Two days into Shenandoah and it is easy to understand its popularity. Unlike the Great Smokies where so many of the hikes are long and more amenable to backpacking, Shenandoah is blessed with many short hikes to pretty waterfalls and good views. Plus, since it is spread out over 100 miles, it does not feel so crowded. Plus, with morning temps in the 30s, the visitors have been sparse leaving me the place almost to myself. As a bonus, I have also been blessed with the best campsite so far. It is high on a ridge and has a stunning view of the valley. The Appalachian Trial literally runs across my campsite. I watch the through hikers stagger in and drop with relief at the sight of the day's destination. I can't say that it has enticed me to run out an buy a backpack but I would never rule it out.
That said, learning the history of the park left me disturbed. After the creation of some of the first parks back West, the East also wanted a piece of the action, one of their own. Because of that, there were some powerful politicians and lobbyists who saw a park in Virginia as the perfect place. A minor problem to them were the thousands of people who already happen to be living there. 3700 plots of land were inconveniently already claimed where the new park was originally to be placed. So they went about extricating them first by offering payments and then later by simple eviction. Many residents were deemed too uneducated and incapable of taking care of themselves and were re-settled “for their own good.” I have no doubt that they were poor and uneducated and lived a subsistence life. That probably characterized much of rural life in the early 1900s. Although they were trying to preserve pristine land, many plots were condemned so that residents could be forcefully removed. The CCCs were instructed to destroy family homes in order to return the area to its natural state. Ironically, I don’t get the sense that preserving nature had much to do with their motivation. The entire goal of the project was not to preserve land but to build the most scenic road. Even the Appalachian Trail was moved to accommodate its construction.
There is a lot I didn’t know about the parks starting out but for the most part I have always thought of the parks as giant playgrounds designed for those of us that just never got over the loss of recess. When I think of the national parks, I assume we are protecting flora, fauna and geology but parks like Shenandoah remind me that it is not just national monuments and historic sites that protect history. As civilization encroaches ever more on nature, preservation becomes more important but the burden of protecting them grows equally. I am appreciating the individual sacrifices required to protect land for future generations. Many voices are not heard secondary to that peculiar combination of politics and wealth drowning them out.
For many of these people, this is not just a remote memory. I ran by a cemetery today that continues to be used by families with connections to the area. It is hard not to think that these people are still experiencing the consequences of being removed from their land. We cannot easily undo what has been done but worse is to forget it happened. I have resolved to read a bit more than just the trail map for each park in order and give a silent thanks as I go to those who walked ahead of me. Let’s not take for granted what we have.