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Sanctuary For My Tired Soul

Deer in the woods

“…with the smell of the woods, and the wind in the trees, they will forget the rush and strain of all the other long weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their hearts and for their souls.” President Franklin Roosevelt speaking about vacationers to national parks in his speech at Shenandoah National Park‘s dedication, July 3, 1936.

My good friend from high school flew from California last weekend to go camping with me in Shenandoah National Park. Before motoring out of the District Friday morning, we both switched our BlackBerrys off, not to be switched back on until the drive home Sunday. I went 52 hours without my phone or access to the internet. It was fantastic.

When we arrived at our campsite, it was very, very cold. A lot colder than either of us had planned for. It turns out weather.com for “Shenandoah National Park” doesn’t account for the high points of the park. We both immediately regretted forgetting gloves.

After inspecting where to place our tent, we realized we also forgot chairs for the fire. The picnic table provided was chained to the ground, and way to far away from the fire pit to pick up enough warmth for our chilled bones. My friend was determined we would find something on our short hike to place our bums upon.

And he was right. Midway back from our mile walk to the closest lodge, I pointed out a log that looked just big enough for the both of us. Little did I know how much wood weighs. I tried to pick up one corner and could barely get it an inch off the ground. So my friend, sturdy, reliable guy he is, heaved what had to be at least a 70-pound piece of solid wood over his shoulder, and trekked it the half mile back to camp. He threw it down by the fire pit, we put a piece of plastic around it, and used the duct tape my friend had carried all the way from San Diego to secure the plastic in place. Voila…bench.

Once the fire was blazing, the red wine started going down easy and the cold didn’t bother us. We crawled into our tent after most other campers had called it a night, and looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

And that’s when Nature decided to make it interesting. About an hour after we got into our sleeping bags, the wind started whipping, and water started coming down from the sky. Our tent walls rattled and our tent roof , now coming undone on two sides, smacked against the sides. Halfway through our sleepless night, our poor tent couldn’t take anymore and caved in halfway, folding down onto the bottoms of our sleeping bags. The water started flowing in.

We spent the rest of the evening trying, and failing, to ignore the noise and the water seeping in. I had to shift around a bit to relieve my legs of the pressure from the fallen tent poles. The next morning, my friend’s first order of business was getting us to the lodge for a hot breakfast. Screw Pop Tarts and apples after the night we had.

We both agreed there was no way we were spending another night like the one before, and managed to find a cabin room at the Skyland Lodge for $98. The hot shower, and cozy twin bed, was worth every cent of my $49. Oh and the roof and the heaters…

Before settling at the lodge, we managed a hike in the rain, down to Dark Hollow Falls.

Buck in the bush

The beauty of Shenandoah left me awestruck, despite the terrible, wet weather. In our few days there, we were fortunate enough to see what had to be at least 100 deer, as well as a black bear meandering across the road. I was about three feet from a buck with my camera. I was very fortunate he didn’t decide to charge and take me, and my Nikon D60, out.

After a night of playing cribbage, drinking beer, and watching college football at the lodge, and another delicious breakfast, we set out Sunday morning on another hike. The weather had mostly cleared, and the sun started pushing out the clouds.

We trekked our way up to Stony Man Overlook. At 3,100 feet, the view of the color-changing trees, Skyline Drive, and Virginia below was magnificent. There is something about standing at such heights, looking down, that makes life seem so small and harmless. The view from the top of the world always leaves me feeling like everything will be okay, like somehow this vast, beautiful world is so much bigger than me and my problems. From up there, looking down at so many others living their lives, I am reminded mine will go on, despite hard times.

View from Ston Man Cliffs

After our hike, we made our way back to the city, and the next morning I said good-bye to my friend and returned to real life.

I was fortunate enough that same day to see Ken Burns speak about his new documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

He described the 58 parks as, “the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape.”

He also said, in a call to citizens of all races and backgrounds, “These parks are yours and you stand in them equal to everyone else.”

There is a reason these parks were picked and preserved. They are sanctuaries to tired souls. And they serve to remind us we are only one of many creatures on this planet.

Being in the parks is about more than experiencing nature. It’s about the people you meet along the trails. Nowhere else in the U.S. but on a hiking trail do I find people who say “hi” and “how are you?” to total strangers, no matter what they look like.

It’s about the animals you can see in their element, who don’t run from you, because in National Parks, there are no guns, at least not yet.

And it’s about the stories you create, because you can’t just run to Wal-Mart and pick up chairs and gloves.

My soul felt better after my weekend in Shenandoah. The combination of the company, the surroundings, and the adventure was more healing than any spa or therapy could have been.

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