Driving the Most Seductive Road in the World
The Blue Ridge Parkway attracts millions of visitors each year. Most come in search of scenic splendor. What they also find along the way is the nearly forgotten fun of driving.
When I was a child growing up in North Carolina about an hour away from the Blue Ridge Parkway, nothing made my blood run cold like a grown up saying, “Oh, what a fine day to go up to the parkway and see the leaves changing color.”
Driving an hour so that you could then drive even slower (45 mph is the posted speed limit on the parkway) to look at fall colors you could see by staring out the front door epitomized boredom for childhood me. Perhaps the only thing that could have made that sentence worse would have been the addition of the word picnic—driving hours to eat cold food you’d fixed at home seemed like nonsense to me, even if the food was fried chicken.
Several decades later, I’m still pretty underwhelmed by picnics. But so far as the parkway is concerned, I know now that six-year-old me had a lot to learn. A couple of weeks ago, I spent my vacation driving the route, 469 miles from one end to the other and back again without a stop sign or a stop light or a billboard or a truck bigger than a pickup (and add on the Skyline Drive, which runs through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and runs right into the parkway at its northern terminus, and that’s another 105 miles of easy living). Reeling down those roads for a week was as much fun as I’ve ever had in what I like to think of as a reasonably fun-filled life.
I understand how a kid might not like the parkway. But what does a kid know about driving? What does he know about the pleasure of cruising a road you have almost completely to yourself or about the immense joy found in escaping, if only for a little while, the anxieties of traffic or congestion or drivers going too fast or too slow or any of the other factors that compromise the ordinary pleasure of motoring on the open road. All kids know is that they are prisoners in cars. A journey is something to be endured, worth it only if the destination is desirable.
Not to go all zen here, but one thing that comes with age is recognizing the pleasure in the journey itself. By that I mean nothing more complicated than the plain act of driving, not some metaphorical nonsense. Anyone who likes to drive will grab little snatches of this pleasure whenever they can, but the chances seem ever harder to come by. For most of us, though, driving is rarely fun. It’s a necessary chore. That’s why the parkway is important. It reminds us that getting from one place to another doesn’t have to be all about speed and anxiety. It’s the antithesis of daily driving. You’re in no hurry to get somewhere. You’re not late for an appointment, not tied up in traffic or besieged by any of the other hectic nonsense that gums up a daily commute. You can go as long as you like,stop when something catches your eye. There’s no agenda, no place to be. If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place.
If all driving were like driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d never get out of the car.
This is not, of course, the party line on the parkway. National Park Service literature and pretty much anything else you can find on the subject has little to say about driving. Instead, you hear a lot about bringing people face to face with the natural world, in this case mountains and forests and dells and whatnot.
This all goes back to the 19th century, when landscape designers like Frederick Law Olmsted, inspired by Transcendentalism and the new parklike layouts of cemeteries like Boston’s Mt. Auburn, began incorporating the pastoral ideal into city planning. This was the philosophy that inspired construction of the first parkways in and around New York City, and the idea was still in vogue in the ’30s when planning and construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway (which was also meant to provide construction jobs and tourism income to a terribly poor region during the Depression--even as it displaced numerous residents and imposed new restrictions on what those who remained could do with their land). So the origin myth was more Walt Whitman’s open road than Jack Kerouac’s. But while you can carp about the somewhat corseted notions of nature embodied in this philosophy, it’s a hard idea to argue with when you see what it produced: mile after mile of staggering beauty, complete with convenient scenic overlooks every few miles.
Cruising the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains running southwest out of Virginia into North Carolina, you are almost always high above and well inside the Appalachian chain that runs from Newfoundland to Alabama. The farther I drove through what I came to call the world’s longest, narrowest park, the better I grasped the grand scale layout of the landscape around me. My sense of geography is spotty at best, but here all you had to do was look around and all the pieces fell together—the Black Mountains, the Great Craggy Mountains, the New York Highlands across the Hudson River from my house. Even after I left the parkway, I realized that I was following the Appalachians home and, my eyes sharpened by a week of staring at the lay of the land, I finally understood how all these chains lay in relation to one another. I got a very solid sense, maybe for the first time in my life, of where I was on the wrinkled face of the planet. If you think this is a small gain for a journey of a thousand miles, I envy your life.
If it were nothing else, the parkway would be a marvel of design and engineering for the skill and grace with which it seamlessly knits a two-lane highway into the surrounding landscape. Everything about the construction is unobtrusive, so much so that the road seems almost inevitable, as though it had always been there. In the landscaping or the gently curving ribbon of asphalt where, by intention, you can never see more than several hundred yards ahead or behind, there is hardly a trace left of the enormous effort and imagination required to conjure that inevitability.
Construction began in 1935 and required thousands of men to cut the route, grade the roadway, clear the landscape, and build bridges, overlooks, camping sites, and picnic areas—all the while moving untold tons of rock from where it wasn’t wanted to where it was needed (the 26 tunnels cut through mountains along the route account for 36 percent of all tunnels in the park service inventory).
It took five decades to complete the project. All but 7.5 miles were finished by 1966, but work on the final piece of the project—the Linn-Cove Viaduct, a 1,234-foot bridge that gracefully hugs the slopes of Grandfather Mountain at an elevation of 4,100 feet—was not completed until 1987.
Almost 900,000 people traveled the parkway in 1941, the year it opened, and it has been the most visited site in the park system since then. In 2016, 15,175,578 visitors showed up. So I did not lack for company or fellow enthusiasts, although I think I picked a good time to travel—at peak times, notably in the fall, you run into traffic jams in the middle of nowhere, particularly around the ever-popular Mabry Mill with its picturesque water wheel (a park service plaque at the mill claims that it is the most photographed site on the route, and while I suspect that’s true, I wonder how they could ever hope to prove it).
Along the way, I counted seven deer, four turkeys, countless hawks and buzzards, a couple of red-winged blackbirds, one Baltimore oriole, one dead dog, one wreck (motorcycle), one violent storm, and one subarctic cloud forest just below the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. I spoke to almost no one besides Park Service employees, motel clerks, waiters, and waitresses (I ate way too many country ham biscuits). In the car I listened to mid ’60s Miles Davis, the febrile improvisation—particularly Tony Williams’ evanescent cymbals and Wayne Shorter’s darting sax—reminding me of Japanese brushwork, an analogy echoed by the feathery, impressionistic look of the tulip trees and dogwood budding out all around me. Somehow everything cohered.
The route is so relentlessly idyllic that when the fabric does wear thin—when a house or a barn or a garage pops up in a gap in the greenery—the illusion shatters, sometimes only for a moment, but time enough for you to grasp how deeply you’ve been seduced by the parkway’s barbered ideal. But such times are rare. More often than not, the illusion holds, because it’s not entirely an illusion. Yes, you’re looking at a manicured, take-your-picture here vision of the natural world, but there had to be something there to manicure and frame in the first place, something overwhelming enough to make you willing to drive 45 mph for hundreds of miles.
I became a fan of that speed limit over the course of a week. Going 45, you see more of what’s around you. You can open the car windows and the sunroof and not feel like you’re in a wind tunnel. Most of the drivers I shared the parkway with seemed to feel the same. Sure, some treated the speed limit the way they treat speed limits on ordinary roads—as a negotiable or ignorable restraint. I saw one car pulled over by a cop, and I got tailgated a few times. When that happened I just pulled off at the next overlook. I got passed only once in the whole week, by an SUV with Vermont plates.
Which brings me back to the car. You couldn’t do any of this without a car or van or motorcycle or bicycle. Yes, you could hike it, but there are hikes aplenty off road along the route; at Linville Falls, there are no less than three hiking trails, their varying degrees of difficulty duly marked, and the Appalachian Trail covers a lot of the same territory.) No, this is a road for things with wheels.
More than once, I caught myself remembering those old gas station road maps whose covers featured illustrations of cheerful families barreling down the highway under the slogan “Happy Motoring!” I remember staring at those people when I was kid trapped in a car trip (inventorying the glove compartment was one of my strategies for warding off boredom) and wondering who they were and why were they so jolly. I had no way of knowing then that the illustration was nothing more than a Madison Avenue illusion even when those maps were new. But now, somehow, I had lucked into a place where that fantasy turned out to be true. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, I settled into a groove of contentment that lasted for a week over hundreds of miles. I wanted to be nowhere else but where I was, behind the wheel without a care, elated by the realization that at last I had found something I’d had been yearning for since childhood: the home of happy motoring.