Happy motoring atop the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

“You road I enter upon and look around,

I believe you are not all that is here, 

 I believe that much unseen is also here.”

  – Song of the Open Road,  Walt Whitman, 1880

Cover-BRP-rock cutBlue Ridge Parkway a mile south of Humpback Rocks makes a narrow road cut thru 570 million year old greenstone, a faint reminder that this very old mountain range once rose as high as the Himalayas.

Few superlatives are needed for this scenic jewel of a road that Virginia shares with her Tarheel (North Carolina) brethren to the south. Sometimes closed in winter due to snow, fog, or ice, its high elevation, generally averaging between 2,000-4,000 feet, also provides welcome relief during the “dog days” of  summer for lowlanders and city-folk seeking a nearby escape from the heat,stagnant air and crowds.

BRP-milepost 90 Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 90, looking north towards the Peaks of Otter.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was designed as a scenic recreational road connecting Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks and is the most visited site in the National Park system. But looks are deceiving, with 456 miles of scenic mountaintop driving there’s plenty of room for everyone; even in the peak visitor seasons of spring through fall there’s very  light traffic on most weekdays.

Rockytop cliffs (9)Raptor perspective of Skyline Drive from unnamed cliff formations above Rockytop overlook, Shenandoah National Park.

Like its companion road to the south, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Skyline Drive was built for the enjoyment and pleasure of future generations of visitors seeking peace and solitude atop the heights of the Blue Ridge. 100 miles long, it’s a key feature of Shenandoah National Park, and was built in part by hard-working CCC “boys” during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Without their labor, sacrifice, and dedication,  there would be no Skyline Drive or Blue Ridge Parkway. God bless ‘em.

 “…they graded the slopes on either side of the roadway, built the guardrails and guard walls, constructed overlooks,  planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs and acres of grass to landscape both sides of the roadbed, built the picnic areas and campgrounds, comfort stations, visitor contact and maintenance buildings, and made the signs that guided visitors on their way.”  – Shenandoah National Park visitors guide.

SNP May 20 pan04 Timber Hollow overlookOut of the dim forest and into the glare of a most splendid sun…the central section of Skyline Drive between Routes 33 and 211 has several large mountaintop clearings (sometimes called “balds”) like Timber Hollow Overlook (above) and Big Meadows, a few miles south of here.

 “To everyone, especially to those who live in narrow streets where automobiles are thicker than ants in an ant hill and where trolleys clang, sirens screech, and people rush about, we say, come to this beautiful Blue Ridge area for recreation and interesting knowledge; come, and enjoy tranquility in the canyons where streams ripple over rocks and waterfalls; come, and feel the stimulation of the strong wind on some lofty peaks. Do these things, and you will not be disappointed; you will carry away a memory of beautiful and interesting places and a little more strength, a little more wisdom, a little more happiness than you brought with you.”

 – James R. Lassiter, July 3, 1936, Shenandoah National Park dedication speech

Skyline Dr-Horsehead MtSkyline Drive straightaway at Horsehead Mountain, looking down upon Paine Run Hollow and the open rolling terrain of the Shenandoah Valley beyond.

Paine Run is the site of several Late Archaic rock shelters first occupied (seasonally) around 9,000 B.C. From the view above its easy to see how this narrow hollow provided an excellent refuge and staging ground for migrating hunter-gatherer groups. Paine Run, a small crystal-clear mountain stream must have been a pretty reliable source of water; the forest, mostly spruce and pines given the cooler climate of that era, offered abundant timber for lodges, firewood, and wild game; as well as concealment from enemies and some safety in bad weather. Lastly the topography itself is plain to see, there was only one easy way in or out short of scaling the surrounding steep mountainsides. From the mouth of the canyon it must’ve been relatively easy to branch out in multiple directions in pursuit of woodland bison,elk, deer, and other smaller mammals. The giant mega fauna of those distant millennia were more than likely already extinct,  ie, mastodons, giant beaver and cave bears, among others- the prevailing scientific date of their demise predates the Paine Run occupation by several thousand years. But perhaps, and this thought often crosses my mind when walking off trail thru the forest, there’s  another rock overhang or overgrown cave entrance nearby that contains the buried remains of a more ancient campsite, complete with human bones and tools intermixed with these paleo creatures dating back even further in time, perhaps 18,000 B.C?

Is it a dream? Shall I perhaps be accused of an exaggerated passion for planning if I paint for you a picture? You who are here know of the great usefulness to humanity which this Skyline Drive achieves from now on…”  – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, July 3, 1936

Tom Trigo-Chimney Rock Mt overlook-mile 45 (17)Blue Ridge Parkway, Chimney Rock Mountain overlook, milepost 49.

Decades before Easy Rider and The Wild One hit the screens, Americans had already fallen in love with “motorcycle touring”.

 “These splendid rides without any fatigue, under a scorching summer sun, made one enjoy the magnificent scenery, whilst the perfume from the newly-mown hayfields came along on a fresh breeze as the machine swept merrily over the fine roads, which is altogether a new sensation that made one realize he was living to indulge in a new era of comfortable—even lazy—but speedy road locomotion.”   – H. O. Duncan, Autocar magazine, November 2, 1895

IMG_3439High ground looking east over the mountains and ridges of western Bedford County near Montvale.

No doubt many of the free African-Americans listed in the 1851 county record below would’ve been quite familiar with the terrain seen here. Despite their hardscrabble existence and daily struggle to live in a slave-based society where unthinkable horrors were routine, I wonder if any of them ever had the luxury to climb up to some elevated ridge or boulder outcrop, and then sit and take in the serenity of these lush forests as I, and so many other modern travelers, traveling in a style reminiscent of emperors really, are so often able to do? I hope they did, at least once in their toiled lives.

Bedford County Virginia Personal Property Tax List
1845 – 1851
Salt Lake Family History Library Microfilm No. 2024477
extracted by: Vee Elliott
A List of free Negroes of 12 years of age & upwards within
the Southern District of Bedford County for the year 1851.
Names of males Age Names of females Age Occupations
Ann Selden 35 House keeping
James Selden 17 Hiring about
Edward Selden 16 same
Cashill Selden 12 same
William Selden 22 same
Matilda Preston 40 Spinning & house keeping
Sarah Preston 16 Spinning
Eliza Preston 14 same
Robert Preston 12 Ordinary
George Craigg 45 Tanner
Cary Johnson 28 Farming
Sarah Johnson 15 Spinning
Daniel Johnson 14 Hiring about
William Johnson 13 same
William Moss 35 Farming
William Armstrong 58 same

Blue Ridge-BV-Oct 8 (17)        Milepost 40 near Montvale, view looking NW over Irish Creek Valley.

Before roads were built thru the passes or “gaps”, and before small farms, clearings and axemen appeared, the remoteness of the Blue Ridge Mountains often represented a temporary refuge for runaway slaves and indentured servants. A century later ‘moonshiners” set up their operations in remote hollows, trying to stay one step ahead of the “revenuers”.  Here’s a interesting chart about a hard-working Scot-Irish immigrant, whose life story remains hidden to us, a man who braved much privation in these mountains during the American Revolution.

Surname: Conner Terelagh
Given name: Daniel
Gender: Male
Orphan: Unknown
Position in Parent’s Family: Unknown
Landowner: Unknown
Literate: Unknown
Convict: Unknown
Length of Indenture: Unknown
Year of Indenture: by 1775
Place of Indenture:
County: Bedford
Colony: Virginia
Surname: Barrot
Given name: Miles
Comments: “Plays bagpipes well”
-From: Tom Costa, Virginia Runaways, The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, 2007

Indian Rocks (22)Safely ensconced and dry during a warm summer downpour, Indian Rocks, a short hike from the Blue Ridge Parkway near White’s Gap, milepost 45.  
BRP mp#36-stone bridge-Aug 13 (6) Stone bridge spans a narrow ravine, part of the Irish Creek watershed, milepost 38, Yankee Horse Ridge.

BRP-mp#74-Arnold Valley overlook-Aug 13 (12)              Early morning atop boulder formations overlooking Arnold Valley, milepost 68.
BRP-mp#78-Apple Orchard Mt-Aug 13 (1)Lone biker enjoying a morning ride heading southbound near Apple Orchard Mountain.
BRP-mp#85-Peaks of Otter-Aug 13 (3)In the distance is the appropriately named peak, “Sharp Top”, one of the few mountain peaks in Virginia with a summit covered almost entirely in boulders and rock formations.

Thomas Jefferson mistakenly believed it was the highest peak in the state.  Union soldiers crossed the Blue Ridge and scaled the peak in 1864, during what came to be known as “Hunter’s Raid”, or better described as “Hunter’s Haul-Ass Retreat”.  I doubt they stayed very long atop the peak enjoying the cool mountain breezes.

Robert E. Lee, mounted on his trustworthy horse, Traveler, who had safely carried him through so many battles, rode to the summit a few years after the Civil  War accompanied by his daughter Mildred, also on horseback. “We sat for a long time on a great rock,” Mildred recalled, “gazing down on the glorious prospect beneath.” She noted that her father seemed lost in thought, very sad, and spoke few words.

BRP-mp#85-Peaks of Otter-Aug 13 (17)                 Tolkien-esque wooden footbridge beside the calm waters of Peaks of Otter Lake.

As far as the eyes can reach, a fine undulating country is seen. The Peaks of Otter is the finest sight for mountain scenery.” Hunter’s artillery commander, Capt. Henry A. du Pont, later wrote that this was “one of the most superb views on the whole American Continent lay before us.
BRP-Humpback Rocks
            Humpback Rocks, milepost 5, looking west upon the fertile Shenandoah Valley

BRP-Spy Mt overlook (3)
                                   Spy Mountain overlook, milepost 24, near Montebello

BRP-Whetsone Ridge (5)Whetstone Ridge, milepost 27BRP-May 29-Whetstone RidgeIrish Creek Road crosses beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway at Whetstone Ridge, milepost 30

As amply seen above, landscape architects and road engineers collaborated to make sure the Blue Ridge Parkway would be aesthetically pleasing and  blend seamlessly into  the surrounding terrain. Also note the fine stonework, much of it done by local stonemasons as well as Galician and Italian immigrants who brought their valuable  Old World knowledge and skills to this New World public works project; some of their descendants still live in the area today.

The delight of the Parkway  lies with ever-changing location, in variety. Engineers, with their practical “how-to-build” perspective, and the artistic viewpoint of the landscape architects drilled and drilled on the business of following a mountain stream for a while, then climbing up on the slope of a hill pasture, then dipping down into the open bottom lands and back into the woodlands.”  -Stanley W. Abbott, Landscape Architect and one of the principal designers of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 1933.


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