Archive for the ‘Shenadoah National Park’ Category

National Novel Writing Month

November 5, 2015

Traffic on the east-west highway that crossed the mountains was picking up for the commuter hour. The Blue Ridge chain of the Appalachians presented the first significant elevation west of the coast, but its elevations were just practice for the steeper grades of the Alleghanies and the Cumberlands. Their modest proportions, however, had managed to keep the valleys of the Piedmont and the Shenandoah surprisingly separated. Even Ava, who considered herself adventurous, especially during her grad student years, had lived on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge on and off for 25 years, and was still embarrassed by her feeble explanation for why she didn’t know more about the Shenandoah: “I live in Charlottesville.”

Forty miles south one could traverse the range at Afton on I-64 and thirty miles north SR 211 took drivers from Rappahannock County down into Luray. When the park was established in the 1930s, all the other switchbacked dirt roads that had been leading locals up and over the mountains for over a century were closed to public traffic. They’d made a disastrous reappearance in the past few years on gps, however. Ava got a perverse kick out of chastising visitors for relying on satellite data.

“What’s wrong with a map?” she would ask once they finished their woeful tale of how their gps had sent them an hour off course. “You’re old enough to know better,” she’d tell the retirees. To the young people she’d unfold a map of Shenandoah’s 200,000 acres and point to where they were. “Study this,” she’d say. “There’ll be a test later.” Usually they shook their heads, took their scolding, and laughed.

One woman had fought especially hard for its validity. “I don’t do maps,” she countered with an adolescent whine that set Ava’s teeth on edge. Ava explained that its misinformation was the reason the woman had ended up at an entrance station thirty miles south of where she’d intended to enter, but in her eyes, that was no reason to condemn the device. “There’s no valid address for this park anywhere on the website.” If she’d been five years old, she would have performed a stomp to punctuate her frustration. To Ava, the point seemed an especially ridiculous one to cling to given that the girl wanted to camp in the park’s back country. “You’d better learn to read a map,” she advised, “because you’re not getting cell service in the back country.”

Unfortunately for the aggrieved woman, who’d spent a considerable amount of her money on tattoos, an edgy haircut, and the latest in smartphone technology, venturing out to Shenandoah National Park on a three-day weekend was not going to be the transcendent experience that watching Reese Witherspoon had led her to believe. Drawing Ava, the tough love park ranger, was just one more experience that was souring her dewy-eyed fantasy.

“I’m trying to help you,” Ava told her, “But frankly, I don’t care if this permit isn’t filled out correctly. And I won’t care either when the Search and Rescue operation finds your scattered bones.”

It wasn’t that Ava hadn’t known that much of the population relied on smartphones and their apps. She’d simply thought that she’d see less of it in the park. But people came barreling up the mountain and knocked on the door to its wilderness with their pockets and cars fully wired. It was more unusual to see a family chatting companionably than to see at least one parent and all the kids staring into their phones, laptops, or a screen replaying a Disney dvd.

What she did – or should – know was that there was no way one park ranger was going to change their opinions on the best way to navigate the park, let alone the world. Still, she wasn’t responsible for their dropped cell signal or scrambled coordinates, so when the world presented her with her teachable moment, she invariably ran with it. Her lesson was that nature was unpredictable, beautiful, and pitiless.  When visitors whined about the fogged in mountain, she proclaimed it a “good day for mushrooms;” when they asked her advice on which direction had the best views, she answered with an obfuscating “yes;” and when they asked if the autumn foliage was beautiful, she told them to look up at the trees and trust that they had the tools to answer the question themselves. If she could push back their glib assumption that the natural world had solely been designed for them by just half an inch, she felt, she would have created a space for the forest to exist.

A Luddite states the obvious

October 14, 2015

From Todd Kilman’s review of “Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine” for The Washingtonian

The serious artist and the successful businessman could not be more fundamentally different in their aims and approaches. The businessman endeavors to give us what we want, devoting hours upon hours to researching the various shifts in the marketplace and spending great gobs of money in the process. The serious artist, heeding an inner dictate, gives us what we don’t want—disturbing us, shaking us from our complacency, waking us up to the truth before our eyes.

Yes, the differences are obvious, and yes, we constantly need to be reminded of them.  Framing Steve Jobs as an artist erases the subversive power of art.   What Jobs and other post-industrial entrepreneurs offered isn’t a new way of seeing.  Their devices have merely advanced a deeper dive into the consumer cycle that delivers experience quicker, faster, and shinier.  But what is the experience being delivered by a smart-phone, a gps device, a tablet?  It’s one mediated by what an internet site decides to provide, information designed to sell something, to take something from you be, it money or some less tangible energy.  When we spend large tracts of time peering at the world through a tiny screen, eventually, when we come upon a panorama of the world, we no longer have the tools to process it unless we take a selfie and post it on Facebook.  Until it’s there, we never went to Shenandoah National Park to watch the leaves change, never saw a bear cross the woods, let alone got out of car to take a hike through a dense woods populated with species whose names and biological realities we will never bother to consider.

Worse even that this, is how racing to reduce complicated, complex, vast experiences to a digital photo or a website dulls the skills we might have cultivated to engage with it.  We are no longer able to be patient with processes of the natural world, whether it be the turn of the seasons or the emotional ranging that creating intimacy involves.  We already know what we want, thanks to our technology, and we are looking to get that desire satisfied so that we can move on to the next.  At the entrance station where I work, the few times I’ve been in the main office and a car pulls up, the driver and passengers are so engaged at staring to the left into the empty booth that they don’t see me standing on the other side of the car.  It would be hilarious if it weren’t such a dispiriting reminder of how fixed people have become.  Then, as they leave, they ask me to recommend the “best direction” to take into the park.  I want to tell them, and sometimes I do, that the best direction is all around them, if only they would keep their eyes and their minds open.  Unfortunately, these two sensory organs have already been effectively diminished thanks to Steve Jobs and his techno brethren.

In the park

September 3, 2015

At some point this spring, when securing a job at Shenandoah National Park began to appear possible, I made a wish.  Making wishes is something I rarely do these days.  I tell myself that it’s because I have so little control over what will eventually transpire that I’m no longer eager to set myself up for being disappointed.  Nevertheless, I gave voice to this modest one:

“I want to work at the park, and I want to say here for the summer.”

At certain times in the intervening months, this wish has vexed me as much as it has pleased me.  When I agreed to work the job, for instance, it was with the understanding that the entrance station I’d be staffing was approximately 70 miles away from my apartment.  A certain admixture of hope and delusion were at play as I considered solutions such staying at what turned out to be a mountain man’s squat just beyond the park boundary and later camping in the park’s campgrounds.  It wasn’t long before the commute began to fray my small margin of sanity, but just in time, management switched me to a slightly closer station.  Even that desired improvement threw another wrench into the idealized scheme, as the only full-time staffer is a 70+ year old woman who’s now plainly unable to perform most of the job’s functions but remains stubbornly “retired on-duty.”

Most obviously, I’d wanted to stay in Ivy to avoid the stress and strain of moving, both for me and for my feline companions.  But another motivation was the anticipated pleasure of swimming.  Last summer, the pool had soothed the aches and pains of a physically demanding job at a nearby gardening center.  What a perfect way to rejuvenate after a 90 minute drive home through some of the most congested traffic in Virginia outside of DC.

Again a delicate interplay of hope and delusion were at work in forming this modest expectation.  With my 92 year old landlady now in assisted living, the two of her four children who were most proximate to the estate were making it clear that a minimum of expenditure would be used maintaining the property.  Within two weeks of opening the pool (performed in a  Tom Sawyer-like manner with me finally jumping in to do most of the physical labor so I could get a swim in on Memorial Day), the  second son succeeded in turning the pool into a disgusting soup of algaecide that foamed the surface like a warm Budweiser.  Over the next two months, the weeks when I could swim coincided with his profound neglect.  It was his attention I feared the most as his idea of pool maintenance seemed limited to opening bottles of crap (gallons of chlorox and more algaecide) and pouring them in, a technique I maliciously enjoyed tracing back to his facility for opening liquor bottles (Alcoholic Tony became his nickname ’round here).

I won’t pretend I’ve handled with serene gratitude all the irritations that arose as my wish manifested in a way completely out of my control.  Some of the rage of the past few months has lessened, but I continue to skim Craigslist for better housing options and attempt through my meditation and yoga practice to heal my lack of compassion for the 70+ park ranger who is making my job more difficult.  Much of the time, in fact, I’ve allowed my anger to blind me to the fact that my simple wish has come true, and even now I can swiftly shift to being disgusted that I didn’t drum up a more substantial wish,  something more lasting than a seasonal job and a half-way decent, albeit highly tentative rental situation.

Maybe it’s just these baby steps that will give me something to build on, no matter if it seems improbable at the moment.  One day last spring these two small things – working at Shenandoah and swimming until the end of the season in this beautiful pool – seemed improbable too.  Maybe one day I will fall in love with a man who’s kind and honest; maybe one day I’ll discover a creative endeavor I want to pursue no matter the obstacles.  Maybe I just have to make a wish and then hold on through the wild ride of it coming true.

All summer, working in the park and commuting back and forth from home (having to get back to feed my two kitties who have been as patient and forgiving as can be), I’d been unable to do anything more than to gaze out at the woods from my entrance station booth.  Finally, this past Monday, rather than sending me up to park headquarters to our remittance office to count money, my micro-manager allowed me a roving day.  Although I had to hike in my polyester uniform and the day was late summer sticky, I got three short hikes in, all up to exhilarating views.  As I peeled my uniform off, I comforted myself with the thought that once I got home, I could jump in the pool.  True, the pool water was still cloudy from the last treatment, this time by a competent maintenance man, but eventually I did take a dip.  On the final day of August 2015, I felt the full realization of my spring wish which my friend Frank had articulated so succinctly:  “a summer of parks and pools.”