A Perfect Drive – Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
After a short drive from Ryan and Jenifer's chaotic condominium in Limerick, Pennsylvania, the three of us reach the entrance station of Shenandoah National Park at Front Royal. I wheel my silver Ford Escape, named Silver Jack, happily up the parkway, ascending from the Virginian lowlands to a ridge road, going up and down, but mostly up. We eagerly clamber out at overlooks, gazing over the south fork of the Shenandoah River and east towards Washington D.C. Hogback, Elkwallow, and Panorama pass by as the car breaks three thousand feet – time and time again. A quick lunch ensues at the rustic Skyland restaurant. The charming cabins behind the lodge call to some leftover need for luxury. We enjoy the carefully prepared meal, knowing tonight we'll be camping. Ah…comfort! But my Ford Escape seems comfortable enough and we rush on, unaware that rain will force us into shelters more often than not. Ryan and I sing, "Sky…land!" as we drive, enchanted by the simplicity of the name.
We abandon Silver Jack and trample up Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the park, over four thousand feet. But after a mere four hundred vertical feet from the road, we reach the rocky top, baffled by the absurd easiness. We putter around at the lookouts, watching reintroduced peregrine falcons take the updrafts. After a snack on a mighty stone ledge, we trundle back to the car, ready for our first night outdoors. But we hear reports of rain that night from other hikers and check at Big Meadows, questioning two unhelpful mountain men, who deny us. "No beds available – it's a weekend after all," they say. So we continue on over Tanner's Ridge, Bootens Gap, and Bearfence Mountain to the Loft Mountain campground. We circle around the labyrinth of sites, trying to pick the ideal spot. Jenifer picks one and jumps out to claim our territory. Ryan and I rustle up our reservation and chat with the folksy old ranger. "There's no bugs up here!" he tells us. Then, we're off to the green meadow campsite, where the buzz of the grass belies the steward's advice. Tent out and up, gear rearranged, cookware out and burning, all as darkness descends. I construct no fire, but light candles and incense sticks to keep away the inevitable insect predators, not trusting the toughened park-man. But few show themselves, the cool height of the mountains keeping them at bay, I suppose. The three of us pack ourselves into the tent, cozy and warm, and after reading from The Wind in the Willows we drift off to a road-haunted dream.
The next morning we break camp fairly early and lazily decide to eat breakfast down the road. So, after eating juicy fruit, we repack Silver Jack and shove off past Blackrock Gap, Riprap Overlook, and Wildcat Ridge. And then, we're zipping out of Shenandoah Park, though the difference is imperceptible. The same fabulously-kept park road stretches out before us in mountain-wonder curves. Silver Jack passes Humpback Rocks, Twenty-mile Cliff and dips under three-thousand feet to Tye River Gap. We twitch into Whetstone Ridge, where we plan to catch a fancy omelet or succulent sausage for breakfast. But the park-run restaurant has been closed, boarded up. The bathrooms gape strangely open, but no food appears for our repast. Ryan groans in frustration, his important meal in jeopardy. So, we pull out my stove and bubble oatmeal on the porch, while Jenifer dozes in the car, cranky for some reason, probably the lack of vegan options.
Nevertheless, the warm maple oatmeal fills Ryan and I nicely, and we hop back in the car as two leather-jacketed motorcyclists stop in the otherwise empty parking lot. Since leaving Shenandoah, the road has mysteriously drained of all but a few intrepid characters like these, but we do not complain. Hours later we finally find an open roadside restaurant and eat in the attached café. Chicken sandwiches, fries, and ice cream make an unusual lunch for the health-conscious travelers. Then, Jen drives for an hour through a torrential downpour as we near Roanoke. The mist swirls around us as we pass through highland farms and communities that peek from dales and glens off the parkway. The day passes slowly, road-time, talking time, driving time. I never get tired of being at the wheel and Ryan and Jen also seem reluctant to give up the fabled driver's seat.
Weather reports indicate more rain and we search through my over-prepared travel library and find a motel in Blowing Rock. Finally, a goal presents itself and continue to wind the endless miles over wet macadam, singing and reading aloud. We sadly hop off the parkway, vowing to jump on at the same place tomorrow, and motor slowly through the mountain roads to the ski resort town. Here in the off-season, the town seems empty and old-fashioned. Jen checks us into the old-fashioned motel and then the three of us eat a spicy Mexican meal at a nearby margarita restaurant. "What a quaint town!" we repeat over and over.
I realize that we've spent the entire day on the road, no hiking, no outdoor activities of any sort. This frustrates me, but at the same time I shake my head in wonder at the continuous blacktop adventure. We kept driving and driving and yet didn't come close to completing the road. The long Blue Ridge stretches out before and behind us in its humble majesty and I begin to get an inkling of something, but the moment leaves, and I am brought back to the here and now by my own obsessive rearranging of our gear. Ryan gets cranky and wants to sleep, as if suddenly we are back in reality and this actually matters, is necessary, is his purpose. Jenifer watches television stubbornly and the two married folks argue and bicker. Annoyed, I go out to the truck to secure a book and the rain is simply pouring out of the night sky. I rush to the car and realize the light is on, someone, probably me, left the back door ajar and I curse, though that's not what I'm upset about. No, I curse the damn weather gods and the lost, blue, camping star-gazing.
The next morning, after I finally figure out how to use the digital video camera, puzzling over the why of Ryan's reluctance to do so, he begins to take miraculous moving photos. We videotape the rushing miles, curves, and views. Deer spring from our approach. Rain occasionally spatters the windshield. Ascending, we shove through cloudbanks, mist coalescing and tearing on the silver paint of the Escape. A staggering convergence of things: exceptional music, conversational companionship, a brand-new vehicle, a smooth road, views, effortless speed, and the complete absence of traffic, stoplights, and stop signs. Ah…perfection…
But soon we're off the road onto the Linville Falls connector. We decide to hike down to the falls and Ryan packs food as if we're climbing Everest. I scoff, but wish we actually were climbing some insane mountain trail. Jen leads us down into the wet, jungle-like gorge. And then, after less than two miles, the bank of the rushing, overfull whitewater near the base of the falls presents itself. I spread our gear on a boulder and eat some of the feast that Ryan insisted on bringing. Jenifer takes off her shoes and dips her feet into the hurrying water. I do the same, and finally Ryan yields, as well. "That feels good…so good…" We relax, surrendering to the thundering of the water and the surrounding pines. Relaxing. That's what this vacation has been so far. I get enough relaxation at home and curse myself for letting the sleep of comfort wash over me like this river. I need angels of challenge and exertion, not the demon of relaxation.
Back on the road, the Parkway envelops me again in its misty arms. We pass Gooch Gap, Green Knob, and then reluctantly reach the turn-off for Mount Mitchell. The brisk air outside belies the usual June climate and we debate again whether to camp. At the top of the highest peak in the Appalachians, I feel no sense of accomplishment, except perhaps in our effortless car-magic. I read The Wind in the Willows to Jen and Ryan on the peak, while other tourists mill around in gawking photographic wonder. As we sit there, clouds roll up the side of the mountains and quickly plunge us into thick white darkness. We retreat and eat chili at the restaurant a few meters down the hill. When we emerge, the rain buckets down endlessly and solves the problem of whether to camp.
Silver Jack and its inhabitants pass Glassmine Falls and Craggy Gardens before descending hundreds of feet and off the Parkway. "We've been spoiled," someone says, after a horrible road careens us over a sticky mountain. We enter the vaguely famous town of Lake Lure and find a cheesy pink motel overlooking the rushing river. The town itself is nothing, with little actually open and broken-down tourist attractions from the last century. We eat at a sad little off-season bar called Malarkey's and I drink beer unhappily. The rain catches up to us and begins to pour down as we sit on the covered porch at the cheap motel, drenching everything. Damn this rain! Every evening it washes the earth with its evil life-bringing power. The correct decision was made not camping, but again the extra money spent and lack of connection to the skill-brewing outdoors seems to taint things. We spend the rest of the evening reading on the rickety pink veranda, writing and videotaping, boiling tea and munching Cliff Bars.
The attempted canoe trip is abandoned. A whitewater rafting trip south of Cherokee is considered instead. Or perhaps we'll go watch rare films and practice yoga in nearby Hendersonville? But all is maybes and the rain laughs at our attempts to define anything. I gnash my teeth at the lack of planning on the parts of my compatriots. They seem to enjoy this uncertain, fly-by-night experience, but I do not. And here in the weather gods' realm, the lack of plan has broken down, has taken any dreams of outdoor iron-building quests and dashed them on the wet mountain rocks.
I had planned our last trip together, to eastern Canada, and a combination of this careful planning and sweet accident had created a fantastic dream of a journey: a legendary hike up Mount Katadhin, camping in the piney north Atlantic night, kayaking on a jellyfish-haunted firth, rambling through quaint towns, eating at quaint cafés. But I had made no plans this time, leaving them to the others and to mighty chance. They had done nothing, Jenifer not deciding until the last minute if she was even joining the expedition, and I punch the rotting boards of this motel while they curl together inside. Damn them and damn me! And damn this damned, damning rain.
The next morning I try to leave my expectations behind as we visit Chimney Rock Park, where The Last of the Mohicans was filmed. After an unsatisfying breakfast of yogurt, through which Ryan complains, we head out into the misty cloud world. Somehow, the lack of views bothers me here, while on the road, the clouds add to the magic of the road. I peer through the rolling white-out, eager for the movie-views. But none appear. We splash about in the waterfall which features at the end of the film, but I can't recognize the rearranged geography. Jen pushes ahead along the precarious cliff-walk, while Ryan and I try to ascertain the filming spots. "I think that's the place where…" "No, look at the way the rocks are positioned…" All we find is a lonely green frog, which we photograph carefully…sadly our best wildlife encounter so far.
Soon enough, Jenifer and I get into an argument about something stupid, clashing with our silly opinions. I stop after a bit, avoiding conflict, pushing my million reasons and stubborn righteousness into a ball in my stomach. It doesn't matter, of course, but the rest of my frustrations boil up again, leaving a black cloud over my mind. This continues as we bypass the Blue Ridge and head into Asheville, where we plan to spend the next night. Here, we plan on seeing the mighty Biltmore Estate, but after finding it and exploring the visitor center, we find out that the price is unusually outrageous, far more than any tour of fancy ballrooms and terraces should be. After refusing to pay the outrageous fee, an uncharacteristically frugal act on my part, we drive sullenly back into the tourist-washed outskirts of Asheville and walk to a surprising Mediterranean restaurant named Rizzaz. After a fantastic, filling lunch of strange and flavorful dishes, our new energy makes it impossible to stay in Asheville and instead we decide to complete the Parkway to Cherokee at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. I immediately feel better. We jump back onto the Blue Ridge and immediately the strip-mall, city-world is gone, miraculously vanished. The trees embrace us and the road soars up into the mountains, higher and higher, back into the whirling clouds. The music on the stereo, the discussion, and Silver Jack himself all seem to become purer somehow.
I want to stay at Mount Pisgah, here on the heights, but Jenifer wants a hot tub to soak in. Our newly planned white-water expedition south of Cherokee makes further driving a necessity anyway. So, we climb higher and higher, all the way to Richland Balsam and the highest point on the drive, a spectacular 6047 feet. Our little group is in the clouds now and remains there, even as Silver Jack descends through Big Witch Gap to the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway at…a stop sign. We laugh at this bizarre cultural relic, the first on the length of the two-state mountain kingdom. The Newfound Gap road heads off to the right. We turn left into the town of Cherokee, where tourist-trap Indian villages and stores full of knockoff relics tempt us not at all. Finally, a bright, new hotel with a blue, glass-enclosed pool beckons and Jenifer checks us in, since I'm long sick of responsibility. The room is cheap and I sigh in relief. We order a pizza and have it delivered. We attempt to soak in the pool and hot tub, but a dozen screaming, splashing, pissing children ruin any peace and relaxation. Jenifer sits in the tub in obvious frustration, her own experience ruined. None of us seem to be happy. Rain splatters on the glass roof of the enclosure. So, we end up in the bland hotel room, watching television, eating pizza and breadsticks, like a classic tourist family.
In the morning, the rain continues. No chance of rafting today. No chance! I half-heartedly drink coffee and devour a huge breakfast in the hotel breakfast room. What should we do? Someone, Ryan I think, decides to get back on the road and I nod. Back up the Newfound Gap road, a terrifying, winding road up the steep ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. It is an extension, a reflection, of the BRP, and even the steeper switchbacks and corkscrews calm me. I attempt to call the lodge on top of Mount LeConte, hoping against hope that we will be able to find a spot there and thus hike up the fabulous mountain, redeeming our outdoor failures so far. A mighty hike that I had done ten years earlier, and wanted to repeat with these friends, showing them the wonders of the Smokies. But no. I am stymied by an answering machine. No openings, even on this weekday evening. We stop instead on the side of the road and trundle down to a fantastic, white-water stream that rushes down through the thick forests. We strip down and while a drizzle of rain continues overhead, splash in the pools and over the slick rocks. Then, back to the car, sated for the moment. But in my heart I remain unsatisfied and curse the lack of planning ahead, which could have secured us a spot on top of this mountain. Which could have brought me the outdoor adventure I desired, rain or no. "All is lost," I murmur hyperbolically.
We leave the park road and are immediately thrust into the horrifying cheese of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. And something else is lost besides the Great Smokies, though I can't quite put my finger on it. The night is spent in a wonderfully comfortable cabin in the hills near Cades Cove, and amazing limestone caverns are toured. Then, a drive to Hot Springs where we soak in mineral water and receive full-body massages. But the frustrations of travel on the mortal roads return, and a failure to light a fire on the wet highland wood kills our last camping experience. When Jenifer suggests horseback riding at a nearby farm, I am too depressed to even try. I hadn't even taken a simple walk in the woods at our cabin the night before, though the rain had stopped. Ryan has barely been videotaping, as if even that is too much effort. We seem to have given up.
After these two short nights off the Blue Ridge in the foothills of the Appalachians, we head back through traffic jams and sardine highway drivers towards Pennsylvania. But there is one more vacation-night to expend, so we can tour Luray Caverns on the morrow. Ryan remembers Skyland and I call and make a last-minute, miracle reservation. ("Sky…land!" we shout with renewed hope) When we ascend the ridge again from the common lowland roads, I immediately hark back to the otherworldly beauty of the road. We wind a few miles down to the now-legendary Skyland, which has been encircled by the same pale clouds that followed our entire highland journey. We stumble out of Silver Jack for the last time and wade through the milky soup. And I realize that the long, road-kingdom of the Blue Ridge Parkway gave me something, and unknown pleasure, a world where even in thick mist or pouring rain…what? I puzzle over this as we eat dinner in the clanking, gourmet Skyland restaurant, cool beer bubbling down my gullet, warm food filling my lazy stomach. I met none of my goals for this trip. We had not had an unpleasant experience, oh no, but not faultless, not the beautiful, skill-learning, open-air adventure I wanted. Not even the documentary-filming experience Ryan had talked about with such hope. And what did Jenifer want? I'm not sure, but I was willing to bet that this had not matched her expectations, her memory of our long-lost, perfect journey to Nova Scotia.
The next morning after breakfast, as Jenifer squeals Silver Jack out of Skyland and back onto the parkway, I stare at the rolling macadam miserably. We circle back onto the road that takes us down into the Shenandoah Valley, to Luray Caverns. I glance back at the receding ridge with longing and it is only then that I understand what was had, despite conflicts and angers, despite rain-shrouded nights and failed adventures in the forests, despite endless frustrations off the road, money spent on hotels and restaurants that we hadn't budgeted, the lack of hiking, the cancelled canoeing…we had a near-perfect drive, a near-perfect road-hugging, winding, traffic-less daydream of a drive along the parkways. A drive that showed what driving could be.
I have maneuvered on dozens of road trips over the years, driving from coast to coast, clocking hundreds of miles on some wonderful stretches of road: the desolation of Route 80 across Nevada, following the Colorado River through Utah, the green-ocean Cabot Trail around Cape Breton Island, and of course Route 1 down the magic coast of California. But I saw more cars on Route 1 during two winter weekdays than I did on the Blue Ridge Parkway on a Saturday in June. And more than that…I had forgotten something important, something vital to the road-trip, car-tramp life. On the journeys I had recently taken, the driving had been merely to get to places, to reach trailheads and towns, to take me to museums and adventures. The driving had been something to endure, to transform into fun with music and companionship. Here, the time off-road had been the test of endurance, and one that I had not performed well. This drive had been the adventure, the world we entered another dimension, with different rules and laws, a different culture, a different way of seeing travel and the world.
Was it the perfect drive? Maybe not, but it showed me what was possible, another facet of journey's gem, another type of challenge. I learned to love the slick black highways again, and not just the brown mountain trails. And perhaps I even learned to throw out some of my expectations and take what comes. So, now when I head out onto the ever-changing, musical roads, I will feel the macadam beneath me more keenly. I will muscle the wheels more passionately. And I'll keep searching for that perfect, impossible, passionate drive.