Thursday, July 21, 2016

Deep South USA - Blue Ridge Road Trip

I have been quietly interested in the Southern USA ever since I touched upon the American Civil War when studying history as a kid. This interest has grown over the years through the drip-feed of innumerous cultural references, chance meetings with Southerners, and periodic delves into the history, culture, and society of the USA.

The incentive of visiting an old mate who married a Southern belle and settled in that fascinating corner of the world was all the excuse I needed to come explore.

The old mate was (and is) Adam, the belle Paget. Together with two lovely children, Iris and Tanner, they live in a beautiful, affluent suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. With the keen hospitality for which the South is famed and being wonderfully forgiving of the severe reduction in serenity that it entailed, they put Chris, me, and our three little ones up in their house before, after, and in between two road trips into the South. The first of these was to the mountains.


On Paget’s recommendation, we set off on a north-easterly direction in search of Asheville, North Carolina. The first thing that struck me as we turned onto the 10-lane highway out of the city was the scale of the everyday automobiles. Our Grand Cherokee was the biggest car I have ever rented (the airport rental company had suggested it was too small for us!), but it was nothing compared to all these giant SUVs and 6-wheeler pick-ups ploughing the road with a penchant for undertaking.

The second thing was just how green everything was. Verdant, steroid-fuelled green, dominated by huge trees that hemmed in the road for mile after mile. For some reason, I had expected Georgia to be dry and dusty cotton land, but instead we found what felt like temperate rain forest.  To my amazement, I later discovered that this forest stretched in an almost uninterrupted line for over 1000 miles all the way to Canada. Who said all the wilderness was out West?

Our long day at the wheel was only broken by two very different, but each quintessentially American, pit-stops. The first was to a highway Waffle House. An American institution I had never heard of, serving cholesterol-fuelled diner food and waffles to some of the more skint and hungover members of society since God knows when. It sounds strange, but visiting this small roadside diner complete with distinctly shifty looking guests and a waitress who slipped effortlessly between giving the locals an earful and acting sweet as pie to us was one of my top cultural experiences of our trip. Akin, I imagine, to an American visiting the UK and stepping into a middle-of-nowhere pub full of half-pissed locals.
Southerners do indeed love their God...
...and their Guns
Finally turning off the highway onto smaller roads, we found more forest, interspersed with farmland, as we briefly crossed into South Carolina. This was where we took our second stop, in the small middle-of-nowhere cross-roads town of Walhalla. I was in heaven. As well as the gun shop, multiple Baptist churches, and pick-ups to burn, this two-horse town is home to a dainty, prim little café run by people that are so inordinately friendly that it set my cynical European mind on edge. The South really is different.

On we went, back through the forests and into North Carolina, before arriving just before dark at the little piece of vintage Americana we were to call home for the next few days. A small wooden cabin at an original 1920’s motor lodge (the precursor to motels). Though just off I-25 and only a couple of miles north of Ashville, we found ourselves surrounded by towering woodland, cardinals, chipmunks, and, our kids aside, quiet.


Above all else, we had come here for the Blue Ridge Parkway. A highly unconventional road which owes its existence to desperate times and grand gestures. Part of FDR’s New Deal to provide work to the unemployed masses and give a Keynesian kickstart to the US economy ravaged by the depths of the Great Depression. The Parkway stretches 469 miles, snaking south from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains at the very edge North Carolina. Apart from its roots, what makes this road stand out is its extraordinary setting and protection. It purposely clings to the higher reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is protected by Federal law as a National Park. No HGVs, gas stations, lights, or traffic, just glorious open road cutting in and out of the clouds.

The college town of Asheville is the main stop at the heart of the Parkway, nestled in a valley famed for its beauty. When we awoke the first morning, we could see none of it. Dark clouds had closed in to swallow up the mountains and it was pissing it down relentlessly. We decided to brave the Parkway anyhow. We chose south, climbed out of Asheville, and were delighted to join the Parkway in a gap in the clouds. We were greeted with a magnificent view back across a river valley and out to the forests. It lasted all of 5 minutes and then the weather closed back in, drearier than before. Within half an hour, we could barely see 10m in front of us, enveloped as we were in dense, dripping fog.

We cut our losses and quit the highway, descending on a small road which twisted through the Pisgah National Forest in a southerly direction. The mist slowly cleared until we reached a large waterfall (Looking Glass Falls), bursting through the trees and dropping 18m into a splash pool. The kids had seen nothing like it and were happily over-awed. On we headed to the town of Brevard, nestled in the wonderfully named Transylvania County. We settled in for lunch at a seriously quirky  50’s diner, where we were informed by a ridiculously sincere yet friendly local that we would find even better waterfalls in the Dupont State Forest, only a few miles out of town.

Given the weather we had little to lose, so we drove on, parked up and, in spite of the incessant drizzle, slapped Ariadne in the baby-bjorn, gave each of the boys a mini umbrella, and headed off round a well-marked trail through dense forest. It was awesome.

We trekked for an hour or so, following a 3-mile trail next to a river that intermittently found dramatic ways to transverse a troublesome landscape. First a sheer drop, where the whole river poured over a ridge and dropped 40m in a violent cascade.
Then a series of smaller, but no less beautiful, falls, funnelled by large chunks of granite. Climbing down a steep set of steps, we were able to get right up close and personal, feeling the spray. The rain then closed in and we ended our adventure jogging through the trees to our car with the kids on our shoulders huddling under umbrellas.


Fortunately, the weather improved and we spent the next two days exploring the Parkway to the north, entering on the first day up a rather interesting dirt trail that made me happy we had a 4x4. Once atop the Parkway, we were greeted with the most astonishing views of thick forests falling down from the mountains and out over the valleys, sporadically carpeted with thin streaks of pure white cloud.

As the smooth, empty road meandered high up on the ridge for mile after mile, the Appalachians threw up one amazing vista after another. A truly majestic part of the world.

Like so many National Parks in the USA, the Parkway is brilliantly organised, with maps, resting stops, and countless trails. We took the three small ones up one of these trails which led through Craggy Gardens.
Though only 2 and 3, the boys trekked a full couple of miles up hill through increasingly spooky terrain to the summit of Craggy Dome at 6,085 feet. As we climbed, the trees shrunk to gnarled, oxygen-starved beings covered in dripping moss and lichen. The clouds closed in to a claustrophobic mist, muffling sounds and enveloping whatever lurked within the otherworldly undergrowth.
By the time we reached the summit we had climbed into the clouds. A surreal, but fun experience. Staring out from the peak at wisps of white-washed nothingness all around.

On our way down from the Parkway, we chose to take back roads and found ourselves in rural Appalachia. Sticking God radio on the stereo (I kid you not, the first station I found had linked Hilary Clinton, gay marriage, and the coming apocalypse within 30 seconds), we passed through small villages cut out of the woods, lined with Baptist churches and the odd Confederate flag.

This was real, hard, red, back country, which shared little in common with the isolated blue speck of Asheville. Each evening we discovered a bit more of the joys of this laid back college town. Fantastic food, craft beer, and chilled-out atmosphere came as standard, alongside a fair chunk of interesting architecture. The latter, at least in part, thanks to money that poured in from the late 19th century onwards from the locally resident Vanderbilts (a big local tourist attraction is their grand country house of Biltmore, the largest privately owned house in the USA).


Taking the Blue Ridge Parkway south-bound, the sensational views stretched on and on, reaching a crescendo at and beyond Mount Pisgah, where the road clung to a cliff edge at an ever greater height and stark rocky formations littered the forests below.

We stopped off for a snack lunch at the foot of the Waterrock Knob Trail. Starting at a thinning out of the ridge where you could see out to the East and West, the trail headed in the latter direction up and through the forest. The trees then receded as the path strung back and forth up a steep ascent. The boys clambered up without any concern, clutching on steps, rails, and roots.

Approaching the 6000 ft plus summit, the forest thickened around us. A little out of breath we made it to the top and strung out on a bench handily positioned before a cliff edge and yet another stunning view. I was so impressed with our two boys for trekking up the whole way.

We had the place all to ourselves in the sunshine. It was marvellous. Relatively care free, I left Christina to keep our 3 year old and 9 month old away from the cliff edge, and took our 2 year old into the woods for a pee. As he was doing his business in a small clearing, I noticed something more than a little disconcerting. By his side was a massive paw print in the mud, much like a dog’s but on a multiplied scale. Further, it looked VERY fresh - deep, clean edged and untouched by the recent rains.

My mind immediately jumping to the rather large black bears that frequent these parts, I picked up my boy, headed back to the others and, deciding that there were advantages to explaining the situation later, hurried my small family back down the trail.

When back in the jeep it is fair to say that my other half was not impressed that I had waited until after the event to tell her, meaning she did not get the chance to see the print. An awesome reaction, but at least I had taken a pic to show her.


The plan was to follow the Parkway all the way to its Southern terminus. Unfortunately, the small matter of landslides put paid to that. This was announced by an unexpected gate across the road. There was nothing else to do but back track a good half hour and head down into the valleys to find another road.

While this was disappointing, the Blue Ridge Parkway redeemed itself with a parting gift as we made our exit. A massive raptor swooped down in front of us through the trees, before sharing a sharp turn in the road just meters in front of us. It was startling.

Who can spot the raptor?
We ploughed along the local roads, having that slightly dirty sensation of being surrounded by everyday life after touching wilder places. We eventually made it to the odd, rather sad town of Cherokee. A tiny enclave for the Cherokee Indians to sell tat and gambling in a place that was once the heart of their rich territories before most of the nation were forcibly resettled (where they did not perish on the journey) in the wake of a local gold rush to land far away that the white man did not want. This is part of what has become known as the “Trail of Tears”, a scar on the conscience of the US. I felt more than a pang of guilt as I passed through in my Chevrolet Grand Cherokee.

We soon moved on and arrived at the goal of our long day driving from Asheville. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Thanks to a quirk of the last ice age, among other factors, this over 2000 square km mountain park is remarkably bio-diverse. Wildlife from colder northern climes were pushed south by the last great ice age and, unlike in the rest of the region, managed to stay put when the glaciers receded (thanks to the high altitude and unique climate) and now share the park with more natural southern dwellers.

I am a little sad to say that we only popped our noses a few miles into the park, rather than passing all the way through to Tennessee or exploring its wilder parts. One for next time. We did though encounter some great wildlife on our mini trek through the forest and along a clear water river bank. Chipmunks, wild turkeys, squirrels, deer, and, best of all, a group of ground hog. I am not sure who was more excited, the boys, Chris, or me. OK, probably me!
Before jumping back into the car for our long trek back to Atlanta, we just had time to go see a park ranger and ask the key question of the day. She carefully considered our photo and, to my caveated delight, confirmed that it was a black bear print!

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