Upon the Blue Ridge Mountains

We wanted to drive from Shenandoah to Asheville, North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Doing the whole trip would have made it a twelve hour driving day and neither of us were prepared for that. But we started out to see how far we could go. Ultimately, the Eagleroo made the decision for us, wafting an incense of vaporizing brake pads as we worked our way down hills and around corners. Fortunately, the state road we detoured to had similar beautiful views. Unfortunately, it also had the same hills and hairpins. So we made a few extra stops to let the brakes cool down and the drivers’ nerves settle.

Curve of highway in the mountains
Damn you beautiful roads!

When we finally rolled into Asheville, I was thankful to be in familiar territory and in one of my favorite places in the country. We spent the first day wandering around downtown. We stopped in at Jack of the Woods, a little bar that occupies the downstairs of the Laughing Seed Cafe and always seemed to attract a friendly clientele. Seven or eight musicians were gathered in the corner playing Irish music for the bar’s Celtic Jam night. It felt good to be back.

Our first afternoon, we decided to drive out to Chimney Rock to take in the panoramic 70 mile views. This also gave me the chance to drive by the house in the woods that I shared with my friend Shutz when we lived here. I was happy to find it still there and relatively unchanged after almost twenty years.  The town surrounding the house, on the other hand, had changed drastically. In the late nineties, Fairview was just a sleepy rural suburb of Asheville with a grocery store and quick access to the parkway. Now they have an acupuncturist. I’m sure I was driving Slinky crazy with the relentless ‘that didn’t use to be there.’ From Fairview, the drive to Chimney Rock offered more brake burning twists and turns but it was lovely. The sky was clouding up a bit as we paid our entrance fee and by the time we made it up to the parking lot, our sunny skies had turned grey and rain was starting to fall. Stubbornness propelled us up the 500 steps to the top of that beautiful rock and while the views that day were far less than 70 miles in any direction, it was still worth the climb.

Erik and Slinky on top of chimney rock in the rain
Standing in a cloud

Tuesday after work, Sarah headed off to the Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore is the main tourist attraction in Asheville. The Vanderbilt family, who seem to have built vacation houses in most of the cities we’ve been to, squandered the lion’s share of their fortune on this place. I’ve never been inside but I hear it’s glorious. It’s also $65 to tour and I have about a $40 threshold for looking at other people’s stuff. I’ll go $50 if you’re Elvis. Also, I’d made a discovery walking around the previous day that I wanted to explore a bit further: the Asheville Pinball Museum.

Pinball Museum
The digit counters fall

The Pinball Museum didn’t exist when I lived there. So when I saw it pop up on Google maps as we were scouting cafés the first day, I got a little excited. I love pinball. I had apparently been too excited to realize that the museum was closed on Tuesdays. I Charlie Brown-walked away from the pinball museum to roam around downtown for a bit. It was a strange feeling being in this place I’ve lived so long ago. This line from a James McMurtry song kept going through my head: “I woke up in a strange place I can aptly describe. Like the streets of a town where I lived when I was too young to drive.” I kept turning corners expecting to see one place but seeing another. It wasn’t just that all of those places had changed. Sometimes I turned the corner expecting to see one place and seeing another that was definitely there when I was there. It was fun but really surreal.

That evening we had one of my favorite dinners of the trip at a place called Tupelo Honey. We’d decided it was time for a date night so we splurged a bit. Dinner started with cocktails and candied bacon and kept getting better from there. Afterward we wondered over to the ironically named Asheville Yacht Club for a nightcap.  Before entering, we had to purchase a $1 membership. This was not just in keeping with the yacht club theme. Any establishment that makes over 70% of its revenue from booze has to operate as a private club. This rule had confused me in the nineties and I’d assumed it had been tossed out like a Footloose ban on dancing years ago. But apparently it’s still going strong. Only one of us had to be a member so I ponied up the buck and actually got a membership card. Let me know if you’d like me to take you to my yacht club sometime. I can do that now.

Statues of dancing girl and bluegrass players
Play me some mountain music . . .

Suddenly, Wednesday morning it was time to check out from our accommodations. It seemed too soon. We’d gotten accustomed to being able to stand up straight and having a kitchen table to work at. Thankfully we weren’t headed too far and we weren’t saying goodbye to Asheville just yet. After a day spent working at the library, I revisited the pinball museum. Thankfully it was open this time and it did not disappoint. All of my favorite machines sat side by side, all in perfect playing condition. When my arms and daylight both threatened to give out, we jumped back on the Blue Ridge Parkway  and headed Southwest to Mt Pisgah Campground. We continued our tradition of reserving one campsite and then finding a better one upon arrival. We also continued our tradition of setting up and tearing down camp in the rain. This time there was a upside to the rain in that it was followed by an amazing rainbow.

Rainbow over Mt Pisgah
It’s like nature did a mashup of the Hobbit and Sound of Music

After a day struggling to find signal at the campground, we decided to commute back to Asheville for our final workday before departing for Savannah. As we drove back in to town, I made a mental note that we were running low on gas and I should stop and fuel up before we started our day. Then I started thinking about breakfast and quickly discarded that mental note. Then, I parked on an incline. Five hours later when we went to move the van, it wouldn’t start. I have to say, for a 20 year old van, it has been such a solid and reliable mode of transportation that I’d almost forgotten the alternator issues that delayed us at the start of the trip. Though I was pretty sure we were just out of gas, that feeling of mechanical helplessness came rushing back. We were eager to ensure the problem was just an empty tank before mechanics started closing up shop, so Slinky found a gas station within walking distance and I headed that direction. The gas station, it turns out was only accessible by the highway and therefore not by me. On my way back I contacted AAA. Before we knew it, there was a guy pouring 5 gallons of gas into the tank. Eagleroo fired right up!

Equally as gratifying was the discovery I made walking back. I happened upon a crew setting up lighting and sound for a street stage and realized we were there for Friday after 5:00. When I lived here, it was one of my favorite things about Asheville. They’d bring in really great musicians once a month to play a free show and a good chunk of the population would show up to the party. One of my favorite gigs was Southern Culture on the Skids at Friday after 5:00.

Cedric Burnside at Friday after 5
Grandson of R.L. Burnside and great musician in his own right

This time it was blues master Cedric Burnside, who played a high energy, fun and downright impressive set. Engaging in an Asheville tradition and seeing some amazing music seemed like a great final night activity. It really meant a lot to get to share that with Slinky. I got to Asheville not sure how much of my fondness was, in fact, a fondness for that town and how much was fondness for a part of my life and left reassured that it really is a special place.


Chipmunks and horses, and bears, oh my

After the excitement of several back-to-back metropolises, it was a relief to get back to the cool greenery of the wilderness. We were heading to Shenandoah National Park, my first foray into the state of Virginia. Extending along the narrow ridge that is the northern apart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah’s spectacular views, star filled skies and cooler climes were the perfect antidote to the steamy hustle-bustle of the city.

Shenandoah Valley View from Skyline Drive
View from one of the many lookouts along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah and Skyline Drive  – the scenic drive which runs the full length of the park and eventually turns into the Blueridge Parkway – was established as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The more we traverse the states, the more we are exposed to the long term impact FDR had on his country. It’s a nice reminder of the true beauty of America and its underlying values that can easily be forgotten today. As we started to traverse Skyline Drive and oohed and ahhed at the views to the flat plains to both the east and the west, I thought ‘FDR, you can be part of my American entourage’. (Just to be clear: so far it’s me, FDR and Ben Franklin… and I guess Erik).

It is truly a spectacular part of the country. Before we left Baltimore, our friend Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson had told us that ‘you feel like you are on top of the world’ in Shenandoah. He couldn’t have been more right. In the same conversation, Jeremy also mentioned we might see black bears in the wild. And, as we drove towards our campsite on the first night, a car stopped on the side of the road alerted us to our first Ursus Americanus. Turns out the Australian response to seeing her first bear is similar to an American (or at least Theresa Venon’s) response to seeing her first kangaroo. It goes something like this: ‘SQUEEEEEEE!!!!!!’. Throughout the rest of our Shenandoah stay, we saw another 5 bears. My excitement didn’t lessen at each one, although I’m less concerned about been eaten by one now.

Bear in Shenandoah

Unfortunately, wilderness and wifi (or phone service) are mutually exclusive. Whilst this afforded us several days of zen unplugged camping, it made it more challenging to complete work. I had a meeting at 7pm on our first night there, and as we drove into our campsite at about 6.30pm with zero reception and no wifi, I had a minor freak out. We had heard that the nearby lodge had wifi, so scuttled up there and hooked into the slowest and almost non-existent service I’ve ever experienced. Disaster hovering as my Skype meeting loomed, I looked down at my phone and (insert hallelujahs and sun streaming from the heavens above) I had two bars of service. Perched right on the Western edge of the mountain range, the lodge just managed to pick up service from the town in the valley below. As I set myself up and tried to lower my blood pressure, an email popped up postponing the meeting. This is the life of a digital nomad.

Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah
Erik walking part of the Appalachian Trail that follows Shenandoah

Fortunately, the following days were blissful. We worked from the two lodges along Skyline drive, hiked to waterfalls, went on a slow but pretty horse ride, watched live music at the lodge, discovered the effects of drinking at altitude and spent a good amount of time just hanging at our second campsite. We didn’t like the one we were assigned initially so on our second day we found a walk-up site which was shared with a family of chipmunks (again: SQUEEE!), gave us more privacy and shade as well as delightful neighbours that invited us over for s’mores (or, as I can’t stop calling them: shmores).

Shenandoah Chipmunk
Our friendly neighbour

On our fourth day, we made the journey down the mountain to see Luray Caverns. This was another tip-off from our Shenandoah guru, Jeremy ‘Drummer’ Carlson. When we arrived, we were apprehensive at the tourist trap appearance of it (there were crowds of people, a ‘Toy Town Junction’, a maze, a ropes course, a gem shop… you’re getting the picture ). However, thinking Drummer wouldn’t steer us wrong, we approached the long line to buy tickets and asked an older gentleman exiting the caverns if it was worth the wait and the not-so-cheap price tag. He told us it was, although you have to listen to ’10 minutes of history bullshit at the start’. So, we made the leap and boy oh boy, was it worth it! We walked 2.5km through underground caves filled to the brim with stalactites and stalagmites. One section was even lit with 600 birthday candles (it was their 139th birthday . . . I’m not sure who did the maths on that one). It took us an hour and 30 minutes to wander through this underground natural wonder, and I even liked the 10 minutes of history bullshit at the start.

Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns in all their glory

On our last night, we packed up our camp early, ate at the lodge and then lay in a field watching a meteor shower (I know, this place is ridiculous!) until the sky clouded over. We had a long drive ahead of us to Asheville the next day, and wanted to drive as much of the Blueridge Parkway as possible on the way there. It was hard to pull ourselves away from Shenandoah but we did so at 5.30am, stopping at one of the Eastern overlooks on Skyline Drive to watch the sunrise as our farewell.