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Beauty Born of Depression: The Blue Ridge Parkway by Peter Thody

[Map of Route]

Bluegrass music, flatfoot dancing and almost 500 miles of unspoilt scenery weave a spell that is uniquely American over the hills and valleys of the central Appalachians. Follow the Blue Ridge Parkway with British road tripper Peter Thody as he discovers the rustic charm of a 70-year-old wooden cabin, meets a park ranger who doesn't really like tourists, and crosses a bridge that doesn't quite live up to its name.

Oak Lake

Bunyan and Ted, two members of the team who keep traditional farming skills alive at the Mountain Farm, next door to Humpback Rocks Visitor Center near the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Photo by Peter Thody

 

It's hard to imagine today, I know, but there was a point in America's not-too-distant past when times were so bad (mortgage foreclosures, bank failures and rising unemployment - that kind of thing) that the government was forced to step in with a range of policies aimed at pulling the country back out of depression.

Yes, this was Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, and alongside a package of economic reforms that included the repeal of Prohibition and the launch of the Social Security system, there was also a huge investment in public works, designed to pump-prime the economy.

One of the largest of these projects was the Blue Ridge Parkway, 469 miles of all-American road that today links Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina. Its purpose - other than to create employment during the Great Depression - was, and remains today, to provide city dwellers with easy access to the natural beauty and recreational opportunities of the Blue Ridge region of the Southern Appalachians.

The disruption of a lifestyle generally untroubled by government agencies, up to and including the forced relocation of anyone who happened to live in its path, meant that the parkway wasn't universally welcomed by those who actually lived in the mountains. It's therefore maybe a little insensitive that the first visitor center heading south is home to Humpback Rocks Mountain Farm, a working farm based around a collection of period farm buildings - including my favourite, a bear-proof pigpen - showing how life had been before they built the road. Ah well, at least it provides employment for the locals.

From here, Carole and I settle into a nice and easy first day's drive through rich, green, heavily wooded countryside, stopping occasionally to follow a winding trail down to a waterfall or to watch a young deer grazing under a tree. There's no danger of missing anything either: The entire parkway is mile-posted and every possible attraction, from trading posts and restaurants to creeks and cabins, is listed on the National Park Service leaflet by its distance from the northern entrance.

We stop for lunch at the Peaks of Otter restaurant (milepost 86) with its picture postcard views out over Abbot Lake, take a short hike through the woods to Roanoke River Gorge (114.9), turn off at the wonderfully named town of Meadows of Dan (178) to stock up on provisions, then head back to the rustic charm of our home for the night, Rocky Knob Cabins (174).

Built in 1936 to house members of the Civilian Conservation Corps working on the parkway, these wooden cabins can't have changed much since then. There are beds, a cooker, a fridge and basic cooking utensils. Outside there's a small porch and two wooden rocking chairs. And what more do you need? Dinner's bubbling away, we're mellowing with a beer, and we've been joined on the porch by the 6-year-old girl from the cabin next door, who has clearly been persuaded by her family to come over to ask the questions grown-ups can't. "Are you strangers? Where are you from?" And then one of her own, "Why do you talk funny?"

The next day, after breakfasting at the extremely popular café next to Mabry Mill (milepost 176.1), we hit the road once more. The weather is far from ideal - grey skies and low clouds limit the appeal of the scenic overlooks - but our first stop-off, the Blue Ridge Music Center, transforms the entire journey.

Just outside the main entrance to the center, the Buck Mountain Band is playing a set of traditional two-step and waltz music, and it is absolutely captivating. Between them, the fiddle, guitar, banjo and double bass produce a traditional folk sound - one with very obvious roots in traditional Irish and Scottish folk music - that puts a smile on the faces of everyone listening, not to mention a twitch in the leftest of feet. Friends of the band turn up to say hi; one woman gets up and dances "flatfoot," and between each piece the fiddle player, Bob Taylor, explains a little more about the history of the music.

 


View Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map

 

In the half hour we're there, the Blue Ridge Parkway is transformed from a picturesque drive through misty greenery into something far, far deeper: a road that flows through the Appalachian Mountains and takes us close to people for whom this music is as much a part of their lives as eating and drinking. It's a genuinely moving experience.

However, the truth is that the parkway wasn't built for these people but despite them. "People round here didn't want the parkway," explains the National Park Service ranger inside the center. "They like to keep themselves to themselves. Still like that. We'll smile and welcome you but deep down we haven't changed," she tells us, before adding, rather darkly, "There's no crime up here - we've all got guns."

She probably wasn't born when the road first cut through the Appalachians but she would certainly have been aware of people's feelings as a youngster. The fact that she now makes a living from the tourist attraction she so evidently despises doesn't appear to concern her one bit. Maybe it's her way of getting her own back?

As we cross the border into North Carolina, the scenery continues to switch between fenced farmland, dense woodland and occasional overlooks. We stop for lunch, the sun comes out, we hike down to some falls and generally allow the place to wash over us. We've lost the need to stop at every overlook and photograph every log cabin, and instead just enjoy the simple pleasure of driving.

After a night in the slightly-too-New-Age-for-my-taste town of Blowing Rock (twee stores and craft outlets), we start Day 3 by travelling along the sweeping Linn Cove Viaduct, the final section of road that completed the parkway in 1985. We then head to Grandfather Mountain for its famous Mile High Swinging Bridge, a roadside attraction in the finest tradition: utterly pointless (it simply links two viewing points), not actually a mile high (it is measured from sea level) and, best of all, it doesn't swing. But it's worth the visit simply because someone bothered to build it.

For the final 150 miles or so of our journey, we're aware that a fair chunk of the parkway is closed for renovation and that this involves a diversion south onto Interstate 40, rejoining the parkway at Asheville. However, the Park Service has left the road open as far west as Mount Mitchell State Park, home to the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. We therefore ignore the various detour signs and travel a good half hour further west. So it's a little frustrating when we finally get there to discover that the summit itself is closed to the public as they're busy installing a new observation deck.

I know the Park Service should be applauded for leaving the roads open to those more rounded folks who actually want to hike, but for shallow people like me, who simply want to visit somewhere with a "highest," "longest" or similar superlative in its description, I think they could have provided some kind of warning of possible disappointment.

After retracing our steps, we exit the parkway on the beautifully winding North Carolina Highway 80 before picking up U.S. Route 70 to Old Fort. Unfortunately, this brief diversion brings us back down to earth with, if not quite a bang, then certainly a dull thud. Up on the parkway, there's beauty everywhere you look; down here in the valley, real life carries on as usual. Car radios find stations to tune into, traffic lights make an unwelcome reappearance on the landscape and, for the first time in two-and-a-half days, time seems to matter.

In short, the spell is broken.

Even when we rejoin the parkway at Asheville and enter the section that goes through the Pisgah National Forest, it all seems very "samey" and the last 70 or 80 miles, while beautiful beyond argument, feel as much a necessity as a pleasure.

But a slight sense of letdown in the final couple of hours shouldn't be allowed to colour what has been a truly wonderful drive along a remarkable road. If I could do it again, I'd maybe reverse the journey and drive north rather than south - there just seems to be more to see and do in the Virginia section - and I'd take four days over it, instead of three. But the important thing is that I would, without question, do it again tomorrow.

Wouldn't it be nice if today's economic stimulus measures were making people feel this good another 75 years down the line?

Peter Thody
9/21/09

More: The Final Leg - Across the Great Smoky Mountains


 

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