Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year's Day 2012 ... Shenandoah National Park past & present: photo essay

 New Year's Day 2012 ... what better place to start the year than in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park? It's one of my favorite places in the Commonwealth.

Meandering along the Skyline Drive, that ridge top roadway that is an engineering wonder and probably would not be possible -- financially or environmentally -- in today's world.

As the sign at the Rockfish entrance station at the south entrance of Skyline Drive notes, lodges and campgrounds are closed for the season. However, the hiking trails and Dundo picnic area are open, and on the first day of 2012, with temps ranging from 45-52 degrees, it was busy.

Oops ... it's hunting season. Closing the Drive helps protect park creatures.

Most trailhead parking areas like this one at Beagle Gap were full of vehicles as hikers, walkers, bikers, and joggers took advantage of the unusually mild New Year's Day.

Looking west from Skyline Drive across the Shenandoah Valley toward the Appalachian Mountains. The large range in the middle is the North Mountain range that includes Elliott's Knob, and the two small mountain east of that are Betsy Bell and Mary Gray, named for two Irish women settlers, located within the Staunton city limits. There was also a bank of clouds above the mountains as a cold front moved east, later causing the wind to pick up as we drove through rain.

The orange snow posts are out....

There is a special beauty found in Shenandoah National Park at this time of year with its winter woods. Vistas are huge with leaves off the trees and underbrush.

It's a time to explore off-the-beaten-path areas that reveal signs of the people who lived there in the past and who were forced off their land by the U.S. Government in the 1930s.

With leaves off the trees, the extreme ruggedness of the mountains can be seen with numerous rock outcroppings, talus slides, hollows, and gullies. Winter is a good time to quietly reflect on those strong people who worked hard, suffered tragedy and heartache, but stayed because of their love of the land they farmed, and who later became pawns in a political chess game.

Look closely under the fallen leaves ... peer into the shadows ... and you can see old broken-down wooden fences, stone walls, and pilings from outbuildings. Family cemeteries are scattered throughout the Park as reminders that this once housed thriving communities.

The starkness of bare trees....

My love of Shenandoah National Park goes back to the 1950s when my parents took me camping at Big Meadows Campground at the age of one. They had discovered the beauty of the area while honeymooning at Big Meadows Lodge in the 1940s.

I grew up hiking the trails, admiring beautiful waterfalls, gazing at the wide-open star-filled night sky, and sketching the rock outcroppings before climbing down them to the forest floor below. (My parents would have had a fit if they had known what I was doing.) My love of the area grew over the years.

We hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail as well as dozens of side trails. My dad was a strict conservationist even before the "conservation police" were around. He made sure we admired the surroundings without disturbing them. "Take only pictures ... leave only footprints."

The campgrounds and picnic areas provided an escape for those from the cities who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle, and who longed for the coolness of the mountain air especially in the days before air conditioning.

But in high school, I began to read more and more about the people who had lived here before it became a national park. The pros of providing work for thousands in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression turned into questions about how people who did not want to move could be forced to do so. It was a case of eminent domain at its worst.

 I thought of my great-grandparents in the mountains of Grayson County, Virginia, who were not forced from their land, and wondered how they would have felt if told to leave, and how it would have changed the composite of my present-day family.

I've read books, studied mountain family histories, visited the cemeteries, and shared this with my own children as they were growing up.

One of the most in-depth articles about the mountain people was written by Lisa Provence for The Hook in July 2011. Titled "Shenandoah secrets: Pork, propaganda, and the creation of a COOL national park," Ms. Provence delved into the stories, interviewed descendants, and offered a pro-and-con look at the U.S. Government's decision to make the area a national park.

If it wasn't Shenandoah National Park, I would not be able to join the millions of others who enjoy the outdoor experience in that part of the Commonwealth.

Because there's nothing I can do to change the past, I will continue to soak in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Skyline Drive. Picnics, hikes, leisurely drives, watching sunsets, camping....

It all encompasses the experience that is Shenandoah National Park while remembering the past and those who came before us.

Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
1 January 2012

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