Six months to the day since crossing the Delaware Water Gap and retuning To New Jersey after my 11,000-mile journey west, I again stand upon the precipice of another grand Elantra adventure. Granted, this precipice is not quite as steep, nor is the adventure quite as grand, but it is perhaps more necessary.
For schools in New England, the week of President’s Day is known as February Vacation – a 10-day school recess coming after the post-New Year depression and before the furious 6 weeks of instruction leading to April Vacation and which includes the first rounds of MCAS testing. As Gandalf would say, it is the deep breath before the plunge. Knowing that this would be coming, and suffering from premature cabin fever after last summer’s travels, I began contemplating plans for February Vacation in October. It was never a question of if I would be going somewhere; it was a question of where I’d be going.
I’ve already laid out possible trips for future summers: A 2-3 week jaunt through the deep south, Texas, and New Mexico before turning north and taking a grand tour of Colorado before returning home; an abridged “greatest hits” selection of last summer’s destinations; and some oddball ideas involving Glacier and Joshua Tree National Parks in northern Montana and southern California, respectively. I briefly considered Olympic National Park in Washington – a victim of time constraints this summer, famous for snow-capped mountains surrounded by tranquil coastline, but soon realized that much of the park is inaccessible during winter. I then thought about the opposite extreme – Miami and the Everglades. But ultimately I decided that flying (and packing efficiently enough for it), renting a car, and dealing with another major metropolitan area would all be too much of a hassle and too expensive for a week-long single-destination trip.
In the end I decided that the most relaxing, exciting, and cost-effective 10-day winter road trip would be to visit the most dramatic nearby mountains that I haven’t already seen up close – the southern Appalachians. So I plugged in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, pulled up WikiTravel, opened Google Earth, and was off and planning. Here’s what I came up with:
Shortly, I leave for my parents’ house in New Jersey, the same staging area and dogsitting hotspot I used last summer. Tomorrow I go west towards Shenandoah National Park, stopping at Gettysburg along the way. Then I’ll spend a day exploring Skyline Drive before taking parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway down to Asheville, NC. Then I’ll spend 2 days in the Smokies, shifting my home base to Pigeon Forge, TN (a name which still forms a very strange mental image). Then I’ll turn back north, hitting pieces of the Parkway I missed on the way down, and stopping to see the famous Luray Caverns. Depending on my mood, the final stretch back to the Kingdom of Whitney and Eli might involve a stop in Washington, D.C., all before returning home a week from Saturday.
While that outline sounds nearly as overstuffed at my description of last summer’s, there will be many differences this time around. First, there will be no camping. My tent and sleeping bag are 3-season devices and February constitutes the 4th season. Also, the weather in this part of the country at this time of year is too unpredictable. I’d have to be ready for 10 degrees with snow and for 65 degrees and rain. So for 6 nights, it’ll be all hotels.
The other major difference with this trip will be the scenery. Obviously, there will be no canyons or jagged peaks, and I’ll be fine with that. For me, coming around a bend in the road and seeing a 180-degree panorama stretching in front of you through a break in the trees is just as satisfying whether it’s 40 or 200 miles distant. Relative to the surrounding scenery, the viewpoints and overlooks in the Blue Ridge mountains are just as spectacular as the ones out west. In deciding which hikes are worth taking, which stops are must-sees, comparisons to western vistas so far haven’t come up for me. I’ll probably write about this trip in those terms, since it will be a cheap and easy way to describe things, but I don’t think I’ll be holding this trip up to the same standards as the last one.
But for today, my itinerary is set, my bags are packed, and the mountains are calling once more.