One doesn't often follow a road that was never built.

This summer, however, I approximated -- as best my Volkswagen Rabbit would allow -- the route the Blue Ridge Parkway would have taken through Tennessee if political pressure hadn't kept it away.

I didn't set out to compare a hypothetical road to one that was actually built; that hardly seemed fair. I merely wanted to see what the Blue Ridge Mountains offer visitors who don't have a parkway to lead them from waterfall to waterfall, from vista to vista.

In 250 miles of meandering, I seldom saw the magnificent panoramas of the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Since there are no ridge-top drives in the area, my route for the most part went through the valleys. During three long days of driving, I often had to go miles out of the way for food, lodging and gasoline. I came home with no souvenirs.

But I did find long stretches of unspoiled landscape, occasionally the remains of an Appalachian culture that is almost lost and delightful examples of the independence that develops among people who live in isolation.

A scenic ridge-top drive linking the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the parkway was a project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-fighting Public Works Administration.

The economic benefits of the road were not lost on North Carolina's politicians and businessmen. In 1934, when a federal panel chose a route that gave Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee roughly equal mileage, North Carolina launched a campaign to get Tennessee's slice of the pie. (See related story, Page E1.) Tennessee fought back, but unsuccessfully. After months of politicking and controversy, Harold L. Ickes, secretary of the interior and administrator of public works, decided that the parkway should take its present route through Virginia and North Carolina. Not a mile is in Tennessee.

I found maps of the proposed Tennessee route in Harley E. Jolley's history, "The Blue Ridge Parkway." They showed the proposed route diverging from the present parkway at Linville, N.C., shifting west to Roan Mountain and into Tennessee and then roughly paralleling the state line until reaching the Smokies and ending in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

By paying attention to various landmarks on these maps, I seldom strayed as far as five miles from my estimation of the Tennessee route. Though the roads I took were generally at a lower elevation than the parkway would have been, at several points I crossed what would have been the parkway's path. For the most part, I was able to stay on paved state roads.

Setting out from Bakersville, N.C. -- 20 miles west of Linville, as the crow flies -- I didn't intend to compare the Tennessee and North Carolina parkway routes. But I found myself doing so anyway. Roan Mountain, the first stop, offered scenery that was as spectacular and varied as any along the parkway.

The road up Roan Mountain, Rte. 261, was the steepest of the entire journey. As my car swung through the many hairpin turns, I could see glimpses of the peak of the Roan, 6,285 feet high and occasionally topped by clouds. By the time I began to look down rather than up, the air had cooled considerably. The trees were stunted and twisted by the wind; hardwoods had given way to balsam and rhododendron. I was in a different land.

At the top of the Roan, North Carolina meets Tennessee, and North Carolina Rte. 261 meets Tennessee Rte. 143. They all meet the Appalachian Trail, which emerges from the woods, heads north to the top of a tremendous bald, then disappears.

On the North Carolina side of the border, in Pisgah National Forest, is a 600-acre rhododendron garden, with a maze of paths broken periodically by overlooks. When I was there, the cold and the wind drove clouds quickly across the mountaintop, but occasionally a break in the clouds gave a glimpse of the grandeur that stretched for miles below.

I'd been hesitant to compare the Tennessee and North Carolina routes, partly because I couldn't view either of them as they were in 1934, at the time of the parkway controversy. Now and then, however, I felt as though I'd stepped back at least 50 years.

While driving through Tennessee's Roan Mountain State Park, past its swimming pool, cabins and restaurant, I turned off Rte. 143 and twisted up another mountain to the Daniel Miller Homestead. In a small valley were a white frame house and assorted outbuildings, all with red roofs and surrounded by a white picket fence.

The scene was utterly charming, but seemed a little sterile until I met John Frank Miller, a 70-year-old man who grew up in the house and is now a park guide. Tuesdays through Sundays he is at his old homeplace, bringing it to life for the visitors who stop by.

"My father built this house in 1908," he says. "When we lived here there wasn't a road up the mountain. Only a 2-mile footpath." He gives chatty tours of the house and outbuildings.

I asked Miller if he knew that the parkway might have come very near his home. "Oh, yes," he said. "A lot of people were very disappointed that it didn't come here. It would have made a lot of difference to this area."

Outside the state and national parks, I found little evidence of tourists. Only at the town of Roan Mountain, a few miles north of the park, did I see the string of gas stations, cheap restaurants and gift shops that have sprung up on every major road that crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway.

For mile after mile I drove through farm-filled valleys, often following a creek or stream. I began to notice distinctive stone houses and barns, apparently made of river rock. Always to my right was the forested ridge where the parkway almost went.

From Roan Mountain I headed west on Rte. 19E, then south on Rtes. 173, 107 and 19W. At Erwin, a town of 5,000 on the Nolichucky River, I asked forest ranger Joe Dabney to tell me about the local sights.

The town, he said, was best-known for an elephant hanging that took place there in the early part of the century. A circus elephant killed a man in Kingsport and was sentenced to die. No gun was powerful enough to do the job, so the elephant was taken to Erwin and hung by cable from a railroad crane.

I asked about Embreeville, since both it and Erwin showed up on my maps. Embreeville was once a mining town as large as Erwin, Dabney said. But the mining company pulled out and there isn't much left.

He sent me across the Nolichucky to the vine-choked ruins of a mining operation at Bumpus Cove, and suggested I stop by the Chucky Trading Co., a restaurant that was once the 24-room residence of the mine owner. Strangely enough, it now serves Mexican food.

On the way to Embreeville -- just five miles northwest of Erwin -- I passed Carl Coffey Grocery. Its fac,ade was covered with dolls. Dozens of old, dirty, naked, sometimes bald dolls had been wired to the side of the building. The store was closed, but I stopped a little girl who rode by on her bike.

"He just hangs them up there when he finds them, that's all," she said, obviously puzzled at the question. We both rode on.

North of Embreeville, I picked up Rte. 107 again and followed it through the valley of the Nolichucky. The river is powerful enough to interest rafting enthusiasists and the most hardcore canoeists, and over the centuries it has made a wide and very fertile valley at the base of the Bald and Rich mountain ridges. I passed hundreds of acres of tomatoes and tobacco and corn, all growing green and tall. Nature seems to have blessed this land.

Between Katy and Joshua creeks, I turned at the two chimneys of the ruined homestead of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier. I followed the road to a suspension bridge that crossed the Nolichucky, where two men were looking into the water. They'd seen an enormous carp. "This big," one of them said, holding his hands at least three feet apart.

Herman Phillips was the elder. He'd lived across the river all his life. Did he know that the parkway almost came through here 50 years ago?

"No, I never heard about that, but I've always thought that a road up on that ridge would be a wonderful thing," he said. "It's really something up there."

Later, I headed up the ridge myself, following signs from Pleasant Hill to the Horse Creek Recreation Area in the Cherokee National Forest. Horse Creek was as far as I could get up Cold Spring Mountain, another landmark on my maps. I found an idyllic campground, where each of the nine tent sites is isolated in dense growth of rhododendron and evergreen, and situated by the clear, rushing creek. No one was using the facility.

Leaving the Nolichucky, I passed through the rolling hills of the Houston Valley, still on Rte. 107. The farms here have a particularly old-fashioned appeal: A well-used molasses mill sits in the corner of a field. On a classic country store hangs a sign that says "Closed Up."

Only when I turned onto U.S. Rte. 25-70 did I realize I'd been charmed by obsolescence. This is the "Dixie Highway," once the main road from Knoxville to Asheville. Its role has been usurped by I-40.

I stopped at several vintage restaurants, where classy deco signs advertised steaks, country ham and "good food." Once inside, I discovered that these places are now nothing more than beer halls.

Down the road at Del Rio, another landmark on my map, I saw more signs of prosperity past. "Fields Restaurant over there used to have 18 buses a day stop at it," Tom Burnett Jones interrupted his lawn mowing to tell me. "Why, we used to have traffic in this town." Fields sells little more than beer these days.

What remains of Del Rio, however, is utterly charming. On the banks of the French Broad River sit a few big Victorian houses and a lovely white church. A sign on a telephone pole says "Marsupial Crossing." Locals congregate on a bench outside Murr's Grocery, the quintessential country store.

When I asked for a restroom there, Mrs. Murr said, "We've only got a ladies', but you're welcome to it." She didn't remember anything about the parkway controversy, but nodded as I talked, as though she'd heard it all before.

"They said they'd put the interstate through here, but they didn't. Now we can't even get on the map," she said.

If Del Rio's residents are disappointed about the interstate, they ought to look more closely at Hartford, the last landmark before Gatlinburg on my maps. I-40 does go through this town, but so far it has brought only a big new gas station and the Cook Shack BBQ. The Pigeon River, fast and dark, is still the town's major attraction.

I drove up Cripple Creek Road, the way the parkway would have come from Del Rio, and saw little more than kudzu and dust. On one huge hill of kudzu a trailer sat surrounded by a chain link fence, as though to keep out the strangling vine.

My trip might have ended on this disappointing note if I hadn't taken a wrong turn off I-40 outside Hartford. I found myself on the Foothills Parkway, which I'd never heard of and which I couldn't find on any of my maps. It turned out to be a six-mile stretch of road that is completely devoid of commercial development. At several points I stopped to enjoy lovely views of valley and mountain, farmland and forest. This is a miniature version of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Back home, I called the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and learned that the Foothills Parkway is part of the park. The short section between I-40 and Cosby that I'd been on and a 17-mile stretch on the other side of Gatlinburg -- falling roughly between Walland and Tallassee -- are the only portions completed since the project was begun in the 1960s.

The 71-mile route was designed to ring the northern, Tennessee boundary of the park, serving as a platform from which to view the mountains and as a way of relieving traffic congestion within the park itself. The plan was later incorporated into a proposal for a route that would completely encircle the Smokies. With increased highway revenues from the 5-cents federal gasoline tax, construction has resumed. Fifteen miles are under construction, and four more are being planned.

Tennessee, it seems, is finally getting the kind of parkway it missed out on 50 years ago.