The International Writers Magazine
:Road Trip to FLA

Going South
Ari Kaufman

Last month, I relocated to a place I never envisioned myself residing, at least while I was still in my 20s. I packed my Nissan and moved more than one thousand miles south (well, I made the trip more than 1,500 when all was driven and done) from New York to South Florida, in the midst of winter.

Florida is not exactly a geographically stimulating state, especially if you like architecture, mountains and authentic culture as I do; but then again, sometimes love and flexibility make people do "crazy" things in their youth.
Thankfully, I was cognizant of the fact that the weather would be getting progressively warmer as I moved down the east coast. The climate could not become any worse, as my first two days through the mid-Atlantic, along the I-81 in the Western part of the Virginian Appalachians and Blue Ridge mountains, saw fog-induced limited visibility, sleet, snow, wind and that lovely freezing rain that growing up in San Diego had (obviously) not prepared me for adequately.

However, my westerly detour enabled me to acquaint and reacquaint myself with the splendors of the aforementioned Blue Ridge Mountains via the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Tennessee side of the Smokies, as well as, more southerly, the Savannah River Scenic Byway and the Okefenokee Swamp area in Southeastern Georgia. Yes, the geography of the east and southeast is vastly underrated, indescribably diverse, and I was going to revel in its "winter splendor."

The Blue Ridge Parkway is, along with the Natchez Trace Parkway, the only parkway run by the National Parks Service. This was my third trip along the pristine road in 2005 alone. I had traversed its southern portion (Northern North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia)  on a balmy 50 degree New Year's Day; in early September, on a muggy, mid 80s late afternoon in the Northernmost portion near Shenandoah National Park, just 90 miles from Washington DC; and now in mid-December, on a frigid, snow-splattered day in which the mercury would barely cross freezing, in the middle section between Harrisonburg and Roanoke, Virginia.
Sadly though, my prior fears were realized and my time on the BRP would prove ephemeral as, a few miles past Otter Lake, just east of the town of Buena Vista, the icy roads that led to higher elevations alongside the Jefferson National Forest were shut down for safety reasons. Even though I was at total peace (and that is impressive for a Type A, big city, anti-hippie like myself), listening to Bach and ready to take some photos, I realized that that the NPS was in fact being judicious and wise in their closure. Further, with a car full of, basically my life, icy roads were not something I relished. I drove back down the hills, a bit past where I embarked, took another photo or two, and exited back onto the state highway toward Bedford, VA.
I was only on the road for a little over half and hour, covering no more than 30 miles in total, but my third distinct weather pattern in which to explore the BRP had presented me with some new views. You simply can't fathom that this piece of majesty is on the same planet as wastelands like Gary, Indiana, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, or even "marvels" such as Santa Monica, California or the beautiful rocky areas near Moab and Southern Utah.

In any event, I pressed the southwest. I made a cursory trek through some  backroads of Tennessee’s northeastern farms, and then wound up near Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Like my one day "adventure" there last year, the sun was shining and the temps were in the mid 40s. However, this time I entered from the Tennessee side via the tacky, tourist trap that is Gatlinburg.

Picture Rodeo Drive full of rednecks at the base of a wondrous natural area, and you have Gatlinburg, personified. And if you have ever read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, you can picture this NASCAR fan's Utopia even more accurately. I quickly escaped Gatlinburg ("quickly," in this overcrowded town would mean half an hour to go less than a mile), and entered the outskirts of the park, which presented a far more serene and authentic experiences. I wonder what percentage of the Hard Rock Cafe patrons in Gatlinburg even bother to enter America's only free National Park.
Driving through the park, stopping at most viewpoints, my car packed to the brim with sports and electronical equipment, boxes and boxers, and filthy from the snow and ice of two days prior, was exactly what I remembered from last year. The views were bucolic, yet extravagant, with brown and green fields and mountains criss crossing in a pattern that would make those in Florida or Kansas bounce with envy. And, judging by the influx of domestic sedans with patriotic stickers and out of state license plates, I am not naive enough to think that the SUV-driving elitists from the New York, Boston or DC suburbs are willing to break from their environmentally-concerned hypocrisy to engulf themselves in a multiple hour trip to Western North Carolina. Don't let them fool you; I know these folks, have grown up with them, and many are related to me. A Starbucks Latte and a wheatgrass sandwich from Whole Foods in Georgetown or SoHo, on their way to another August trip to Martha's Vineyard, is far more enticing and practical than enjoying our country's splendor, even though they would argue to the contrary.
A few u-turns and winds later, I departed the Park through Cherokee, North Carolina, which is almost as touristy as Gatlinburg, but in a "let's expose Native Americans and profit off of it" sort of way. But again, please don't be confused. It is imperative to note that these shows, casinos and exhibits, like on any "reservation," are exclusively run by the Native Americans themselves, with all the income going to them, tax free and directly. I quiver thinking of why most American think these tribes have such horrible current lives. But again, I digress...
...and I began to drive West toward the Carolina's hippie hamlet of Asheville.
Few states have the geographic diversity North Carolina. Only Virginia and Maryland, so far as I can think, can lay claim to flat, languid beaches along the eastern borders, urban metropolises in the middle, and dusty, hilly, pine tree-laden mountains and rivers in the far west. Since Maryland is much smaller, size-wise, than North Carolina and Virginia, the latter two states take the proverbial cake in my book as to "most beautiful states," at least east of the Mississippi. Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California might have something to say about those rankings on a national scale

Asheville, North Carolina, sits on the eastern edge of the Smokies, and serves as the southern entry and termination point of the Blue Ridge Parkway. With nearly 70,000 citizens and a university of 3,500 students - as well as four smaller colleges - Asheville is easily the largest city in the western part of the state.

It is surrounded by the two rivers (Swannanoa and French Broad), the aforementioned mountain chains, and the quaint downtown is boosted high above much of the suburbs, giving it a distinct and picturesque appearance. The city motto is "Altitude affects Attitude."
Originally, Asheville had closer relations to Tennessee than its registered state, North Carolina. This was because there was no road connecting it to the rest of the state. Asheville was isolated from the outside world until late 1880, with the opening of railroads. Who knows if this contributed to what Asheville stands for today, but this city eventually developed into the Berkeley of the southeast, much in a clandestine manner, which continues into today, and likely for the foreseeable future. Environmentalism is big in Asheville, and its campus, both geographically and politically, resembles UC Santa Cruz in the Central California area.
After dinner and a night in Asheville, I proceeded south, surprised to learn that South Carolina is neatly moonlighting as a geographically diverse state as well, at least for a handful of miles in the northwestern portion, about 30 miles south of Asheville. But after prodding along US-25 near Greenville, Clemson and the eastern Continental Divide, the land, not surprisingly, leveled out, and South Carolina rapidly resembled Georgia and Florida, more so than Vermont or Pennsylvania.

I exited Anderson, South Carolina, and began matriculating south/southeast along SC-29 (the Savannah River Scenic Byway) toward Augusta, Georgia. The first half dozen miles were awful: industrial, bumpy and extremely vapid. However, my fortunes quickly turned north of Abbeville, as the road came to resemble a slightly less-private Blue Ridge Parkway, sans mountains, but full of pine trees, red dirt and rivers and lakes along both sides.

I stopped at two state parks along the lakes and later, the Savannah River, before - 90 miles later - crossing into Georgia, and the wealthy suburbs just north of Augusta. The ride was fairly quick, speed limits were mostly 55-60, except when you went through the small towns, which unfortunately were dull and desolate (this being a Sunday morning). Either way, I enjoyed being one of the only cars on the road.
After driving by the very private Augusta National Golf Club, I wound south through the construction of Eastern Georgia. Sorry, nothing distinct to report therein. As dusk settled in, I then made my final stops of the day in lovely Savannah, then finally and happily meeting my girlfriend about an hour south in Brunswick, Georgia.
On the fifth and last day of my whirlwind tour of the eastern region of our great nation, my girlfriend, Maria, accompanied me 50 miles or so to the southwest of Brunswick (40 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Florida) to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, or as I call it, The Okefenokee Swamp. The Swamp, just outside the limpid town of Folkston (GA.), contains 438,000 acres of preserved wilderness and protected forest and freshwater. We enjoyed a three mile drive in the Reserve, and then a 20 minute romantic walk along the flat, safe trails, on a cold, sunny morning. We even saw a gator or two. 
I am not an environmentalist in the least. I do what I can do to clean the air and preserve our precious commodities (which is more than many of my environmentally-conscious acquaintances do), but I do enjoy what this country has to offer by way of natural areas, protected by agencies such as the National Parks Service. While I think we sometimes overblow our alarmist claims of the disintegrating world, and lay blame to the wrong people and organizations, I do hope that more people understand why nature is so special, even if they never bother to visit anything outside of their local Restoration Hardware and Jamba Juice on a given day.

© Ari Kaufman Jan 12th 2006 (Politics) (Sports, Travel)
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