norfolk's light-rail line, The Tide, to the Beach. [...]

If voters approve of extending The Tide, it'll be years before trains are rolling to Town Center. If they reject light rail, city leaders must come up with other solutions to traffic problems that are only getting worse.

Virginia Beach failed to research light rail thoroughly before its voters rejected the idea 13 years ago. The city has a chance to do it right this time.
Done right, light rail can spur development, save commuters money, reduce the need for expensive parking, cut traffic and slash air pollution. What's not to like?

Is Your City Still Wasting Money on Inefficient Streetlights?

Ops-center-induction-lights-install_24At The Atlantic's Cities Blog, Nate Berg points out that streetlights drain a huge amount of a community's budget, but thanks to new technologies, cities like San Diego can slash their energy bills & carbon footprints:
Under the leadership of a program called CleanTECH San Diego, cities in the area have been able to streamline what would otherwise be a cumbersome process to make the switch from old bulbs to new. And with grant money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, 13 cities in the region have kicked off projects to replace about 55,000 streetlights, which will save an estimated $3 million annually.

The largest among those cities is San Diego, which will be replacing about 90 percent of its streetlights, roughly 35,000. The city is replacing its old low-pressure sodium lights – a common streetlight – with induction bulbs that use about 40 percent less energy. 16,500 have already been converted, and officials expect the transition to be finished by next spring.

Before the conversion, the city had been paying about $4.7 million a year to light its streets. When all 35,000 lights are replaced, that cost will drop to about $2.8 million a year, according to Tom Blair, deputy environmental services director for the City of San Diego.

And it's not just energy costs that will go down. The old sodium bulbs typically had to be replaced every 3 or 4 years, while the new induction bulbs can last more than a decade. Blair says a set of induction bulbs were installed in downtown San Diego about 12 years ago and have yet to need replacement. "That’s a significant savings," Blair says.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," says Marty Turock, a program manager at CleanTECH San Diego. "Virtually every city, at least within San Diego County, recognized that doing the street lighting retrofits was one of the biggest impacts and one of the biggest payback energy efficiency projects they could take on."
Another leader - Ann Arbor, MI, projected to save $100,000 a year by installing new LED streetlights with motion detectors (unlike older streetlight bulbs that need a few minutes to power up to full intensity, LEDs can fire up instantly).

Ask the Green Miles: Which Fish are Most Sustainable & Have Least Mercury?

Toxic Tuna Tour in DC 10/20/07First, the short answer: Check out the FDA's advisory on mercury in fish & shellfish, then cross-reference the FDA's chart of typical mercury content in fish with your local Seafood Watch pocket guide.

But in the big picture, if you're concerned about mercury in your fish, you should be thrilled about the Obama administration's new limits on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. They're often wrongly treated as separate concerns - coal plants pollute our air & water, and there's mercury in fish. That's why reporters let Republicans like Mitt Romney (sometimes joined by coal-state Democrats) bash Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal-fired power plants in the abstract without connecting the dots to the 1 in 7 newborns at risk for brain damage and learning difficulties due to mercury exposure in the womb.

Grist's David Roberts digs deeper into why the new mercury rules are a BFD.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Virginian-Pilot Calls Out "Norfolk's Coal Embarrassment"

Mountaintop Removal in West VirginiaNorfolk City Council has refused to take a firm stand against a proposed new coal-fired power plant that would cause dozens of premature deaths in the city each year:
A representative from Norfolk Southern - which transports lots of coal - argued that it would be premature for the council to vote on the resolution so early in the project's permitting process. He's wrong. The Dendron power plant, as planned right now, would cause damage downwind. No amount of time will change that.

Norfolk City Council's interests lie in protecting its people, its water supply, its food sources from farms throughout the region. The potential for huge amounts of new pollution, for tons of carcinogens to infiltrate our environment through smog, wind and rain, calls for adamant, continuing, loud opposition.

Norfolk instead got embarrassment and questions about the allegiances of city leaders.
The new plant doesn't just face serious public health questions - it also faces major economic ones. At a time when natural gas is far cheaper & wind is creating far more jobs, why should we invest $6 billion in Virginia ratepayer money in a polluting coal-fired power plant?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Clean Energy Employs More People in MA Alone Than Coal Mining Does in All of Appalachia

Governor PatrickWhile Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) is vetoing bills to promote solar power, Massachusetts is showing Virginians what could've been had the state chosen to embrace clean energy.

A new Center for American Progress report details how the Bay State's clean energy policies have the industry booming, with 64,000 people now working in clean energy jobs in Massachusetts and growing at an annual rate of 7 percent. That's compared to just 16,907 clean energy jobs in Virginia, according to the most recent data I could find in a 2009 Pew report.

But even that relatively low number of clean energy jobs dwarfs the number of coal mining jobs in Virginia - just 5,164 in 2011. Across Appalachia, just 59,059 people work in coal mining - and that represents a 14-year high.

Meanwhile, Gov. McDonnell and the Republican-controlled, Dominion Virginia Power-funded General Assembly aren't just protecting tax giveaways to the coal industry, they're adding new loopholes to let coal companies like Consol increase their already sky-high profits by polluting more.

Even with a slightly improved 2011 job assessment, "Virginia's job losses in 2011 were in construction, manufacturing and the information sector" - some of the same industries that would benefit from the move to clean energy.

Imagine if Virginia had set strong, mandatory clean energy & energy efficiency standards at the same time Massachusetts did. How many of these stories would we be hearing from across Virginia?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Obama Campaign Has No Idea How to Inspire Environmentalists

The Barack Obama campaign has apparently made a decision to run to the right of mainstream America on environmental issues. That's their choice, but if they don't want to fire up environmentalists to fight to re-elect President Obama, why are they now launching a ham-handed Environmentalists for Obama campaign?

The Obama campaign released this video in conjunction with Earth Day, but as ClimateProgress' Joe Romm points out, it makes no mention of global warming, the biggest threat to Earth's life and ecosystems. That's why I say the Obama campaign is running to the right of America - poll after poll shows a majority of Americans understand the threat posed by climate change, but the Obama campaign has apparently chosen to ignore the majority's concerns and instead woo the skeptical minority. Best of luck with that.

Also noticeably absent from President Obama's Earth Day outreach to environmentalists - wildlife. The video shows beautiful landscapes and depicts them as great habitats for mountain bikers and little else. Really? Not even a quick shot of a bald eagle, that great Endangered Species Act success story?

I was most confused and frankly insulted by the Obama campaign having their man go on and on about "energy independence." This is supposed to be the environmentalist pitch and you're talking to me not about less drilling and fewer oil spills, but about national security?

Environmentalists are ready to be fired up to re-elect President Obama. But if his campaign doesn't know how to drop the cold-blooded calculated messaging for even two minutes to inspire their base, a key opportunity could be lost.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Terrible Ideas & Pathological Lying: Why I Don't Like Mitt Romney

While The Green Miles consumes politics like a grizzly bear consumes salmon, my girlfriend is a normal human being who pays attention to politics only occasionally. When one day she asked why I don't like Mitt Romney, I didn't want to come off as only hating Romney because he's on the Red Team and I'm on the Blue Team. So here's what I said.

First, the substance, which is pretty straightforward. Romney would raise taxes on the poor, slash taxes on the wealthy, do nothing for the middle class, and dramatically increase the national debt - and claims that would magically create jobs, an underpants gnome scheme if there ever was one. On energy, Romney's plan would be Bush-Cheney on steroids, giving even more control to polluting oil & coal companies and making even lower investments in clean energy. from the poor to give to the rich.

What's harder to convey is just how much Romney & his campaign are built on lies. Steve Benen has been chronicling how often Romney lies and the list runs into the double digits every single week - lies about himself, lies about his past positions, lies about President Obama. "At this point, the pattern here is obvious, and it’s clearly not an accident," wrote Greg Sargent. "And Romney and his team will remain secure in the knowledge that most of the media will politely look the other way as the Big Lies keep flowing, and will continue to treat them as just part of the game."

Rachel Maddow recently went in-depth on Romney's lies and how they define his candidacy (if you don't want to watch the Etch A Sketch intro, skip ahead to 6:25):

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Virginia "Conservatives" Think Conservation is a Joke

A Blue Virginia reader passed along this Facebook update from Randy Marcus, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's chief of staff:
Every time I see that stupid green peacock logo on NBC, I turn on another light in my house and cut the thermostat down another degree. I mean can't a guy watch the Voice and Smash without being subjected to some environmental agenda? Haha
We're supposed to believe these guys care more about solving our problems than about politics? This attitude isn't isolated to a staffer - Gov. Bob McDonnell spent thousands of your tax dollars to thumb his nose at conservationists.

Virginia's elected officials have turned their back on energy efficiency and left us addicted to coal at a time when natural gas is the cheaper short-term bet & wind energy is creating jobs almost as fast as coal is shedding them (a search for wind jobs in Virginia on turns up 137 positions while a search for coal only returns 56). But Bill Bolling's number one donor by far is Virginia's coal-controlled energy industry. Second is real estate & construction - and you wonder why Virginia Republicans are pushing so hard for their "Agenda 639" to silence your community's voices & promote sprawl?

Swans and Spock

P1010123Swans are beautiful, but it doesn't make them any less destructive. In Fairhaven, MA two mute swans had to be killed to protect a newly-restored marsh. The situation created an odd dynamic - wildlife lovers were those most understanding of the need to protect the marsh:
Carolyn Longworth, a passionate birder and Millicent Library director, said while the loss of the swans saddens her, she understands the need to protect the marsh. "I felt both ways about it because I know they're destructive and it is people who brought them in. But on the other hand, I like the fact that the marsh is being restored and the first few years is a very sensitive time," she said.

Longworth said she felt she knew these swans after frequently photographing them at Atlas Tack. "The thing that endeared these particular birds to me is that I had never heard mute swans vocalize until I saw these," she said. "They made a zipp sound whenever they saw each other."

But she has also seen firsthand the new life that the restoration project has brought, including a gaggle of Gadwall ducklings, spotted last year, the first such breeding recorded in Bristol County. "Now it's beautiful," Longworth said of the marsh. "You could stand on that wall and look on both sides and see seven different species of heron. Before, you never saw anything in here except pigeons."
Meanwhile, the local Tea Party fans are questioning why government money was spent killing swans while ignoring that the government was trying to protect its $21 million investment in restoring the marsh.

Swans are beautiful sitting and absolutely amazing in flight, but they're also incredibly detrimental to their own ecosystems. They're an invasive species that eats up to 9 pounds of marsh grasses every day, destroying critical habitat for other species, from crabs to fish to native birds. Far from endangered, in places like Fairhaven, humans have eliminated virtually all of the natural predators big enough to take on a swan, so they breed unchecked, leaving culling as the best (if extremely unpleasant) option.

Sometimes, as Spock once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Think Backyard Chickens are Gross? Watch This Video on Factory Eggs

A Humane Society investigation has turned up evidence of widespread cruelty & unhealthy practices at a factory-style egg production facility. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in today's New York Times, "The police would stop wayward boys who were torturing a stray dog, so should we allow industrialists to abuse millions of hens?"

At some point, we thought it would be healthier to separate ourselves from the production of our food, sending food production to distant farms & factories. But have we gone too far? Could a few chickens in your community's yards really be any less healthy than what the Humane Society found?

It's time for communities like Arlington to lift restrictions on backyard chickens.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Oil Executive Leads Attack on Climate Scientist Jim Hansen

Oil executive H. Leighton Steward is helping a group of former NASA employees push a letter attacking climate scientist James Hansen (sub. req.), head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies:
Leighton Steward, a retired oil industry official who is chairman of the nonprofit groups Plants Need CO2 and CO2 is Green, said the coalition formed a few weeks ago. He had given presentations to the NASA retirees last year meant to underscore that empirical data don't echo the dire predictions of climate modeling espoused by Hansen and others.

"We've been trying to tell people that there's a lot of great benefit in CO2 in the atmosphere," he explained to POLITICO. Steward emphasized that he did not organize the coalition of NASA retirees nor is he a spokesman for them.
First, the obvious: The "extra CO2 is good for plants" argument is completely nuts, unless you enjoy wildfires and think Virginia Beach would look better under 30 to 90 meters of seawater.

As for H. Leighton, I know why he likes to call himself "retired" - makes him seem like he's not the active part of Big Oil that he really is - but I'm not clear why Politico reporter Darren Goode repeats it here. Steward is a member of the board of directors of oil & gas company EOG Resources, where he's made millions of dollars.

H. Leighton is also trying to have it both ways on ownership of the letter. He told Goode he didn't organize it & isn't a spokesman, but hours later he emailed his list bragging about "our announcements" and media appearances:
Our announcements below include the actual letter and signatories. The letter speaks for itself.  We will update this with media interviews in which we are fortunate to participate.  
The list itself also deserves some scrutiny. I picked out just one name, the only listed "meteorologist," Thomas (Tom) Wysmuller, who's listed as "Johnson Space Center, Meteorologist, 5 years." But a quick Google search turns up Wysmuller's website, which says "at different times in his life, Tom has been" both "a Meteorologist" and "a NASA Intern." If Wysmuller was a NASA meteorologist for 5 years, why wouldn't his own website say so? Another Wysmuller bio that says had a "dual major in sociology and political science, and a concentration in meteorology at NYU" - how meteorology fits under sociology & poli sci, I'm not sure - and that he was an "an intern and jack-of-all-trades for NASA."

If the letter so significantly overstates the credentials of the one signer I looked into, how many other overstatements are there? They didn't exactly strike one climate scientist as experts:
Texas A&M atmospheric sciences professor Andrew Dessler told POLITICO that he did in fact meet with the 75 or so retirees at Goddard last October — along with University of Houston professor Barry Lefer and fellow Texas A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon — and came away less than impressed. 
“These people are well meaning, but they don’t seem to realize that climate science takes years of full-time work to actually get to know,” he said. “They really don’t understand anything about the climate system. They understand less than the first-year grad students that come out of my classes.”
We're well past the point of needing fancy computer models to understand global warming - just look at the thousands of temperature records that fell in March. It's time for action.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Global Warming-Fueled Heat Demolishes March Weather Records

How has 2012 rewritten America's temperature records?
  • 2012's was America's warmest March on record. It didn't just barely break the record by a tiny fraction - it smoked it by half a degree.
  • Measured against the historical average, March's 8.6 degree deviation from normal was America's second-largest on record, surpassed only by another recent warm month, January 2006.
  • The first three months of 2012 were America's warmest January to March on record.
What was scariest about March was how many cities in so many parts of America were so far above their historical averages and absolutely obliterated their records:
  • Green Bay, WI was 10.4 degrees above normal & broke its March record by 4.4 degrees
  • Des Moines, IA was 9.8 degrees above normal & broke its March record by 3.7 degrees
  • Boston, MA was 6.4 degrees above normal & broke its March record by 1.6 degrees
  • Norfolk, VA was 6 degrees above normal & broke its March record by 1 degree
  • Bismarck, ND was 9.1 degrees above normal & broke its March record by 0.5 degrees
While Europe and much of Asia have been colder than usual this year, it's not enough to offset the global trend. January-February were 0.67 degrees above the 20th century average and the 20th-warmest on record globally.

NOAA has been unequivocal that global warming is fueling the trend. Have your local meteorologists been willing to point out that fact? And do your elected officials know it's time to act?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Massachusetts Media Fails to Connect 2012's Extreme Weather to Climate Change

Massachusetts has had an record-shattering warm and dry start to 2012, resulting in brush fires - but with rare exceptions, the local media isn't connecting the extreme weather to global warming for their audience.

Polls and Beltway discussion focuses on whether Americans accept climate science and support action, but that whistles past the media's role in the matter. What if the public's knowledge of the climate threat and how it's already impacting their community is being obscured, misinformed by a media that's either not up to date on the topic, afraid to tackle it & face Tea Party blowback, or letting their own political leanings color their coverage?

Meteorologists often say they avoid talking about climate change's impact on weather because they don't want to be political. But the connection between global warming and increased wildfire frequency & intensity is well-documented. Omitting scientific reality in the face of political pressure IS politicizing the issue.

Imagine if Big Oil and its allies started denying another weather phenomenon - say, hurricanes. Would meteorologists bow to political pressure and not connect hurricanes to their local weather impacts? "Violent wind, torrential rain & extremely high tides this weekend ... uh, weird!"

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Bad Week to Defend Arsenic-Laced Chicken Feed in Maryland

Chicks Some state senators in Maryland are trying to defend the use of arsenic in chicken feed.

Just yesterday, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times about "a pair of new scientific studies suggesting that poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic." Isn't asking poultry farms to stop using arsenic the least we can do?

Learn more from Food and Water Watch about how you can help the arsenic ban get across the finish line. And as the scientists Kristof talked to suggest, next time you're at the grocery store, maybe spend a few cents more to buy organic.

NBA Green(washing) Week

It's the National Basketball Association's Green Week, but in 2012 is simply recycling enough to call yourself green?

The Natural Resources Defense Council has positioned itself as the go-to organization for sports leagues looking to go green. It's had some success getting Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to measure energy usage. But other leagues like the NBA and National Football League seem to be doing the bare minimum - recycling & a few service projects with no league-wide efforts to even measure carbon pollution, never mind cut it - while still getting to plaster NRDC's green seal of approval on their websites.

Not that organic cotton jerseys aren't cool, but ... even the NBA/NRDC video announcing the partnership shows an NBA arena surrounded by a sea of cars next to a busy highway. All you have to do is recycle your empty water bottle before you get back in your SUV and consider the planet saved!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Groups Push Virginia Politicians to Support Clean Air

The Green Miles had asthma as a kid and until recently had always thought of it strictly as a personal health problem ... but I grew up in Boston, not only home to hundreds of thousands of cars, but destination for much of the air pollution produced by coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. How much did that air pollution exacerbate my breathing problems?

And you have to remember how much better air quality in cities like Boston is today than it was in the early 1980s, thanks to increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards, the 1990 Clean Air Act update, and other efforts. According to the American Lung Association, many cities are reporting their best-ever air quality.

Now a coalition of public health and environmental groups including the League of Conservation Voters and Mom's Clean Air Force is asking, what if more politicians knew what it was like to suffer from asthma made worse by air pollution? Tell your members of Congress you support the Environmental Protection Agency's new industrial air pollution standards.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ken Cuccinelli Has the Solution to All Your Problems: Ken Cuccinelli

Smith and CuccinelliKen Cuccinelli has quite the televangelist-style pyramid scheme going. He's always so close to stopping those evil moderates ... if only you'll give him a little more money, and ask your friends to do the same.

He was pitching the Cuccinelli brand Monday night at Virginia's Christendom College:
Programs like health care reform threaten to give the government, specifically Congress, the ability to order citizens to do anything it wants, including what kinds of food to eat and what kinds of cars to buy, Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli also warned of scientific discoveries and groundbreaking technology that threaten to undermine society's ethical foundations. He accused climate scientists, almost all of whom have asserted that human activity is the primary cause of a dangerous worldwide warming of temperatures, of contaminating their research with a political agenda.

"This kind of politicized science and world view drives their research," he said. He made no direct mention of a recent ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court that halted his investigation into the work of climate scientist Michael E. Mann, a former member of the University of Virginia faculty.
Ken Cuccinelli lies like this as a political technique: Throw out lies in such volume & frequency that no one can ever hope to refute them all. And if reporters DO point out how much he's lying, Cuccinelli will just say they're part of the liberal media.

Cuccinelli uses the lies to connect with his Tea Party supporters. No matter what's in the news that day - health insurance reform, fuel efficiency standards, climate science - Cuccinelli frames it as part of the culture war. They're all out to get you, and the only one who can save you is, of course, Ken Cuccinelli:
Cuccinelli ended his speech with an appeal to students in the audience to volunteer for his campaign which, he said, will swing into full gear next year after this fall's elections.
Cuccinelli does this constantly and shamelessly - emails to supporters that detail some existential threat, followed by Cuccinelli asking for more money, more email subscribers, more volunteers, etc.

Progressives can be too quick to categorize people like Ken Cuccinelli, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as nutty or crazy. That's completely wrong. They're using a tried and true method of building a following and milking that following for money & power. And by the time people realize they've been lied to, Sylvester McMonkey McBean has skipped town with their money.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Republicans for Environmental Protection Keeps Swimming Upstream

Today's generation of Republican leadership has long since abandoned its party's historic tradition of supporting science and conservation, selling out their values to everyone from Big Tobacco to the Koch brothers. Nowhere is that generational contrast more stark than here in Virginia, where George Allen's fancy designer cowboy boots have replaced John Warner's muddy riding boots.

But Republicans for Environmental Protection is still fighting the good fight, trying to get its party's leadership to back off its attacks on clean air, clean water and public lands:
"Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness bills than any other president, before or since his administration. And what we're trying to say is that conservation is conservative. It is part of the conservative ethic to care for the land and to be good stewards."

Of the 19 bills, two were sponsored by Virginia Republican Congressman Rob Wittman. One promotes restoration of Chesapeake Bay and the other deals with an extension of the Wetlands Conservation Act. [ REP spokesman Jim] DiPeso understands that Congress has been swamped, but says there is no good reason to delay bills that lawmakers actually agree on.

"When we wrote that letter to Speaker Boehner, we were pointing out, 'Look, you have all these conservation bills that have Republican sponsors. Let's go ahead and pass 'em.'"
I wish REP luck, but the truth is its party's leaders have long since turned their backs on anyone who'd dare stand up for America's natural resources. Moderates like Lincoln Chafee, Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter knew it all too well and left the party, while others like Bob Bennett, Mike Castle and Charlie Crist have been cast out as insufficiently extreme.

The GOP misses leaders like Teddy Roosevelt who knew the outdoors were a place to be men - a literal man cave. But today's Republican leaders only like the great outdoors when they're using it as cover for extramarital affairs.

UPDATE: REP just announced it's changing its name to ConservAmerica.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Raven Rocks: Hiking a Piece of the Appalachian Trail

Took advantage of the ideal hiking weather this weekend to hike the Appalachian Trail to Raven Rocks. It was a relatively short drive, about an hour from Falls Church, to a hike of moderate length (4 hours) and moderate difficulty (1,530 feet of elevation gain) from a start in Virginia to the Raven Rocks overlook in West Virginia.

The near-record warm winter and lack of snowfall (only 2" in DC) followed by a warm, dry spring has left streams very low. Trails that usually would give you a chance for a little rock-hopping were nearly bone dry:
Low water levels in Appalachian Trail stream

Spotted this snake about 3 or 4 feet long just off the trail. While most snakes move quietly away from people, this one hurried behind a log, then stared us down. Looks like a black racer, a non-venomous constrictor but one of the few snakes that tends to be aggressive towards people rather than hiding or fleeing:
Snake along Appalachian Trail

And here's the reward for a day of hiking - an amazing view of the Shenandoah Valley from the Raven Rocks cliff:
Shenandoah Valley as seen from Raven Rocks in West Virginia