The Road starts where the Skyline Drive ends, some 20 miles west of Charlottesville. Right from the beginning it heads upward like some long restrained eagle finally freed of its shackles.
For 470 miles southwest through Virginia and North Carolina, the Road goes like this, up and down, sometimes gently undulating, sometimes abruptly rising or dropping, often cutting sharply back on itself, occasionally rising into and even above the mysterious, cold and clammy clouds, nearly always crawling along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains and affording distant vistas stretching off miles on each side.
Even the roadway is beautiful. Certainly, there are few like it in the East. But the Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, is free, a nation's gift to its people, and one that probably is not appreciated as much as it should be.
This is a good time to see it and savor it, for either the first time or again, because this is the 50th anniversary of its beginning. On Wednesday, the parkway's birthday, a suitable but simple ceremony will formally mark the occasion. The ceremony at the Cumberland Knob Recreation Area, a half-mile south of the North Carolina-Virginia line, will feature addresses by Gov. Charles Robb of Virginia, Gov. Jim Martin of North Carolina and parkway officials.
Such a ceremony should be simple to be in keeping, for this is really a country road, although it is paved. There are no billboards or signs of any kind except for small directional and information signs placed by the Park Service. There are no telephone or power lines or poles. There is no commercial traffic, and there are no buildings except for a scattering of houses and an occasional country store or small motel.
All the way down to Cherokee, N.C., you encounter almost no commercial attractions of any kind without getting off the Road in search of them. There are a few places with meals and accommodations, and most of them are run or franchised by the Park Service, which insists they meet its high standards.
In fact, about all there is on the parkway is nature. And sometimes, when traffic is not too heavy, wild animals cross the road, going from one part of their mountain to another as their ancestors did for centuries. It is not uncommon to see bear, deer, otter and mink on the shoulder of the road. Timber rattlers can be found off the shoulders, and skunk and salamanders. The lakes and streams nearby are home to rainbow trout and other fighters, and a hundred trails lead off the roadway and into the forest for those who want to see things first hand and close up.
The Road looks like the private driveway to a rich man's estate, and it is kept just as meticulously. The shoulders are mowed in the manner of a gentleman's haircut -- you can never tell whether he needs one or just had one. This may be the only highway in America where you can drive 100 miles without seeing one piece of litter.
In the entire span between the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it drops at one point near the James River in Virginia to 649 feet, and just west of Devil's Courthouse, which is between Asheville and Cherokee, it soars to 6,053 feet, its highest point.
This is not a road on which to hurry; it is a place to dawdle. Even those inclined to break the 45 mph speed limit would find it difficult because the winding macadam has few straight stretches, and the solid yellow line down its middle sometimes runs for miles without a break. Traffic creeps in summer, moseys along in spring and fall, and sometimes is not allowed at all in winter, when the Road is closed by ice and deep snow.
The Blue Ridge Parkway turned out to be a nation's gift to its people in two ways: Generations of flatlanders have driven it, picnicked on the adjoining hillsides and hiked its trails -- 400 million altogether and more than 19 million last year.
But when it was begun, back in the depths of the Depression, it was considered a boon of a different kind to the people of a land blessed with everything but jobs. Construction of the parkway meant employment and income for uncounted thousands of mountain men whose families were literally suffering from hunger. There was no money to buy food in this land then, and what there was to eat came from the garden, the stream and the forest.
The parkway will have cost nearly $150 million when it is completed in 1987. Most of that went into the local economy.
There are varying versions of whose idea the parkway was and how it came into being. Most historians agree that in 1933, Virginia's Sen. Harry F. Byrd broached to President Franklin D. Roosevelt the idea of a scenic route connecting the two national parks. FDR was enthusiastic about it, and Congress approved and authorized its construction. The route of the northern leg, as far down as Peaks of Otter, Va., was easily agreed upon. But there was hot debate over which route it should take from that point on. One led through Tennessee, the other through North Carolina.
At stake was a road that for years to come would bring tourists and their dollars to a hard-pressed region. Of more immediate concern was the multimillion-dollar boost that would affect the local economy.
It seemed that everybody who knew anyone with clout in Washington exerted what influence he had. Lobbyists moved north. Governors, senators, congressmen and newspaper editors pulled every string they could. Delegations from Tennessee and North Carolina went to Washington and made their pitch at a hearing conducted by Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. It was up to Ickes to make the choice, and it was a cliffhanger. Finally, he made his selection. The Blue Ridge Parkway would take the North Carolina route.
Construction began near the North Carolina-Virginia line on Sept. 11, 1935.
The mountain people were overjoyed. Not only would the road mean work, but the locals quickly figured it also would afford endless opportunities for all sorts of roadside ventures as well. When they learned this would be a purely scenic road -- with no roadside businesses allowed -- a lot of the joy soured. "How come them dern fools want to look at mountains instead of letting us make some money?" some asked bitterly.
Construction continued, but progress was slow and it was hard. Much of the way was over the roughest terrain in the Appalachians. The route had to be walked out by architects and engineers. Parts of the land had not even been accurately mapped before.
Each state bought right of way, which averages only 800 to 1,000 feet, from more than 4,000 property owners. Trees were cut with hand axes. Rock was blasted with dynamite packed into holes drilled in granite by strong men wielding sledge hammers. In one 9.4-mile stretch in Virginia alone, 35,000 drills were used.
Native labor did most of the work, but stonemasons came from Spain and Italy to build artistic stone walls and faces for the 22 tunnels, all but one of which are in North Carolina.
The next-to-last leg was completed in the 1960s. The last stretch, a seven-mile link around Grandfather Mountain, is scheduled to be finished in 1987. Meanwhile, there is a detour there, so you can drive the entire stretch of 470 miles even now.
To do that at one time, though, would be comparable to gorging on a huge box of marshmallows. Lovely though the parkway is, that much beauty combined with the monotony of the 45 mph speed limit palls on a public accustomed to bland interstates.
It's far better to take shorter trips of 25 to 100 miles, with a lot of stops to hike the trails, which vary in length from a few hundred yards to 17 miles. You should stop often to take pictures, to examine the native crafts for sale at a few "trading posts" (you trade your dollars for their crafts) and to dip down into nearby resort towns such as Linville, Blowing Rock and Asheville for a change of pace.
Along the parkway, there are 14 concessions and 10 visitor centers, all open from spring through fall. And there are 275 turnouts, places with ample parking and signs identifying the views in the distance. The Road's designers never lost sight of the fact that this is a scenic route.
Unless you start from the Cherokee end, the Road begins with the first of a series of simple stone mile markers. That one says zero, and the numbers, like the road, climb from there.
After that sudden, airplane-like ascent, the Road winds along the spine of the mountains, as it does for much of its length. The mountain range drops sharply off on each side, and the feeling of soaring over the broad valley nearly 1,500 feet below must be close to the high a bird gets over the same route.
Except for the dramatic beginning on this northern end, the parkway in Virginia does not traverse the spectacular scenery it does in North Carolina. It begins like a good suspense novel, with a smashing start, then levels off, only to climb a series of precipices, each higher than the last. A few miles down in Virginia, the mountains are more plateau-like, the countryside rolls through meadows and wooded areas beyond.
At Milepost 85 you come to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, one of the larger places with accommodations. Throughout the summer and the fall foliage season it often is full, and those without a reservation may go miles off the parkway before finding a place to stay. The Peaks center has large, comfortable, lodge-type rooms and a good dining room overlooking a lake.
Continuing south, the Road passes places with such fascinating names as Purgatory Mountain and Bearwallow Gap, then Roanoke, lying off to the right and far below. Then it winds over the Roanoke Valley, past Smart View, Rakes Millpond and Tuggle Gap to the Rocky Knob Recreation Area and Mabry Mill. The mill is one of the parkway's highlights, and there you can buy cornmeal you just saw ground between the millstones.
After Fancy Gap comes the Cumberland Knob visitor center, just south of the North Carolina line, then Doughton Park, which also has all the amenities: gasoline, a campground, lodging, food and a picnic area.
Just a few miles further south, the Northwest Trading Post offers one of the best selections of Appalachian crafts to be found in the mountains. A side trip to the Glendale Springs Inn, a few miles west, is worth the time, either to spend the night or have a meal. And nearby are the nationally known frescoes in a tiny Episcopal church. They have brought wide acclaim and thousands of tourists to the small community.
The Boone-Blowing Rock area is another place where many people get off the Road for side trips.
There's Grandfather Mountain, which is well worth the toll drive nearly to the top. There you get out and, unless you're squeamish, walk across a swinging bridge connecting two peaks. It sways laterally as it bounces up and down. The road up is an engineering miracle of sorts, and the view is stupendous. Even in midsummer, winds of 100 mph are not uncommon.
The Moses H. Cone visitor center and craft shop are among the best on the parkway and the fishing in nearby Bass Lake or Trout Lake is often great. But even if the fish aren't biting, the mountain-rimmed lakes are worth seeing. (A warning, though: North Carolina's regulations pertaining to trout fishing are nigh indecipherable and to be arrested for having the wrong license could spoil your whole day.)
Near Spruce Pine is the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, and lots of people are surprised to find the state of North Carolina is a veritable bonanza when it comes to gem mines.
There is a comfortable inn at Little Switzerland, and although it adjoins the parkway, it is not related. The rooms are nice and the food is good.
From there the Road climbs past such spots as Buck Creek Gap, Big Laurel Gap and Green Knob to the shoulder of Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern United States. The peak is 6,684 feet; the terrain is rugged; the view is spectacular. You may need a sweater at noon in midsummer up there, for snow has fallen on the peak in July. The silence on top has a sound all its own, a reverential hush broken only occasionally by the call of a bird or the delayed drone of a passing airplane far below.
Often in going up Mitchell, and sometimes on other high peaks off the parkway, there is a dark, ominous cloud bank ahead, a mass of gray into which the road disappears. When you get there, full headlights are needed and you crawl at a snail's pace, for the cloud becomes fog, clammy and foreboding. But in minutes you may break through the fog and out into the clear again, with the clouds below, just as you do when flying.
Continuing on into Asheville the Road reaches 5,677 feet and provides some of the most rugged and spectacular scenery in all the Blue Ridge. Fraser firs, those that survived the bitter winds of winter here on the crest, stand outlined against the graying mountain ranges falling off to the horizon, with haze and atmospheric perspective making each succeeding range appear lighter.
There is much to do and many places to see in the Asheville area. Many tourists make this a destination, then return home by another, faster route than the parkway.
Others make headquarters in Asheville, and then go out to such places as Maggie Valley, down to Franklin to mine for emeralds and rubies or up to Fontana Lake for deep-water fishing and a few days in the comfortable lodge or a rental cabin. The brightest star in Asheville's crown is the Biltmore House, the renowned Vanderbilt chateau that is one of the great houses of the world.
Asheville is a tourist city and has many accommodations; still, they're all filled during October's leaf-watching season. Sometimes, hundreds who arrived without reservations sleep free on cots provided by the city in the Civic Center and are glad not to be curled up in the car.
If there were rolling hills and verdant pastures in Virginia, there seem to be little but sharp climbs and drops and a constantly winding road all the way on to Cherokee. This is some of the prettiest part of the Road, but an occasional tourist finds it too much like a roller coaster.
Finally, if you've stuck with it this far, you climb up to Waterrock Knob (elevation 5,718), and then begin the long drop down into Cherokee. For nearly 20 miles it is all downhill, although a tightly winding downhill, and when finally you burst out of the forest and start across the bridge over the Oconaluftee River at the edge of the Indian village of Cherokee you feel the same sense of accomplishment that must have at times overcome Daniel Boone and others of his time.
A feeling of, "I made it!"