Thursday, February 23, 2012

Country Roads, Take Me Home

Most of the time, I love my Copina Jr. She reliably gets me from point A to point B, only ever getting confused at times when it doesn’t affect (there’s that word again) my directions. She can usually figure out where I’m trying to point here, even if, like today, all I tell her is to find “Grandfather” near “Newland, NC.” Her “warnings” about traffic conditions are largely useless, but we’ve come to an understanding on that point, and I no longer hold it against her. She can even perform slightly better than a blind toddler when GPSing in Boston.

But sometimes it becomes painfully obvious that Copina Jr. a machine and doesn’t comprehend the emotional impact of sending me through, say, 25 miles of hilly southern Virginia farmland via windy backwater roads on a day when I’ve already traveled 300 miles and still have another 150 to go. When we can manufacture a GPS that takes this into account and offers “least frustrating route” under its options, then we’ll know that we’ve truly created an artificial sentient being.
The day began as every day has since the Blizzard of Last Sunday – with me calling the Blue Ridge Parkway hotline to check on how much of the road is still unnecessarily closed. This morning, things had taken a turn for the better, with most of the North Carolina section, and parts of the Virginia section, open for travel. One area that was still closed was the 75 miles from the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park through Asheville. This meant that I had to find a way around the park so I could hit the Parkway further up. As a result, I drove through parts of Pigeon Forge I’d never seen before, and I’m still not quite over what I saw there today. It involved a full-sized replica of the Titanic (complete with iceberg), a crazy barn-like structure that became a dinner theater in the evening, and something that looked a lot like the White House, except that it was completely upside down. You can’t make this stuff up, folks:

After an otherwise uneventful jaunt through eastern Teeeennesseee!, I was finally allowed to get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I think I got on at the very northern end of the most interesting part of the road, and all the stuff I had planned to do came up very quickly. My only hike of the day was at Rough Ridge. I didn’t remember why I had written it down, but upon seeing the 100-mile visibility across the road from there, I had a feeling it would involve a decent view. After about a half mile of climbing through puddles and over boulders, I emerged above the treetops and was met with this:
I saw some people standing on another exposed rock a little further up, so I went to investigate that one, too.

All week, I’ve been looking for the most layers of mountain ridges I could get in a single picture. Between Look Rock and this, I think I may have maxed out. So, I didn’t see how going up any higher on this trail would do anything but make me more tired without making the view substantially better, so I turned around and headed back to the car for lunch.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is definitely more than just another country road along a ridgeline. With its limited access, consistent speed limit, and federally-preserved landscape all around, it combines the best parts of yesterday’s Foothills Parkway with 10-years-ago’s Garden State Parkway. Even into Virginia, where the overlooks are mostly flat valleys or rolling Piedmont hills, the Parkway still provided a peaceful and relaxing drive that showed off the best of what the area had to offer (which, for the record, included almost no snow or ice). 

Sadly, if I had continued on this route for the rest of its course northward, I would have arrived at my hotel in approximately 3 days, so once the sun was setting and the mountains were clearly all behind me, I exited and started making my way towards the Interstates.

In each of these trips I take, there comes a point where I hit a wall and just don’t want to do any more driving. This summer, that point came 6 hours into day 2 of the Pacific Coast Highway. This week, that point came when Copina Jr. took me from the Blue Ridge Parkway to I-81 via the twistiest narrow mountain/farm road I’ve seen since the PCH, as she insisted I drive 55 mph. As I was able to manage only about 25, she punished me by adding a minute to my ETA seemingly every time I slowed down to take a curve. This was truly the backcountry. I passed a trailer with a boat parked out front, countless rusted-out pickups, whole towns with no sign of human habitation, and 1 school – an elementary school. And this wasn’t a 5-mile adventure – it went on for 19 solid miles. By the end, I was counting the tenths of miles until I could turn off this god-forsaken patch of land.

I couldn’t have been more relieved to see that ramp for 81 east, and those next 150 miles on that highway seemed to go by faster than the previous 20. In the end, I’m in fabulous New Market, VA, where tomorrow I’ll loop back south and enter Shenandoah National Park from the south, working my way north to where I left off last week, before turning east and heading home. This will likely take all evening, so don’t stay up too late waiting for a blog post, because you may not get one until the next day.

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