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  • Writer's pictureJillian Thomadsen

Shenandoah National Park

So Beautiful, My Teenagers Abandoned Their Screens (Temporarily)

Recreation.Gov Share Your Story Contest February 2022 Runner Up

“Why are we doing this hike?” my youngest child asked me. It was July 2021, and the answers to his question were too countless for me to explain while huffing skyward on a dirt-lined path.

We had planned to visit Virginia to meet up with a friend of ours who had lost his wife during the Covid pandemic. Due to hectic schedules, we’d only been able to offer our condolences remotely until the school year let out. Now it was summer, and we would be meeting up with our friend in a Virginia town to share our grief. But before making that drive, we decided to visit Shenandoah National Park.

Why had we chosen Shenandoah? There were so many reasons. It was a refuge from the oppressive mid-August heat, a wooded sanctuary brimming with multi-hued wildlife. I saw a myriad of birds as we hiked -- gold and blue-flecked warblers, whose songs accompanied our ascent. I saw wildflowers on the side of Skyline Drive – whose brilliant lavender and lemon-colored petals leaned into a steady breeze.

Every so often, our family stopped and simply looked into the distance. We saw mountains, sloped and layered into a vegetable-green panorama. There were craggy boulders, stacked above the tree line as though they’d been tossed by a prehistoric force of nature.

For me, Shenandoah offered our family both a break from the realities of the pandemic and the mental space to really think about it. While our senses were infused with the attributes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this departure from our daily lives meant different things to all of us.

For my teenage twins, who were typically surgically attached to their devices, Shenandoah offered a break from screen time that had ballooned during the pandemic. Suddenly, these boys were kids again…as they had been before the pandemic transformed them into teenagers. Along with my youngest son, they dashed through the vegetation, bathing in Virginia’s natural, unvarnished ecosystem.

For my husband, Shenandoah offered a respite from work. For the first time in a while, he and I weren’t talking about serious topics. As we walked, our most pressing conversation topic was whether we were more likely to see a deer, bobcat or black bear.

In the end, it was a buck. This cautious, long-horned creature was nestled deep in the copse of trees – so camouflaged, we almost missed him. He was both stunned and stunning – matted tawny fur with white specks, branched antlers and almond shaped eyes that held on to us.

Our family and the buck froze – staring at each other for a few moments – until the buck trotted back into the thicket of trees.

Thirty minutes later, we reached the apex of our hike. Standing on the rocky slope, we looked down into the Shenandoah Valley. Immersed in this pastoral paradise, I thought of what this trip to Shenandoah National Park had meant for me.

The pandemic seemed to be characterized by the word loss. We had lost people we cared about, routines that pacified us, a way of life we had grown accustomed to. But being immersed in an exquisite natural panorama had a way of dulling that ache. It reminded me of all the natural beauty that hadn’t been lost – those National Parks and Monuments that were enduring as they’d been for over a hundred years – waiting for new eyes to discover them.

I wanted to spend more time on top of those boulders, but it was time to move on. While the sun peeked through low-slung clouds, we walked back to our car and eagerly drove towards our next hike.

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