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Idyllic day of hiking includes a few burrs

 Mary's Rock, in Shenandoah National Park, rewards those who make the climb. Start early. The park closes at 5 p.m.
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Date published: 11/25/2012

"UNDER the spreading chestnut tree," said my friend CG, "That's all I can remember!"

"The village smithy stands," I added, " and that's all I can remember."

We laughed, while Annie the pup sniffed her way along the trail down from Mary's Rock last Sunday.

I doubt we would have passed an eighth-grade poetry test, but it didn't matter. We bet on a terrific hike in Shenandoah National Park, but won something bigger: we learned something amazing about the statuesque American chestnut trees that once dominated the highland forests of the mid-Atlantic states.

The climb up from Skyline Drive is a long, steep pull. I had expected trail traffic on a lovely, if cool, day in November, yet we very nearly had the place to ourselves.

At the ridgeline, where our trail intersects the Appalachian Trail, we took another break. And then we climbed some more. As we neared Mary's Rock, a couple with two dogs approached. Annie was excited. We stopped and talked about our dogs, since all were rescues. Annie seemed to get along well with Buddy, a mostly Lab mix, and Maggie, a huge, shy mix of German shepherd and Bernese mountain dog.

Shenandoah National Park is in their backyard, since they live in Front Royal.

Somehow, our conversation swung to the American chestnut tree, once the signature tree of these mountains. I lamented its passing.

We never quite caught their names, but she knew quite a bit about the chestnut, which has been devastated by a blight, brought into this country in 1904. "You're standing beside an American chestnut," she said, pointing. A 15-foot tree stood beside me. Its leaves had turned, and at the top were two burr-covered balls. These were the husks protecting the chestnuts.

Turns out she volunteers for The American Chestnut Foundation, identifying and gathering data on surviving young trees.

That's all there are, young trees. But there are many. The American chestnut is exceptionally beautiful and useful. There are several organizations attempting to breed a disease-resistant version. There are even a precious few trees--a mere handful--that have reached adulthood. I remembered seeing one in a state forest in Maryland.

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