It's summertime, and that's the time that every family packs up and heads to the national park/beach/grandma's house, at least according to my Facebook, TV, and the cost of flying anywhere. My twin sister's summer vacation took her to the Philippines for three weeks, a 12-hour time difference that had her living in the future. It was unsettling. My brother's off to Los Angeles with his family, a side trip to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon on the agenda. The ladyfriend and I took our summer vacation way back in April, out to Napa to celebrate her sister's 40th birthday, so we're starting to get antsy. She's got limited vacation days, though, so our summer vacations have mostly been driving out to Home Depot on Sundays and sitting on the front porch drinking seltzer and waiting for the sun to go down. It's a great way to spend the summer, for sure, but sometimes you want to get away.
Thanks to the labor activists who fought for this thing called the "weekend," we did manage to squeeze in a visit to Shenandoah National Park and call it a vacation. Shenandoah was built as a park to give us East Coasters somewhere to go. When I first started getting really into national parks—thanks, Ken Burns!—I figured every national park was designated as such because it was natural beauty that everyone agreed must be preserved. If you go with naturalist John Muir's vision, that's what they're meant to be. The parks are places where people can go and feed their souls.
And that's what it feel like to get off the freeway and into Shenandoah. The park's main attraction is Skyline Drive, the 105 miles of two lane asphalt along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains that takes you to dozens and dozens of scenic views at easy turnouts. Each view feels carefully curated to capture the layered mountains in the distance, the craggy edges of the mountains, or the fields of wildflowers spreading out below your feet.
The views feel curated because they are. We stopped in at the park's main visitor center on our way home on that Sunday to fill up on water, buy more maps we likely won't use, and check out the park film. This one was about the Civilian Conservation Corps and their work on the park. Turns out they built this thing, quite literally. Everywhere you look, the ranger in the film said, you think you're seeing wild nature, but you're really seeing a cultivated garden. Before the park opened it was largely empty mountainsides, cleared out for timber. CCC boys, as they were called, transplanted literally millions of trees, and that's what we see when we hit the park today.
The CCC also dug out the miles upon miles of trails at the park, and that's what we were summer vacationing to check out. The thing about hiking in Shenandoah is that every hike takes you either down and you have to climb back up; or up and you have to climb back down. If you want to see a waterfall you know you have to be ready to drag yourself back up the side of a mountain. And it's always worth it. This trip's big hike (and by "big" I mean "long climb back out") took us to TWO waterfalls. Totally worth it, though the hike back took twice as long as the hike in, and everything burned at the end of it. That is such a good feeling, though, and I just wanted a body that could do that forever, happy as I was that my body could do this short hike on this particular day.
None of the hike felt like a tour through the ranger's cultivated garden. It felt like we were in wild nature, hopping over rocks, brushing aside branches, and wiping bugs off sweaty arms. When I think "cultivated," I think clean and tidy, and this hike was anything but. Turns out there's nothing natural about nature, not really, when you're hiking in Shenandoah.
I'm not sure why it matters, though. I'm as drawn to the idea of "wild nature" as much as any reader of Muir or enjoyer of the outdoors, but so what if there's an imprint of the human on it? My soul is fed differently by the cultivated garden of Shenandoah than it is by the cultivated garden of White Marsh Mall. I am happy to have both in my life, because I love the greens of Olive Garden some days, the greens of the trail another. What a lucky life to be able to access both.
We left Shenandoah ready for our next trip to Shenandoah. We did some scrambling over rocks this time, and I'm a fraidy cat who needs help with balance, so I started shopping for the trekking poles many other hikers were carrying. We realized we don't need a giant backpack for a three-hour hike, so we started shopping for a smaller bag that I could carry without too much strain on my shoulder, permanently a touchy spot after a field-trip-gone-wrong back in 1997. This field trip confirmed what we already knew: We love hiking, and we are grateful for those who have blazed the trails.
There is time for more summer adventure, I hope. Next up for me is a trip out west, to my home state of Idaho. That the Blue Ridge are called "mountains" is kind of cute from a western mountain perspective. It's time to feed my soul on the terrains of my childhood—the desert hillsides just outside of Boise, the casinos on the Nevada border, the mountain lakes of Valley County. It feels wilder out there somehow, but I know it is every bit as cultivated as anywhere else. Time to open up and see what comes in.