Not Just a Walk In the Park

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 18 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

“Westmoreland State Park is a great place to run,” they told me.  “Write up a story about it.”  “But I don’t like running,” I said.  “But it’s a great place,” they said, “You’ll love it.”  That was a couple of days ago.

Right now it’s one of the hottest days I can remember and I’m tired and I haven’t even been running for ten minutes.  A little over a mile, and the sticky heat of the day is drawing the energy out of me like a wall of tiny sponges barring my path.  I pass through the imposing woods along a trail in Westmoreland State Park, and I begin to remember all those reasons why I don’t go running very often anymore.

My friends and I who ran varsity cross-country in high school came to the conclusion after many grueling practice runs that the “runner’s high” is actually just a “bad trip.”  But I keep running.

Last year, 116,000 people came to Westmoreland State Park.  They jogged and they walked and they camped and they swam among other things in its primarily wooden 1300 acres.  They walked on the several scenic trails and saw the cliffs.  They came from hundreds of miles around to rest in the shade and see some of the park’s raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, or even the occasional bald eagle.

They rented a boat or swam and played in the Potomac River, or in the lifeguarded swimming pool that is open during the park’s busiest season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They stayed in some of the park’s 30 cabins – some of which were built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps over fifty years ago – or in one of the park’s 118 campsites.  And, judging by the way that this year’s attendance figures are ahead of last year’s pace, many of those 116,000 had a good time and came back.

There are six miles of scenic trails in Westmoreland State Park.  This seems odd because the hill I’ve been running up on Turkey Neck trail seems about fifteen miles long by itself.  Actually, it seems about fifteen miles high, since it’s all vertical anyway.

Sometimes when you’re running, it’s a wonderful relaxant because all you have time to do when you run is think and sweat.  Right now, working my way up the hill, I’m devoting almost all of my time to the latter.  I watch a rabbit pass me, moving up the hill through the leaves that cover the base of the woods.  It’s beautiful, I think, and then I go back to sweating full-time as I near the crest of the hill.

Willie E. Bowen is the Park Manager.  You can generally find him in his office, where he’ll answer your questions with a no-nonsense style.  Bowen treats the job with the earnestness of a man who has spent most of his life in the Park Service, but flashes of personality show when he talks about the park.

Does Westmoreland State Park have a personality?  “Yes,” he says, “I’d like to think it does.”  Bowen calculates that the park’s unique personality is a combination of its sense of preserved nature and the people who flow daily in and out of the park, bringing to the park an endless stream of new experiences, and new friends.  I figure they also bring new cans of mosquito repellent.  

Bowen tells me more as we drive on a tour of the park.  Bowen is administrative chief of the park’s five full-time and 26 seasonal employees.  He lives in a charming-loking house on the park’s property, often visited by over-friendly deer, and not far from where the Park Ranger lives, and his morning commute to the administrative office of the park is about five hundred yards of road through shady woods.  He doesn’t usually have problems with rush hour traffic, either.  Driving along with him through the park, it doesn’t seem like too bad a job at all.

Is there a best part to the job?  Bowen thinks for a moment and decides that it is getting to meet the people who come to the park every week.  Conversely, the worst part of the job is the slow winter months when – although the park is open – it sits in a lonely, quiet white winter sleep.

Winter.  What I wouldn’t give for winter right now.  I’m gliding down one of the park trails, sidestepping roots that encroach on the path’s edges, and imagining how great it would feel to get caught in a sudden snowstorm.  Of course, in a few months I’ll be complaining about how desperate I am for summer heat, but running is no time for foresight.  

In fact, if you did have foresight, you probably wouldn’t be running because you’d realize that you ended the trail at exactly the same place as you started.  Not only did all of this running not actually get you anywhere, you spent a good part of the time that you ran being irritable and making statements calling into question the legitimate ancestry of your local weather forecaster, the persons who built the trail, the persons who built your running shoes, and indeed the entire National Park Service.

Bud Altman is an employee of the park who provides a fairly new service – he is a camping coordinator.  He lives in one of the camping areas with his wife and serves as sort of a general guide and ombudsman for the camping community.  He says that he is thoroughly impressed by how clean and self-sufficient the campers are.  “Most of them,” Altman says, “leave their spots as clean – or cleaner – than they found them.”  Are the campers ever unruly?  Altman claims to have heard an astonishing two crackles of fireworks in the park over the Fourth of July weekend.  This campground certainly isn’t the Woodstock festival.

Altman says that plenty of large groups come camping at the park – that week, there was a large contingent from L.O.W. – an organization of widows and widowers.  “If they start dating each other, or if they get married,” Altman recounts what he was told of the group’s rules, “they’re out of there.”

Bowen notes that the demand for the cabins in the summer is great – he recommends making reservations several months in advance, especially if you want a cabin during July.  The cabins are fairly well furnished, and are affordable at about $300 per week, with the rental periods available ranging from a weekend to a fortnight.  Demand is always highest for the cabins that overllok the spectacular cliffs.

Altman says that there aren’t many complaints or problems with the park’s many campers, because they tend to be very self-sufficient people.  “In general,” Bowen adds, “campers aren’t complainers.”  The most grievous problems reported by cabin dwellers tend to be busted lightbulbs or air conditioning problems.

I don’t have much farther to go on my run.  After about another mile, I will collapse back in the seat of my car, turn the air-conditioner on “sub-arctic,” and shotgun half a case of Mountain Dew.  After you have been running in hot weather for a while, you cease to think about where you are or what you’re doing, and you just begin thinking about where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing after you finish being where you are and doing what you’re doing now.

So I’m plodding along and I hear a bird chirp loudly and I grind to a halt.  And I look around me and I’m in the middle of a beautiful wood, and it seems like the forest has accepted me silently as just another tiny flywheel in the intricate machine that a forest is.  The other panting beasts – and I don’t feel so bad, because I figure that raccoon fur can’t be too comfortable in this weather – in the forest quietly go their ways and leave me to go on mine.  As I slowly pick up speed and begin to run again, I feel that – for a moment – I realize why this place is special and why running through the woods is all worthwhile.  Then I go back to thinking of the end of the trail and the Dairy Freeze not too far away.

Down at the beach, the pool is busy and the beach is jammed with picnickers and players in the surf.  Indeed, so many people seem to be laughing carelessly and enjoying themselves that the cynic in you expects to see a shark fin on the horizon at any moment.  But the people play on, and the families charge the picnicking tables and retreat to the water later to cool off.  The lifeguards sit like bronze statues consecrated to the Greek sun god Ray-Ban in their chairs by the pool.  On the far side of the beaches, the sharp cliffs can be seen.

Everyone I speak to repeats the same reason they are here: “The kids wanted to come.”  “The kids wanted to swim.”  “We figured we’d take the kids somewhere to get away from the heat.”  “The kids insisted.”   I half expected to hear someone claim that their kids had kidnapped them and driven the car themselves to come to the park.  But I somehow suspect that the adults there weren’t too averse to the trip.

Terry Sanford wears a friendly smile at the contact station that straddles the road entrance to and exit from Westmoreland State Park.  She says that some people come down the winding road into the park, find out that they have to pay an admission fee – one dollar during the week, and a dollar and a half during the weekends – and turn right around and drive away.  Others drive in to ask directions, often to Lee’s Birthplace or Washington’s.  Some even drive in an ask where the monuments are, expecting that they are at one of the birthplace memorials.

But most of the people who pass through the gates enter and leave the place they wanted to be.  And, judging by the many happy returns to the park, they fell in love with it again.