Sunday, June 13, 2010

Observations on a Short Journey South

We took a short road trip this week, running down (literally) to Boone, North Carolina, to pick up some percussion instruments that Warren had bought from a longtime friend and mentor.

It was the first time since our January New York trip that we just "got away," and unlike the New York trip, which for Warren revolved around the League midwinter meetings, this one revolved around nothing. Yes, we were picking up those instruments and seeing those friends, but we were going as much for the break as anything.

The easiest, quickest way to get from central Ohio to northwestern North Caroline is to drive the interstates. I'm not looking at a road atlas as I type, but I know there are solid blue lines from here to there that would have carried us efficiently and swiftly to our destination, which is why we of course junked any notion of taking them. Warren and I long ago separately discovered that the journey and not the destination is often the point of a trip, and we are in total agreement that the best journeys happen when you get off those routes marked with an I.

When you are off the interstate, there is always something to observe if you just open your eyes, your mind, or both:

1. Decoration Day is high art in rural Kentucky.
Decoration Day is a far bigger deal in Kentucky than in Ohio. Around here, I worry that the custom of visiting and tending to our family graves is dying out. Kentuckians have raised the tradition to high art. We passed cemetery after cemetery awash in color. In all fairness to those of us up north, the decorations were artificial flowers, which are not allowed in most cemeteries around here from April to October. All the same, I had a sense that there was a deep cultural commitment to the custom. I saw one cemetery on a hillside in which every headstone was decorated, looking like a rainbow that became earthbound and swirled up and over the hill.

2. If it is a rural church, it has a steeple.
Small churches are everywhere in the rural South. Baptists predominate, but there is a rich mix of smaller, homegrown congregations sprinkled liberally throughout the countryside. I saw church buildings of every building material - brick clad, clapboard, corrugated metal, vinyl siding - and all had one unifying feature. Every single one, no matter how meager, had a steeple, which was always white despite the color and finish on the building beneath. I imagine that it provides a visual marker of faith: We are here. Come join us.

3. Small businesses are everywhere, but the greatest of these are manufactured housing sales, used car lots, and flea markets.
As we left the Ohio River corridor and its heavy industry behind, heading south on US 23, the commercial landscape changed. Major industry, except for an occasional gravel pit or small coalmine, receded. As we drove deeper and deeper into Kentucky, and then into Virginia, we noticed a pattern to the businesses lining the highway: manufactured housing sales lot, used car lot, flea market grounds (think "weekend community yard sales").

Manufactured housing (trailers) are widely used for housing in the rural areas through which we were traveling. There's a number of reasons for that: it is affordable, it is easily installed, and where one's land often consists of a lot of hill and very little flatland, sometimes it is all that fits without considerable greater expense in preparing the site. (Older homes in the area tend to be very small by "our" standards for the same reason of topography.) While there is considerable cultural and government bias against manufactured housing in central Ohio, the widespread acceptance of it in rural areas seems a more reasonable approach to diversifying housing opportunities for all.

4. Almost everyone has a garden in the country.
As we sailed past the small homes (manufactured or otherwise), I found myself picking out gardens. There are lots of gardens in the rural south. They tended to be large; they were all immaculately weeded. I wondered how much of the produce is passed out among family and friends, how much is canned or frozen for the winter, and how much make its way to a farmers market or flea market for sale.

5. The Blue Ridge Parkway may be the most undervalued, underrated park in the US National Park System.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is part of the National Park Service, running 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to the Shenandoah National Park in the north. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway about 160 miles from Boone to Roanoke, Virginia. The Blue Ridge, which is 75 years old this year, is a two lane road that runs up, down, and along the crests of the Appalachian Mountains. Commercial traffic is banned; the speed limit on the Parkway is 45 miles an hour. There are frequent turnouts for the view; there are a limited number of sites on the Parkway as well, including Flat Top Manor, the 19th century summer mansion of the Cone family, who made its fortune in the invention of denim. Warren and I spent several hours on the Parkway on our way back to Ohio, marveling at the views and at the pace.

We also marveled at the emptiness of the road, noting that most of the other travelers on it were our age or older. Warren postulated that the Blue Ridge may not appeal to many because of its slower pace and lack of "attractions." He reflected that for a family with young children, driving in a vehicle with in-car entertainment systems, the notion of traveling along the Parkway where the whole point is to look may be anathema, especially when coupled with the slower pace.

While I agree, the thought makes me sad. Here is this truly beautiful roadway, carved out of the hills during the bleak years of the Depression, and fewer and fewer of us know about it or travel on it.

6. A road trip is more of a stretch at my age than 30 years ago (or, I'm not in my 20s anymore)
When I was in my 20s, living in Portland, Oregon, but with all my family back here, I more than once drove nonstop cross-country. With two other drivers, it was 48 hours door to door. I remember those barnstorming trips with nostalgic fondness. With our planning a major trip this summer out to the Montana wedding, I looked at this week's excursion as an opportunity to test my roadworthiness.

Well, I'm not 25 anymore. Bones get stiff, muscles start to ache. My bladder is less forgiving; my stomach is more particular. The neuropathy in my feet moves into high gear. I have less tolerance for heavy traffic. While I can still lock into a Zen-like "zone" and drive for long stretches, I pay the price when I pull over and switch seats with Warren.

As the day (and evening, and night) unfolded as we drove home Friday, I told Warren that this trip showed me I needed to reexamine and rethink our Montana itinerary. Our shortest day then will be 300 miles; I don't want to think (yet) about the days where the mileage tops 600.

7. Small moments abound - always.
A road trip is always a chance to see or hear or do new things. In Virginia, on the way south, we pulled over at Natural Tunnel State Park and discovered you could take a chairlift to the tunnel viewing area. We hesitated until Warren said "when are we ever going to be here again to do this?" I'm glad we did, even if I winced a bit at the chairlift's slow trek down and then up the mountainside.

On Thursday, exploring a little bit of the Blue Ridge with our friends, we drove to see the Linn Cove Viaduct, stopping at the Cone mansion on the way. On the walkway to the base of the viaduct, I heard a trickle of water and saw the smallest of rills running down the hillside. While I marveled over the tiny trickles, another woman on the path pointed out the Gray's lilies (endangered) and the fringed gentian wild orchid (rare now in the wild).

In Sweet Springs, West Virginia, we pulled over to gaze at the Old Sweet Springs hotel (long closed as a hotel and possibly slated to be renovated sometime in the future), reputedly designed by Thomas Jefferson.

And as we crossed from Virginia into West Virginia on one of several mountains crests along Route 311, we came across a young black bear at the state line turnout. It crashed into the underbrush just as Warren shouted "A bear!" and I gasped in surprise. When I got home and emailed my friend Cindy about seeing the bear, she replied "WOW! A BEAR!!!! I forgot there are places in the US you can run into bear!!!"

Cindy's right and her comment resonated with me as I started to write about our trip. If we don't turn off the road occasionally, we may not ride the chairlift to see the tunnel. If we don't slow down from time to time, we may not see the lilies.

And if we are not careful of how we spend our days, we may forget that there are bears.


Sharon said...

The Blue Ridge Mountains are my very favorite...

Smith Mountain lake has a breathtaking view of them...hence the reason I would love to retire there, and you are right, there really isn't much in way of "attractions". I prefer nature anyway!

Love the idea of not taking the major highways, and I LOVE your observations!

Captain's Wife - Jennifer said...

Great post!! What a neat trip. :)We are getting away sans children this next weekend...I'm looking forward to the adventure!! :)

Ellen said...

Wow, what an account of your adventures! I love your prose, April. I was once in Tennessee, and loved the feel of the foliage there....wishing I had the opportunity to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in depth. Adding it to the "life list."

I am the working poor. said...

April, I LOVED this post. I used to live close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway that we were able to visit often. We would force the kids into the van and bring along a picnic. We had a favorite trail that was just the right length for everyone to enjoy it. On the way home there were some little shops that you just can't find anywhere else. Sigh...I really need a road trip.