Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia

Going south from the Skyline Drive, we crossed straight onto the Blue Ridge Parkway which was first set up as a scenic driveway in the 1930s. The first US national park was actually Yellowstone, set up way back in 1872 and there are now hundreds of national parks monuments and forest all over the US. Apparently, many of them were furiously contested by logging and other companies with business interests in the land and its resources. As a consequence individual Acts of Congress were used to create each park which made them untouchable. It’s a shame that such far sighted political will has become so compromised in more contemporary environmental debates.

The Blue Ridge side is less developed in terms of trails and lodging than Shenandoah Park but there are several roads leading off the parkway to small mountain towns so it’s pretty easy to find cheap motels. It’s also much more interesting because you get to see and meet some real places and people. The Buena Vista Motel was great and downtown was only a short walk so we were able to go out for dinner and then walk back watching a full moon rise above the mountains. We also found out exactly how many people live there.

Further down the parkway the Blue Ridge Motel in the Meadows of Dan was also a treat.

This tiny town was an absolute gem consisting of little more than a couple of stores, a farmers market, a restaurant, two gas stations and a church.... although there were probably more further up the road! I never cease to be amazed at just how many churches there are in this country, especially when you are out in the more rural areas. There seem to be hundreds of different denominations and a dedicated dictionary to work out exactly who they all are could be very useful. There are Baptists, Unitarians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Apostolics, Charismatics, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, all sorts of Bible Churches and Assemblies and a constantly expanding collection of Baptist splinter groups like the Primitive Baptists. Then there are the Fundamental Millenarians and the Foursquare Gospels… whoever they are. 

Most of the churches have signs along the roads sometimes humorously advertising their presence as in ‘Invest in Heaven, God’s stock is up’.  However, seeing ‘Prepare to Meet God’ on a huge billboard as you enter a four lane highway can be a bit disconcerting! How some of these small communities can sustain so many different churches is a complete mystery to me, as is the amount of money that seems to be generated through some disturbingly cynical TV evangelism.

Anyway …. back to the heaven sent and Act of Congress sanctioned, Blue Ridge Parkway. Much of the parkway goes through the Thomas Jefferson National Forest so you are surrounded by tall trees on both sides of the road for much of the route with mountain views stretching off into the blue distance at almost every twist and turn of the road.

I enjoyed this much, much more than the Skyline Drive and most of the hikes are short which means you get all the gain with none of the pain as in the Yankee Horse Trail. This was a rocky, waterfall very close to the road and it still had the old railway tracks from when it was a logging station. It also had an amazing chunky rock.

There were a couple of longer trails further on including the beautiful Otter Creek Trail which meanders along the bank of a rocky creek before going up into the forest, past huge volcanic rock formations and then back down to the creek. This was definitely another Virginia Trail highlight as was the Blue Ridge Music Centre where we got to see some excellent live music. There is a musical heritage trail through Virginia and the Centre explained a lot of the origin and development of Blue Grass and Mountain music. The centre will become a state of the art museum next year which is good news for ethno-musicologists and musical obsessives everywhere. The museum reminded me of another US trip we did in 2002 which took us on the jazz, blues and country music trails all the way up from New Orleans to Chicago through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. There were a lot of signs for churches down there too and the only other signs you saw were for prisons so I guess the only other option is the military!

Another musical diversion ended up being the town of Floyd where several resident master blue grass and mountain musicians are teaching (sometimes for free) in order that the traditions are continued. They are supplied by Floyd’s own instrument maker and on Friday nights the town’s central street is open to musicians. There are actually small performance bays built into the sidewalks! There are also numerous artists and craftspeople who live in the surrounding areas and they are slowly moving into The Station which is a new but small area of shops, galleries and studios.

We finally turned off the Parkway at Galax, heading West again towards our next friend stop in Frankfort, Kentucky. We didn’t have a rattlesnake moment on the Blue Ridge parkway but we did have a few anxious visibility moments. If you are above or below the clouds you’re fine but at that elevation in between….

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