If you visited the Blue Ridge Parkway anytime between April 8 and May 12 this year, you might have seen an odd sight – a man backpacking its entire 469-mile length in a northerly direction. I say odd because most people visit this national treasure via car, RV, motorcycle or bicycle.
He would have been toting an ancient, green, external-frame backpack which, if closely inspected, was still functional only through the assistance of duct tape and parachute cord.
Except for his snappy-colored aluminum trekking poles, you might have mistaken him for a reincarnation of pioneering backpacker Colin Fletcher, author of 1960s-era books like The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time. He would have been wearing a similar brown fedora and walking that same slow, deliberate gait.
The man you might have noticed during your unseasonably cool spring visit would have been me.
I can further confirm – with permanently wrinkled hands and feet – that it was also an unseasonably wet spring, as in seven inches of rain during the section between Roanoke, Va. and the Peaks of Otter.
And why would one choose to walk that far down a ribbon of asphalt famous for seemingly unending steep grades and ankle-grinding, super-elevated curves rather than drive it?
Simple. Ten years ago I tested and proved my theory that the most scenic drive in the world was also the most scenic walk in the world. Permit me to briefly rewind back to 2003.
I had been retired from federal service only a year, and a book idea was rattling around in my head. The stories and experiences of having worked two summer seasons as an interpretive ranger and twelve years as a protection ranger on the Parkway were screaming to be published. It would be my first book, and I had to find it.
So, on September 1 of that year, I strapped on the same old backpack loaded with the same old sleeping bag and tent and other necessities and began a sentimental journey down the Parkway southbound from Milepost 0 near Waynesboro, Va. looking for a unique backpacking experience and forgotten memories.
Three days later I found the book at Boston Knob Overlook. What a story unfolded as I continued a 41-day, random interaction with Parkway visitors, employees, neighbors, wildlife and weather.
By the time I reached the end of the journey at Milepost 469 near Cherokee, N.C., my head was about to explode with a book already written inside it. The Blue Ridge Parkway by Foot: A Park Ranger’s Memoir hit the shelves in 2007.
By the time 2013 rolled in, I was getting a little anxious for another mega-mile hike and began toying with the idea of a second, ten-year anniversary hike of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, the thought came to walk it in reverse – northbound – during the spring season rather than fall.
I would witness the season of rebirth this time rather than the season of decline, the fresh bloom of serviceberry instead of the musty bloom of goldenrod, bold springs versus those nearly dry. Rather than staring into the sun, I’d have it mostly to my back.
Mere days before beginning, I accidentally learned that my plan coincided with the 25th anniversary of Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Executive Director Susan Mills and I quickly agreed to a hasty marriage of the two anniversaries and set up my journey as a per-mile fundraiser for their organization. Pledges can still be made at www.friendsbrp.org.
As I began the murderous climb out of Cherokee, fully supplied, I shuddered at a statistic I had computed ten years earlier – one climbs a vertical distance of about nine miles over the full length of the Parkway. The downhill muscles would also have to brake the same distance. My dogs were already starting to bark.
One could drive the full length of the thing nonstop in less than twelve hours at an average speed of 40 mph. So much easier, I thought. But such a visit would offer only visual treats that would disappear in seconds.
Not content with a mere baptism by sprinkling, I was going again for the complete immersion experience. I wanted to hear again the lone coyote howling in the night. I wanted to smell again the sweet aroma of the teaberry leaf. I wanted to taste again the pure mountain water. So off I plunged into its very heart.
Again came the random surprises, trail magic, observations, realizations and revelations I knew would come to a sojourner moving at a whopping average speed of 1.5 mph.
For the first time in my life, I was struck by lightning while camped near a place called, of all things, Graveyard Fields. Fortunately, a tree next to my tent took the direct hit, but a root must have routed some of the current my way. Until a quick assessment determined that my heart was still beating and no body parts were smoking, I was ready to forsake the Great Outdoors.
I saw some snow this time – at least the remnants from the last winter storm on Apple Orchard Mountain, the highest point on the Parkway in Virginia.
Mr. Bear made an appearance at close range – about fifty yards from my tent near dark one night. Two claps of the hand and a blood-curdling yell sent him running, and I quickly ate the last two slices of pizza that surely attracted him. I had known better but thought it a safe bet so close to the city of Asheville.
Ten years ago I kept a road kill log. Live wildlife sightings seemed a more refined approach this time around. Some favorites I chose to count included: 44 red efts, 3 indigo buntings, 5 rabbits, 11 grouse, 11 turkeys, 40 deer and 2 bears.
In the category of strange, I witnessed three sizeable rocks fall from cliffs onto the roadway, heard two large trees fall in the woods and found two waterlogged cell phones, one active debit card, one dollar bill, one nickel and five pennies.
Some things had changed in ten years – some for the better, some for the worse.
At several points along the way, I told people it appeared that the Parkway corridor had experienced a fair amount of seismic activity since 2003. To their puzzled looks I noted that many of the grades seemed steeper, then quickly offered that it probably had more to do with me knocking on the door of early Social Security retirement.
Ten years ago the stately hemlock tree adorned the rich coves throughout many sections of the Parkway. Today they are gone, gone, gone, victim to a tiny bug known as the hemlock woolly adelgid. It’s as sad a story as the loss of the chestnut tree in the Appalachians a few decades ago.
In better news, a new large mammal is being sighted on the southern end of the Parkway near Cherokee and Maggie Valley thanks to a successful elk reintroduction program in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the elk population continues to increase through natural reproduction, the migration could very well continue far enough to return validity to places along the Parkway like Elk Pasture Gap.
Playing ranger again, I observed far fewer skid marks, gouge marks in the pavement, impacted guard rails and bits of glass and chrome – evidence of motor vehicle accidents. Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett later confirmed that the accident rate on the Parkway had, in fact, declined by about 50% over the past ten years. Stinnett also said that better signage had virtually eliminated fatalities in several “trouble curves.” Good news for all.
The impact of sequestration this year adds more woe to a park which has already experienced a debilitating decline in its annual operating budget. Many facilities will have delayed openings. Some, like Smart View Picnic Area near Floyd, Va., will be closed the entire 2013 season. Several family reunions – held in this beautiful place for decades – will now have to convene elsewhere.
Thank goodness the natural water supplies were plentiful this spring; hardly a facility was open whereby I could obtain tap water. I and thousands of other visitors found even fewer places to use the bathroom. Where I did remains classified.
Ten years ago, Bunnie and Russell Richards of Boone, N.C. read of my walk in their local newspaper and speculated I would be hungry. Of meager means themselves, they tracked me down and offered gifts of cheese, crackers and a large homegrown tomato. I had never been more humbled.
The natural course of life has taken both of them but, as I passed by Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook, I could feel their gentle spirits again in the wind.
It’s the people, you see, that make the Parkway experience the ultimate it can be.
Take J.C. Thompson, for instance, of Check, Va. When he rolled up one morning in his truck and asked if I needed anything, I replied boldly, honestly and forthrightly.
“Yes. I could use a cheeseburger and a Mountain Dew.”
A bit puzzled, he scratched his head and then smiled.
“Don’t have them with me but jump in. I know where to find them.”
Ten minutes later we pulled into a country store, and I concluded that moment that being homeless was not so bad when equipped with a credit card and a concealed gun permit, and in the company of trail angels like J.C.
There were other times when just a few minutes of conversation and the exchange of something as simple as a banana was all it took to reconfirm one’s faith in the goodness of people. Carter Krewson did that for me one afternoon. His bicycle journey had begun months earlier from his home in Redding, Ca. The Parkway was going to be his final leg.
I thought it pretty cool what he was doing at his young age. He thought it pretty cool what I was doing at mine.
As I sputtered the final mile into Rockfish Gap with only a few Reese’s Pieces remaining in my food bag, a Joni Mitchell song came to mind, and I realized there were really two very different Blue Ridge Parkways – the one northbound and the one southbound. From both sides now, I had seen it all.
© 2013 Timothy Pegram