Posted by: davepidgeon | November 30, 2009

The ghostly heart of Shenandoah

Hughes River, Shenandoah National Park

Chris Seiple attempts to ford the Hughes River in Shenandoah National Park, Va. (Compass Points Media / flickr) / CC BY-ND 2.0

About 50 yards – that’s all. That’s all the further Jason Stevenson, Chris Seiple and I had come down the Nicholson Hollow Trail before we met trouble.

A stream out of Weakley Hollow tumbled into the Hughes River at a confluence amongst the folds of brown Virginia mountains – Old Rag, Corbin and Thorofare – where the three of us hoped to explore Shenandoah National Park’s lesser-visited wildereness. Where the rivers converged started the Nicholson Hollow Trail, and while we managed to rock hop across the first crossing, the Hughes River rushed over the second crossing, submerging in fast flowing water the rocks by which we would have normally passed.

“Well, this trip turned FUBAR rather fast,” I said to my companions, using the old military term that harshly assesses a seriously screwed up situation.

Jason, the 31-year-old former adventure magazine editor and author of a yet-to-be-released book about hiking, took command. He sat on the carpet of fallen leaves and began removing his boots and socks, so Chris and I followed his lead. I swung my pack off and stowed my camera and GPS inside my Osprey backpack, then removed my boots and put on a pair of Merrell light hikers I planned to use for camp.

Chris and Jason with packs back on went first, and I watched them negotiate the sandy and rocky river bottom. My turn came, and I plunged my feet into the water. My feet and legs ached with numbness, the water was so cold. Soon I was hip deep, carefully stepping on stone or sand, resisting the push of the Hughes against my legs. The river threatened to either freeze my bones and muscles or send me with my pack tumbling away from the national park and our ambitious trip. One slip by either of us, and this trip, which I was to portray for Backpacker in an upcoming issue, would have to be aborted.

We discovered a sandbar on the opposite shore, and when our shoes sunk there, we knew we had made it. On dry trail, we returned our boots to our feet – except Chris, who would continue this strenuous hike in, of all things, Crocs. And we took our first steps into Nicholson Hollow now that we had passed its flooded gateway.

We found ourselves in a ghostly ravine coming under the hold of early winter, an eerie blend of still November silence, isolation and a rushing wilderness river flowing amongst enormous boulders. Our path, marked by blue blazes, appeared like a carpet of fallen brown and violet leaves, drawing us deeper into the Virginia mountainside and into this oak, birch and beech forest. Nicholson Hollow was so quiet on this Saturday, a contrast to the upheaval from decades prior, when a large federal land grab forever changed this ravine and many lives.

Stone wall, Shenandoah National Park

A stone wall lines a trail in Nicholson Hollow, part of Shenandoah National Park. (Compass Points Media / flickr) / CC BY-ND 2.0

Nicholson Hollow before the 1930s had been home to a rough lot of families, according to legend. Police feared to enter the ravine because the people who lived there – known as Free State Hollow – had turned so libertarian and ruthless to remain free of harassment by law enforcement, the legend says. But the Nicholson Hollow community eventually succumbed as the federal government created Shenandoah in 1935, and the Free Staters were moved off land that had been tilled and lived on for generations. A new forest enveloped the mountain slopes, and through the bare oaks, poplars and maples, a backpacker today can spy old cabin foundations or stone walls, the last reminders of these bygone communities, except maybe the thoughts of imaginary ghosts, helpless against a new generation of invaders dressed in boots and backpacks.

The thoughts of ghosts and history quickly passed away as the three of us moved deeper into the national park. Here we were, a trio of thirtysomethings, all recently married, each of us new homeowners, each of us dealing with serious upheavals in our respective careers and not far from other major life events (um, fatherhood, anybody?).

I had to chuckle to myself. I’ve known Jason only a little more than a year, but Chris and I have been friends since Catholic Sunday school, and it wasn’t so long ago we spent backpacks like this talking about women, booze and where our lives were heading. Or not heading. No such talk now, as our troop turned off the Nicholson Hollow Trail to ascend 1,300 feet in a little more than a mile along the Corbin Cabin Cutoff. We three joked about movies, shared our knowledge of trivia, chatted about our wives and the ins and outs of married life … Wow, how the tone of these backpacking trips have changed. For the better.

Nicholson Hollow Trail Shenandoah

Chris Seiple, right, and Jason Stevenson hike past a blue blaze on the Nicholson Hollow Trail (Compass Points Media / flickr) / CC BY-ND 2.0

What hasn’t changed, though, is the deep-seeded drive to chase mountain vistas no matter how difficult the strain on our legs and backs caused by the steepness of a mountain slope. The three of us pushed hard against the Blue Ridge and the trail, ascending steeply to the Appalachian Trail, trying to not only beat the fatigue growing heavy on our minds and bodies, but the fast-setting sun, too. Picturesque viewpoints awaited on the A.T.

Such a relief to reach the ridgetop, and as a frosty wind blew, we arrived at Jewell Hollow vista and its westward view of Massanutten Mountain rising above the patchwork farms of Page Valley. The sun dipped to the horizon, blanketing the early winter landscape in tones of pink and peach. Our chance to enjoy such a vista came so fleetingly, as a cold twilight flooded into those Virginia woods, like the rushing Hughes River earlier in the day. We donned headlamps and marched on in the gathering darkness toward an A.T. shelter, haunted no longer by the waywardness of our identity-challenged 20s but more settled now in our 30s. But I was certain the watchful ghosts of the mountain’s past continued to watch us hike on.

Nicholson Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

Dusk settles on Nicholson Hollow in Shenandoah National Park, Va. (Compass Points Media / flickr) / CC BY-ND 2.0



  1. I’ve read this 5 times now. It’s beautiful, man.

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