Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Appalachian adventure

What do you do with a Rapid Reward that is about to expire and an urge to see a part of the country that you've never really explored before? In my case, I decided to spend an extended weekend exploring the Appalachian Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

On Friday March 23, I flew into Atlanta, rented a car, and the next morning embarked on my journey. Here are some sights I encountered along the way (click on any picture for a larger version):

Although in the 1830s the majority of the Cherokee Indians were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, some Cherokees in North Carolina managed to stay behind and a reservation now exists just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee Syllabary was developed by Sequoyah in the 1820s. He would be proud of his legacy: in addition to being used extensively within the reservation (for example, street signs are in English as well as Cherokee), I've noticed that his writing system is also widely used in Oklahoma.
Clingman's Dome straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border and, at 6,643 feet, is actually the highest point in the state of Tennessee. Normally, the observation deck atop it would offer wonderful views of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Alas, when I was there the clouds had rolled in and a thick fog had eliminated all visibility. The thin air and the fact that I am woefully out of shape made the uphill trek from the parking area to the observation deck rather tiring, but the fog actually gave the walk a thrillingly mysterious feel to it.
The "Great Smoky Mountains" get their name from the mist and fog that rises from them, as this picture clearly illustrates. Sometime in the future, when the weather is warmer, I want to spend more time in this park. On Saturday March 24, I was only there for about three hours.

I spent the night in Waynesville, North Carolina and ate dinner at the Sweet Onion restaurant. The food was excellent and I recommend it to anyone who might be traveling in that area.
The fog persisted on Sunday March 25th as I attempted to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs along the ridges of the Appalachians and connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Below a certain altitude I was afforded wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. But above that altitude, as I was here at the parkway's highest point, I was literally driving inside of a cloud. The thick fog not only obscured the scenery but also made for treacherous driving conditions on the curvy parkway, so I eventually decided to exit the parkway outside of Boone, North Carolina (home of Appalachian State University, owners of the biggest upset in college football history) and make my way to Interstate 81 via Mountain City, Tennessee (a drive that was in and of itself very picturesque). I-81 might not have been as scenic, but it was much faster, and I spent the evening in Lexington, Virginia.

Lexington is the home of Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University, the burial place of Confederate generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and among its environs is the birthplace of my hometown's namesake. Also, the Hampton Inn there is ridiculously expensive.
Buena Vista is a town east of Lexington where I resumed my travels along the Blue Ridge Parkway on the morning of Monday March 26. It also means "good view" in Spanish, as this picture attests.
Once it reaches Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway becomes Skyline Drive. The views of Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east are superlatively spectacular.
A view of Skyline Drive as it makes its way through a ridgetop forest. Most of Shenandoah National Park's other amenities - visitors' centers and trails, for example - wouldn't open for several more weeks. As I drove along, there were times when I felt like I was the only person inside the entire park. It was a very cool feeling.
A view of the Shenandoah Valley. The redbuds seen at the bottom of the picture were in bloom everywhere in Virginia, and they added a nice splash of color to the early-spring greenery.
Speaking of blooms: after I left Shenandoah National Park, I got on Interstate 66 and made my way to the nation's capital, hoping to catch at least a few cherry trees still in blossom. I was in luck: although most of them had already bloomed, there were still a handful of cherry trees around Jefferson Memorial that were in full bloom. This was my third visit to DC and my first visit to the Jefferson Memorial.
More cherry trees in bloom near the Jefferson Memorial. The mild winter had caused most of the cherry trees in and around the memorial and the Tidal Basin to bloom well before Washington's annual cherry blossom festival. I'm glad I was able to get there in time to see a few stragglers.
Close-up of a cherry blossom in Washington, DC.

I spent a couple of hours in Washington, and then made my way up to BWI, where I caught a flight back to Houston. It was a short trip, but it was one that I nevertheless enjoyed. It was a nice, if short, escape from Houston and to a part of the country I've always wanted to see. And, as I said before, I'd love to do this again when the weather is warmer and when I have more time to spend.

Next time I drive the Blue Ridge Parkway it's also going to be in a vehicle that handles better than the rental I was given at ATL. Even at the parkway's posted speed limit of 45 mph, the rental I was driving felt loose and hard to control.

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