Saturday, May 12, 2012

Holy places, Holy mountains

Big Meadow, Shenandoah National Park
Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK – The day was sunny, cool and gorgeous here in Central Virginia.

What better way to spend it than exploring the national park that is at our doorstep?

Lori and I live only 30 minutes from the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park, which also means we've only seen the southern end of the park.

So Friday, we drove up Highway 29, turned west on Highway 33 and drove a few miles up into the mountains and entered the park roughly in the middle. We then drove north along the spine of the Shenandoah.

Trailhead, Shenandoah National Park
Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson
A few miles in, we went off onto a dirt road to a trailhead, parked, and then hiked into the woods.

Our destination: An Episcopal church long ago abandoned when these mountains were incorporated into a national park.

It is a story not often heard of how those who lived in these mountains were forced to leave to make way for the park; there are still hard feelings among some of the folks who live nearby  and remember their grandparent's pain.

We found the old church about a mile from the trailhead, off on a trail spur. All that is left are the ruins of two stone walls and the wreckage of an old wooden shack that probably served as a vicarage.

The stones of the church were held together by mud. A rusty old sink lay in the dirt near the shack. The roof of the shack had been crushed by falling trees. Nothing looked touched in decades.

Ruins of old Episcopal Church,
Shenandoah National Park
Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson
I tried to imagine the prayers that were said in this place, the vestments the minister must have worn, the old prayerbooks and the wooden pews no longer there.

But that was hard to imagine in the tangle of vines and fallen trees. It was a small chapel, really. It was holy to someone long ago. The stones had absorbed the prayers and maybe still held them. The chapel gave a hint that people once lived in these mountains.

We left everything as we found it, and took no souvenirs. We hiked back up to our car and pushed northward on the two-lane highway.

As mountains go, the Shenandoah are not particularly spectacular. The range is old – very, very old – eroded over tens-of-millions of years.

The Shenandoah peaks are round, the texture of the mountains comes from the trees. The highest peak is a little over 4,000 feet – foothill size by the standards of the Sierra Nevada. The trees continue to dig into the rocky loam, grinding into the bedrock, pushing the mountains lower. The tops of many of the mountains are flat, dominated by gentle meadows.

Trillium flower, Shenandoah National Park
Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson
The splendor of these mountains in not their height, but in their fine details. It is still Spring up here, the dogwoods are blooming. Everywhere we walked were wildflowers – yellow, purple, pink. The delicate leaves of woodruff line the trails. Streams from tiny springs cross under the trails. Life is everywhere.

Mountains are holy places. The ancient Celts called them “thin places,” believing mountains are a little closer to God than the flat places.

I believe the Celts got it right. You don't need to build a church in the mountains to feel the holiness.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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