Lessons from the Trail
On top of the Massanutten Mountains in Shenandoah County, east of the town of Woodstock, stands Woodstock Tower. When I was a teenager, the rickety-appearing structure originally built for fire observation, was an oft-visited destination: an exercise for examining the boundaries of my frustrated adolescence as much as for ascending vertical heights. Upon my first visit, I was awestruck by the site of the seven bends of the north fork of the Shenandoah River so vividly etched in the landscape. I was equally amazed to find this unknown world so closely astride my day-to-day life of school, sports and the sundry materials I had always considered the stuff of “real” life. Thus came my first lesson from the trail: the natural world is many times more powerful than the one made by man.
And so my pursuit of trails and paths, of woods and wild places began. To this day, it continues. The lessons from these explorations are as rich and diverse as the trails themselves. Every season has it own offerings: in spring, the experience begins almost imperceptibly as a scent of loam that promises the coming flurry of green. Once the trees bud and then set out their first tender leaves, I know the time is right to search the ground for that Appalachian delicacy known as the morel mushroom. Spring continues into summer with a progression of flowering, hatching and spawning in a continual parade of fecundity. Fall enters gently and provides a good opportunity to identify trees as they color the landscape according to a palette prescribed by each species. In winter, the barrenness of vegetation offers breathtaking views from high places and reveals the complex striation of rocks that form the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain chains. I have lovingly captured so many of my best observations on camera; photography is yet another skill the trail has fostered.
In many places, the paths I choose intersect with the history of my valley home: I have crossed the same terrain as George Washington when he first examined these mountains as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax. I have stood on Signal Knob, at the northern tip of the Massanutten Mountains, just as Stonewall Jackson did in 1862 as he observed the movements of the Union army. In many ways, the best lessons I’ve learned of local history are the ones I’ve glimpsed from the trail.
The naturalist Edward Abbey once wrote that “our suicidal poets” — Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell and others — made too much of an indoor life for themselves, immune to the lure of mountain, swamp and river. I believe in all the lessons I’ve learned from the trail; I believe as Abbey did, in its power to save us. In my home and office, are the manifestations of trail life: a trilobite fossil, a perfectly formed chunk of clear quartz, a desiccated rattlesnake rattle. It is the inspiration of the outdoors that launches my imagination while indoors. So, I’ll write no more this day – the sun is leaning toward the earth with the long rays of early September, the aster is just opening in lovely purple blooms and the humidity is blessedly low. The trail, it beckons.
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