Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Homeward bound

Having driven 575+ miles in the Blue Ridge, we were now almost at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This park is well worth an extensive visit, but we decided it was time to head for home.

After the peace and beauty of the Parkway, we certainly didn't want to throw ourselves on the tender mercies of an interstate. We also wanted to go back and visit a couple of places we had bypassed in order to meet our friends in Swannanoa. So after a fast-food lunch we managed to find our way out of Cherokee and onto a two-lane country road.

There we promptly ended up in a traffic jam caused by a capsized dump truck. We were in no rush, so we just played it cool and eventually got past the disaster. We got as far as West Asheville, where we checked into another KOA, this one less crowded. Got a good rainstorm that night.

After buying some groceries the next day, we got back on the Parkway --- this time heading north. Ate lunch on a Parkway overlook, then pressed on to Craggy Gardens, where we hoped to see a lot more flowers. Unfortunately, there were no flowers at that time, darn.

So we pressed on to Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. It is a few miles off the Parkway in Mt. Mitchell State Park. You can park near the summit and hike a short, paved trail to the top. It was cloudy, including a cloud covering the summit, but we wanted to hike up there just to do it, even if there wouldn't be any view.

The path is fairly steep, and Jean's hip was bothering her, so we came back down and she opted to ride up in a park service jeep provided for that purpose. But then it started thundering. We waited to see if the storm would pass, but when it continued to rain we decided to find a campground for the night. The ranger said that such storms were often followed by a bright, sunshiny day so we headed up 40 miles to the Linville Falls campground.

The next day was not sunny, but we headed back anyway. Along the way we had to stop for turkey traffic.

The top of Mt. Mitchell was still cloudy, but we pressed on. In fact, we ran through a rain shower on the way up. However, it was not raining at the top, though it was not clear either.

Nothing daunted, Gene huffed and puffed his way to the top (about 10 minutes with one stop) and Jean came up in the jeep a few minutes later.

There wasn't much of a view, but it wasn't raining and we had made it to the highest point in the East. Back at the parking area, we bought a couple of Cokes to celebrate (no rum, though).

Now we were homeward bound for sure. We got to Wilkesboro and after several "recalculating"'s found the Walmart only to learn there was no overnight parking. So we pressed on to Boone, where we found a Cracker Barrel. After a short walk, we had supper in the rig, but went inside for a decadent dessert.

After breakfast at Cracker Barrel, we decided to head downtown for some shopping. After we found ourselves out in the woods, we decided that the woman at the Visitor Center had given us a wrong turn. By the time we got back to Boone, it was raining heavily so we gave up on that idea and headed to Galax.

Spend some time in downtown Galax and had lunch. Then on to Hillsville to see an interesting old shoe store. Just went in to look, but Gene bought some suspenders.

A few miles up the road we arrived at Jean's cousin B.P.'s. We were able to park on level ground next to the house and plug in. Stayed up 'til late eating, drinking, and visiting. A great way to wrap up a great trip. From there it was a short drive up the Parkway back to the farm and home.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Blue Ridge in North Carolina

The southern part of the Blue Ridge, in North Carolina, is higher and more rugged. We also looked forward to seeing some rhododendron in bloom (it was a little too early in the north).

Jean has an old friend and mentor who lives near the Parkway in North Carolina. He was the one who basically set her on a career of teaching folk dancing. We pulled off at an overlook where she had bars on her cell phone and she called him. We agreed to meet in a couple of days.

Then we checked in at the Doughton Park campground, where we met a couple from Vermont. We shared a bottle of wine and talked for a long time.

Next day, we visited the Northwest Trading Post, which is on the Parkway. They had some interesting stuff, but none of the essentials that we needed, namely: rum, ice, and dog food. So we went on in to Boone.

While we were there, Gene decided to top up the fuel tank, even though we had more than half a tank left. We pulled into a Hess station, and pulled up to one of the pumps with a green nozzle (the usual color for diesel). He had pumped in three gallons when he saw to his horror that it was actually Regular. It was now 4:00pm on a Friday.

After jumping up and down and cursing for a few minutes, we considered our options and finally came to the obvious conclusion. Jean called for a tow truck on her AAA membership; and after some more phone calls found that the local Dodge dealer could, and would, be able to empty the tank. So we got towed there and after being assured that we had not started the engine, they proceeded to drain off 20 gallons of contaminated fuel. Meanwhile they took me back to the station where I got four gallons of diesel (the diesel pumps were on the other side of the station).

By now we were on overtime, but the very knowledgable crew stayed with it and got all the old fuel cleared out and everything put back together. The mechanic advised me to have a new fuel filter installed when we got back home. We drove to a nearby station and filled the tank and were back on the Parkway by 6:30. This misadventure cost us something over $200 and a couple of hours, but if I had started the engine we would be out about $10,000 and who knows how much time to rebuild the engine. Sure makes one feel stupid, though.

The next day we got to Grandfather Mountain and the Linn Cove Viaduct. This is the last part of the Parkway to be completed. It took 20 years for them to figure out a way to deal with the environmental, engineering, and land problems. The answer was to hang the Parkway on the side of the mountain.

View through the windshield

It follows an S-curve around the mountain, and then you're back in the woods again.

About milepost 352 we spot the first rhododendrons in bloom...

as well as some flame azaleas.

About mid-afternoon we went in to the town of Swannanoa and checked in to a KOA. It was more crowded and not as quiet as the NPS campgrounds, and cost four times as much. But it did have hookups and showers. Jean's friends picked us up and gave us a tour of Jean's old college campus, followed by an incredible pizza and lots of interesting visiting.

Next morning we took advantage of the campground's laundromat and did our laundry. Then a lunch at Arby's and back on the Parkway by mid-afternoon.

We spent a pleasant hour at the Folk Art center. This facility showcases North Carolina craftsmen with works on display and for sale. We had an interesting conversation with a young woman who was caning a chair. That is a more complicated process than we had imagined.

Spent the night at the Mount Pisgah campground. Had a Southern Country breakfast at the Mt. Pisgah Inn and watched the clouds moving up and down the valley through the picture windows.

 At 3:22 pm, we pass milepost 469 to complete the run down the entire Blue Ridge Parkway (as well as the Skyline Drive).

We have run the whole thing, but we are not done with the Parkway. On the way home we will come back to pick up a couple of places we missed on the way down. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

On to the Blue Ridge Parkway

After a growly night, we woke to a cloudy day. Left the campground about 11:00 (hey, we're on vacation). Ran through some rain and occasional fog. An hour later we left Shenandoah National Park and began the Blue Ridge Parkway. Only 469 miles to go.

Jean wanted to post a letter, so we stopped at the Visitor Center at the beginning of the Parkway. We found out that there is no mail service on the Parkway. So we pressed on in periods of rain and fog.

After about 60 miles, we arrived at the James River Visitor Center --- closed thanks to the Sequester. This is where Virginia's longest river cuts through the Blue Ridge, and is the lowest point on the Parkway (at 694 feet). After a long, ten-mile hill, we were at the highest elevation on the Virginia portion of the Parkway --- 3950 feet. Not a good stretch to be riding a bicycle.

We checked in at the Peaks of Otter campground, about 40 minutes from our home in Forest. The campground is on the side of Sharp Top mountain, a very steep slope. We wondered how that would work out. The campsites are basically carved into the side of the mountain, and were surprisingly level. We shared the campground with a large number of Airstream trailers, and at least four "Land Yachts," large Class A's by Airstream. They were on a Caravan, and we saw license plates from all over.

Next day we dropped off the Parkway to go to a nearby Walmart that we knew about and got some groceries and ice. We also picked up some more fuel, since there is no fuel available on the mountain. Back on the Parkway, we found that this stretch is more like a country road. Much of the Parkway passes through National Forests. Along the sections that don't, the Park property is only a few hundred yards wide. Here you often see farms butting up to the Park, and sometimes other roads running alongside. It is interesting to go from the "wilderness" of the park properties, to the modern, but still very rural, countryside.

Spent the night at Rocky Knob campground. This is probably our favorite campground in the Blue Ridge; it has widely-spaced campsites separated by broad areas of grass and trees. While walking around, Gene spotted a luna moth on the map of the campground. He hadn't seen one in several  years.

After talking for a while with a Canadian couple, we had supper and read until bed time.

Next day we drove less and spent more time at exhibits. The first was Mabry Mill.

This iconic old mill has been used to exemplify rural beauty in many places, but it was built here on 
the Blue Ridge a little over a century ago. The exhibit has grown since Gene was last here several years ago, and is worth spending some time.

Besides grinding corn, the water wheel also powers a sawmill and a wood shop, where Ed Mabry built a special jig saw for cutting out sections (fellows) for wooden wagon wheels in one pass.

After a delicious lunch at the restaurant, we pressed on to the Blue Ridge Music Center, just before the North Carolina line. It was late by the time we got there, and the local musicians just had a half-hour left in their gig. We had put on our dancing shoes, but they didn't play anything we could dance to, so we just relaxed and enjoyed some good old-time mountain music.

We looked around the little mountain music museum, and then pressed on into North Carolina. More about that tomorrow.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Blue Ridge

The Old Pair of Jeans, and YumYum, have taken a new trip. This time we drove the crest of the Blue Ridge, from Front Royal, VA to Cherokee, NC. As it turns out, most of the trip we had no cell coverage, not to mention wifi. Thus this edition is not a day-by-day journal, but rather a summary of the trip in two or three installments.

The basic route consisted of driving the Skyline Drive (105 miles), which is part of Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles). The total trip took a little over eleven days, and with three exceptions we stayed in National Park campgrounds ($7.50 - $8.00) every night.

To begin, we drove (mostly interstate) north to Front Royal, topped off the fuel tank, and drove into Shenandoah NP about 3:40 in the afternoon on Sunday, 16 June. We immediately left the bustle of the "real world" behind us and found ourselves following a two-lane road through the deep, green forest that covers the Blue Ridge. Skyline Drive is the only road that runs the length of the park.We saw very little traffic. There is the occasional overlook which reminds you that you are in the mountains.

We chose June in order to view the spring wildflowers, and we were not disappointed. The flowers that you see are going to vary according to latitude and elevation. You may see a flower in full bloom, and a few miles later you are at a different elevation and the same flower may be just beginning or already finished.

Perhaps our favorite -- and most seen -- flower was the mountain laurel. We were able spot stands of it from time to time on the whole trip.

 We pulled in to a campground (Matthews Arm) and set up for the night.  National Park campgrounds have no hookups. You do what is called "dry camping," that is you live off of whatever utilities you carry with you. So there isn't much to set up --- basically we turn on the propane (which we keep turned off while traveling for safety reasons), switch the refrigerator to gas, and turn the navigator's seat around. Unfortunately, the fridge wouldn't run on gas. Big problem -- but not a trip stopper. We turned on the generator and ran it for an hour to chill the fridge down good, then turned it off so as not to disturb the quiet for the other campers (and ourselves). We discussed our options and Jean pointed out that we could continue on relying on ice.

National Park campgrounds have widely-spaced campsites (for the most part), along with lots of grass and trees. There are flush toilets (but no showers,) dump stations, and potable water available. And lots of quiet and nature.

After a good night's sleep in the cool mountain air, we headed out next morning. We took the next road off the mountain (there aren't many) and went in to Luray, VA. At the Walmart we bought a cooler and some ice. Then to McDonalds for lunch and wifi to do some necessary business.

Back on the Skyline, we were admiring the woods and flowers when we spotted a black bear cub beside the road. Black bears are common in these woods, but they are very shy and you seldom see one. We saw lots of deer and turkeys, but only one bear in the entire trip.

We stopped at Big Meadows, which has a lodge and camp store. The Appalachian Trail passes near here and there were a lot of hikers with backpacks around. We picked up some bug spray and ice cream. We sat outside and ate our ice cream while looking at the extensive meadows that give the place its name.

We continued on and checked in at Loft Mountain, the last campground in the Shenandoah National Forest. Tomorrow we will connect with the Blue Ridge Parkway. On this trip we did something different for us. In the morning we put away the bedding and converted the bed in the back to a sofa with ottomans. It was a warm evening, so I opened the rear doors and zipped in a screen that covers the whole opening. We relaxed on the sofa and enjoyed cheese and crackers along with cold Cuba Libres while gazing at the trees and grass and listening to the quiet. It doesn't get any better than that.