Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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We were supposed to go to Shenandoah National Park in October. David had a workshop scheduled. I looked forward to hiking. Because we both expected that after a bit of muscle-flexing the U.S. government would reopen, thus reopening the gates to our national parks, we drove East.

We drove through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. After overnighting at the edge of Oklahoma City, in Nashville, near Lexington, we arrived in Charleston, West Virginia in what seemed the middle of the night. Hick that I have become, I was startled at finding ourselves in a high-rise hotel. With people hanging out in front of the entrance.

Looking for a restaurant still open, we cruised serious city streets, empty at that hour, the buildings fronting them tall and dark and, I do have to say, quite handsome. A few men stood in front of a bar they’d just exited. There was no one else. Anywhere. My only previous experience of West Virginia consists of flights over it. The view from a plane -- uninterrupted forested mountains with, apparently, no towns or roads -- would have lured me to explore, except that its ancient mountains hadn’t been high enough in eons. Now, I was surprised by the beautiful, old small towns so nestled into mountains they cannot be seen from the air, surprised by the grace of Charleston.

And surprised by the landscape – mountains so wild it didn’t matter how high they were, gorgeous streams, magnificent waterfalls, mysterious bogs and heaths, rugged, rocky terrain, dense forests colored orange and gold and red, everything veiled in a fine mist rendering all of it ethereal.

West Virginia may be the third poorest state in the Union but it is hardly poor by any measure of beauty. With all federal land closed, West Virginia’s state parks provided us a huge experience of wild autumn. Apart from the land and waterscapes we found in them, the state parks (and the state parks of every other eastern state where we spent time) had handsome lodges providing food and lodging.

Shenandoah remained closed. Instead of the government opening, the rain increased. If the government can’t function, at least the earth can be nurtured. Maybe, with a bit of luck, the earth will outlast governments.

We entered the Blue Ridge Parkway at its northern end, just south of the closed Skyline Drive through Shenandoah. Although the Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park, it remained open because it passes through two states, providing access to communities on both sides of it, before ending in Cherokee, North Carolina at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I like the names of places along the Parkway. Forks of Buffalo. Peaks of Otter. Meadows of Dan. Steeles Tavern. Boones Mill. Low Gap. Roaring Gap. Deep Gap. Parkway concessions - like Mabry Mill – were more or less open. Historic buildings were locked, but it was still possible to wander the grounds and eat at the restaurant. Hundreds of tourists out to see the autumn all said the same thing, “What a shame to close the Parks.”

But nobody was stopped by the inefficiency of government. It was glorious autumn, and everybody in the East meant to be out in it. All of which simply seems to indicate that our elected representatives are hardly representative.

Access roads leading to trails were closed to vehicles, but anybody was free to walk up the roads to reach trails. Wanting to hike to Linville Falls, we, and countless others, parked at the Parkway end of the access road to the visitor center, 1.4 miles away. From the visitor center the trail to the falls climbs another .9 miles to the highest viewpoint. It was only when we neared the viewpoint that we saw people entering the trail from a short spur leading from a Forest Service parking area on Rt. 121. Those people ended up with a hike of about half a mile (round trip) to reach the viewpoint. We, on the other hand, had a roundtrip hike – mostly on the paved road – of almost 5 miles. Walking any distance on paved roads makes me feel as if I’m running away from home.

On our way back to the car, David stopped along the road to photograph. I continued. For the moment, no one else was present. Without traffic to scatter them, fallen leaves lay across the road as if the road had been abandoned, as if no one had come this way in months. In the afternoon silence, I felt alone on earth. As if the government had, indeed, left. As if I was present at the end of time.

On a side-trip off the Parkway, we drove a narrow, winding road along the Cullasaja River to Highlands, North Carolina. With the Cullasaja’s plethora of falls and cataracts, almost every driver on the road tries to stop for views or photographs, a thing almost impossible until you reach a large Forest Service parking area at Dry Falls. Once parked, virtually everyone heads for the restrooms. As I, and several others approached them, a woman who got there first announced, “The restrooms have been furloughed.”

A lovely walk down stone steps leads to a path that goes behind the waterfall. The name comes from the fact that, behind the falls, you stay dry. Try standing behind a waterfall and not needing to pee.

Autumn is the busiest time of year along the whole chain of the Appalachian Mountains. While many people were doing exactly as we were, finding leaves and trails wherever they could, when the Parks reopened, it was like opening a dam. Visitors poured into the Smokies, we among them. Visitor centers were open. Bathrooms were open. Trails were accessible. Life, it seemed, would now be possible. It may be odd to assess the effect of the shutdown by how it felt to enter a national park, but it certainly presented a picture of people bottled up by a situation not of their own making; presented a picture of the worth of the parks to all those people for whom our national parks are a respite and a wonder.

Before heading west, we hiked 5 miles to Rainbow Falls and back on a trail spread with centuries of fallen leaves, a last quiet few hours before driving into the honky-tonk of Pigeon Forge, through the rest of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. There was a tree David wanted to photograph in Arkansas’ Mt. Magazine State Park. Since we rarely drive through Arkansas, we stopped at the park’s quite elegant lodge for the night, hiked the 1.4 mile trail to Arkansas’ highest point, 2,753 ft. Signal Hill before we left in the morning.

Crossing the border into New Mexico near Tucumcari, I suddenly saw Tucumcari as entrance to the West. The Real West. The cities east of Tucumcari are wrapped in a spaghetti swirl of super highways, multiple lanes, multiple highways, coming in and moving out fast and wide and tangled. It was my turn to drive through Nashville where signs over the roads made it clear to me we were as likely to end up in Florida as in New Mexico. In the presence of forty thousand other vehicles, it was only by chance that the road drove me into the correct lane, the correct highway, the correct direction.

Tucumcari is a town out of the ‘50s, straight-forward, uncomplicated, small enough for me to comprehend. Although I-40 passes by outside of town, it is not a part of town. I liked Tucumcari. I liked arriving in New Mexico. All the trees along the Rio Grande had turned gold while we were away.

Copyright © 2013 Ruth Rudner