When my mother and step-father retired as school teachers in 1983, they sold their house in Northwest Washington DC, built one near Sperryville, VA, and established an organic vegetable farm. Their DC-to-Shenandoah journey is shared by many Washingtonians. A federal judge, perhaps (David Tatel), or a writer (Edward Dolnick), a politician (Eugene McCarthy), an entrepreneur (the CEO of Carfax)—buys a house or a lot and starts spending weekends in Rappahannock County. When they retire, they move here full-time.
Escaping to Shenandoah is the DC dream, and it's relatively realistic: an hour or two away, with Vrbos all around and car camping still possible. A number of American cities have a symbiotic relation to a park or a natural feature. On summer weekends, Philadelphia seems to empty out as everyone heads for the Jersey Shore, for example. Bostonians have a place on the Cape, if they can afford it. San Francisco exists in relation to the Redwoods, Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park, Seattle to Mt. Rainier. Washingtonians head for Ocean City, MD, it's true, but they find much of Baltimore there when they arrive.
And yet, when Philadelphians finally retire to their place at the shore, I'm betting they start yearning back toward Broad St.
To me as a kid, the world was a yin-yang formed by DC and Shenandoah. I thought about the two as opposites: artificial against natural, ugly against beautiful, stressful against peaceful, or even wrong against right. Starting when we were small, my parents took my brother Adam and me car camping on the edge of the park near Criglersville, VA every summer. We hopped rocks on the Rapidan. We day-hiked up to Hoover Camp and Big Meadows. We chewed on the stems of Sassafras leaves, went on Snipe hunts, encountered bears. I spent a lot of time at home dreaming about Shenandoah, but none in Shenandoah dreaming about DC.
When I was in fifth grade at Lafayette Elementary in upper NW, my teacher was Miss (in 1969, it was definitely "Miss") Cahill, the daughter of New Jersey’s governor. (That's the sort of thing you ran into in DC public schools back then; my French teacher at Alice Deal Junior High was "Miss Hansberry," sister of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.) Between mathematics and history, Miss Cahill read us the novel My Side of the Mountain by the wonderful Jean Craighead George. It was published in 1959, the year after I was born, and I suspect was an influence on lots of budding hippies. It concerns a 12-year-old boy named Sam Gribley, who has Thoreauvian yearnings and environmentalist insights. He runs away from his home in Manhattan, not because of problems with his family, but because he wants to discover nature, to find a more primal, authentic existence. He ends up in the Adirondacks, living in a hollow tree, exploring and hunting with his companion, a peregrine falcon he names Frightful.
Northwest DC was pretty leafy in '69, not much like the cracked pavement, massed pedestrians, and skyscrapers of Manhattan. And Shenandoah wasn’t nearly as remote or wild as the Sam's Adirondacks. But I cherished that book and ideal, and as my teens unfolded I did lots of backpacking. I tried and failed at 16 to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia back to Shenandoah. But mostly, I just walked the northern end of the park for a few days, and then a few weeks later the southern part, alone or in company, over several years, until I felt I knew it. I'll skip the bear encounters, even the one that occurred when I was in the tent, making out with Jamie. But there were many formative adventures.
Even more formative were ordinary and extraordinary experiences of what I came to think of as "oneness": experiencing the woods and the mountains in non-distinction from myself. This slowly became my religion, insofar as I had one. It was Sam Gribley's religion too. I might’ve called it "Taoism" at times, but I might also just have called it “Shenandoah.”
Yearning toward the woods and the countryside all the time as a kid, I moved there as soon as I could as an adult, or at least as soon as I could negotiate it with my partner. I've lived in Batesville VA, Cottondale AL, Whiteford MD, and Seven Valleys, New Freedom, and York Springs, PA. Not in town, mind you, if there was a town, but at an address served by the post office of that name. Urban vs. rural has about evened up over the 65 years: I make it 30 years for each with five in the burbs, approximately.
And it didn't surprise me when, after the parents who'd brought me to the Blue Ridge so many times retired as teachers in the early-1980s, they moved to a small farm just a few miles from the park. I visited all the time and brought the kids, but never lived here. But in December 2022, my mother Joyce—now a widow, 97, and still living independently in the house she and my step-father built in the semi-existent town of Woodville—contracted Covid. She recovered, but I've been living down here ever since, more or less, caring for her.
One thing country living has taught me is that longing, and therefore beauty, typically arise in a system of complements or a negotiation between opposites. You can't exactly long for what you already have, and it's hard to fully experience the beauty of what has become ordinary. I've had so much country now, done so much clearing and bush-hogging, seen so many pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles, that I've started yearning for culture. I'm sort of stuck out here right now with an occasional break, and the romance of the rural is getting harder to hold on to.
I used to think I liked trees better than human beings, but I was laboring under a misapprehension. I've started wanting traffic lights and a selection of ethnic restaurants. Walking around the Northern Liberties neighborhood in Philly or Mount Vernon in Baltimore or DC's Columbia Heights or anywhere in Manhattan fills me with glee these days; I want to laugh aloud and declare my love.
When I get a break and find myself strolling down a Broadway, Philly's or Nashville's or NYC's, I'm Sam Gribley in the Adirondacks. Maybe I should get a falcon. Or a drone named Frightful. Even the problematic and the quotidian aspects of the city fill me with nostalgic yearning: I want to declare my love for every panhandler, brutalist facade, random pile of trash, and hyper-specialized business ("Mr. Bar Stool," for example). Isolation, I think, is a cure for misanthropy. I've started thinking about the city now the way I used to think about Shenandoah, as a beautiful and stimulating place with which I’d like to be "as one," despite and because of all its wondrous diversity and all-too-humanness.
But perhaps the point is to find ways to go back and forth, yearning to be wherever you're not, right now. That's how I learned the beauty of the natural world when I was a kid. It's the way I'm learning the beauty of the city now.
—Check the Crisper Roots podcast, reviewing two underknown roots albums each week.