Dusk was settling in as Zippy and I hiked the long spur trail down a steep hill to the cozy shelter, tucked in a draw under the high ridge we’d been walking all day. We leaned our packs and poles against the wooden picnic table and introduced ourselves to Gummi Bear and Clark Kent, who had also just called it a day. Gummi Bear and I pulled out our bottles and headed down to the water source along a blue blazed trail.
The trail wound even further down the mountainside, but before we reached the quietly trickling spring, the waxing moon lighting our path, we unexpectely entered a mysterious and mostly lost history. “This is eerie,” said Gummi Bear. We had stumbled upon the relics of the Displaced.
In the 1930s, hundreds of Appalachian families were forced off their land, many in what is now Shenandoah National Park (which we have not yet reached), and others from lands that are now National Forests. In many instances, untouched “nature” was recreated from these lands, with workers destroying buildings and trying to hide the marks of people’s livelihoods. But they were not entirely successful.
As we two women walked down the hill, we saw a square well, still full of water. Then a falling-down, one-room building. Then a larger building of which all that remained were two stone chimneys, like sentries. The woods looked different. We imagined children running across the land, collecting water, learning the plants and their uses, shouting and playing. We imagined men and women living here, above everyone down in the valleys, living and dying, woven into the fabric of the wilderness.
Since then, Zippy and I have passed decomposing wooden fences, low rock walls, and old, lichened trees that looked like they may have once borne fruit, growing along the ridgetops in what looked like order; former orchards perhaps? And we spied giant piles of stacked rocks on the ridge, like a scattered Stonehenge. We wondered who had put them there, and why. Were they clearing tiny plots of arable land?
When we got to town, I looked for the history behind what we had seen. When I learned, I imagined the communities’ anguish and anger when they were forced to leave. I wondered whether they rebelled, or if they saw the tourism industry and the car and the road coming and knew they could not win.
We pilgrims are witnesses, and must honor the people who were here. We must also ask where such forced displacements may be happening today, and what we can do about it. There is a group called Children of Shenandoah – the descendants of the displaced – that does so. For the rest of us, here are a few articles I found illuminating on this subject. Let us remember: