Dear National Park Service,
Let me begin by wishing you a happy belated birthday! One hundred years is no joke! You’re in good company with other centarians Speedo, the Panama Canal, and Merrill Lynch. Surviving, let alone growing and thriving, over the course of ten decades is no easy task. Congratulations and Godspeed.
NPS, I sent your present last summer and for the first time ever bought an annual, America the Beautiful Park Pass. The pass paid for itself a few times over with all of the park visits I made this year. I pulled the trigger on buying the pass at Rocky Mountain National Park, but also used it in Washington at Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. Several times, I took advantage of the pass’ utility as an interagency pass. I also used the pass to visit Shenandoah National Park more than half a dozen times.
I have a confession to make, NPS- a confession about Shenandoah National Park (SNP). You know that long, winding road that spans from the northernmost part of the park in Front Royal down to the southernmost part of the park in Rock Fish Gap? I’ve driven on that road, Skyline Drive, a few times. The first time I drove its length, I called my dad to suggest he drive it on his next trip south. Being a moto-aficionado, he had already driven on it. Like me, he took time to pull-off at a handful of the many overlooks. He appreciated the proximity of nature to the road and continued to South Carolina or Florida or whatever destination. My dad represents the majority of SNP visitors.
Me on the other hand, aside from the one time I drove the length of Skyline Drive and a singular visit to the northern part of the park with my Mom, I use Skyline Drive to access trails. Though SNP is a relatively narrow tract of land, 108-miles of the Appalachian Trail traverses the park and a messy network of maintained trails branch off from the main road. The trails pass waterfalls and geological formations. They walk past historical sites and vegetation rehabilitation areas. Sitting here now, reflecting on my trips in Shenandoah, I know it is a beautiful place that should be preserved.
But- here it is, the catch- when I am planning a trip to Shenandoah, my mind wistfully wanders to Bryce and Canyonlands. My heart begins to beat a little faster thinking about Denali and Glacier. I get carried away daydreaming of exploring Yosemite and Zion. Hell, even thoughts of the Smokies perk up my spirits. Shenandoah doesn’t have the immediate sex appeal of those other parks. Shenandoah is JV. Those other parks, they are Varsity. Jordan accuses me of calling it “shitty Shenandoah.” I haven’t said that. Full disclosure, I have thought it.
Let me be clear, my beef is not with my dad or with Skyline Drive or with the people who visit the park that way. Truth be told, Skyline Drive makes great sense from a conservation perspective. The road exposes people to the beauty of the park, but keeps the masses contained between a double yellow and single white line on the serpentine asphalt. I respect the utility of Skyline Drive. Yet, I have to laugh every time I visit, step off an asphalt parking lot and onto a dirt trail only to see a sign warning “BACKCOUNTRY.” Shenandoah just doesn’t illicit the thrill of the true backcountry, where rugged and remoteness are ubiquitous. Shenandoah gives the flip-flop wearing, Diet Coke drinking, RV driving visitors who are “bold enough” to step off Skyline Drive an artificial sense of superiority over nature and wilderness. It’s not right and the dilution of what SNP is preserving because of its accessibility is where my grievances lay.
However, it is a New Year and despite my best efforts, I am a basic bhetch at heart. So, “New Year, new me!” NPS, I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Shenandoah. Jordan and I visited because the park is close to our apartment and we assumed we could knock out a couple dozen easy backpacking miles and enjoy time outdoors- even if the scenery was just Shenandoah.
We saw several handfuls of hikers out enjoying the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We even chatted with a southbound thru-hiker with a long, ginger beard. It was a mild winter day by all standards. I expected to see other hikers. What I wasn’t expecting, was to get a reminder that Shenandoah isn’t just a challenge for the masses.
Beginning at the White Oak Canyon parking lot, Jordan and I completed a loop in Michael Martin’s book, AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic. The loop climbed to Skyline Drive up the Cedar Run Trail. Despite having traversed the trail before, I was awed by the views. The trail passes waterfall after waterfall and Jordan and I spotted more than a few swimming holes that beckoned us for a frigid dip. On a previous hike of the trail, I returned to the White Oak Canyon lot and perhaps because of the direction of travel had not been as keenly aware of the sharp climb. The trail was a tail kicker with gear enough for a winter overnight! SNP, that climb humbled me.
Later in the trip, we caught great views from Hawksbill Mountain, Stony Man Mountain, and Old Rag Mountain. Sitting atop Old Rag on the first day of the year, my back drenched in sweat, and my calves burning from the relentless climbing, I bowed my head, NPS. I bowed my head to Shenandoah. I bowed my head because Shenandoah’s accessibility does not make it any less. As the sun shined on my body and the wind sent a chill down my spine, sitting on that granite rock, with a vast array of mountain ranges in all directions, I realized that Shenandoah is still a sacred place. Shenandoah can be both- a sanctuary for those seeking refuge in nature and those happy to visit as tourists. Me? I’m going to stay the person who wants to know SNP intimately, but I won’t discredit it for being friends with those other people, too.
NPS, I know this isn’t much of a New Year’s resolution, but it’s a start for a gal who isn’t big on resolutions. I hope you will forgive my transgressions and accept my renewed appreciation of SNP. I raise my fork of Mountain House Chili Mac and a flask of Black Russian to you. I am looking forward to visiting you again soon. Let’s make 2017 an unprecedented year of wandering.
Victoria Marie Ballestero
Wanderer, Finder, Appreciator