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Diana and Hunter drop food into the mouth of a buffalo.
At the aviary, parakeets get up close, like they're doing with Hunter, to nibble on a stick dipped in birdseed.
But then we wouldn't have had the experience of a lifetime, either.
I took off Columbus Day because the grandchildren were out of school, and I wanted one more excursion before it got too cool. How ironic is it that Monday was the coldest day since late spring?
Because of the weather, we were leery about traveling Interstates 64 and 81 all the way to the Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge. The park bills itself as two zoos in one because it's part-safari, part-petting zoo, and is home to more than 1,000 animals.
Diana, my daughter, had wanted to go for some time and take her son, Hunter, who's 19 months old.
My 11-year-old granddaughter, Emily, also was excited about being able to reach out the car window and feed elk, deer and camels.
My 8-year-old grandson, Tyler, didn't want to go because of the long car ride.
I was disappointed about that, and I guess it was part of the trepidation I had Monday morning.
I took a heavy jacket--but not gloves because it seemed too early for them--and was grateful Emily's mother had talked her out of wearing shorts.
We headed to Diana's house, then pointed the car toward the mountains. The interstates were kind to us, and we made good time.
We got to the park minutes before the wagon ride that takes visitors through the park. I grabbed the blanket and flannel sheet I always keep in the trunk, and Hunter got really excited at the sight of tractors. (The boy loves anything with wheels, probably even more than animals.)
That's when we realized how special this day was going to be.
Because there were no other idiots who wanted to brave the cold temperatures--which were even chillier because we were in the Blue Ridge Mountains--we were the only people on the ride. Our tickets entitled us to a bucket of food each, but because the animals are used to getting a certain amount each wagon trip, our guide, Chad, put out 10 buckets for us.
As he drove through the rolling hills of the park, we marveled at the cuteness of the pot-bellied pigs that tried to keep up with the tractor, as well as the massive horns of Watusi cattle. Their racks make those of longhorn cattle in Fauquier County look like toothpicks.
We stopped at one place and saw a sight I'll never forget: buffalo running down the hillside. Granted, there were half a dozen--not the hundreds seen in "Dances With Wolves"--but I was as excited as Kevin Costner's character, just the same.
Chad was a great guide. He climbed onto our wagon and showed us how to run our finger across the lip of a camel to make it dance. Yes, they did a lip dance.
Not a lap dance.
And he said if we held our hands above the buffalo, the animals would open their mouths wide for their feed.
They did just as he said, and he laughed at how much we laughed and gasped.
He called a lot of the animals by name and pointed out the pregnant ones, the dominant males and the less-aggressive female among the camels. (We already knew she was a girl because she was so much calmer than the others.)
Chad didn't just read a script; he seemed to really care about the feathered and furry creatures around him.
So did the other workers at the park, and the animals looked healthy and happy.
The petting-zoo side was equally impressive with lots of goats, pigs and llamas to pet, as well as giraffes to feed and monkeys and tigers to view.
The second-most impressive site was the aviary, where hundreds of parakeets flew above us. When we held out Popsicle sticks dipped in birdseed, the parakeets flocked to our arms and shoulders. Hunter thought that was great.
Emily wasn't as enthusiastic about being swarmed.
I've tried to describe the views and animals and how breathtaking it was to gaze up at a hillside and see a dozen different species of hoofed animals, grazing and frolicking in the open. It's not exactly the same as their natural habitat, but it's as close as any zoo I've seen.
We've talked about going back, and I'm sure we'll have a good time. But I know we'll never again have the magical experience we did this time.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425