Escape to Jones Mountain

When I booked one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive cabins for the first weekend in November, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be opting out of civilization for the last three days before the presidential election. When the time came, however, the chance to escape the endless, grueling news coverage of a nasty and downright embarrassing campaign felt nothing short of magical.

The Jones Mountain Cabin in Shenandoah National Park is one of the few dwellings from before the Park’s creation to have escaped burning as the land was returned to wilderness. The hike in is lovely, rising gradually alongside the Shenandoah River before turning steeply up the mountainside to pass through tunnels of mountain laurel and towering old-growth forests.


We arrived in late afternoon and set about gathering wood, collecting water, and making dinner. The ancient wood stove quickly made the cabin toasty and an early bedtime beckoned us to the sleeping loft.


The next day we continued up the mountain for a stop at Bear Church Rock, one of my favorite overlooks in the park. Here, there is no hint of civilization upon which the eye can land; there are only mountains, exuberantly rolling westward.


We pushed upward a few more miles to Cat Knob, before looping back down the mountain beside the river once again, through a dark, chilly hollow filled with bright green ferns and moss. At the cabin we chopped and sawed more wood for the night ahead before carrying our hard-earned treasures inside at dusk (fact: a fire fueled by wood you have labored to prepare yourself is exponentially more cozy and rewarding).


A small collection of local history books sat atop the mantel, and after dinner I sat at the table and read one about Jones Mountain. Millions of years ago the mountain and its valleys knew conflict only of the geological kind; volcanoes erupting, mountains sinking, seas rolling in, and then mountains rising once again, higher than ever as the seas receded.

I went on to read, though, of the cruelties inflicted by English settlers on the Native Americans who lived on and near Jones Mountain; of the lives of slaves on nearby farms; the deer and bear who were hunted into oblivion; the ravages of the Civil War; and the forcible evictions in the 1930s of the mountain-dwellers whose land would be taken to form a National Park. The Jones Mountain Cabin itself figured heavily in the story, and a middle-aged man gazed out at me from the pages of the book in a 1979 photo. He was sitting beside the very hearth in front of which I read: his first visit to the cabin since his parents were evicted from it by the federal government when he was 2 years old.


So in the end, I escaped the horrors of the 2016 presidential election, but was reminded that those horrors are but one particular modern expression of a long history of interpersonal violence, of one kind or another. Jones Mountain is a very peaceful place today, but its previous inhabitants would have many different kinds of stories to tell, both joyful and sad. Their history, long known to me intellectually, briefly entered my soul in a candlelit cabin in the dark of night.

Of tomorrow’s election I have little to say (I did intend to escape, after all). As individuals we may often feel powerless, but our hope lies in the individual relationships we nurture; the connections that come to fruition when we least expect it; the chances we have, every day, to make every single human encounter one of peace and love. No regime, no matter how misguided, could ever stop such a power.




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