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The High Road: The Blue Ridge Parkway

October 18, 2015

One of the jaunts that Clare and I look forward to each fall is a drive through the mountains. The high mountains will soon be in their full autumn glory. There is no better way to take in the wonder of this season than a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Clare and I often travel up the Saluda Grade for a brief retreat. We usually purchase a few pumpkins and several varieties of apples along the way. After a picnic lunch we sometimes pause to enjoy a Carolina blue sky with only a few high clouds drifting above. The southern Appalachian highlands are all the more exhilarating if there is a nip in the air, and the vast forest is ablaze with color. Perched on the tailgate of my pickup truck at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway is better than having a seat on the fifty-yard line at any football game.

The Southern Appalachian Mountains and surrounding foothills are decked out for their annual autumn display. Peak fall colors in our area occur from mid-October through early November. Though the mountains are home to more than 100 species of trees, the most colorful foliage comes courtesy of sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweet gums, red maples, and hickory trees.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived during the Great Depression, a scenic link between the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains. The project was designed to put unemployed people back to work.

The two-lane highway stretches 469 miles across the southern Appalachian Mountains. As the crow flies, the Parkway may be the shortest route between two parks, but certainly not the quickest. With its many ups and downs, twists and turns, and a speed limit that would be the minimum on most highways, driving the Parkway takes time.

In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps began construction on several sections of the Parkway simultaneously. Contractors were mandated to hire local people whenever possible, giving priority where employment needs were greatest. Almost all work on the Parkway, including the rigorous chore of tunnel digging, was done with hand tools using very little machinery.

The work was not completely finished until 1987 when the Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain was completed.

Constructing a road usually begins with an engineer. The Parkway began with a landscape architect who wanted to create a roadway that would blend with the natural surroundings, showcasing the panoramic views of the mountains.

Structures along the route utilized modern materials like concrete for bridges, tunnels, and dams. Stonemasons later finished the work with facings of local stone.

The Parkway is a scenic byway with many natural attractions, is also a cross-section of Appalachian history, preserving some of the oldest Native American and pioneer settlements. Overlook signs and visitor exhibits alert travelers to points of interest.

The Cherokee and the Tutelo tribes were among the earliest inhabitants of the Blue Ridge. Mountain and river names reflect Native American influence.

Surviving examples of early Appalachian pioneer structures are open to the public. For example, Puckett Cabin was the humble abode of Mrs. Orleana Hawks Puckett, a busy mountain midwife of the late 19th century.

Along the Parkway are examples of 19th-century industrial development. Mabry Mill is one of the most photographed locations along the Parkway. It features a blacksmith shop, wheelwright’s shop, and whiskey still, as well as the old mill.

Traditional crafts and music still thrive in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the Parkway in North Carolina are several places to purchase locally made items, and to enjoy good ol’ mountain music.

I never tire of the drama I witness on the Parkway stage. On a brisk fall morning I emerged from a sleeping bag in Shining Rock Wilderness to a gold and silver sunrise. On a day hike in the spring, I paused on Black Balsam Knob to take in a purple and pink sunset. I watched white billows moved by the wind cast their shadows across the face of sunlit mountains one summer morning. Later that afternoon, I traced the path of a black anvil cloud flashing lightning as it moved up a distant valley. These experiences, as well as many others, were breathtaking and have left an indelible impression on this colorblind pastor.

The Parkway is a stage for all seasons. I awakened in a tent to a gentle snowfall one morning at Crabtree Meadows. One spring day, I parked my truck at an overlook, not to enjoy the view, but because I couldn’t see anything! Torrential rain and echoing thunder had stopped me in my tracks. Later, the storm passed, and I was treated to a spectacular rainbow arching from the top of Mount Pisgah down to Looking Glass Rock.

The mountains offer both the comedy and the tragedy of the ancient Greek theatre. Our family was camping near Doughton Park. We arrived late. Clare served our young boys Kentucky Fried Chicken while I pitched the tent by flashlight. I heard snickers in the darkness. I turned the beam of light toward the giggles to discover that we had guests. Joining our young sons at the picnic table was a pair of raccoons, both wearing the mask of comedy with chicken-stealing on their minds.

One afternoon, I took a detour on the Parkway. A wild turkey hen and her nine chicks crossed the pavement in front of me. I stopped and waited while the mother hurried her brood to safety. Four roaring motorcycles were coming down the mountain in the other lane. One straggling chick was killed. There is tragedy here as well.

The marker at Bull Creek Valley Overlook identifies the last place an American bison was killed in North Carolina. I paused there, just above 3500 feet, to gaze at a magnificent display of turning leaves. Walking a short distance down a trail, I was surprised to find a skunk curled up inside the hollow base of a shagbark hickory tree. Not wanting to disturb his sleep, I made a quick retreat.

Later, I watched monarch butterflies dance on wild blue asters. I saw a pair of red-tailed hawks catch an updraft, circling high above me.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a sanctuary – maybe not for the last buffalo or the turkey chick, but for butterflies and the asters they visit, for hickory trees and the skunks they shelter, for soaring hawks and for me.

To visit the Parkway is to slow down and examine the pace of my life.

It is a place where my soul is restored.

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