Hiking has been a lifelong passion for Central Virginia author Lauralee Bliss.
“I began hiking when I was a teenager living in New York state. We’d come down to Shenandoah [National Park] and we took one of the ranger programs on the Appalachian Trail,” Bliss said. “He talked about the Appalachian Trail and how it went from Georgia to Maine and I thought that’d be so great to do some day. I’ve completed that twice.”
Bliss is a long-distance hiker and has completed trails in other states, including Colorado and Florida. She served as the Appalachian Trail (AT) ridgerunner in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) for many years, too.
While hiking in the Great Smokey Mountains, Bliss noticed a special patch awarded to a hiker who travels all the trails in the Smokies.
“I thought that’s something we ought to do for Shenandoah,” she said.
Thus the Shenandoah 500 Mile Club was born in 2014.
“Hiking all the trails in the park that is in my backyard seemed logical,” said Bliss, who also runs a blog on hiking at blissfulhiking.com. “I have done some of them 10 or 12 times, actually.”
There are roughly 511 miles of trails in SNP, but the spreadsheet is a living document with trails decommissioned or added, causing that number to fluctuate slightly.
“We didn’t have a specific group on Facebook for hiking in SNP where the primary goal was to hike all the trails,” Bliss said. The first step was creating Shenandoah National Park Hikers on the social media platform. Heather Antonacci designed the patch and Bill Fawcett keeps up with the spreadsheet with the trails required to earn the patch.
“It was kind of a group effort to get the project going,” she said.
Bliss has written two books about hiking. The first “Mountains, Madness & Miracles” is about hiking the full AT. Her second is “Gators, Guts & Glory” about hiking the1,100-mile Florida Trail.
“The nice thing about hiking is when you’re out there you’re out of your own man-made environment. You are in someone else’s environment—not man-made but creator-made,” Bliss said. “I just feel like it’s a way for me to connect, a way for me to unwind. It’s a way for me to let my mind go, especially from all the troubling things you hear all the time on the news. It’s just a way to get away and basically challenge myself, too. What can I endure without all the nice things of life around me?”
Bliss is working on her third in the hiking series about the families who were displaced when SNP was created in the mid-1930s. The government forced people to leave longtime family homesteads to create the park.
“I have started to do a lot more hiking to observe their lives,” she said. “I was in Corbin Hollow and found pieces of an old shoe. It was discarded and you wonder who they were, what their lives were like, what they felt, what they saw. The people are all gone now.”
When she thinks back on what has been the most meaningful in her treks at Shenandoah she doesn’t hesitate to say it’s the reminder of the people who lived there before it became a national park and how they survived.
“I know how I survive when I backpack, but look at this heat, we have 90-degree heat but we have air conditioning, they didn’t,” Bliss said. “They’d grow a garden, provide for their families. Any time you see piles of stone or you see an old stone wall, you might just walk by it. But somebody built those stone walls by hand. It’s an incredible thing. I love the views and the flora and the fauna of the park. But I also tell people it’s not just about that, it’s about people. It always comes back to people—either those I meet or those who used to live somewhere.”
Recently she walked along Big Run River in the southern section of the park where she saw beautiful red flowers.
“They only bloom along the Big Run River and they only bloom for a short time—it’s pretty neat to see them,” she said. “I get out there and really enjoy the wonders of nature out there. It’s been wonderful.”
Bliss also speaks about hiking safety and recommends people assess their physical conditions before starting out on a hike, take special precautions to be safe and she is a big believer in leave-no-trace hiking, including trucking your trash off the trails. She suggested people use the Facebook group as a resource before taking the first step toward Shenandoah 500.
“It’s not about getting a patch, it’s about so much more,” she said. “Make it a journey, not a destination. This is a way to discover all the secrets of the Shenandoah through this program,” she said. “[The patch] is not the goal of it, it’s actually just to learn, commune and to seek the good in yourself and others while you’re doing it.”