Before Ian Cooper was old enough to walk, his parents would strap him into a back-carrier and head to Shenandoah National Park. According to his mother, Ian was always at home in the woods. Today, at age 15, Ian is an avid hiker who continues to explore Shenandoah regularly. He’s particularly fond of waterfalls, scented sassafras trees, and the peace and serenity he finds within the park.
The peacefulness of the woods is particularly important to Ian, who has Asperger’s, or high-functioning autism. Everyday sounds and sights are amplified significantly for him, making it challenging and exhausting to get through the day. Hiking in Shenandoah—typically with his “unusually fit grandmother”—allows Ian a chance to escape the sensory overload. It’s where he finds his peace.
Ian knows the park well and retraces trails and shares interesting sitings as he speaks with us at our office. (No bear encounters but plenty of deer and raccoons.) He’s also learning to identify trees with the help of a master naturalist, whom he has befriended. Ian’s connection to the outdoor world is deep and meaningful. And incredibly inspirational.
In sharing his story with us, Ian hoped to convey that lots of people live with challenges. At first blush, these challenges may appear to be obstacles to breaking out of one’s routine and trying something new. Ian hopes that more people—challenged or not—will get out and explore Shenandoah National Park.
(Incidentally, we got to know Ian after his mom called the Trust office for help submitting one of Ian’s pictures to our photo contest, Views of Shenandoah. Click here to see Ian’s photo and the rest of the entries. There’s still time to submit your own photos, too: the deadline is July 1.)