Shenandoah Devils, Angels, and Ghosts

It was the perfect day for a mountain hike, and we headed to Little Devils Stairs in Shenandoah National Park, which we accessed from the Keyser Run Road at the park perimeter. This hike has been on my list for a while–it twists steeply up through a gorge, with the waters of Keyser Run tumbling down through the center.

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On this early spring day the water was high and one cascade after another sparkled in the sunlight as the trail criss-crossed back and forth over the stream all the way up. The path was liberally lined with tiny wildflowers and fiddlehead ferns nourished by the moisture from the stream.

The Little Devils Stairs are a great workout. With an elevation gain of 1480 feet in the first mile and a half, we quickly worked up a sweat even on this cool day. As a short person, some of the “stairs” were closer to rock scrambles for me, and I had to spend a lot more time negotiating the physics of the trail than my much taller companion.

At the top of the gorge a connector trail leads along the ridge to a variety of options. There was a fire road that would have taken us straight back down, but it was far too nice a day for that. We opted instead for the Piney Branch Trail, which parallels the Piney River. For the first mile or so the trail rides a ridge high above the roar of the river, and then gradually descends to meet the river before crossing over (the crossing required some strategizing due to the water level).

On the other side, the trail rose and fell alongside the river for almost three miles, showcasing several surprisingly large waterfalls, before crossing the river again (this crossing was less amenable to strategizing, and the extra socks in my pack had to be deployed afterward). After crossing the river we undertook a fairly steep rise through the woods, cutting cross-wise back up to the fire road we’d skipped earlier. From the fire road there would be a short walk back down to the parking lot, but there was one last stop to make.

Where the trail merged with the fire road lies the Bolen family cemetery. Most Virginians have some familiarity with the history of Shenandoah National Park, which was created by taking the land of some 500 hundred families by eminent domain in the 1930’s, many of them physically evicted from homesteads they had built themselves. At the time, the mass evictions were sold to the public as being in the best interest of the mountain families, who were portrayed as being poor, uneducated, inbred, and unhealthy. Their descendants have long refuted those claims, claiming that Dogpatch history had been forced upon them retroactively, and archaeological studies over the last few decades support the descendants’ accounts. It appears the homes, while surely modest, were well-built and well-cared-for. There were several small villages, with schools, mills, and small businesses. Those displaced moved down into the valley, and on the drive toward the park you can see some of the old family names on modern signs and mailboxes (Corbin, Nicholson, Weakley…..).

Many descendants now say they are glad these mountains are public lands, understanding that much of the land likely would have ended up as ski resorts or other private entities over time. However, the near-unanimous refrain is that they wish it could have been done differently. It’s a dark chapter in American history, with many unsettling details that carry a strong undercurrent of eugenic philosophy.

On this beautiful spring day, the Bolen family cemetery was a welcome place to stop before leaving the mountain. Encircled by a stone wall and meticulously maintained to this day, it is a poignant reminder of the families who once lived here, and what was taken from them for our pleasure.

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