The Slow Road through Appalachia
by Katie DeTar
Milepost 0: Waynesboro, VA.
My Husband, David, pulls the call to the side of the road, pausing. “I just need a moment before we go back to reality,” he says. “I’m just not ready.” I agree. I need one more deep breath, one more lingering moment, before being assaulted by the real world.
We had just come from four magical days on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and had now reached the end.
Milepost 384.7: Our Journey Begins
Asheville, North Carolina, is a funky city in the midst of a transformation. The sleepy mountain city of the 1980s is now a haven for well-to-do retirees, foodies and artists. The mild mountain air, outdoor recreation options, and ample art studio space led to a population boom in the past 20 years.
On a Monday evening in August, this artsy city is rocking. At the River Arts District—an area of artist studios, galleries, and the Wedge Brewing Company—there’s a crowd gathered for lawn games, beer and dinner from a local food truck. We wander over to nearby White Duck Taco for what turns out to be some incredible fish and lump crab tacos.
Outside on colorful picnic tables, we chat with two local women who recently graduated from nearby Warren Wilson College. Over cool margaritas and messy finger food, the women share what they love about Asheville: the arts, the mountains and the people. There’s definitely a relaxed attitude here and locals are sure to make time for a hike and a cold brew.
Later in the evening, we explore the block around The Windsor, a brand new 14-suite hotel in a renovated 1907 boarding house. It’s hard to believe it’s Monday, as we head down the street past one full sidewalk café after another. We stop by 5 Walnut—a wine bar featuring live music every night. Tonight, it’s Salsa, and dancing couples flow out into the sidewalk.
The next morning, we pack up our cooler filled with picnic lunches and set out for the Blue Ridge Parkway—a 469-mile scenic byway operated as a National Park. Over the next four days, we plan to explore 384 of those miles as we wind our way through Appalachia from North Carolina to Virginia.
Milepost 364: Craggy Dome Overlook
Following a quick stop at the official Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center for some maps and guides, we hit the road north. The entire highway is a simple, winding, two-lane road with little shoulder and a 45 mph speed limit. A few miles in I realize we’ve expertly timed this road trip; area schools started up this week, and we’re the only car on the road for miles. Temperatures are cool, the sun is shining, and, so far, the parking areas and trailheads appear empty. Perfect.
Driving along, there are dozens of overlooks to pull off the road and gaze. At Craggy Dome Overlook we see, for the first time, just why this is the Blue Ridge. The mountains really do shimmer a blue-tinted hue, shrouded in a misty fog. We stand, perched high on the overlook, in awe. Camera in hand, I snap the first of hundreds of photos to be taken along this route.
Milepost 316.4: Waterfalls and Hiking
Hiking opportunities exist at just about every turn of the Parkway. Within a few feet of parking areas, we spot trailheads for short, easy trails and advanced rock climbs and scrambles.
On the recommendation of a friend, we choose to visit Linville Falls, an easily accessible natural area for a nice afternoon walk. We scan the trail map and quickly take off towards the falls, and into a slight rain. A magical fog is setting in, turning piles of rhododendrons into jungle scenes.
We reach the overlook for a series of waterfalls. At it’s height, the 45-foot falls tumbles through a sharp-edged crack in the rock wall of a large canyon to our left, with the river flowing through a wilderness of pine trees to our right. From our vantage point we watch hawks circle and mist rise.
Milepost 304.4: Linn Cove Viaduct
The Linn Cove Viaduct is an architectural wonder. The roadway hugs the side of the mountain, carrying our vehicle for 1,243 feet along the side of Grandfather Mountain. Here is the best example I’d ever seen of a pairing of man and nature—one that accentuates the curves of the land, rather than destroys it.
The viaduct consists of 153 concrete sections, designed to carry the weight of the bridge around the mountain, rather than destroy the land with the traditional blasting for the roadway. This was also the final section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, completed in 1987.
I take a look back, as we wind up and over Grandfather. The bridge is barely visible, tucked neatly into trees, as if the viaduct is truly a part of the landscape. It is stunning.
Milepost 305: Grandfather Mountain
We leave the parkway for just a moment to experience Grandfather Mountain, a natural area, sanctuary and great spot for skyline views.
Just as I’ve had my camera in hand for the duration of our drive, so have thousands of photographers who wish to capture the beauty here at Grandfather. Hugh Morton, photographer and nature appreciator, reserved this land in part to provide scenic filming locations. He even built a “mile high swing bridge”—a pedestrian cable bridge that connects the two highest points—as an ideal photography perch for better access to the mountaintop view.
Morton inherited the property from his family, and established the land as a wildlife preserve and habitat. We’re thrilled he did so, as today we’re here for an extraordinary tour.
We meet Hannah and Caroline, two of the animal habitat keepers, for a behind-the-scenes look at their resident animals. The goal for the keepers is to care for injured animals and educate the public about the needs of native species and conservation efforts. Grandfather houses eagles, otters, bears, deer and cougars.
We meet Nikita and Aspen, the resident cougar pair, and to our thrill Hannah demonstrates some enrichment play with the giant cats. Both came from sad situations at road-side animal attractions, and had never even known the feel of grass on their paws. Today, the habitat is lush and friendly, and the cats play and chase Hannah from inside their enclosure.
We head further up the mountain to park and then walk up and over the swing bridge. The wind whips up our hair, and the few low clouds seem so close as we walk to the small peak across the bridge. The view from here is 360-degrees of mountains and, to my pleasant surprise, the bridge is not at all scary. With views like this I’m too distracted to think about the height.
Milepost 291.9: Rest up in Boone
Tonight, we’re leaving the parkway for a quick overnight stop in Boone, N.C.—a college town and mountain hub for area biking and hiking. Here, we find a local burrito restaurant for dinner, and note the large amount of friendly-looking cafés and breweries on the main strip. There’s an alternative vibe here, too, and I’m thrilled to find a local-foods focused grocery store where we pick up some organic treats to pack for tomorrow’s lunch.
Milepost 244: Scenes Along the Parkway
We head out early from Boone, and are back on the Parkway by 8 a.m. In just a few short miles, we’re into the flow of the slow drive: no stoplights, no traffic, just expansive views. We expect today’s scenery to be diverse; we’re driving out of the Pisgah National Forest, through lower farmland and fields, across the North Carolina/Virginia border, and then back up elevation into the Jefferson National Forest.
Just as we begin to see more prairie-like farmland, we spot some photogenic cows. I’ve never seen cattle quite so scraggy, with long, tufted hair and big horns. They’re beautiful, and with the mountains behind them, my mind wandered and could have me believing I was in the Alps. A rustic wooden fence and tall late-summer grasses were all that lay between Bessie and our SUV.
A few miles further and we round a bend to reveal a pioneer cemetery, laid out in a picket-fenced plot, just by the roadside. This is one of many cemeteries along the route that were left to rest during construction, and are now maintained by volunteers and park staff. Here, family plots leave a lasting legacy of the settlers who came to this region as early as the 18th Century and lived a life of farming and hunting in this frontier.
Milepost 213: Appalachian Music
Today’s itinerary includes a stop at the newly refurbished Blue Ridge Music Center, a museum and live music venue.
The friendliest park ranger we’ve ever encountered greets us at the door, and in no time he’s introducing us to the regional musical instruments out for demonstration. David grabs the “dancing lumberjack”—a pint-sized wooden man on a stick that, when held just above a hard surface and shaken, makes a remarkably regular percussion sound. I grab some simple sheet music for the tabletop dulcimer, and soon we’re playing “Oh Suzanna” as a duet!
Just outside, we relax into rocking chairs for the noontime free concert. Bill and Maggie Anderson play here every week, and, to my delight, we’re just in time for “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a song made famous by a 1928 recording by The Carter Family. We could have spent hours enjoying the Anderson’s music.
Milepost 176.1: Pancakes!
Mabry Mill is the most photographed spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and for good reason. The historic wooden gristmill sits perched above a duck pond between gorgeous hundred-year old trees, gleaming in the afternoon sun.
The mill and accompanying working farm remind us again of the resilience and determination of the Appalachian people. Husband and wife team E.B. and Lizzie Mabry built the mill around 1910 and the childfree couple operated the gristmill, a farm, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill and a wheelwright shop.
We wander the grounds, and meet some helpful park staff that demonstrate the spinning of wool and chair caning. The processes are intricate and time consuming, and a testament to the work ethic of the Mabrys and their fellow settlers to this region.
Nearby, Hubby and I are ready for a late lunch, and the Mabry Mill restaurant is known for its pancakes. We down large plates of buckwheat and cornmeal fry cakes before heading up the road to our overnight accommodations.
Milepost 86: Peaks of Otter
North of Mabry Mill, the Parkway winds through about 80 miles of farmland, then clips near Roanoke, Va., before re-entering wilderness at the Jefferson National Forest. We pass through our final tunnel (there are 25 in North Carolina and one in Virginia), spot about a dozen wild turkeys, and turn into the Peaks of Otter Lodge around 6 p.m.
The Lodge is one of two accommodation options located directly on the Parkway. Opened in 1964, the small hotel sits on Abbott Lake with views of Sharp Top Mountain. Thomas Jefferson is said to have been fond of this area and proclaimed the mountains were the tallest in all of North America. This, of course, proved not to be the case, but there are some incredible mountain views and scenery to be had.
We arrive to catch a beautiful sunset, watch deer nibble on the grass just in front of our balcony, and listen to musicians playing on the main building’s porch. The hotel appears to not have been updated since its inception, and the age is obvious. We choose to focus on the scenery, and head outdoors for the show of stars on this clear night. The Milky Way has never looked so bright.
Milepost 76.5: Highs and Lows
The next morning, the crisp late summer morning greets us with her blue-tinted haze. Our SUV pulls higher and higher to Apple Orchard Mountain (elevation 4,229 feet). This is the highest point of the Parkway in Virginia.
Here, we experience a rare opportunity in modern life: an old growth forest. Some 40 species of trees flourish here, undisturbed and ripened to an age of grand scale. The early morning sun beams, thick and syrupy through these trees.
My ears pop as we quickly descend to the lowest point of the parkway, a mere 646 feet at milepost 63.
Milepost 8.8: Appalachian Trail
I’ve always had a fascination with the Appalachian Trail, intrigued by the strength and determination of the folks who through-hike the entire 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. To me, the trail represents a wanderlust and wildness most of us never have an opportunity to experience.
The iconic trail crisscrosses the Parkway a few times near this section, and Hubby and I decide to find a nearby trailhead.
For just a moment, we step onto the trail and follow it south about a quarter mile—long enough to encounter a hiker, with his heavy pack and grown beard. We stop to chat, briefly, and I’m again inspired to entertain the idea of hiking this thing all the way through.
Milepost 5.8: Cabin Life
To really experience a place, find a way to interact with and learn from the locals. At the Humpback Rocks visitors’ center and farm, David and I meet Ted Hughes. His family has been living and working within 100 miles of this spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 12 generations.
The farm is one of numerous along the Parkway that had been saved during construction, and re-created to teach visitors about rural Appalachian life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here, a garden is full of traditional vegetables and a small homestead is furnished according to the time period.
Ted shows us the clapboard house, and the way the snow would come through the slits in the roof on winter days. “Just like my dad told me about when he was growing up,” he says, with pride. In 1608, Ted’s ancestors came to Jamestown, and a few generations later the frontier of what is now western Virginia. A more perfect guide for this historic spot could not have been manufactured. He’s wearing denim and suspenders, has a short beard and a weathered but friendly face.
“Would you like to meet the chickens?” he asks. Ted pretends to toss out some feed corn. “Come here girls, come here.” In an instant, the “girls” come running out from under the rustic porch. They’re beautiful. A few days out here in the slow lane and I’ve honed my honest appreciation for agriculture, the deep roots of Appalachian life, and simple pleasures.
Shortly after the farm, we reach milepost 0. Our minds and bodies lulled to rest by the seemingly endless calm of this winding road. Our nerves not quite ready for the onslaught of noise and news that awaits us back in modern life. “Keep on the Sunny Side” echoes through my mind as we start the car and re-enter the busy highway.
– Photos by Katie DeTar and David Lalley
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