Take the slow road: Blue Ridge Parkway

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; F01

Ask Ellen Smith where she lives, and she won't name a town or city. "Milepost 246," she'll say.

That's because her home has been on the Blue Ridge Parkway since its earliest beginnings: "They were pouring gravel when I moved here when I was 6," she says. And on the parkway, they speak in mileposts. I met Ellen, for instance, at Bluffs Lodge and Restaurant (Milepost 241), between my stops at Brinegar Cabin (Milepost 238) and Northwest Trading Post (Milepost 259). That's about as specific about location as people tend to get.

Ellen is 80 now, only five years older than the parkway itself. Her father was a park warden, and her brothers were parkway maintenance workers. She has waited tables at Bluffs Lodge for 61 years, and she'd like to keep doing so for many more. "It's the closest thing to heaven there is," she told me, pointing to an old picture of the parkway hanging above a table of diners digging into country ham and buckwheat pancakes.

The trees in that picture were lush with flowers. These days, the trees are less pink and more green, but the view is otherwise pretty much the same. "The road's not changed, and the restaurant's not changed," Ellen said.

And that's the way the architects of the parkway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, wanted it. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hoping to prop up neighboring communities during the Great Depression, envisioned the road as a tourist attraction, much like the parks out west. Americans were falling in love with their cars at the time and didn't mind driving long distances. Before it was called the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was called the Appalachian Scenic Highway, or The Scenic for short, and to preserve the vistas, no billboards or commercial signs are allowed. Neither are commercial vehicles, except for tour buses.

"It was The Scenic. Nothing should detract from that," said Elizabeth Sims, a spokeswoman for the Blue Ridge Parkway Association.

Perhaps that's why the 469-mile parkway, built to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, has been dubbed "America's Favorite Drive," drawing almost 20 million visitors a year. Conceived as a New Deal project that would put people back to work, the road is actually an elongated park with 264 scenic overlooks plus countless picnic areas, campgrounds, hiking trails, waterfalls, streams and more.

The National Park Service is going all out to mark the 75th birthday, scheduling dozens of events that will culminate in an anniversary festival Sept. 10 to 12. I decided to commemorate this milestone my own way -- by driving, naturally. I knew where to start: Cumberland Knob, where construction began on Sept. 11, 1934, long before 9/11 took on other significance. And I knew where to end: the Linn Cove Viaduct, the last piece built in 1987. Because the parkway wasn't built contiguously, those landmarks are just 87 miles apart, mostly in the Highlands section.

With the speed limit maxing out at 45 miles per hour, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a place to slow down and take in the scenery: mountains, valleys, trees and rock formations.

"It's a very nostalgic experience, and that's a large part of its appeal," Sims said. "It's kind of removing you from the modern world. It's not a road to get from point A to point B. The drive itself is what you experience."

Clearly, there was no need to make rash decisions on where I'd stop in between.

Milepost 217 to 239

It was easy to underestimate the importance of Cumberland Knob, just over the Virginia border in North Carolina. There was a sign for it, but when I drove in, the parking lot and picnic tables were empty. Expecting more of the place where the parkway began, I drove to the next scenic overlook, where I met two bikers who had a better map than I did. Turn around, they told me.

I returned to the empty parking lot and set out to explore by foot. Near the restrooms was the evidence I was looking for: a small plaque calling Cumberland Knob the "first recreational development on the BRP." I hit the trail leading to Gully Creek. As I ran the 2.5-mile loop, I spotted deer and was lulled by the sounds of streams and birds chirping. I snapped out of my reverie as the trail got steeper and rockier, and I slowed to a walk -- and a hike. I started to wonder if the trail was truly a loop, so I turned around at the creek and retraced my steps.

If hiking is not your forte, a short drive from the parkway are many charming small towns, none more so than Mount Airy, actor Andy Griffith's home town and the apparent inspiration behind his Mayberry. How could I pass that up? The town, 10 minutes from the parkway, is celebrating its own anniversary this year: It's been 50 years since the first episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" aired. On my way to the Andy Griffith Museum, I stumbled upon the Surry Arts Council and an exhibit on the world's most famous conjoined twins, the source of the term "Siamese twins" because they were from Siam, now Thailand. It turns out that Chang and Eng Bunker raised their children and died in the area, and many of their descendants still live in and around Mount Airy and gather for a reunion each summer.

"Andy Griffith is our hook, but then people see there's a connection to the twins, and they don't know what it is," said Tanya B. Jones, executive director of the council, whose own connection is that she is Eng's great-great-granddaughter. "Crazy stuff."

Next door at the Andy Griffith Museum, Emmett Forrest, Andy's childhood friend, was working the front desk. Andy named Mayberry's Emmett's Fix-It Shop after his buddy. Emmett showed me around, pointing out his and Andy's seventh-grade graduation photo. Then he led me to the "pride and joy of the whole collection." They were two signs -- one said "Sheriff," the other "Justice of the Peace" -- that had hung on the set of the show, which was mostly filmed on a California studio lot.

Not far from the museum is the heart of Mayberry -- Main Street -- which seems stuck in the 1950s, or at least in TV Land. The door to Floyd's Barber Shop, based on the one featured in Andy's show, was open, even though the shop was technically closed. Tourists walked in to snap photos of Floyd, in his 80s and still cutting hair. His name is not Floyd. It's Russell (Hiatt), but he owns the place, and he doesn't mind if you call him Floyd. After all, he renamed his City Barber Shop in honor of the show and sells magnets, T-shirts, anything with the name Mayberry on it. Other Main Street businesses do so as well, Russell pointed out to me, but he was the first.

Russell/Floyd was perfectly happy to pose for pictures -- but not to cut hair. "It's my day off," he said.

Milepost 240 to 290

Some people think of the Blue Ridge Parkway simply as a scenic byway. But the parkway has become an integral part of the Appalachian communities it cuts through, and many exhibits and structures along the road offer a glimpse of that history.

Take the Brinegar Cabin at Milepost 238. In the mid- to late 1800s many families moved farther up into the mountains in search of land for their extended families. They built their own homes and grew their own food well into the 1900s.

Martin Brinegar and Caroline Joines married in 1878 and built the cabin near her parents' home. They raised three children there and made a living by raising sheep. Inside the low-ceilinged cabin, a park ranger was telling visitors that Mrs. Brinegar stayed in the cabin until 1937, even as construction of the parkway was driving other residents out. "As these people were being moved out, she's losing her support system," the ranger said.

Mrs. Brinegar's daughter finally persuaded her to leave, and the National Park Service bought the homestead. Although many other structures were torn down, the service wanted to preserve at least a small part of the history and chose this holdout.

To build the parkway, the Park Service had to buy out many property owners -- sometimes to make room for the road and other times to preserve the views. But over the years, some farmland has been turned into resorts, retirement communities or second homes. Congress is considering a bill to authorize $75 million over five years to purchase about 50,000 acres along the parkway from willing landowners.

"What are the values we are trying to protect, and what is the best way to protect those values in the long term?" Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis said in a phone interview. "Some people may say we don't want any restrictions. Other people may say let's impose at least some kind of voluntary architectural standards."

At Milepost 259, the Northwest Trading Post has managed to stay, though that didn't seem likely just a few months ago, thanks to a tough economy and a harsh winter. (The parkway is open year-round, though many parts are closed in winter, when snow makes them too hard to traverse.) After residents urged a reopening, the store did so with new woodwork, pottery and paintings by local artists for sale.

The trading post is a nonprofit created by residents of the surrounding 11 counties as a place to hawk their secondhand items or baked goods. Now, the merchandise is more sophisticated, but fried apple pie, sourdough bread and pecan tarts are still available.

A sign said the trading post was celebrating 51 years. Not true, manager Karen Radcliff said. It is now in its 52nd year. They just haven't gotten around to changing the sign.

Back on the road, I stopped at Milepost 270 to take a walk on the Cascades Trail at E.B. Jeffress Park. This was a botanical delight. Dogwood, chestnut oak, mountain laurel and more lined the trail leading to the plunging waters. And on the ascent back to the parking lot, I found rhododendrons.

With time to spare before dinner, I hit the nearby town of Blowing Rock, which offers visitors art galleries, restaurants, antique shops and, at the center of it all, a public park. Plus unique finds like the Dulcimer Shop, where a sign at the door said it is "open most days. About 9 or 10, occasionally as early as 7, but sometimes as late as 11 or 12."

It happened to be open that day, and Caroline MacGee, whose grandfather started the business, was giving dulcimer lessons.

In case you don't know what a dulcimer is, it's a stringed instrument developed in the early 1800s in the Appalachian Mountains. "As far as string instruments go," Caroline said, "it's one of the easiest to learn."

Milepost 291 to 305

What better way to see North Carolina High Country than to zip-line up in its trees? Still, I was terrified as my guide, Chris, attached my hook to the zip line as part of my appropriately named Scream Time Ziplines canopy tour. Staring down into a valley, I hesitated for several minutes until Chris nudged me. I held on tightly to the cord attaching me to the zip line, ran and leapt off the hill. I remained tense the first few seconds, then started to relax as I realized that all I had to do was hang there. I survived the first jump, then six more, including the 2,000-foot super zip line. Zip-lining is popular on the parkway, and I could see why, because it allowed me to see from above the beauty of the hills and trees that dot the parkway. The peaks and valleys were so green.

At Milestone 294, I found another landmark: the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. Sons of a German Jewish immigrant, Moses Cone and his brother built a textile empire and became leading producers of denim. At the turn of the century, Moses built Flat Top Manor, a 23-room Colonial Revival mansion, as well as 25 miles of trails and two lakes.

Unfortunately, I arrived on a Friday, and tours of the mansion are given only on weekends. I settled for taking in the magnificent view from the entrance.

Later, at the Linn Cove Viaduct, Milepost 304.4, I took the 870-footh path underneath the bridge, marveling at the architectural feat known as the missing link.

For years, engineers had tried to figure out how to complete the parkway while preserving the terrain and forest along Grandfather Mountain. The solution: To build a bridge from the top down.

I had reached the end of my journey, but another nearby architectural gem, the Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain, was calling out to me, so I pressed on to Milepost 305. Suspended a mile above sea level and 80 feet above the ground, the Swinging Bridge, built in 1952 to give visitors a view of Linville Peak, actually doesn't swing as much as it used to. Originally designed as a suspension bridge, it was reinforced with galvanized steel in 1999 after a winter storm with 187 mph winds nearly destroyed it. The winds were not as strong when I visited, but they were still enough to make the bridge sway a bit. "Don't worry, it's almost over," a man behind me said when I paused midway across.

And then it was over.

Here's the thing about the Blue Ridge Parkway: Once you get started, you don't want to stop. There were 164 more miles to go on the southern route, and many more places I wanted to visit, but it was time to go home.

Perhaps I'd return for the anniversary festival in and around Cumberland Knob in September. I bet the parking lot -- at Milepost 217, in case you're heading that way -- will be anything but empty.

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