This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution is from Sue Eisenfeld, author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal (Nebraska 2015). Sue Eisenfeld is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and faculty member in the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Gettysburg Review, and other publications. Her website is sueeisenfeld.com.
There are many ways to fall in love. One is love at first sight. You remember your first glimpse of the red rock country of Utah: Arches National Park, with its sweeping orange arms of sandstone, or Bryce Canyon National Park, with its otherworldly geologic totems. Acadia National Park is the same way: One visit of billygoating the jumble of bedrock leaping from crashing waves; one dip in a cool mountain lake after hiking over a mountain on the Schoodic Peninsula: your heart is taken. You look back on such fleeting moments with a painful longing; places that you’ll always desire but may never see again.
Another way to fall in love is for a friendship to deepen over time, a kind of innocent interest and admiration that blossoms unexpectedly into more.
Your first introduction might happen simply because you are there, with no further intention than momentary observation. If this were an East Coast national park like Shenandoah National Park, let’s say, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the first ridge of the Appalachians in Virginia, and your colleagues from work happened to bring you there on a weekend, you would go along with the crowd. When your boyfriend (now husband) moved to Virginia from the West, you might introduce him to the place as well, one overnight camping trip to welcome him to the East, a quick hello to the park, that is all.
But because the friendship with this place winds up being so easy, so convenient—hardly an effort at just two hours away from home, and such a draw: an escape from city life into cool, dark, empty hollows; a splash in a secret swimming hole; a blast of open-sky panorama—you might find yourself returning again and again.
In the early years, you find common ground with one another—climb the popular summits like Old Rag Mountain, walk the crowded trails like White Oak Canyon, overlook the obvious views from Skyline Drive to the valley, traverse that centerpiece road that winds its way 100 miles over the ridge. Over time, you begin to forge bonds, create memories, like the night you were backpacking in a thunderstorm and could feel the earth quiver, or the time the fog poured over the mountain so thick you felt as if you were going blind as the landscape disappeared.
Year by year, you let your guard down a bit, peeling back the layers Shenandoah seems to reveal only to you. With your researched historic maps, your growing curiosity, your ever-emboldened attitude, you ditch the blazed trails and begin to travel the park’s backcountry, into the minutia of the landscape, dropping off the edge of the known world into unexplored woods.
There, you find the centuries of stories the new forests have obscured—old rock walls lining old roads, the stone foundations of old homes, root cellars, brick-lined wells, an old chestnut-spoked wheel and engine from a 1910 Model K pickup, a medicine bottle, wash basins, pottery shards, daffodils from bulbs that a woman once planted a hundred years ago, and the many, many gravestones, carved and crude, nestled inside nests of greenbrier. Each remnant is a clue unveiling the mountain stories: the lost tales of the people before the park, told in stone and leaf and earth.
There, also, you and your husband and friends will hear wild coyotes howling in the distance, stir up a quiet grouse, stumble expectedly upon a mama bear hibernating in a tree, three sets of ears silhouetted against a white sky. This is where the grand brushstrokes of mountain slopes give way to crispy lichen on a granite rock before you, a blanket of Middle Earth moss, springs and seeps and deer tracks in snow.
After twenty-five years of entwining your life with Shenandoah, it’s a marriage, really: real love for the long haul. The powerful, quiet beauty that now brings you practically to tears was there all along, but today you see the pink wild azaleas in the summer woods as the most perfect pink delicate things you have ever seen, and the never-before-noticed wild red tiger lilies are the greatest surprise. The old apple orchards still producing fruit, spilling out onto the Appalachian Trail on a cool, misty, early fall afternoon are the most delightful treat, like the thrill of the peaches by the side of the swimming hole that first summer or the gleaming sour cherries you reached for on a first, thirsty journey.
This is the story of how I fell in love.