courtesy of Shenandoah National Park
Dogwood and redbud blooms along the Skyline Drive in spring.
Some people came to find the murder site. Others wanted to glimpse remnants of the old still, hidden in the woods where mountain men made moonshine. I had never attrelended an organized hike with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club before, but I came to Shenandoah National Park, as I always do, for the dead: for the remnants and memories of the thriving population – descendants of some of America’s first pioneers – that once made its home in these mountains; for the house foundations and chimneys, stone walls, stone spring boxes, century-old daffodil bulbs, pottery shards and cemeteries. Today, we have been promised old wagon roads, a baby carriage alongside the trail, and a cabin site.
The trip is being led by Leonard F. Wheat, hiker and bushwhacker extraordinaire – a man who’s been trekking this park for more than 50 years and who probably knows the secrets of each ridge and each hollow better than anyone else alive.
“First I hiked all the trails,” he says of the 500 miles of maintained paths. “Then I hiked everything off trail,” he says of the park’s two-hundred-thousand acres.
Hiker Jeremy Ervin’s been exploring these woods since he was a kid, finding historic relics of human habitation as a pastime; he gets excited about old mines, fence posts, bits of barbed wire. I’ve never met anyone else who shares my interests in these things; my husband Neil and I have been finding the same kinds of items here for the past 17 years and, over the last two years, I’ve been voraciously researching the history of the park, piecing together the signs and stories, a hobby most of my friends find strange. In meeting Len and Jeremy (as well as Bob Pickett, one of the hike organizers, who specializes in natural and cultural history; and Steve Bair, the park’s backcountry, wilderness and trails manager, who knows the location of hundreds of cemeteries in these hills), I cozy into a warm thought: “I have found my people.”
Gathered at the Timber Hollow Overlook in 30-degree weather on a bright March Saturday, facing west, our group of 17 listens to Len describe the 1931 murder of Edward Buracker, a mountain resident and World War I veteran. He reads a passage from a book by George Freeman Pollock, former owner of Skyland lodge in the early 20th century and one of the men responsible for the creation of the park.
Buracker was on his way home from retrieving his mail when a group of men shot him through the heart for potentially exposing the location of an illegal still. According to the book, “[t]he murderer then dragged the body… to a ravine by the side of the trail and covered it with leaves and brush.” With that introduction, Len tells us we’re headed to the bloody site.
Sizing up the group, I am struck by the sea of grey hair. The average age is probably 55. Len is 78. Jeremy and I are among the youngest, in our 30s. The older folks carry one or two ski-poles each, and nearly everyone over 50 has tucked their pants into their socks. Men are wearing Carhaarts, flannel shirts and baseball caps; they’re so uniformly grey-brown and bearded in salt-and-pepper, that, embarrassingly, I often can’t tell which one’s my husband.
After dropping down from the drive onto the Appalachian Trail, we begin descending a rather precipitously steep, rocky old road, slippery with leaves, grown in with brush, covered over in logs and narrower than any other abandoned road I’ve traveled in this park. It’s in such bad condition, we pretty much ignore nearly every switchback and head straight down through the woods. All the while, this group of AARPers gab and laugh, completely unfazed, while I cling to each branch or twig.
This is a group of enthusiastic nature nerds. Emily’s a botanist who gets us talking about American chestnut trees, which were mostly wiped out in the early 1900s by an Asian blight but which still attempt to grow. Chip’s a botanist too. Today he is fixated on determining if there are any red oaks in the park, a species especially difficult to identify. Then there’s Mike, a quiet orchid and butterfly lover, who points out the leaves of a putty-root orchid poking out of the ground, while Mary specializes in finding oak galls, golf-ball-sized encasements that trees create on their leaves to surround wasp eggs.
Bob’s a scat guy. He stops to show us – and pick up with his bare hands – bear poop, coyote dung, rabbit droppings and other unnamed excrement. He tells us that Shenandoah hosts more black bears than any other national park, and one of the great highlights of a previous hike, he says, was finding a bear’s “fecal plug.” During their winter inactivity, bears don’t defecate at all, thanks in part to this handy piece of organic hardware they manufacture. When spring arrives, they push it out and resume their natural functions.
Neil’s the birder of the group, the only one sporting binos; three people are AT thru-hikers; and one – who looks to be in her 60s – is a “high-pointer,” having ascended the highest peaks in 44 states. I’m the history buff, who sees hiking here as a portal to the past. I am thrilled to point out an old wash basin buried among leaves, explaining that folks once lived here, that houses and barns once stood on these very lands.
Len points out what he’s determined is the scene of the crime, a random and unremarkable spot in a grove of mountain laurels. We shrug and keep going and never find the baby carriage. After two and a half hours of pushing through brush, we cross a stream and reach the old log cabin site, our destination for lunch – a crumbling stone chimney, rock foundation and several charred chestnut timbers still in place. Inside the square outline of rocks, where we eat our sandwiches, is a heap of rusty mattress springs.
We are surrounded by dry-stack rock walls and terracing, signs of previous farming and grazing. Nearby up the hill, daffodil greens have emerged. Two of the thru-hikers, after a long search in the forest, materialize with a large metal coil once used in a still to make moonshine (and then return it to its forest home).
Most likely, this house and land were last inhabited no later than 1935, after the Commonwealth of Virginia wrested title from each private landowner, having condemned nearly 5,000 tracts of land in eight counties by right of eminent domain, to donate to the federal government. In the 1920s and early 1930s, when plans for the park began taking shape, many residents within the proposed boundaries took the money offered by the state and sought a new life elsewhere. For approximately 500 families who refused or were too poor to move, many years of grief ensued. In some locations, where residents ignored letters and eviction notices, government agents stormed in, handcuffed people who wouldn’t leave, removed their belongings to the road, and burned their houses to the ground. The government relocated several families into resettlement villages in the lowlands, which some described as seeming like Mars.
After lunch, Len leads us back to the top. The hike up is relentlessly steep – a 1,500-foot ascent. We are no longer following an old road or a trail. We are simply scrambling on rocks, fumbling against gravity.
Halfway up, I am spent. This bushwhacking business is difficult: constantly elevating legs over rocks and logs, crawling under fallen trees and stepping through devilish greenbrier. Thankfully, the group stops again for scat. Heads in a huddle, they try to correlate size with species. The inquisitive minds ask questions, take notes.
And when everyone is finished pondering the nature of nature in this, the first large national park authorized in the East and the most visited in the nation when it opened nearly 75 years ago, Len plods on, never losing a breath. This hike is just one of many this week for him and others, whose enthusiasm for living and the tiny wonders of life around us is too great to be contained in any assumption or stereotype; who enjoy the gift of this park – a sacrifice made unwillingly by the families for whom many of the hollows and gaps and mountains are named – with such unabashed vigor that it almost seems the communities’ exile was worth it.
Shenandoah National Park 75th Anniversary Kicks off in November
Shenandoah National Park was about 40 years in the making, spanning nine Presidential administrations, from the first kernel of an idea in the late 1800s, to the official establishment in December 1935. On July 3, 1936, almost 75 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at a podium at Big Meadows, surrounded by 10,000 eager visitors, and formally dedicated the park to the American people.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, park personnel are planning a variety of events from November 2010 to November 2011 both inside and outside the park. Visit the national park service website to come for information about activities available for the public.