(The actual driving part of our road trip)
What do you do the morning after you’ve inadvertently spent hours cycling around DC lost and not got back to your hotel until 1am?
Pick up your rental car an hour late and get ready for a seven-hour drive of course.
This part of our American road trip was the most complicated section, this was where we flew by the seat of our pants.
We knew we’d need to get from DC to Boone that night, after that, we had half a plan.
Travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Head to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Get to Memphis by Saturday…5 days away.
We had no hotels booked, didn’t know where we’d be stopping, where we’d end up or how much we’d be able to fit in.
This part had given us so many headaches when plotting our route, lonely planet wasn’t overly helpful. I think ultimately, we were out of practice as a result of covid, after all on quite a few trips we’ve winged it as we’ve gone along.
The moment we decided “sod it, we’ll see what happens”, was a relief, I mean if it really came to it, we could sleep in the car.
We’d looked at different options for our drive; a motorbike was out because of bags.
We’d toyed with the idea of a camper van but could only find one’s that slept five people and clearly, we didn’t need one that big.
The car was the best and cheapest option.
Being an hour late to pick the car up worked in our favour, we ended up with a bigger vehicle than we’d booked (thanks Hertz) a Toyota Rav 4, pretty good on fuel, comfortable to drive, decent amount of space.
I’m told the driving wasn’t stressful, I didn’t do any of the driving, I just acted as navigator and tried not to fall asleep. I thought getting out of DC would be more difficult than it was.
Our drive down to Boone took us through Virginia and into North Carolina and was accompanied by constant, heavy rain.
Why Boone? Well, the research we’d done suggested this would be the best place to base ourselves before getting on the parkway.
Boone’s steeped in Native American history, nestled in the Appalachian mountains, it’s also a university town, so there are plenty of bars, restaurants, and hotels around if you’re planning to stay a little longer than our one night before hitting the road again.
The woman who checked us into our hotel pointed us in the direction of The Local, a wonderful bar and restaurant in town that specialises in local beer and produce. It’s built on an ethos of supporting the local community and has a selection of artwork from local people adorning the walls.
It’s beautifully decorated, really airy, a lovely, relaxed atmosphere and the food was delicious with a variety of pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and appetisers.
If you find yourself in Boone, check it out, only make sure you have an umbrella or that your coat is at least waterproof, our 15-minute walk in the rain meant we arrived absolutely drenched. Fortunately for us, the bar manager sorted us a taxi back with local driver – that’s what I call service.
After a good night’s sleep and a decent hotel breakfast – with a wide array of Beatles songs playing in the background – we were all set.
First stop, Blowing Rock.
It’s a huge cliff 4,000 feet above sea level, overhanging Johns River Gorge 3,000 feet below.
It gets its name because the walls of the gorge form a flume and the air flows upward meaning paper appears to float or if you prefer the Ripley’s believe it or not description, the only place in the world where snow falls upside down.
I’m clearly someone who loves a good story so I can’t not tell you about the legend of Blowing Rock….
It is said that a Chickasaw chieftan, fearful of a white man’s admiration for his lovely daughter, journeyed far from the plains to bring her to The Blowing Rock and the care of a squaw mother. One day the maiden, daydreaming on the craggy cliff, spied a Cherokee brave wandering in the wilderness far below and playfully shot an arrow in his direction. The flirtation worked because soon he appeared before her wigwam, courted her with songs of his land and they became lovers, wandering the pathless woodlands and along the crystal streams. One day a strange reddening of the sky brought the brave and the maiden to The Blowing Rock. To him it was a sign of trouble commanding his return to his tribe in the plains. With the maiden’s entreaties not to leave her, the brave, torn by conflict of duty and heart, leaped from The Rock into the wilderness far below. The grief-stricken maiden prayed daily to the Great Spirit until one evening with a reddening sky, a gust of wind blew her lover back onto The Rock and into her arms. From that day a perpetual wind has blown up onto The Rock from the valley below.
On a clear day, from the rock you can see Hawksbill Mountain, Table Rock, Grandfather Mountain (the highest peak in the Blue Ridge chain) and Mount Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi).
Dear reader….it was not a clear day, we saw cloud. I imagine the view is stunning, I guess there’s no accounting for weather.
There’s a reason the Blue Ridge Parkway is called “America’s favourite drive”, it is absolutely stunning, even when the weather isn’t playing ball.
I can’t find the words to do the place justice, so forgive me.
The parkway is a 469-mile (755 km) long scenic highway, that connects Shenandoah national park with the Great Smoky Mountains national park.
You’ll be struck by its magnificence, be an awe of the mountains, the habitat and sites.
There are endless places to stop and take pictures, hikes that vary in difficulty, bright purple rhododendron and mountain laurel edge the road. There are attractions and waterfalls skirting the forest as you make your way along. Even in the cloud it feels mystical.
In short, even if the weather is grimmer than you’d anticipated, don’t write it off, it is still more than worth the visit.
We made a stop at Linville Falls, perhaps the most famous falls in the mountain range.
From the visitor centre you can take multiple trails to different viewpoints to see every angle of the three-tiered falls. The gorge is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.”
It is worth following all the trails to each viewing point if you can.
Getting down to the plunge basin may be a little tricky for some, it isn’t accessible for wheelchairs or prams. The paths to the upper viewing stations are in good condition and wide, there are some narrow steepish steps to Erwins view that you need to be aware of.
I think in total we spent well over an hour at the falls, we got speaking to an older couple who were on a mission to visit the capital cities of each state. The trip they were on saw them tick off 47 and 48. She’d travelled to England back in the sixties and had spent a summer in our home county, Lancashire. It was lovely to hear about experiences all those years ago and I loved hearing about all their adventures…plus it got me thinking about future adventures we could take, basically, if I’m not on holiday I’m planning one.
It wasn’t the easiest drive to Ashville, low cloud made the parkway tricky in places, it took a lot of concentration as visibility really deteriorated. With that in mind, and not wanting to get caught in the dark, we headed to Ashville to base ourselves there for the night – fair to say we hadn’t exactly gotten as far along the parkway as we thought would.
We could have easily written the entire day off as a wash out, instead we made the most of it and were in no way disappointed with our first day in the mountains…..
There are certain images that people have of America. Things you’ll have seen in films or adverts; things you’ll have read about in books….
For us, those images more often than not, involved food.
Day two in the mountains saw us tick off two “American experiences”….the first being breakfast, in a proper diner, where we sat at the counter, getting coffee refills and eating bacon. It was my first taste of grits too, I’m sorry to say I’m not raving, though the rest of the food was great.
The plan for the day was to get to Cherokee, the end of the parkway and the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains national park.
Day two blessed us with much better visibility (in places) we took our time meandering along the parkway, stopping off when we fancied, reading the warning signs about bears.
Not one to panic, I’d spent hours reading up on what to do if you come across a bear, specifically black bears. I’m still not sure how I’d be able to make myself look big, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to pull off acting bold in the face of the bear, though I think I’d be able to cover making a lot of noise.
Every sign I read made it sound as though if we did see bears, they’d be right chill, cute little things that they’d run away from us pretty sharpish, it’s not a theory I wanted to test in all honestly.
Cherokee was so quiet when we arrived. We got there a couple of days before peak summer season started so final preparations were underway in town, most attractions were still closed off.
I imagine, looking at the number of campsites, outdoor activities, shops, and events boards, it gets very busy in the summer. It’s a nice little town to have a mooch around, we had a look around the shops, walked through the park and soon became aware that people were lining the road and setting up chairs along the pavement.
Naturally, we set up our own spot to see what on earth was going on…it turned out to be a graduation parade. It was quite moving to see car after car drive slowly through town with kids stood up through the sun roof waving. It was as though the whole town had come out to celebrate and cheer, complete with handmade banners. I didn’t realise this was a thing, it was lovely.
And so for American experience number 2….a stay in a roadside motel….we may have watched too many films. It was really calming just sitting on a rocking chair out back by the river, watching the world go by. At that moment, there was nowhere I’d rather be.
The Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway had been a dream.
It was more beautiful than I could have imagined. I loved seeing nothing but trees and mountains for miles and miles.
It’s a trip you can take at your own pace, call at campsites, walk as many trails as you want, stop at every mile marker, the world is your oyster.
After days exploring cities and the bright lights and noise that comes with that, I relished the slower pace, the peace and tranquillity.
I’d urge anyone to head to North Carolina, explore the parkway and its surroundings, it is a stunning part of the world and a very different America; its a must see and beautiful.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm