JEFFERSON-With the sun slowly setting behind the dull, cool hues of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rangers at Mt. Jefferson State Park began making their rounds at the peak’s many overlooks to remind guests that the park would be closing soon.
It was a daily task the rangers undertook to ensure no one was left behind when the gate was locked at night.
Often times, park visitors will tell the rangers they simply lost track of the time while gazing upon the scenery or enjoying a cool, summer breeze.
One particular night, however, was different.
When a park ranger noticed that a parent and a young child were the last of the day’s stragglers, he inquired about what they were doing.
The response the ranger received was simple and one that summed up the mountain’s relationship to both the community it serves and the minds it inspires.
The parent told the ranger he was simply trying to give his child some inspiration or motivation to write a poem. But it wasn’t just any poem or mundane school assignment. The poem was to be entered in a contest sponsored by the mountain.
For the past eight years, elementary age students from across the county have tested their talents as budding wordsmiths in entering the Mt. Jefferson Poetry contest.
The contest’s origins can be traced to one ranger’s love of words.
“I’ve always loved poetry,” said Ranger Tom Randolph. “I just sort of had an idea, why not try a poetry contest?”
The park soon enlisted the help of teachers, who now regularly assign the contest to students, to help launch it.
Following the success of the first contest, Randolph soon received phone calls inquiring about next year’s run.
Since then, the contest continues to incite introspection and reflection on the park’s beauty.
It has grown to include several categories across two age divisions.
Awards are given out in locally inspired categories including best “Wildlife Poet,” West Jefferson’s centennial poet, the Mt. Jefferson 60th anniversary poet and many more. Most recently, 21 poets were recognized following the conclusion of this year’s poetry contest.
The purpose of the contest goes beyond stringing a few words together, said Randolph.
“It gets them (students) thinking about the park,” he said. “That’s what I emphasize. Whenever I talk to students, I ask,
‘Who does the park belong to? It belongs to you.’ I get them in the idea that it’s their park. It empowers the kids. This makes them think about why they care about the park. It’s an intellectual and emotional connection to the park and they get to discover that while writing poetry.”
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.