Into Appalachia

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April 19 …

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile stretch of road laid out like a magic carpet over the summits of the Blue Ridge Mountains,  a major spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Construction began in 1935 under FDR’s New Deal and was largely completed in 1966. The last segment was opened in 1987. The Parkway runs from the northern border of Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee to the southern border of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I picked it up in Asheville, NC, about 80 miles in and two thousand feet up.

It was rainy with low clouds when I started out, and in no time I was into a thick fog. I briefly considered pulling off and proceeding northeast along some valley roads, but something told me to press on. Here’s the view at 2,700 feet, with a break in the fog …

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In no time, I was ascending three thousand more feet into the clouds, with a decidedly less accommodating fog …

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I’m somewhere between five and six thousand feet up when I took this photo. Somewhere out there is Mt Mitchell, which at 6,684 thousand feet is the highest peak east of the Mississippi.  In this fog, I couldn’t see a thing.

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Occasionally, the fog would break and I would get something resembling a view. I’m at about 4,400 feet here. Visibility was just about nothing, and my average speed was about 20 MPH. The good news was I had the road practically all to myself.

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What I didn’t realize when I was taking my leisure drive was that various segments of this section of Parkway are closed to traffic through the winter, even into April. We’re up in the high elevations, where ice and snow, combined with the fog, can make driving impossible. Even clear days can be deceiving, as the weather can turn on a dime.

For hikers, the dangers are far more extreme. One wrong turn in low visibility conditions can turn a pleasant stroll in the woods into an elemental struggle for survival. People die out here every year.

Meanwhile, in my car, hunched over the wheel, my brain was quickly burning through its available metabolic supply. All my energy was directed to following the yellow line in the road. At various points, the twists and turns forced me to reduce my speed to 5 and 10 MPH.

By one in the afternoon, I was whipped. I pulled into a picnic area in an absolute pea soup of a fog and stretched across the front and immediately fell asleep. I woke up about an hour later, fixed myself a cold lunch, and settled back with a book. I wasn’t going anywhere. If anything, I would be pulling off the Parkway at the first available opportunity and taking my chances in the valleys below.

A knock on my window shook me out of my reverie. National Park Service Police. The officer informed me of an open campground just 17 miles up the road. This was unexpected news. My information told me that the campgrounds didn’t open till the beginning of May. In this weather, I didn’t have to worry about booking ahead. Spirits buoyed, I ventured into the fog. The view from my campsite, looking into the late afternoon sun …

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Sanctuary. Tomorrow, another day …

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