90,000 Miles to Me
dark tree looking up

7,158 Miles • Shenandoah National Park

This is a backdated post from October 5-8th, 2017

After a week with my best friend, I headed out for some more boondocking, this time in Shenandoah National Park. On the way, I needed to refill my water tanks, as they were getting low and I planned to be out in the forest for a week or so.

I’ve been getting about five to six days of water from one five gallon tank (I have two), including drinking and washing. It is amazing how my water usage has naturally and quickly adapted to having a fixed, small water supply. I use fewer things so there is less to wash, multitasking tool usage during food preparation, and wash everything immediately after use when food is easiest to get off. When washing dishes, I put several things in the sink and wash one of them held over the others so that the runoff starts to rinse the lower items. And I cannot just let water run, because it is pumped manually by my foot. I was raised to be conservative with water, but now I am fierce about it.

However, I make sure that I drink plenty of water every day, as that is important for my health.

I once called the city water department when my bill showed that my water usage unexpectedly spiked one month, and the lady on the phone told me that they calculate residential water usage based on 60 gallons of water per person, per day. For every man, woman and child in the city, they expect us to flush, shower, wash and drink 60 gallons a day! For the last three months, I’ve been averaging about a gallon a day. Calculate that, city water planning commission.

So on my way to Shenandoah National Park, I was looking for a place to get water. This has been surprisingly easy so far, as many grocery stores have a large-gallon water dispenser, sometimes there are independent dispensaries in towns or cities, plus I usually fill up at a friend’s house before leaving, but forgot this time, and finding water wasn’t so easy. I stopped at six grocery stores, two CVS stores, a Walmart, drove through five strip malls and shopping centers that looked promising, a rest stop, and no luck. I just had to hope the ranger station would have a faucet or that I could find a river or stream.

All these stops slowed me down, and though I still could have made it to the park by nightfall, barely, I decided that I’m not in a rush, there is no need to hurry, and I can take my time and enjoy the trip. So I overnighted in Warrenton, VA (aside: this reminded me of the community of Warrent in N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant Broken Earth Trilogy, if you haven’t read these yet, you need to look them up) at a Walmart parking lot bordering a grassy hill where I sat to enjoy a dinner of garlic naan topped with mixed greens, apple slices, and aged cheddar slices. No cooking required and it was tasty.

The next morning I passed through Amissville, Virginia. What’s wrong there? Everything. The whole town is amiss.

My national forest pass worked to get me in to Shenandoah for free, yay! This is only my second time using it, so it still feels exciting.

trees and mountains of Shenandoah Valley

The park is basically a 105 mile long, two lane road, called Skyline Drive, that snakes along the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the couple of miles of forest to either side of the road. Whenever the road peeks out to the edge of the ridge, with a clear view of the Shenandoah valley, there is an overlook for cars to stop and visitors to take pictures. There are 75 of these gorgeous overlooks.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, you rolling river.

I had this song stuck in my head the whole time I was there. But looked it up later and was disappointed. Although long popular in Virginia, it refers to the Missouri River and “Shenandoah” is an Indian Chief, not the river or valley in Virginia. In the song, a European trader befriends Shenandoah and falls in love with his daughter. The trader goes back East, only to return seven years later to steal her away and they eventually have several children together.

Oh Shenandoah,
I love your daughter,
Away, I’m bound away
For her I’d cross
Your roaming waters,
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri

Sadly, I had only ever heard those first couple of lines. I grew up loving the melody that felt to me so much like a rolling river.

But learning the real story of this song got me thinking. Why hadn’t I heard that before?

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED Talk that I have thought about a lot over the last several years. She argues that when we only have a single story about another group of people, for instance, what “Africans” are like, in her case, or what “Native Americans” are like, or “Blacks,” or “the poor,” that we loose something very important.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story….It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

In elementary school, my classmates and I were presented with a single story about the Indians. We were shown pictures of golden skinned men hunting with spears and women squatting around a campfire with small children playing nearby or gathering berries. We learned that the Indians hunted buffalo and grew corn and that they helped the first Pilgrims survive their first winter by giving them food and teaching them how to plant corn. But they weren’t all the same. Some of them lived in teepees and some in wigwams. Some were called Navajo and some Apache and the Apache were warriors.

In middle school that story grew a little. Now there were many different tribes of Native Americans and they had different customs and cultures and some fought each other. Now the Apache skinned the victims of their wars and the Navajo wove beautiful blankets. They no longer had such an idyllic relationship with us White folk, spreading disease and sickness among the newly founded English colonies, wiping out Roanoke entirely. But the White men weren’t blameless, either. Whites force marched the Natives from their ancestral territories to reservations where they could live peacefully.

In high school, the Native Americans hardly existed. No, in high school we studied European immigrants and our Civil War and World War II. In California, there is a single chapter in the 9th grade history text about the Spanish missionaries trying to convert the Natives in what would become southern California, and we visited a couple of their old Missions. Maybe other states also have a local history segment, I don’t know.

Outside of school, the stories I heard included a ballot agenda in California when I was in my teens about “Indian Gaming,” and I couldn’t understand why some people wanted to ban those poor people from being able to hunt for their dinner—yes, I was a naive child, but I only had a single story at that point, and it was not one that included gambling.

I was fortunate that I moved to New Mexico as a young adult, and that at the same time that I began hearing the story of the modern Native American as drunk and lazy, that I was also living in an area surrounded by several reservations and got to know many Native Americans personally, and so I also got not one or two, but many other stories, from many people.

Like my college roommate, who was Native American and seemed to me as ordinary as anyone else. She added to my stories, sharing her life and her values. She taught me about gardening and about giving unfailing care and love for family members who might not be the easiest to get along with, and that Roanoke wasn’t wiped out by disease, that the Colonists and Natives intermarried.

A college professor shared with me the story of how the American government stole Native American children away from their parents and stripped them of their names, their languages, their cultures, their traditions, under the guise of giving them an education or civilizing them, and that many died of White Men’s diseases, brutal treatment and even more cruel punishments for the slightest offenses.

A man at my church taught me the story of how the forced marches to reservations were forced on the same peoples, over and over, as pioneers and adventurers moved farther west and wanted their land again and again.

I had heard a single story of Native Americans much of my life, and as I got older, the story got a little more complicated but not more diverse. When I finally got to know some of these people, visit their homes, share their traditions, even in a small way, they were no longer a single thing to me. Chimamanda Adichie said in her TED Talk that

when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

I no longer have a single story of Native Americans, and now I am hungry for more, for authentic, first person stories, and am having no difficulty finding them. I am in the middle of reading Braiding Sweetgrass by the Native American botanist and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a brilliant storyteller, and is teaching me a new depth of respect for the land and all the creatures who live here. I’ve always heard the story of the Native American’s connection with the land, but she is teaching me a small part of what it means to actually have a spirit of kinship toward every living thing. I’ll bet no Native inventor would have ever designed a device that flushes away gallons of water at a time.

This grand journey is about listening to new stories, from all sorts of people, and I am learning. One story at a time. One mile at a time.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Far away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
Just to be near you,
Far away, far away,
‘Cross the wide Missouri.

trees and mountains of Shenandoah Valley

The modern Shenandoah National Park is beautiful, and I did find a spigot for potable water outside the ranger station, thankfully. The main ranger station had a surprisingly in-depth, museum-style exhibit on how the park was established and the local residents whose lives were impacted in the process.

More stories. About poor white locals who sometimes sold their land to the government, sometimes were forced to sell, sometimes were just forced out. And the Civilian Conservation Corps that built Skyline Drive, sometimes employing those same locals. And President Hoover’s efforts toward environmental conservation and love for the area as a retreat from the hurly burly of Washington D.C. There is also the story of Black Americans in the park’s early years, both employed by the park as cooks and waiters in the fancy lodges, and that families were allowed to visit for recreation, though restricted to camping in the Lewis Mountain Campground, by far the smallest in the park.

This history is plastered all over the park, its literature, even the website, neither by way of apology nor to boast, but as a sort of acknowledgment of both the good and bad stories of our country’s past, all of which need to be heard.

trees and mountains of Shenandoah Valley

The ranger station was also my ticket to a backcountry camping permit. They are free, but you need to get the permit. The very helpful ranger told me about the various areas for camping—I wanted something as out of the way as possible—and then we got to the sticking point. I don’t want to camp in a tent, but in my van. Apparently that is not allowed. Not even in the parking lots. Anywhere in the park. The park’s website does not specify this, and since “motorized camping” as the ranger called it, is specifically allowed in many National Parks, and where it is not the website usually says that—I’ve been doing my research—so I didn’t think this one would be a problem. I was wrong.

Get this: I can stay in the park, in my van, in any parking lot or legal parking spot I like, for as late as I like, all night long if I like, as long as I am awake the entire time. But if I fall asleep, I am camping and that is not allowed.

But if I got the camping permit, and parked in the designated lot, and didn’t make a peep and had no lights on in the van, how would they know if I was there or if I had left the van to hike down the trail to camp? So I tried that, and about an hour after dark, a ranger “knocked,” more like pounded as hard as he could with his fist several times on the side wall of my van, shouting “Open up, police!!!”

Maybe if I had the guts to stay there quietly and pretend I wasn’t there, he would figure I was camping and move on, but I am too afraid of lawbreaking and so I opened up, was apologetic and pretended I had just dozed off accidentally because it was a long day. I showed him my camping permit and insisted that I really had intended to camp, but now it’s too dark, what am I supposed to do, Officer?

He was kind but firm and ran my license and “let me go with a warning this time.” He said I could still camp here tonight but I can’t sleep in the van. He actually recommended a young woman alone go stumbling through the forest (for a minimum of two miles from the road) with a load of camping gear in the pitch black (there are no city lights, it was black as tar) to set up camp where I couldn’t see a bloody thing. Nice to have gender equality.

tall trees in the forest
These woods are black as tar after dark. Who knows what I might have run into. Or who I might have stepped on. A flashlight just doesn’t cut it.

He checked for me, and the campgrounds and lodges were all full (yeah, the ranger this morning told me that), so he suggested I drive out of the park to a campground in Luray, VA, about fifteen miles west. In the end, he left me there, not even checking whether I started traipsing into the woods or drove away, now that I was “awake.”

I drove to Luray and stayed at the Walmart.

breakfast smoothie in my van at an overlook
My breakfast smoothie and the beginnings of a jar of sun tea.

The next morning I came back to the park and made a smoothie and some sun tea and enjoyed breakfast with a view.

I had to close the doors soon after this picture, though, and basically seal myself in the van, popping in and out quickly when I needed to open a door, because of the bugs. Large, brown, oval-shaped bugs with long legs. A ranger said they were stinkbugs, but I never smelled them, and had plenty of opportunity. Even with my caution, I was finding them in my van for weeks. They got in the corners and crevices around doorways, in the vent, the edges of windows, just waiting for the slightest opportunity to crawl in.

I had breakfast at one overlook, positioning the van for a gorgeous view out the back windows and worked for a few hours, before moving to another overlook for lunch and another couple hours of work, and had dinner at a third. Then drove out of the park to the Walmart for the night, then came back in the morning. So it went for three days before I got sick of the arrangement and moved on. It was nice, however, to have an office with such breathtaking views—I got a contract for a few days of editing work: yay, income.

mountain view through van's rear window
View out my “office” window.

Shenandoah was beautiful, but the camping arrangements left a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe I’m just too privileged. This place has reminded me, in more ways than one, that discrimination is a longstanding tradition. Many municipalities, and apparently some national parks, have laws and rules against sleeping in a vehicle. To keep away the unsavory elements of society. Because most of us have a single story of what people who live in their vehicle are like. But it is their society too. Our society.

My van dwelling is a choice, but for some, living in a van or car is not. If you kick them out of here, there, and everywhere, where are they supposed to go? Instead of criminalizing their desperation, how about helping them into a better situation?

My best friend, whom I just left, lives in a condo complex. I stayed in her parking lot the first two nights, but then found a notice on my windshield that I had to leave or would be towed because my vehicle was “oversize.” It fit completely within the lines of their smaller-than-average parking spots. I had even parked at the very last spot in the row to be considerate, so no one would have to maneuver around me in the tight lot. Yet much larger trucks and vans were coming in and out all day. But they were making deliveries of things the residents wanted. And taking away their trash. And moving people in. But I am “oversize.”

I decided not to cause potential problems for my friend and moved out to the street a quarter mile away, but I was still around for several days and distinctly overheard—clearly meant to be overheard—three different residents making pointed comments near me about oversize vehicles and enforcing the rules and what parking spaces are for.

Oh Shenandoah,
I hear you calling,
Far away, far away.
‘Cross the wide Missouri.


References: song “Oh Shenandoah” is a traditional American folk song dating to the early 19th century. Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk can be found here