Friday, March 23, 2012

Blue Ridge Parkway

Yesterday, I drove six hours of the Blue Ridge Parkway from the N.C.-Virginia border down to Asheville, North Carolina.

The Parkway--a 469-mile scenic highway built between the 1930's and 1980's--has been paved atop the Appalachian Mountain chain to afford its wheeled wayfarers with a windshield wilderness: forested valleys and ancient hills that can be ohhhed and awwwed at from the comforts of our cars.

Part of me felt as if I was driving atop a sacred burial ground, and that the rumblings of my tires were sure to have been disturbing the spirits struggling to sleep beneath. Part of me wished these Appalachian hills had remained unblemished of tar and tourist, so that the mountains could remain raw and vicious and inaccessible, radiating an uncommon beauty: there, but rarely seen.

Let the intrepid few have wild places so that they may be stunned by the sublime. And also, let the sedentary many view the hills from below and afar, where the mountains will take on an air of mystery, a wilderness replete with caves and mountain lakes, home to bears and beasts, seamonsters and sasquatches--all of which may not exist in real life, but they, if given a place to dwell, will at least populate and enliven our dreams. The quicker we Google-map the earth, the more we remove from it the opportunity for our native planet to evoke feelings of wonder and enchantment and love in its inhabitants. Earth, I think, should always remain partly unknown, partly undiscovered, partly unclassified, at least until we begin to push the frontiers of space, where we'll have a new galactic wilderness in lieu of the terrestrial one we've all but recorded and ravaged.

The country the Parkway meanders over--largely on account of the Parkway--is far from seeming wild, yet I can't deny how much I enjoyed the trip: the cavernous rock tunnels, the charming stone masonry of the bridges, the constant scent of spring sweetness, the cool dark air of the forest sashaying into my van's open windows, and the shadows of the forest draping themselves over the Parkway, a never-ending barcode of shade and sunlight.

I suppose beauty comes in many colors. Yes, I'll take a wilderness that I can never get to in favor of one I can, but I am not so haughty to spurn those places made accessible by the steel ax and dynamite stick. I'll look at nature from whatever angle it is offered, momentarily lowering my guard to give the planners and developers a chance to convince me that their vision was in fact inspired by the reverence they felt for a place that they thought okay to disfigure.


Anonymous said...

Lovely and beautiful and wish I was there!


David said...

I don't think we should be too hard on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its history is fascinating. For one, much of it was built by human and animal muscle. Old-timers remember the wheelbarrows and shovels and mules. It was an enlightened way of bringing real work to the Appalachians during the Great Depression. It was a Depression-era investment in something of lasting value. And even though there is that ribbon of pavement, it's still 150 square miles of public land that we otherwise would not have. Commercialization has been rigorously forbidden along most of it. From the parkway, we can see not only those beautiful mountains, but also, in the farms and fields along the parkway, a vanishing way of life. It's also a heck of a great way to get from Acorn Abbey to Asheville, at the civilized speed of 45 mph. Awesome photographs.

Michael said...

I remember reading an interpretive display on the Skyline Drive or Blue Ridge Parkway. The National Park System there intentionally preserved farms along the drive to enhance the aesthetic experience. It's an art-directed drive and one of the most successful I found along my almost 20,000 mile drive across the US. The Blue Ridge Parkway is the only road that I know of that has been art directed. The sweep of the curves, the preservation of certain farms along the way to add to the scenery and an attempt to limit sprawl in valleys below that ruin the views in what the park service calls view-sheds kind of like watershed preservation.

Here is an excerpt from a book that echoes my view.

A Walk in the Woods
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Bryson

America's attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me. I couldn't help comparing my experience now with an experience I'd had three or four years earlier in Luxembourg

the whole charming diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail. Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit—that, say, a more graceful bridge across the Delaware River might actually set off the grandeur around it ...

Ken said...


David--I didn't know about the shovels and mules--that certainly makes it more impressive. Of course I was mesmerized with the views; I wrote what I wrote only to reflect on the value of wild land and land that has been "improved." As improvement goes, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of those places impossible to hate.

Michael--Excellent Bryson quote. I forgot that there were real moments of insight in that book, and not just him making fun of himself and others. Here's a premier wilderness essay on just that subject: