17.07.2009 - 19.07.2009
So, after deciding to avoid the Interstates and head southwest, you can imagine what I did next. Yep, I hopped on the Interstate and went vaguely north, with a fair bit of west in it. I wanted to see the Appalachians, but wanted to do a little more than just drive across them - they run north to south. My scouting about revealed something called the Blue Ridge Parkway - it runs for 469 miles, starting with the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and heading down through to southern North Carolina. For its entire length it is in National Parks, the southernmost one being the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was started in the depression, as a way of making work, but took fifty years to complete.
Looking at the map, the way to get a decent run down the Blue Ridge Parkway was to go to a town called Boone - quite a short drive of 160 miles. I didn't find much to distract me on the road, so was there fairly early: dead on 5:00. It is a pleasant town, fairly modern, dominated by the bush clad mountains and by the Appalachian State University. It has a very nice radio station, WASU, which plays contemporary country: so contemporary that the DJ played a quite wonderful song by a girl who is going to school with her brother. Its that kind of station. Boone takes its name on the basis that Daniel Boone camped there a few times! Driving in, I didn't see any of the chains of budget hotels, but there were a few old style motels - I picked one that gave me a good view of the hills.
The drive down the Parkway didn't get off to a good start: after about 8 miles, it was closed and, after numerous detours, I found myself back where I started, at the entrance to my motel. I had to go down to a slightly more posh looking place called Blowing Rock to get back in. As far as I could tell, there is nothing built on the Parkway at all, it doesn't have any major roads intersect with it - instead, it has little side roads head off to the nearby townships or to connect with the main road. It leaves you with a feeling of remoteness, even though I suspect it is a fairly narrow strip of forest at times, just looking at the map, and there was hardly any other traffic. At one point, I pulled off one of these side roads and found myself in a place calling itself Little Switzerland - just a cafe and a bookshop.
After lunch, and back on the road, there was a storm warning on the radio - it gave pretty precise instructions as to where it was aimed at, but because I didn't recognise any of the names, could only hope it was not aimed at me. One particular aspect of the warning that made me hope that was that it said to stay away from trees. The rain and mist and vestigial sunlight did make for some fantastic sights. I'd show you some photos but, since leaving there, I had an incident in which my camera was taken from me, including the last couple of weeks worth of photos.
My stop for the night was in Asheville, North Carolina. I actually had a hostel to stay in here and, thanks to a friendly policeman on a Segway, was finally able to find it, only to discover that the electricity in that part of town had been knocked out by the storms and the fellow running the hostel had gone AWOL. So it was back over the other side of town where I'd seen some cheap, old skool motels: the one I picked just happened to have an owner who liked to make people feel unwelcome: I was interrogated about the number of guests I was proposing to have, the location of my vehicle etc and then subjected to a long and quite freaky silence (Rolling Stone does say that Asheville is the #1 city for freaks). I was about to walk out, when he smiled and told me about his family in Wellington, and everything was sweet after that.
I liked Asheville - it provided me with a wonderful jumbalaya (that is a southern rice dish, not a song) for dinner and it was very pleasant to walk around. I found three good bookshops - no John Barth, but - and was intrigued to find one that had eschewed the fairly common combination of books and coffee: this one had a champagne bar. It has had some famous residents: to me, the most important would be F Scott Fitzgerald, O Henry and Thomas Wolfe but others might be more interested in Charlton Heston, or Robert Moog (he invented the Moog synthesizer).
A very famous family from these parts is the Vanderbilts: in the morning, I tried to see their home, Biltmore House, which is the biggest private house in the USA. There was no actual obstacle to seeing it, save for my repugnance at being charged $US50 for the privilege: nice to see the spirit of greed that made them one of the richest families is still alive and well, but there was no way I was going to contribute to it.
Instead, I rejoined the Parkway for a bit, and then cut through the Smoky Mountains - busiest road I've seen in a while, with older gentlemen on Harley Davidsons travelling in groups of 20-30 being a common sight. There was so much traffic, I basically had to just go with the flow. I was out the other side before I knew it, and if I had read my guidebook before setting out, would have taken the bypass up to Knoxville, Tenessee. But, well, I wanted to see Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge - they turned out to be two very tacky, endless strips of cheap food joints and motels, that went on for miles, with an enormous number of traffic lights. It was just awful.