The Modern Ranger

The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond our reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth.
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitude, 1968

In Shenandoah National Park’s busy visitors center, there is a mildly-trafficked exhibit chronicling the Works Progress Administration’s efforts to reserve National Parks for public recreation. The motto they advertised: “See America First.” This campaign reacted to Americans’ travels in Europe, and perhaps some hopelessness. The sentimental, nationalistic legislation that reserved the land had another side, I learned: this dark stubbornness with which the plans drove third- or more generation mountain dwellers out of their homes in the Shenandoah mountains.

While addressing the sad history, the exhibit is like a pep rally for hikers about to go find a trail. On translucent walls that mimic the sense of being in the forest, quotes from writers who have contemplated being in virgin lands are plastered up to represent the milieu that lead to our reservations of (and preservation of) National Parks.

Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.
Sigurd Olson, 1946

Ryan and I stumbled fortuitously into this gem, stopping on our way to a place he’d hiked before. Ryan carefully guided me around the Shenandoah Valley, where he grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We hiked to places with views from both sides (I’d strongly recommend Big Schloss on the west side where Virginia and West Virginia touch). Part of our hike intersected with the Appalachian Trail, which Ryan plans to eventually hike.

But for most of my trip leading up to our week in Virginia, my paths were shaped by advice from strangers: knowledgeable, happy National Park Rangers.

If you were at Millsaps College around the time I was, you’ll recall (probably fondly) the adventurous and various Anne Waldrop, who is now a busy medical student making rounds in various clinics around Washington, DC. Anne worked as a National Park Ranger in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a summer during college, narrowly missing her calling in the wilderness for the one in sick people.

But such close encounters are rare, and those who are taken into the fold devote their days to guiding lost, mentally fried humans like myself through precious land. These are rare and glorious birds.

Park rangers advised me at the lighthouses on North Carolina’s outer banks, crowded New Jersey’s Delaware Water Gap, and Pisgah National Forest just south of Asheville, North Carolina. I asked for a map, and instead received handfuls of maps and and a spark to hike myself into “equilibrium.”

Originally published at on August 12, 2015.

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