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October 2, 2022

When we were in our younger days, one of the jaunts that Clare and I looked forward to each fall was 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 have often traveled up the Saluda Grade for a brief retreat. We usually purchased a few pumpkins and several varieties of apples along the way. After a picnic lunch, we sometimes paused to enjoy a Carolina blue sky with 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 was better than having a seat on the fifty-yard line at any football game.

The Southern Appalachian Mountains and surrounding foothills will soon be decked out for their annual autumn display. 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. Peak fall colors in our area occur from mid-October through early November.

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

As the crow flies, the Parkway may be the shortest route between two parks, but certainly not the quickest. The two-lane highway stretches 469 miles across the southern Appalachian Mountains. 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 simultaneously began construction on several Parkway sections. Contractors were mandated to hire local people whenever possible, giving priority where employment needs were most significant. Almost all work on the Parkway, including the rigorous chore of tunnel digging, was done with hand tools using very little machinery.

The work continued 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 blended 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. Skilled masons later finished the work with facings of local stone.

The Parkway is a scenic byway with many natural attractions and a cross-section of Appalachian history, preserving some of the oldest Native American and pioneer settlements. Signs and exhibits alert travelers to overlooks and 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 instance, 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, a wheelwright’s shop, a whiskey still, and 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 old mountain music.

I never tire of the drama I witness on the Parkway stage. I emerged from a sleeping bag in Shining Rock Wilderness on a brisk fall morning 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 Clare and I couldn’t see anything! Torrential rain and echoing thunder had stopped us in our tracks. We took a brief nap enjoying the sound of the rain. Later, the storm passed, and we were 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. The mother hen was in obvious distress, protecting her eight remaining offspring and grieving her crushed chick. There is tragedy here as well.

The Bull Creek Valley Overlook marker 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.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a high road where my soul is restored.

The words of Psalm 121 come to mind.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—

From whence comes my help?

My help comes from the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;

He who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, He who keeps Israel

Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;

The Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;

He shall preserve your soul.

The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in

From this time forth, and even forevermore.


The New King James Version


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

A Book of Days, to be published ion 2023.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate or volunteer, as you are able, to your favorite conservation charity.

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