Bears and Brilliance
Oct 29, 2008
|A day of contrasts - Tuesday, October 29
It only got down to 26 last night and it didn’t get warmer when the sun came up. The wind is still blowing a gale and with the temperature below freezing the wind chill just dares you to go outside. With our slide-out pulled in we stayed cozy and warm. Despite having to work off the battery all night (there are no hookups here) the heater worked just fine and nothing froze. Something may freeze if it doesn’t warm up soon though!
There is a lodge here that serves breakfast, so we opted to eat out this morning. We had French toast and a waffle with a great view of the Shenandoah Valley through the window. Next to the lodge there is another visitor center so we stopped to see what this one had to offer. The Shenandoah National Park is over 100 miles long and we are about half way through it at a place called Big Meadows. Big Meadows was the site of a huge CCC camp in the thirties, and the Visitor Center has a great movie on the CCC and how it changed the lives of many young men.
Shenandoah was the first really big national park in the east, and being near Washington DC it was a favorite project of a number of presidents and politicians of the day. Calvin Coolidge signed the bill that created the park, and Herbert Hoover fished here and built a fishing resort in the middle of the park. But it was left to Franklin Roosevelt to make the park what it is today. His CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was the force that built the park. They built roads and all of the infrastructure, and they planted several million trees to reforest the mountain slopes that had been denuded by lumbering and erosion. Roosevelt visited the camps often and he was the one who dedicated the park when it finally opened.
The movie interviewed a number of old men who worked in the camps, and it was obvious from the way they choked up when they talked that the camp and the park meant a lot to them. They all agreed that the CCC had made men out of them, and they said it was the best thing that ever happened to them. With the World War ll bringing back jobs and prosperity the CCC died a natural death. The military took most of the young men, and those who were left had found better paying jobs. The CCC could not compete and it died out, but it had done it’s job well. The park those ‘boys’ created is one of the jewels of the National Park System.
The Visitor Center also had some very moving exhibits on the controversy that surrounded acquiring land for the park. Several thousand residents had to be moved off their land and it was a painful and emotion filled process. The land was condemned and acquired by eminent domain, but the human suffering that accompanied the relocation was acute and it is as much a part of the parks history as the CCC.
It took us until early afternoon to drive the rest of the way through the park. We stopped at nearly every one of the many overlooks, and we were always rewarded with a wonderful view. Sometimes it was the Shenandoah Valley, sometimes it was a view of the rugged peaks ahead, and sometimes it was a view out over the Piedmont, the wide flat valley that lies east of the Blue Ridge Mountains between the mountains and the sea.
It was while we were driving this route that we had one of our best experiences. Madolyn suddenly said, “Stop! It’s a bear!” I stopped, and sure enough a black bear was peering at us from behind the stone wall at the side of the road. It ducked down behind the wall and at first we thought it would run away before we could get a picture of it, but a moment later it raised it’s head again. I heard Madolyn say, “Wait - there’s two!” But by the time I looked again there were three! By the time we got our cameras ready a fourth bear had made an appearance, and we soon were looking at a Mama and three cubs.
The cubs were big and the mother was small for an adult bear, so it wasn’t until we saw them climb the wall and cross the road that we realized it was a family. They were so cute and it was a real treat to get to see them so close and natural. They finally disappeared and the last we saw of them the cubs were chasing Mama up the hill into the woods.
Not long after seeing the bears we began a descent to the end of the park. The road continues and becomes the 400+ mile long Blue Ridge Parkway, but we decided to get off it for a while and go to see Jefferson’s home at Monticello, which is near the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a half hour drive from the park, but we found it easily by following the signs. We parked in the lot and bought tickets for the shuttle up to the house, and for a guided tour of the house.
I’ve heard about Monticello all my life and it was a real thrill to finally get to see it. Jefferson designed it himself, and they say to understand Jefferson you have to understand Monticello. It was more than architecture to him - it was his ‘autobiography’. Jefferson was a true renaissance man, brilliant and talented in many fields. His life took him through much turmoil, and to many places - but through it all Monticello was his anchor and his rock.
It is not as large a house as I had expected, and while it has two floors of bedrooms above the ground floor we saw, the rooms of the house are not large, and some like the dining room are surprisingly small. The home sits on a hilltop with a commanding view of the surrounding valleys. It is beautifully landscaped, and the garden that supported the plantation is still huge and healthy. We had a guide to take us through the home and then we got to see the lower floor of storage and utility rooms on our own.
After the tour we decided to skip the bus and walk back to the Visitor Center. The path took us past the Jefferson family cemetery and Jefferson’s gravesite. It was a nice way to end the day, and we enjoyed the peaceful walk down the hill through the woods.
One of the interesting things about this place is the way it points out the Jeffersonian contradiction. The enormous gulf between what Jefferson said he believed (in the Declaration of Independence) and what he practiced as a slave owner. The contradiction must have bothered him, and there is some evidence it did - but he never did anything about it. Instead he fell into line with the vapid rationalizations of the day. At one point he acknowledged that slavery was wrong, but he said that “to free them would be like abandoning a child.” He did free a few, and he did not object to his slaves learning to read and getting an education. One reason he may have freed so few is because he died in debt and slaves were part of his wealth and assets that were sold after his death to pay off his debts.
We found a KOA nearby and decided to spend the night at a lower elevation where hopefully it will be warmer and less windy.