The International Writers Magazine
Eric D. Lehman
I punch the rotting boards of this motel while they curl together
inside. Damn them and damn me! And damn this damned, damning rain
After a conversation-short
drive from Ryan and Jenifers 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 well be camping. Ah
But my Escape seems comfortable enough and we rush on, unaware that
rain will force us into shelters more often than not. Ryan and I sing,
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
its a weekend after all." So, continue on over Tanners
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. "Theres
no bugs up here!" he tells us. Then, were off to the green
meadowy campsite, where the buzz of the grass belies the stewards
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 insectoid 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 breakfast
down the road. So, after mouth-juicing fruit, we repack Silver Jack
and shove off past Blackrock Gap, Riprap Overlook, and Wildcat Ridge.
And then, were 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 omelette or succulent
sausage for breakfast. But the park-run restaurant has been closed,
boarded up, kaput. 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
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 drivers seat.
Weather reports indicate more rain and we search through my overprepared
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 magarita restaurante.
"What a quaint town!" we repeat over and over.
I realize that weve 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 didnt 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 thats not what Im upset about.
No, I curse the damn weather gods and the lost, blue, camping startime.
The next morning, after I finally figure out how to use the digital
videocamera, puzzling over the whys of Ryans 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. Ahh
But soon were off the road onto the Linville Falls connector.
We decide to hike down to the falls and Ryan packs food as if were
climbing Everest. I scoff, but wish we actually were climbing some insane
mountain trail. Jen leads us down into the wet, jungley gorge. Ryan
videotapes us with aplomb. 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
" We relax,
surrendering to the thundering of the water and the surrounding pines.
Relaxing. Thats 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. "Weve
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
Malarkeys 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 Clif Bars.
The attempted canoe trip is abandoned. A whitewater rafting trip south
of Cherokee is considered instead. Or perhaps well 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
Chimney Rock Park
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 cloudworld. 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 cant recognize the rearranged geography.
Jen pushes ahead along the precarious cliff-walk, while Ryan and
I try to ascertain the filmic spots. "I think thats the
" "No, look at the way the rocks are
" All we find is a lonely green frog, which
we photograph carefully
sadly our best wildlife encounter so
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 doesnt 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.
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 cloudworld. 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.
|Blue Ridge Mountains
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
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 Im 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, chomping
on pizza and breadsticks, 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
breakfastroom. 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 cant 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 hadnt 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
we shout with renewed hope) When we ascend the ridge again from the
common lowland roads, I immediately hark back to the otherwordly 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? Im
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 hadnt budgeted, the lack of
hiking, the cancelled canoeing
we had a near-perfect drive, a near-perfect
road-hugging, winding, trafficless 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 journeys 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 everchanging,
musical roads, I will feel the macadam beneath me more keenly. I will
muscle the wheels more passionately. And Ill keep searching for
that perfect, impossible, passionate drive.
© Eric D. Lehman (Prof) Jan 2004
Place Above the Clouds
I stare in wonder at the giant white-crested peak.
"Yes. Big one, Salcantay, over there."
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