At an unpromising jumble of highway ramps in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins. From here it continues south into North Carolina, a 469-mile stripe of asphalt carving a meandering path through the Appalachian Mountains.
On the map, it is depicted as a green line, like someone with a highlighter has marked the most scenic route through the region’s rugged terrain. In real life, it looks just how you’d expect a road constructed as a self-guided tour of perfect vistas to look. It curves and dips, twisting and unspooling to reveal the best angles of layers of mountain peaks rising into blue mist. Frequent overlooks are positioned just above the most stunning scenes.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit of the National Park Service. It is often called “America’s Favorite Drive.” But that doesn’t mean it’s crowded when I begin my drive early on a weekday morning. In the absence of other humans to observe, I keep a mental count of wildlife: a red bird; a green bird like a flapping leaf; a chubby brown mammal I can’t identify, hovering hesitantly where the road meets the grass; a squirrel standing straight up on its back legs. As I drive on, the list expands: cows; white horses; a turkey in the brush; a tentative deer; a chipmunk that scurries, incredibly fast, across the road; a grey-brown bird that flies, at windshield level, in front of my car for a whole minute.
Later, as the Blue Ridge Parkway wakes up, my list expands to include people: a hiker holding a phone; a red truck; a white truck; a motorcycle; a bicycle; men fishing in a lake; a woman and man who have pulled over to take photographs of flowers.
But even before other travelers cross my path, there are signs of human life, past and present, all around: log cabins, cylindrical hay bales, tiny old graveyards surrounded by fences or stone walls. There is limited cell service here. The connection to the outside world comes and goes. Private roads and potential detours intersect with the Parkway; these routes and where they might lead are mysteries. There are towns down there, I know, and I’m sure they are little mountain jewels I would regret missing if I knew more about them. But the Parkway itself is like a river, with a current of its own, and I want to stay on it.
Although my temporary world consists of nothing but mountains and roadway, it is not monotonous. The ridges change from green to blue and back again; the trees along the road close into shadow-casting canopies then open up to let the sun stream in. Some sections of this road could be the stretches between houses in the suburb where I grew up, but others feel more isolated, and more spectacular. There is only one tunnel on Virginia’s half of the Blue Ridge Parkway – North Carolina has 25 – but there are several pretty little stone arch bridges.
Parts of the road have guardrails, rustic rock walls or low wood fences, but other parts have no safety measures at all, nothing preventing you from plummeting hundreds or thousands of feet down.
Little white flowers bloom beside the road; the wind has strewn their petals across it. Later, little yellow flowers replace them. At one point, formerly green trees explode with peach flowers. South of Roanoke, the roadside colors become brighter: pink flowers, then orange, then occasional bursts of purple.
I exit the Blue Ridge Parkway just before the North Carolina line, and just before a thunderstorm. I am going east again tomorrow, through the fog, out of the mountains, and back into the land of cell towers. But part of me wants to keep going as far as the Blue Ridge Parkway can take me, to follow the green highlighter squiggle further into the Black Mountains, and, in the words of the National Park Service, “through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, the Balsams, and…the Great Smokies.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway combines everything that was once good about America – it is impossible to imagine anything like it being built now, and almost impossible to believe it was done then. Conceived to benefit the nation by creating jobs in an economically depressed region, expertly planned by the most qualified and careful designers, built by a combination of private contractors and government-funded public works programs, this park within a park within a glorious system of parks celebrates the natural beauty and unique cultures of a distinctly American region.
The road is also typically American in its complications. Its construction, which began in 1935 and was not completed until 1987, didn’t please everyone. When the Parkway was first envisioned, the space it would occupy was not made up entirely of public lands or total wilderness; there were farms and towns here, and the states had to acquire some of them through eminent domain. There were controversies about the exact route the road would take, and worries over which cities would benefit, and how the lives of neighboring communities and individuals would change. Nor does the parkway provide an entirely pure glimpse of early life in the mountains; its designers chose to showcase certain elements, from certain eras, and to ignore others.
But despite all that complex history, it is, in a sense, the simplest of American attractions: the lure of a double golden line winding through a hazy blue green wonderland. It is everything that makes us great, and everything we have to lose.