I HAD SEEN THEM before as I hiked through the Shenandoahs: those old cabins, their timbers jumbled like jackstraws, their stone chimneys ravaged by uncounted frosts and marauders.
I even trekked in to the restored Corbin cabin, where you can spend the night if you sign up for it. Sitting on the sloping porch, I ate my cheese and bread and tried to think what it must have been like to live there, fetching water from the stream down the hill and chopping firewood from the enveloping forest.
Somehow it didn't come through. The presences I felt were those of the campers (the latest of whom had dumped their breakfast leavings by the steps) and the National Park Service custodians.
Later I hiked up the Nicholson Hollow trail, and it was here, in the long-abandoned cabins, that I found my ghosts. Sometimes the trail wound right past what had been someone's kitchen or front room. Sometimes I found only a stack of hewn logs with the pointed, whittled hickokry pegs still stuck in them. Sometimes there was nothing but a shower of apple blossoms, half-burried by the undergrowth. My first thought was: crab apples. But they weren't. They were planted. They were an orchard. They were part of someone's farm.
Who were these people? What became of them and why did they leave and could I find any still around?
When I got home I made the obvious phone calls and before long made contact with Elvin (Jack) Graves, who is 75 and spends his time at Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, which is run by his son and daughter-in-law.
I met him there a few weeks later, and without further ceremony he loaded me into his pickup for a tour.
Syria lies at the foot of the Shenandoahs, just outside the boundaries of the National Park that was established in 1935. It was for the park that the 465 families of mountain people were moved out of their cabins. Graves drove me up the steep road into the park. We passed a couple of cabins on the fringes, still being lived in.
"I built four of 'em," he said.
"They're mostly four rooms and a chimney: Sometimes you put a lean to on the back. You get the logs to fit as tight as you can, and you stick chunks of wood between where they don't fit, and then you seal it all up with mud."
His family had some 2000 acres in the park. Most of the plots were only ten or twenty acres, though.
"Yessir," he said, "there was quite a few people up in here then."
There used to be an understanding: squat on the land fifteen years and a man could claim it. Some of those Blue Ridge families had been there for generations. The house where Jack Graves was born dates before the Revolution. It's still in use because it lies outside the park bounds.
The people living near the mountain tend to be ancestor-conscious. Graves himself traces his family back to a Captain Thomas Graves, who came over from England in 1608. But ask them what happened to all the other mountain dwellers, and they can't tell you, or won't.
It was a bitter exodus.Many moved into the valleys, some went with relatives in another part of the state, some just vanished. Photographer Arthur Rothstein spent part of 1935 with a family on the mountain, taking pictures of the way they lived, for the Farm Security Administration. The faces stare out at you from their poverty: gaunt, unsmiling, the image of the Depression.
The ones who are left remember well how it was. Jack Graves and his father used to supply horses for the builders of the Herbert Hoover camp close by their tract at Dark Hollow on the Rapidan River. Graves also hauled provisions for workers at the Dark Hollow copper mine. For a few years he was a deputy sheriff.
Oh yes, he said, there were moonshiners in the hills, but nobody bothered them much.
"You knew all the people who lived in your hollow, but anyone from up the next hollow would be a stranger, most likely."
We visited Walter Meadows and his wife and his father. They lived in a two-story farmhouse at the end of a long, jolting dirt track through the brush. Mrs. Meadow is 75. Her five children and eight sisters are scattered or dead. Her father, Tom Breedon, worked in the copper mine most of his seventy-five years. Oh yessir, he was a native.
How long has her family lived in these parts?
"Daggone if I know," she said.
The afternoon was scorching hot, and nobody was doing much but sitting around. A bench stood against a tree in the hard-packed dirt yard.
Down the hill, 85-year-old Ernest Gordon rocked on his trim porch overlooking the road.
His people came here from Ireland before the Revolution, he said. He was a wagon driver. Used to own the farm next door. His father had it, sold it with all fifteen acres for $40, but Ernest bought it back some time later for $300. Today it would go for several thousand.
"I wouldn't know this place," mused Jack Graves. "Things have changed so much. All this land was open. Fields. Now it's thick woods. We had to clear it all by hand. Lifted the stones out one by one."
They grew corn here, and potatoes and cabbage. They could sell the apples from their orchards, and there were always chestnuts and game and fish and firewood right there to be sold to the city people. Some farmers had horses. Some would raise a calf for a valley neighbor so they could keep the mother cow after.
The land gave a lot. "You didn't have to build by a stream," Graves said. "Lot of goods springs up there. In the old days we'd set fires to make the huckleberries grow, so you could sell them too. There's a bit of second growth now, but there's still some uncut timber, oak and poplar, some walnut."
The land gave, but the living was never easy. Those long tumbled walls of linchened stones marching to nowhere through the deep forest tell you that. Every stone had to be pulled up and carried. Trees had to be felled, roots dug out. Sometimes you find old zigzag fences of split chestnut ringing along the top of the stones and you try to imagine a cornfield there, with a fence around it.
Today, the foothills are being cultivated again. New orchards have been planted Cornfields. Pastures. The woods are full of strangers: hikers, campers, summer people who build fancy little cabins outside the park limits. They are a nuisance, the oldtimers say, parking their cars in what must appear to them abandoned roads but actually are people's driveways. They scare the game, too.
("Yessir, there's game. Some deer. Some trout up where people can't drive to 'em. Some bear was brought in when the park was formed, and they drift down. Sixteen bear killed in this county last year.")
A returning exile wouldn't know the place today. Houses are painted, lawns are mowed, the young men bounce around in new pickup trucks. A new brick service station on the highway. Very up-to-date.
Still, the woods are full of the past. Hiking wearily down the mountain in the dusk, near those ruined homes, I had sensed ghosts. Sad ghosts.
On a level spot near where the Hannah Run trail meets the Nicholson Hollow, I had come upon a patch of myrtle, wild and ramping among the brambles. People used to plant myrtle on graves, they say. Poking around the leafy tangle in the half-light, I could find no gravestones, not even a piece of one. But it was a cemetery once. That's what they say.