by Catherine Breese
There are two things Americans are known to love, our cars and our incontrovertible belief in American superiority. A recent drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina allowed me to indulge briefly in both of those luxuries. If you’ve driven any part of the Parkway, then I don’t need to extol its virtues. If you haven’t, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that it is something you must do.
Bring your kids, your neighbor’s kids, and your grandmother. And bring a picnic, because there’s not much in the way of concessions over the 469 mile long ribbon of highway. There are approximated 300 overlooks on the Parkway, so you are not going to get anywhere fast. What you are going to do is pull over, and pull over again, gawking and uttering something about the uselessness of the English language when it comes to describing outrageously beautiful things. Stunning, scenic, vast, moving, breathtaking, etc. All of these words are inadequate. If you can’t feel something amazing looking across the mountains and valleys of North Carolina and Virginia from high above, well, you must be an idiot.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was engineered and designed with a the lofty goal of building a limited-access route that offered drivers scenic views, waterfall, and secluded coves, alluding to a romantic American past, the “spacious skies”, the “purple mountains majesty” (or blue in this case) “above the fruited plain.” Thus, it cuts unobtrusively through the landscape. Maintenance buildings and service areas are hidden from the route, and as you drive it feels every bit like a car ride from the movies.
Ours can seem to be a visionless time—a time when the President dismantles NASA with the stroke of a pen, and we only fix the bridges after one falls down and kills some folks. The Blue Ridge Parkway is of a different time. Each mile represents a feat of the human spirit and a triumph over both mountain and human opposition. It is a New Deal project, brought to life during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Conceived as a connecting route between three of our youthful National Parks (Tennessee was one of the original states to benefit from this parkway, but their obstinacy at the negotiation table got them booted from the plan), it put people to work and stimulated the economy.
As all women know, natural beauty takes a lot of work.
Beyond the design and engineering genius of R. Getty Browning, Stanley W. Abbott and others, there was the shear feat of making the road through and on top of the Appalachian Mountains. Hundreds of workers built not only the road but also the many stone retaining walls for the road and overlooks, and they dug 26 tunnels (25 of which are in North Carolina) which, I have learned, were largely dug by hand. The National Parks Service now maintains 503 miles of road and the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited of all the National Parks since 1946.
George Carlin once asked the question “why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway”? Well, I only know the answer to the first half of that. Because it’s effing gorgeous. The Blue Ridge Parkway is as aesthetically pleasing as Mother Nature can provide, and the human capacity can bring to fruition. It exemplifies what a public vision, public funding, and a quest for the common good can create.
If you’re so inclined, here are some links to help you plan a trip.