November 30, 2011

Mountain Memories

We decided to give the Blue Ridge Parkway another chance today, even though the weather reports were a bit iffy.  We only planned to drive on the parkway for about twenty-five miles roundtrip from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, so that Tim could see the Linn Cove Viaduct.  This seemed to be doable.

It was a beautiful day to make the drive from Asheville to Blowing Rock.  After the last few days of rain, the sun was a welcome sight.  We started to see snow on the sides of the road as we climbed above 3,000 feet, left over from yesterday’s snow showers.  The roads, however, were clear.

We entered the Blue Ridge Parkway at Blowing Rock, and immediately encountered a winter wonderland.  I’d never seen the parkway in the snow, so this was a new experience for me.  The road was a bit icy in places, as we climbed from 3,600 to 4,315 feet.  As we passed milepost 304, we caught a glimpse of the Linn Cove Viaduct in the distance.  Because there was no traffic on the parkway, Tim did something that he never does – he actually stopped on the road so we could take photos.

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Linn Cove Viaduct is a design and engineering landmark and the last piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be completed.  Although parkway construction began in 1935, the area around Grandfather Mountain was never finished.  How could a highway be built without destroying the mountain?  It took almost half-a-century to figure out a way.  The viaduct, completed in 1983, was designed to protect the beauty of the mountain and is adapted to the existing contours so that it actually appears to be a part of the mountain.  The viaduct has become one of the most recognized segments of the parkway.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Linn Cove Viaduct, A Little Closer

Linn Cove Viaduct, Even Closer

On the Linn Cove Viaduct
It started to snow as we crossed the Linn Cove Viaduct, so we headed back towards Blowing Rock as planned.  We’ve now experienced rain, snow and fog on the parkway.  I keep remembering the sign as you enter the parkway that advises one to avoid the road in those three conditions.  At least we made it, and it definitely was worth the trip.

Is That Snow?
Neither Rain, Nor Fog, Nor Snow Will Keep Us from the Parkway
Boone, North Carolina, is just eight miles from Blowing Rock, and Tim wanted to see the area where I spend parts of every summer while growing up.  My grandparents lived in Boone, and I loved to come with my parents to visit them.  My grandparents were pioneers of sorts and had opened the first motel in Boone in the late 1940s.  I’m not sure they would recognize the town today.  It’s no longer a sleepy tourist town, but it has lost much of its character.  I can’t say I like what the town has become.

In 1958, my grandfather donated his family’s log cabin to the Southern Appalachian Historical Association, and I took Tim to visit the cabin.  The cabin was built around 1775 and is considered to be the oldest log cabin in Watauga County and one of the oldest cabins in North Carolina.  The cabin was built by Revolutionary War officer James Tatum, and five generations of Tatums lived in it.  The cabin was originally located near Todd, North Carolina, and my grandfather dismantled it, numbering each log, and reassembled it in Boone.

The Tatum Cabin
As a child, I remember going to the cabin with my grandfather, and I loved to listen to him explaining its history to the visitors who came by.  The cabin was one of my favorite places.

Back at the Cabin Again
Boone has had a big influence on me.  It’s where I developed my love for the mountains, and is likely where I first began to appreciate and love historic buildings.  I’m glad that I could share a piece of my past with Tim.

November 29, 2011

Waiting Out the Rain, and Snow

The weather turned nasty yesterday, with nonstop downpours.  Flash flood warnings were in effect for neighboring communities, but luckily we didn’t have to worry about that.  We decided to stay in Asheville since travel would be a nightmare.

We only ventured out to attend to a few errands, include grocery shopping, and discovered Greenlife Grocery in downtown Asheville.  This store is part of the Whole Foods Market chain and is a wonderful, natural foods grocery store.  Like all of the Whole Foods Markets we’ve visited, it has a café where you can enjoy the freshly prepared foods that you purchase in the store.  That was a perfect spot for lunch.  I love to look at their prepared foods, and we also took home dinner for the next few nights.  Yum!

The weather forecast for today was not much better.  Although the heavy rains were over, rain and snow showers were predicted.  We are on the edge of the rare November snowstorm that is affecting the South.  First a freak Halloween snowstorm, and now one in November.  What next? 

We want to venture farther into the mountains of North Carolina, but travel there was not advisable today, so we are staying in Asheville another night.  We did venture out and visited the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in nearby Flat Rock.  This property was the first unit of the National Park Service to honor an American poet.

Carl Sandburg Home
Connemara, as the house is known, was the home of Carl Sandburg and his wife Lilian from 1945 until his death in 1967.  The rooms look exactly as the Sandburg family had left them.  Endless shelves of books, piles of magazines, Mr. Sandburg’s guitar and photographs by Mrs. Sandburg’s brother Edward Steichen provide insight into the family.  Carl Sandburg published many poems and works of fiction and nonfiction during his years at Connemara, and he earned his second Pulitzer Prize while living here.

Connemara was also Lilian Sandburg’s farm, and here she raised her champion goats.  The National Park Service still maintains a small goat herd, and Tim decided to ask about the park’s goat management plan.  The ranger “sheepishly” admitted that they were still working on it.


November 27, 2011

Christmas at the Biltmore House

Tim and I gave the Blue Ridge Parkway another chance today and drove part of the way from its terminus at Great Smoky Mountains National Park toward Asheville, North Carolina.  The weather mostly cooperated until we reached the one-mile high point, or 5,280 feet, and then the fog set in.  We had been looking forward to the 360° view of the Great Smokies from Waterrock Knob, but all we saw was a sea of fog.  Luckily, visibility wasn’t as bad as it was last week, and the skies cleared as we descended toward Balsam Gap.  It seems that we just weren’t meant to drive much of the parkway.

Beautiful Views from the Blue Ridge Parkway

And Then, the Fog Started to Roll In

The "View" Near Waterrock Knob

And Then the Skies Started to Clear
We arrived in Asheville and promptly made our way to the Biltmore House.  There are so many superlatives associated with the Biltmore House that it’s hard to know where to start.  It is the largest private house in the United States and contains 250 rooms.  Built in 1895, the Biltmore House was the home of George and Edith Vanderbilt and is still owned by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil.  December is a favorite time to visit because the house is decorated to the nines for Christmas.

Welcome to the Biltmore House
We couldn’t think about touring the house on an empty stomach, so we had lunch at the Stable Café in the nineteenth-century stables.  The food is surprisingly good, and I chose the Carolina barbeque, while Tim enjoyed a chicken pot pie.  Naturally, we had dessert, and the café features a sampler plate.  How perfect for us!

Barbeque and Pot Pie

A Dessert Sampler
Biltmore House is a bit overwhelming, both in size, architectural style and furnishings. Luckily, we saved our visit for today.  We were told that more than 10,000 visitors toured the house each day on Friday and Saturday.  Today, it was relatively quiet with only about 3,000 visitors.  The tour of the house is self-guided, and we were able to take our time or speed up as we liked.  It was not at all crowded, as it had been the last time I visited.

Biltmore House

Entrance Tower

View from the Balcony
The Christmas decorations are everywhere and are beautiful.  I think there is at least one Christmas tree in every room.  No tree, however, can compare with the one in the banquet hall.  It is absolutely enormous, not just in height, but also in diameter.  What is just as amazing is that the tree is replaced each month.  Christmas starts at the Biltmore in early November and lasts until January 1, so two trees are required.  I only wish that photography had been permitted in the house so I could have photographed that tree.

Even the Lion Was Decked Out for Christmas
I guess the Christmas season has officially begun for us.  It’s going to be fun touring houses that are decorated in holiday finery.  We have no idea at this point where we’ll be for Christmas, but we will enjoy the holiday throughout the month.

Kitty Wonders, "Am I Just a Pawn in Their Day to Day Lives?"

November 26, 2011

Preserving Traditional Ways

Cades Cove is the most heavily visited destination within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we did experience the traffic this morning.  It’s a beautiful part of the park and well worth seeing, however.  The area is known for its collection of historic pioneer churches and cabins, as well as its wildlife.  We didn’t see a bear, but there were wild turkeys and deer, whose presence caused major traffic jams.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church
We stopped at one of the churches and walked through the historic cemetery.  My favorite stop, however, was the visitor center where a sorghum molasses making demonstration was taking place.  Talk about bringing back fond memories of food!  I love sorghum molasses, especially with butter on hot biscuits.  That’s what my grandmother used to serve for breakfast when we visited them in North Carolina.

The demonstration here showed the traditional way of making sorghum molasses.  The sorghum stalks were being crushed in a mill that was being turned by a mule walking around in a circle.  The juice was then extracted and then boiled and evaporated into syrup.  Of course, I had to buy a pint.  I just hope the glass jar never breaks in the RV.  I can’t imagine the mess that would make.

The Mule Powers the Mill

Boiling the Syrup
Touring the Cable Mill historic area around the visitor center provided insight into the way the early settlers of the area lived.  Those who lived in Cades Cove were largely self-sufficient.  It must have been a difficult existence.

Cable Mill, a water-powered grist mill that still grinds corn into cornmeal, is the only building on its original site.  Interesting farm structures represent a typical mountain community and have either been relocated here or reconstructed.  All structures are log, with the exception of the frame house.

Cable Mill

Smokehouse and Gregg-Cable House

Cantilever Barn

Corn Crib and Gear Shed

Two-Pen Barn
The National Park Service is developing a long-range management plan for Cades Cove, and I can’t quite imagine the challenge that this area poses.  Preservation of historic structures which are being defacing with graffiti, traffic control and the reintroduction of native plants are just a few of the issues that must be addressed.

Graffiti Is a Constant Threat

Education Is One Way to Combat Graffiti

Native Plant Demonstration Plot
Our drive back through the park over Newfound Gap Road was almost as pretty as yesterday’s drive.  It was a bit more hazy, but there was less traffic, and the drive was more relaxing.  Tim and I both agreed that the visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was definitely worth it

View from Newfound Gap

November 25, 2011

Land of Blue Smoke

We said good-bye to Chris, Skip and Skip’s mother Betty and set our sights on Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It was a beautiful day for a drive.  What I hadn’t counted on was how crowded the park would be.  Yes, I know, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited of all the national parks.  But, the leaves had already fallen, so I thought it might have quieted down.  Not the case.

Betty, Tim, Chris and Skip
Even though the park had way too much traffic for our taste, it was still beautiful.  Bright blue, clear skies enabled us to see for miles.  The Cherokee, who were the original inhabitants of this area, described the surrounding mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.”  The mountains do appear to be blue, and the views of distant mountain ranges were just beautiful.  Even the streams and waterfalls were still flowing freely.

Mountain View

This Photo Has Not Been Photoshopped,
The Mountains Really Do Appear to be Blue

Waterfall Beside the Road

Babbling Brook
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its diverse collection of plants and animals.  There are more tree species here, in fact, than in northern Europe.  The park has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.

The cultural heritage of the park is a major draw for many visitors.  Because the park was created from mostly private lands, numerous homesteads remain.  It is mostly the log buildings that have been preserved, and the park contains one of the nation’s largest collections of log structures.  I can especially relate to these log buildings because my grandfather preserved the one-room log cabin from his family homestead not far from here in Boone, North Carolina.

Yesterday we drove as far as Cades Cove and camped there last night.  Our plan was to beat the crowds on the Cades Cove loop, which can sometimes take four hours to complete.  Keep in mind that the loop is only eleven miles, and you’ll understand why we wanted to get an early start in the morning so we wouldn’t be caught in “rush hour” traffic.

I Wonder What's Over the Side of this Mountain?
View From Clingmans Dome, the Highest Point in the Park

November 24, 2011

So Much To Be Thankful For

Tim and I wish all of our family and friends a very Happy Thanksgiving.  We have so much to be thankful for, especially our family and friends and our good fortune in being able to take this extended road trip.

We are in Seneca, South Carolina, which is near Greenville, to celebrate the holiday.  Tim’s good friends, Chris and Skip, are here visiting Skip’s mother, and they graciously invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them.  Who would have guessed that we would visit with friends from Utah while we are in South Carolina?

We had arrived in Greenville on Tuesday evening, and spent yesterday attending to errands.  It was time for the Kat Karrier’s 10,000 mile service, and we were lucky to find a place in Greenville to take care of us.  That’s actually pretty amazing since there are only three dealers in the entire state that are authorized to work on Sprinters.  We finished with the service and then had the Kat Karrier washed.  What a treat to have someone else do it for us!  She’s nice and pretty again.

A Bath for Thanksgiving
I love Thanksgiving.  In fact, it’s my favorite holiday.  Although I do enjoy Christmas, there’s just too much hoopla and pressure.  At Thanksgiving, there are no gifts to deal with, only food.  And I do love traditional Thanksgiving food, especially Southern food. But, more importantly, it’s a time to reflect on life and just how fortunate we are.

Tim and I had a wonderful afternoon with Skip’s extended family, and they welcomed us with open arms.  It was true Southern hospitality at its finest.  It was a lot of fun to meet people who had been following us on the blog.  If truth be told, it was Kitty that everyone really wanted to meet.  She entertained the group while we gave tours of the RV.

It was then time for Thanksgiving dinner, and the meal was fabulous.  Everyone had prepared their own specialties, and the food was even better than it looked.  Skip had deep-fried the turkey, which made it so moist and flavorful.  I was happy to see some of my favorites, such as cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, green bean casserole and macaroni and cheese, as well as several salads that were new to me.  A beautiful cranberry concoction and a great pineapple casserole complemented the meal.

I'm Thankful for the Chefs,
Dorma, Louise, Chris, Skip, Janie and Betty

Chris, Tim and Sarah Drooling Over the Food

What a Wonderful Thanksgiving Dinner!

I'm Thankful for Tim,
Tim's Thankful for His Dinner
Then, there was dessert.  Not only was there pumpkin pie, but also a divine rhubarb pie, which Chris had made.  I had to sample both, as well as the gorgeous coconut cake.  As usual, I ate way too much, but I just couldn’t help it.  Thanksgiving dinner is usually the best meal of the year for me, and it was certainly true this year.

Tim and I consider ourselves very fortunate that we were able to spend the holiday with such wonderful people.  I especially enjoyed getting to know Chris and Skip a little better, as well as talking with his mother and the rest of the family.   We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

Gobble, Gobble

November 22, 2011

On Top of the World, Then Down Again

Tim and I had planned to spend the last two days traversing most of the length of the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway.  That’s what we did yesterday, but today the weather foiled our plans.

After leaving West Virginia yesterday morning, we had a lovely drive through the Shenandoah Valley on our way to the Swift Run Gap entrance to the Skyline Drive, which is part of Shenandoah National Park.  Our plan was to make it to Greenville, South Carolina, for Thanksgiving, so we knew we would have a lot of driving to do over the next three days, with little time for stops.  That was ok, however, since the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway are destinations themselves.  In fact, these roadways usually make the top ten in lists of the most scenic drives in the United States.

Beautiful Vistas From the Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive is the scenic roadway through Shenandoah National Park and follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles.  The goal in creating Skyline Drive in the 1930s was to provide a means for motorists to enjoy the awe-inspiring views.  The views are just as inspiring today, even though we were only able to experience the southernmost 40 miles.  From there we entered the Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends an additional 469 miles and links Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks.

The Road Winds for Miles
Although I’ve driven parts of both roads on many occasions, it was a different experience today.  Most people come here in the fall for the brilliant leaf colors, or the spring for the flowering trees and shrubs or the summer for vacation.

It’s very different in the winter, however.  Although it was unfortunate that all of the visitor centers and other services had already closed for the season, the good news was that we had the road almost to ourselves.  We often drove for miles without encountering a single car.  With the leaves off the trees, the views into the valleys opened up for us.  The air quality was also better, enabling us to see greater distances, even though it was a bit foggy as the day wore on.  It was hard not to stop at every wayside to admire the views, but we tried to stick to our plan.

Views of Mountains in the Distance

View of Towns in the Valley Below

One of the Stone Tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway
We stopped for the night at a private campground just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and mapped out plans to drive at least 200 miles down the parkway into North Carolina the next day.  It was going to be a long, but beautiful drive.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.  It was sprinkling rain this morning when we got up, and the forecast called for rain on and off.  We decided that we would start the drive and see what happened.  We entered the parkway near the James River, the lowest point on the entire road, but immediately started climbing to the highest point on the road in Virginia.  As we climbed, the fog started getting heavier and heavier.  Soon, we could barely see 50 feet in front of us.  It was pretty scary, and it was only getting worse. 

We decided then and there to find the next wayside and turn around.  It was too unsafe to go farther, plus, there was nothing to see.  Maybe it would clear up, but it wasn’t worth the gamble.  I didn’t think we would ever find a place to turn around, but we did and headed back the way we came.  Tim did a masterful job of driving.

We quickly regrouped and decided to make our way to Greenville on major highways.  The weather did not improve until later in the day, and the morning fog lingered, although not nearly as bad as it had been on the parkway.  Tim drove 333 miles today, the longest of the entire trip.