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The Blue Ridge

Friday, 21 May 2004
written by Teresa

The Blue Ridge is part of the Appalachian range and at Stone Mountain State Park we get our first glimpse of this romantic world. It is a clear bright day as we set out to walk to the bare granite dome that gives the park its name. The trail meanders through the dense woodland emerging from time to time on the curved sides of the dome before reaching the top where the views open out. Stone Mountain Ridges echo off into the distance, each more indistinct than the last, a gentle blue miasma giving a haziness to the entire scene. The various greens of densely packed deciduous trees cover the hillside with their rounded tops; those on the ridges await full leaf cover, still revealing their skeletal outlines. It is a place to sit all day, warmed by the sun while gazing off towards the horizon but after lunch we drag ourselves away as there are still some miles to go.

At the base of the dome, in a small lush valley, the park has restored the buildings of a homestead giving a glimpse into the past. The wooden corncrib that doubled as a storehouse for salted pork shows signs of the erosive force of the preservative. Hollowed sections of tree trunk, known as bee gums, stand vertically providing a home for the only remaining inhabitants of the farm and a few tomato plants in the fenced off vegetable patch hold the promise of summer. The porch of the log cabin is long deserted, but the magnificent view of the barefaced dome is probably much as it was when family sat out after a long days work.

The past and the present seem to mix throughout this area in a blurred montage of reality and fantasy. Snake Handling Churches are part and parcel of some communities in the Southern Appalachians; a fact that perhaps highlights just how different this area is from mainstream America. The tradition carries no promise or value judgement regarding outcomes; the loss of digits, hands and even death are accepted as a possible consequence of taking the biblical direction literally. While this form of worship may still be alive the hillbilly farmer barely eking out a living in the wooded mountains is probably a thing of the past. However, it appears that the image somehow lives on in the American psyche along with the stereotypes of an insular people, suspicious of both outsiders and new fangled devices and a little too willing to defend their rights with the proverbial shotgun. Whatever the truths, the cultural tapestry nestles within the folds of the mountains, interwoven with the very distinctive nature of the land.

Blue Ridge Camper We leave Stone Mountain and head south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a two-lane road operated by the National Park Service that follows the crests of the southern Appalachians for over four hundred and fifty miles. We had read that the Parkway has twenty million visitors a year but luckily most of them were still at home, leaving the road quiet and many of the numerous overlooks deserted. This was particularly fortunate on one occasion when for reasons only known to Sterling himself, he decided to execute an eleven-point turn in an especially small lay-by. In case you're wondering, I counted.

Having extricated ourselves from this tight spot we continue along the rhododendron-lined road on a section that looks suspiciously like a stately home driveway. We are heading towards Linville Falls, one of the few campgrounds yet open on the Parkway. Linville Falls Here our good fortune with the weather abandons us, the clouds descend into the treetops and the rain settles in persuading us to postpone our walk to the falls until the following day. While this keeps us dry it unfortunately means we are out on the various short trails on a Saturday afternoon with the twenty nine thousand other people who have materialised out of thin air.

One advantage to our timing is that the visitor centre is open and gives us the chance to replace our National Parks Passport. We lost our original some weeks ago and after much searching and sadness we decided to buy a replacement. Now I know this was an opportunity to grow up and distance ourselves from a somewhat sad activity but of course we now have the perfect excuse to revisit a great number of parks and an added incentive to find a way of continuing with our full-timing lifestyle.

A slight detour from the Parkway takes us to Black Mountain campground in the Pisgah National Forest. We come with one intention, to walk the trail up Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. At 6684 feet it is small by western standards but strenuous enough for us at the moment with 3600 feet of elevation gain and a round trip of twelve miles. The path is hard going in places, rocky and rooty underfoot, steeply crossing the contours and following shallow water runs over slick mud and stone. Mt. Mitchell Summit The weather is good to us until we approach the top when the cloud moves in reducing visibility to a matter of feet; the wind gains in speed and the temperatures begin to fall. Within minutes of getting to the peak we have fleeces and waterproofs on and as we sit in the swirling mist to eat our well-earned sandwiches, it starts to snow. Gloves and hats are quickly added and it is difficult to believe that this is May in North Carolina.

The top of the mountain has two rather strange features. The first is an observation tower built out of small pieces of natural rock presumably gathered from the mountain itself. Unfortunately there are concrete beams reaching down from the observation platform to the outside of the building giving it a somewhat discordant look; both design and materials appearing an ill-matched association between old and new. The other item of note is the grave of the Reverend Mitchell for whom the mountain is named; he was killed falling down a waterfall whilst on a trip trying to confirm that this was indeed the highest point in the state. Hopefully he knows his efforts were worthwhile.

Spicebush Swallowtail Back on the Parkway the following morning, Mitchell is clearly visible, not a trace of cloud to be seen. The sunshine has not yet reached the north facing outcrops along the roadside and sheets of frozen icicles glint and twinkle as we pass, the clear morning air giving us some of our best views both north and south. We're heading for another campground in the Pisgah National Forest, Mills River. Part of its attraction is its promise of trails but in spite of our best efforts every one of the five or six paths we try, peters out in the tangled undergrowth within less than a mile. Regardless of the thwarted attempts to stretch the leg muscles, there are other rewards. Dappled sunlight plays on the intense greenery of spring vegetation, the shallow waters of the river gurgle as they tumble and swirl over the rocky course and the heavenly scent of white flowering bushes fills the air attracting the swallow tailed butterflies.

It is hardly surprising that so verdant an area has a town called Greenville and this is our next destination, dipping back into South Carolina to visit a friend. We spend a delightful couple of days talking, eating and generally relaxing. We had previously left the state without the obligatory memento but luckily our friend Laura shares our predilection for fridge magnets and so is willing to chauffeur us around the city looking for a suitable example of the art. Pickings are thin until she declares that a trip to the airport will solve our problem and of course it does. Now that's what friends are for.

We part company and head back to the northerly Carolina and a final visit to Pisgah National Forest at Avery Creek where acceptable camping spots, defined by the Forest service, are sandwiched between the unpaved track and the creek. Pisgah Camp The vegetation is dense in the valley bottom making it a dark stop but we rise above it by hiking up through the woodland to Club Gap and while the walk itself is unremarkable, Sterling returns with a tick firmly attached to his leg, giving us a few minutes of excitement as the little beastie is removed and disposed of.

Arthurian Hopeful We emerge into the light of the Parkway a few days later to discover the true romanticism of the Ridge. Excalibur awaits its rightful owner, embedded in the stone marker at the highest point on the Parkway while Arthur no doubt wanders the length and breadth of England in a futile search for his destiny. As the cloud swirls down amongst the hills I fancy that I hear the sound of hooves and catch a glimpse of a cloak swirl in the mist; maybe he's on the right track.

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