As I hurtled the 2013 BMW 335i through the unending corners of the “Tail of the Dragon,” I thought of my friend Phil. I pictured him in his 1957 Porsche Speedster, executing a flawless heel-and-toe downshift and sliding the beautiful black sports car through similar corners, always under power to keep the swing-axle rear suspension fully planted. Before riding in Phil’s Speedster, and in his father’s 1962 Austin-Healey 3000, I never knew that cars could perform like this. Those rides were an awesome revelation to a car-crazy 14-year-old. (Photo of Steve McQueen’s identical-looking Speedster courtesy of Paisley Curtain.)
Back then, of course, these cars weren’t the vintage treasures that they are today—they were just good used cars. It was still early in the sports car revolution in America, when the drivers of Porsches, Healeys, Ferraris, MG’s, Triumphs, and Maseratis would all wave to each other. Ferruccio Lamborghini had already been snubbed by Enzo Ferrari (but had yet to produce his first car), almost no one had yet heard of BMW, and the first turbocharged production car (an Oldsmobile) had just been introduced.
I had been planning to visit Phil and his wife Hope in Tennessee for a long time, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to sample some of the legendary mountain roads in these states. I’d phoned Phil, arranged my arrival time for the following week, and plotted out the most curvaceous-looking path imaginable to and from their house. Then, only 2 days later, their daughter Cheryl called to tell me that Phil had passed away that morning from respiratory failure. With a heavy heart, I set off on Memorial Day for Tennessee and a funeral, rather than the joyous reunion I’d been anticipating.
About 300 miles of highway driving brought me to Wytheville, Virginia, where my planned back-roads tour would have started. Reflecting on Phil, and his love of life, friends, driving, and adventures, I exited Interstate 81 and turned south onto Highway 94. My tour was back on, in honor and memory of Phil.
Route 94 twisted and turned its way through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The 335i, with its M Sports handling package and wide tires, carved through the corners without drama, and the 300-horsepower turbo six would leap toward the next turn at any velocity one desired. Porsche Speedsters won many road races in their day, driven by the likes of Bruce Jennings, Ronnie Bucknum, Steve McQueen, and James Dean—not to mention Phil’s friends Ron Grable and Tony Adamowicz who later went on to successful pro racing careers. Of course, the fastest race-prepared Speedster from the 1950s or 1960s couldn’t hold a candle to today’s stock 335i. Such is progress.
Although this tour was designed primarily to enjoy the outstanding mountain roads in this area, I nonetheless found many scenic spots along the way.
Fries, VA was founded in 1902 by Colonel Francis Fries (1855-1931). He had already established a number of textile mills in North Carolina and Virginia and saw the potential for the largest yet, powered by the New River. This is the dam he built at Bartlett Falls, with the river in the distance and the channel to power his new Washington Mill in the foreground. Although the mill operated until 1988, the massive buildings are now gone. As indicated in the historical photo (courtesy of Wikipedia), women and children made up most of the workforce at textile mills in the early 1900s, including these barefoot examples at the Washington Mill.
A few miles later, I picked up Highway 274 and followed it and 221 west to Independence, VA. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as 94 had been, but it offered plenty of scenery as it wound alongside the New River. Buildings in rural Virginia ranged from this rustic farmhouse to the Grayson County Courthouse in Independence. This town, incidentally, is perhaps best known for its annual Grand Privy Race for people-powered outhouses (photo courtesy of Game Guy on PinInterest). The race’s motto? “Even the winner stinks!”
Outside of Independence I encountered the first of what would be dozens of Christmas tree farms in this area. The textile mills may have succumbed to overseas competition, but not the tree farms!
I’d first encountered the New River in West Virginia, 7 years ago on a motorcycle trip with my college roommate Buzz (see West Virginia (GPS, Gravel, and All!) I was surprised to learn that the “New” River is roughly 300 million years old, making it one of the 5 oldest rivers in the world. Some experts consider it the second-oldest of all, surpassed only by the Nile. This photo was taken less than 5 miles from where the New River is formed by its North and South Forks, near the junctions of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I believe this dam used to supply power to the nearby town of Mouth of Wilson—named for Wilson Creek, which in turn was named for an unfortunate young fellow who died here in 1749 while surveying the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina.
Years ago, as I got to know Phil and his dad, I also became close friends with Phil’s younger brother Lew. At ages 17 and 18, respectively, we both had Yamaha 180 motorcycles, and we used them to explore every inch of Frederick County, Maryland. Our first rule was “Never return by the same way you came,” and our second rule was to “Always follow a road with an interesting name.” We had learned both of these rules from Phil, naturally, and they have withstood the test of time. Imagine my delight then, when I encountered this intersection!
Needless to say, I had to explore both paths. Roundhouse Road soon led to the New River and this beautiful vista. The odds were against there being a railroad roundhouse anywhere near here, but this view was a sufficient reward for getting the 335i dusty.
And then, as it turned out, there was a roundhouse as well! Not the railroad variety, but a “round house”—although, technically, the sides formed an octagon. It looked abandoned, but safe from floods on a small hill.
After taking this obligatory “car by the river” photo, I retraced my steps to Old Mill Road.
After a little searching, I found the old mill’s dam. The stone ruins of the mill itself are just visible to the left. With a tip of my hat to Phil and Lew, I was on my way again.
I found the Sulphur Springs Methodist Church a little northwest of Mouth of Wilson. Based on the separate doors for men and women, I’m guessing that this church was built in the early 1800s. The only information I could find suggests that it started out as a Baptist church and closed in 1955. It’s been used as an impromptu barn since at least 1982, complete with racks inside for drying tobacco.
There was very little traffic on these roads in Virginia, but I was anxious to reach North Carolina, home of some of the best motorcycling and sports car driving in the country. And my birth state, in case you were wondering. Just shy of the border, this little United Methodist Church looks abandoned but may, in fact, still be active.
In contrast, these rustic farm buildings just across the line in NC are definitely abandoned. You could spend the night here in a pinch, I suppose…
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built five large schools in Ashe County, NC in 1935-1940, helping the county to consolidate from its existing system of 94 one-room schoolhouses. Only the largest of the WPA buildings survives, namely the old Lansing School. This handsome Colonial Revival school closed in 1994 and—5 owners later—became the New River Winery in 2007. The company managed to scrape through the Great Recession but finally had to shut its doors in 2012. The building recently sold at auction and is now the Fort Awesome Arts Center. The old photos below show the school shortly after it opened in 1938 and the 1944 Lansing girls basketball team (courtesy of New River Notes).
Efforts are underway to restore Lansing, NC to its former glory. In the meantime, however, there were many sights such as this old house or hotel as I worked my way through town.
Highway 194 through North Carolina had offered plenty of scenery, but the excitement really picked up once I reached Warrensville and Highway 88. It follows the North Fork of the New River turn for turn, with smooth and clean pavement, little traffic, and enjoyable corners. Once again the 335i was in its element, with the engine in its sweet spot above 4,000 rpm and the tires generating rollercoaster-like cornering force. I pictured Phil on a cloud somewhere, enjoying my progress and—hopefully—admiring my technique.
Of course, my photographic instincts continued to kick in every so often. This is the Warrensville Baptist Church, just for Cathy, Kim, and any other staunch Baptists who might be reading this report.
This narrow wooden bridge carries Lue Jones Road across the North Fork New River. My camera was actually level when I took this photo; the bridge itself is crooked!
Further along 88, the little Sharpes Falls Power station has been generating electricity since 1931. One of the dam’s builders was 16-year-old Lloyd Mitchell, who had gained his expertise at age 14 while helping build the massive Conowingo dam across the Susquehanna River in Maryland. Sharpes Falls Power has been privately owned since the 1980s, with most of its 200kw output sold to the local utility company. Not a bad arrangement, especially given the beautiful view from the owners’ all-electric log home.
In about 1830, an enterprising young Quaker named David Worth moved to an area known as North Fork, NC and started a general store there. Before long, he had added a wagon and furniture factory, grist mill, and a saw mill—and married his business partner’s daughter Elizabeth on her 18th birthday. Together, they had 12 children (7 of whom survived, such being the perils of infancy in those days). The Worths, together with 1 Presbyterian and 2 Methodist neighbors, joined forces to build a nondenominational church for the settlement. Worth’s Chapel has a cornerstone marked 1852—but it’s a holdover from their original church; this chapel was built in 1902 and is virtually unchanged since then. (Photos of David Worth in 1865 and Elizabeth Worth in 1870 courtesy of New River Notes.)
After David Worth’s death in 1888, North Fork faced increasing competition from other communities and began to decline. By the time of the disastrous 1940 flood, many of the businesses had already failed, and most of those remaining were destroyed by the high waters. Remarkably, the floodwaters had washed a house downstream, where it became lodged in the bridge across the North Fork, close to the chapel. In that position, it diverted the waters, and the Worth Chapel was not seriously damaged.
Worth’s handsome two-story house was also spared, along with his store. Today, nothing else remains from the original town of North Fork (which is now called Creston). This was David and Elizabeth Worth’s house, “Silent Shade.” Even without knowing its history at the time of my visit, I fell in love with this old place. Without renovation in the near future, however, its days appear numbered.
Still, it’s doing a lot better than this nearby house on Highway 88. You do see the house, don’t you?
Before we leave North Fork / Creston, I have to relay one more story. It’s from Charles Dudley Warner’s 1889 book On Horseback: A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. (Apparently I am not the first person to have toured through this area…) Anyway, Mr. Warner stayed overnight at the Worths’ house, noting among other things “the arrival of a spruce young man, who had just ridden over from somewhere, a matter of ten miles’ gallop, to get a medicinal potion for his sick mother, and lingered chatting with the young ladies until we began to fear that his mother would recover before his return”!
By now, I’d been motoring on the Interstate, careening around corners, and photographing various odds and ends for 9½ hours. And I hadn’t even gotten to “The Snake” yet, my primary goal for the day. To make up for lost time, I stopped for only 85 percent of the subsequent interesting-looking places I saw, instead of 100 percent. This is the Trade School, just over the line in Tennessee.
Trade schools are pretty common, of course, and make a valuable contribution to the nation’s economy by training people in automobile repair, HVAC installation, electrical work, and many other careers. The school above, however, is not a trade school—it’s the elementary school in the town of Trade, TN. It’s located in the Trade Community Park, along with this semi-replica mill, which was built from numerous pre-Civil War mill parts. Trade got its name from the trading post established here in the 1700s. It is the oldest town in Tennessee.
Nearly 128 years prior to my visit, local farmer Col. James Grayson and a posse of Sheriff’s deputies captured one Thomas C. Dula near Trade as he sat soaking his feet in a stream. He was charged with murdering his fiancé Laura Foster (no relation to your humble correspondent, as far as I know).
Tom Dula was born in 1845 in Wilkes County, NC and was well liked as a handsome and fun young fellow who played a mean fiddle. He also, uh, “fiddled about” with Anne Foster (Laura’s cousin), their affair having started when she was 14 and he 12. Two years later, in 1859, Anne married James Melton, and 3 years after that Tom enlisted in the Confederate Army. He apparently served with distinction, but was wounded in action and captured at Gettysburg. After the Civil War ended, he returned to Wilkes County—and promptly resumed his affair with Anne Foster Melton. (Historical photos of Tom and Anne courtesy of Murder Ballad Monday and Granny Sue’s Daily Blog, respectively.)
Despite Tom’s ongoing affair with Anne, he found time to court Laura and, for that matter, to fiddle as well with another of Anne’s cousins, Pauline Foster. One way or another, Tom and all three of his consorts ended up with “the pocks” (syphilis). On May 25, 1866, Laura rode off to elope with Tom—and promptly disappeared. Tom was immediately suspected of foul play and hightailed it across the North Carolina line into Tennessee, working under an assumed name at Col. Grayson’s farm near Trade. Pauline eventually led authorities to a shallow grave in the woods that she swore had been shown to her by Anne. There lay Laura’s body, with a stab wound through the heart.
Had Tom done her in for having given him syphilis? Did Anne kill her cousin out of jealousy for her impending marriage to Tom? Or was it Pauline all along? Both Tom and Ann were arrested, with both swearing their innocence. After 2 years of trials, convictions, and unsuccessful appeals, Tom was sentenced to death and hanged for the crime in Statesboro, NC. His final words were “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head.”
After the hanging, Tom’s lawyer produced a handwritten statement from Tom that read “I declare that I am the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster. April 30, 1868.” Many people thought that his confession was intended to protect his true love, Anne. As for Anne, she declared “There would never be a rope put around this pretty neck!” She was right, and the charges against her were dropped based on Tom’s note. However, she died 6 years later, from “a fever,” “injuries sustained in a carriage accident,” “the final stages of syphilis,” or “insanity,” depending on which account you believe. To this day, the true story of Laura Foster’s murder is unknown—but when asked, all the locals say without hesitation that “Anne did it.”
The story of Tom Dula made headlines across the country and has lived on through songs, books, plays, and movies. The best-known song came from the Kingston Trio in 1958 and is credited with having started modern folk music. So ”hang down your head, Tom Dooley,” since “the poor boy is gonna die.” Country legend Doc Watson also sang a more detailed song about Tom Dooley that he had learned from his grandmother. In one of those fascinating twists o’ fate, Doc Watson’s great-grandmother was a distant relative of Anne Foster Melton and had been present during Anne’s illness and at her deathbed. Betsy Triplett Watson claimed that Anne told her “If I knew I would never get well again, there is something I would tell you about Tom’s hanging.” Not long after, Anne died an excruciating death at age 31, writhing in agony and screaming that the Devil had come for her.
Whew! After all that storytelling, it was a relief to get back in the 335i and head north through eastern Tennessee up and across Snake Mountain. Highway 421 from Mountain City to Bristol is often called “The Snake” for its 489 curves in 33 miles. It’s an apt name, as I quickly discovered: mile after mile of constant changes in direction, with Shady Valley in the middle between mountain passes. Once again the 335i seemed eager to leave the sedate touring pace behind. Although my E93 is an automatic, the transmission responded almost immediately to commands from the paddle shifters, and it was actually pretty convenient to be able to pull rapid upshifts in mid-corner, without taking my hands off the steering wheel.
I stopped just before Shady Valley at a cemetery to admire the view (and perhaps to catch my breath). I found a puzzling collection of both very new and very old headstones, with the latter in considerable disrepair. Unlike the hectic roadway, the atmosphere here was peaceful and quiet.
At the intersection of Highways 421, 91, and 133, I found the Shady Valley Country Store—the Snake’s popular spot to hang out. There was a good crowd of motorcyclists, even late in the day, and many more on the road itself, enjoying the holiday.
The second half of The Snake was equally fun, although its “degree of curviosity” was substantially reduced by the time I reached South Holston Lake, near Bristol. The South Holston River proved to be undeniably scenic, in more ways than one.
From the river, it was a brief back-roads scramble to Interstate 81, followed by an unremarkable drive to Dandridge, TN. As I motored along, my thoughts returned to Phil and how our paths had intertwined over a period of 50 years. His funeral would be the following day, at the historic Chestnut Hill Church, a mile from his home.
I don’t remember exactly how I first met Phil. It was probably at Rice’s Color Center in Frederick, MD, where Phil worked in the mid-1960s. It was a paint, art supply, and hobby store, and I often went there to check out the latest 1/32-scale model racing cars. Before long, Phil had managed to get me a summer job there, when I was 15. Phil was 10 years older than I was, and I looked up to him in every respect. Through Phil, I also met his younger brother, Lew, who is a year or two younger than I. Lew and I became best friends from then through high school, racing slot cars throughout Maryland, often going on double dates together, and serving as ushers in each other’s weddings.
After college, my wife Nancy and I moved to Catonsville, MD to attend graduate school. I was pleased to discover that Phil and Hope were living nearby, and we often got together to eat crabs, go sailing, or work on the Peugeot 504 that they had bought in France on a European-delivery program. When I was finishing graduate school, Phil offered to show my resume around to some colleagues, and the next thing I knew I had a job as an actuarial trainee at the Social Security Administration. Phil not only got me my first paying job ever, he also was instrumental in getting me my first career job!
Fast forward again, to 1985. I’d completed my actuarial exams a few years earlier and decided to go racing with the Sports Car Club of America. Phil and Hope immediately volunteered to serve as my pit crew, and we ended up racing and camping together at Summit Point, WV, Nelson Ledges, OH, Watkins Glen, NY, and Road Atlanta, GA. Phil would work on the Sports Renault race car tirelessly, while Hope would record all my laptimes, tire temperatures, and so forth. She also kept us well-fed, and I attribute all of my racing successes to her corned-beef hash with eggs. The last photo below includes Phil’s dad, who showed up at Summit Point that day just in time to help celebrate my first regional victory.
Eventually, Phil and Hope retired and moved to Tennessee. We still got together every so often, and called on birthdays and other occasions, but by then I was deep into a very demanding job, and opportunities to visit Tennessee were scarce. In an all-too-painful lesson about not putting things off, I was now driving to his funeral instead of to our planned visit. The service was moving, with many heartfelt remembrances, and I was pleased to be able to say a few words on Phil’s behalf. It was good to catch up with Hope, their children Cheryl and Steve, and nieces Ann and Jill back at the house. And then it was time to say goodbye and continue on.
After fighting the traffic in Pigeon Forge, I picked up Highway 321 and then the Foothills Parkway, motoring in the direction of Chilhowee Lake along the north side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountains of Tennessee were living up to their scenic reputation.
I’d noticed quite a number of motorcyclists out enjoying the beautiful weather. I learned from this couple that many of them had been to the Memorial Day “Rolling Thunder” rally on behalf of the nation’s Vietnam and other veterans, and they were working their way home via various scenic routes.
Eventually I reached Highway 129—the infamous “Tail of the Dragon” in Tennessee. This legendary stretch of road packs 318 corners into the space of 11 miles and is considered one of the finest venues for motoring enthusiasts in the world. Phil and Hope had roared through here several times in their Mazda Miata, and I soon put the 335i to work on the twisting road. There are a couple of professional outfits that specialize in taking photos of the cars and bikes at the Dragon, and I tried to wave nonchalantly at every one of the photogs as I motored by for all I was worth! (Photo courtesy of http://us129photos.com.)
I stopped at an overlook to get a picture of the 1930 Calderwood Dam—along with this happy cruiser crew. Even late on a Tuesday afternoon, the Dragon was inundated with motorcycles of all persuasions, plus a number of “cage drivers” like me. This dam, incidentally, is one of seemingly dozens along the Little Tennessee River. The poor river is now pretty much a series of lakes. Chilhowee Dam, the next one downstream from Calderwood, resulted in the flooding of the Tallassee Cherokee village archeological site. This village dated back as far as the Woodland Period (1000 BC to 1000 AD), with the last of the Cherokees leaving in 1819 after many attacks by Creek Indians and Colonial armies.
The motorcyclists riding the Dragon ranged from those ambling along at an easy pace…
…to others who were dragging floorboards, exhausts, sidestands, and (probably) kitchen sinks. As I was taking this photo, I actually thought that they had crashed, their cruiser was making so many loud metal-dragging noises. But they were fine, and Fair Passenger even managed to nonchalantly record it all on her cell phone. (Looking at this picture now, I realize that the couple is the same one from my photo at Calderwood Dam.)
As I got back underway, a pair of bikes arrived in my rear-view mirror, one riding a 1-litre UJM sportbike and the other a wicked-looking Harley-Davidson XR1200. Knowing that motorcycles cannot corner as well as a good sports sedan, I upped the pace a bit to put some distance between my pursuers and me. Turns out these guys were really good—they almost stayed with me through the corners and could pull back up under acceleration on the (very) short straights. In fairness, I wasn’t going nearly as fast as I could, given the need to drive responsibly on public roads, etc., but nonetheless I was impressed with their speed. Eventually I stopped for more photos, and they zoomed on by with enthusiastic waves.
All too soon, I reached the end of the Dragon at the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort—the Mecca for riding and driving enthusiasts. A broad range of adventure-tourers, cruisers, standards, and naked bikes were on hand in the parking lot, with their riders swapping stories and lies. The Ducatis, BMW R1000R’s, Ninja’s and other all-out sportbikes were mostly out on the road, doing run after run in each direction and checking “lap” times.
The Tail of the Dragon is an unforgiving place. Unlike a track day at a proper racing venue, the Dragon is lined with trees and drop-offs. Many of the corners are blind and/or decreasing-radius, and traffic is two-way—including the occasional 18-wheeler. There are no corner workers with warning flags, and the nearest ambulance is miles away. Given these challenges, together with inexperience and/or excessive enthusiasm, crashes are all too common. Fatalities (plural) are an annual occurrence. Motorcycles are particularly susceptible, since mid-corner corrections can be difficult or even impossible. This is the well-known “Tree of Shame,” featuring leftover motorcycle parts from countless crashes.
After buying the obligatory t-shirt in the general store, I was walking back to the BMW when a fellow came up and asked, “Hey, why’d you stop back there? You were flying, and we were having a great time!” It turned out he was riding the sportbike that was chasing me, while his cousin was riding the XR1200. It was their 14th annual trip to the Dragon, where they spend 2 full days riding and reriding the 11 miles in each direction. We had a fun time chatting about this road and various others in the area. And I told him that, while it was fun to have a “go,” I was pushing a bit harder than I really wanted to—and besides, I had pictures to take for my faithful readers!
Leaving Deals Gap, I continued my circumnavigation of the Smoky Mountains Park on Highway 28. It proved to be quite a fun road in its own right, with more open corners and better sight lines than the Dragon. It is also legendary for its wild moonshine runs during Prohibition. At first I thought this operation on the far side of Cheoah Lake must be a gigantic still, but I learned later that it is the Rhymer’s Ford power station. The big pipes carry water almost 5 miles across and down the mountain from Lake Santeetlah. With a total drop of 663 feet, the hydroelectric plant has been generating since 1928. (I’m guessing that the tower on the hill is an accumulator of some sort that evens out the water flow before it reaches the generators.)
A few miles later, I stopped for a photo of the Hanover Dam on Cheoah Lake. It was super hot, and I was tempted to jump into the lake for a while. So were these fellows, but they had gone so far as to test the water, finding it to be “approximately freezing.” My new friends were visiting from Canada, riding a BMW K1600GT (complete with a transverse inline six engine and 160 horsepower!) and a Harley-Davidson ElectraGlide, respectively. Friendly guys, and I enjoyed talking with them.
As I continued to work my way east along the Little Tennessee River, I enjoyed this scene of Lake Fontana…
…not to mention this slightly bizarre example of rural art, featuring (I think) a Suzuki GS650GL motorcycle jumping out of a cabin. As Barb Egan once said about one of her husband Peter’s motorcycle projects, “Too much patina!”
I was nearing Bryson City, NC—my destination for the night—as thunderstorms were beginning to appear in the distance. They don’t call these the Great Smoky Mountains for no reason.
I checked into the 90-year-old Fryemont Inn just before it started to rain. It was a terrific old rustic resort, having been built by the husband-and-wife lawyer team of Amos and Lillian Frye in 1923. (They also started the Citizen’s Bank in Bryson City and the town’s first movie theatre.) After Amos’ death in 1935, Lillian continued to operate the inn until her own death in 1957. The Inn proved to be the perfect place to fall asleep with the sound of rain on the roof. Did I mention that dinner and breakfast were both great? Their dining room definitely merits 4 Roundels or better.
The next morning, I roamed around Bryson City for a while. I began to suspect that a railroad had once run right through town.
In fact, the more I wandered, the more convinced I became.
Eventually it became apparent that the famous Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which started in 1884, is once again operating out of Bryson City with excursions to Dillsboro and the Nantahala Gorge. (I may be slow, but my work is poor!)
The Bryson City Station is alive and well…
…while Amos Frye’s 1904 Citizens Bank is now a museum, complete with its original vault. (Citizens Bank is still active, having moved into a new building in 1972.)
I left Bryson City on Highway 19, also fun in its own right (are there any other kinds of roads in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina?) and soon arrived at Junaluska Lake. It was a pretty setting and appeared to offer any number of water sports.
I blitzed on through Clyde, West Canton, and Asheville, and then picked up Alternate-74 heading in the general direction of Chimney Rock. Along the way, I found this pastoral setting featuring the Bear Wallow Baptist Church. (Honest—I wouldn’t make up something like this!) Their motto is “Searching for Souls since 1868.”
This section of the Broad River is a little ways past the town of Bat Cave, NC (honest!). It is named for the largest “granite fissure” cave in North America, which also happens to be full of bats. A few miles downstream, the river is dammed to form Lake Lure.
Pulling into Chimney Rock State Park, the ranger told me there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the entrance fee was reduced from its normal $15 to $12. The bad news? The elevator to the top of the 315-foot-high rock tower was out of order… Nuts! I had been counting on that elevator, since the temperature was approaching the nineties. However, I rationalized that the savings of $3.00 was well worth the greatly elevated risk of heat stroke, heart attack, or oxygen deprivation and proceeded on into the park. There, I got a sense of the climb awaiting me.
Speaking of climbing, the state park offers a range of rock climbing classes. This intrepid 12-year-old was giving it a try.
Before starting the ascent, I first descended into this small cave. It wasn’t especially scenic or interesting, and there weren’t even any bats, but it was wonderfully cool in there. I didn’t want to leave.
I was soon on my way, however, losing at least a cup of perspiration for every flight of steps. If you’re going to climb the equivalent of a 30-story building, in 87° heat, wear something other than long blue jeans! I stopped frequently on the way up—for the views, of course.
Actually, I outpaced a number of people to the top. Let’s see, there was the woman on crutches, the older gent using a walker, and… well, there must have been others. The view from the top of this 535-million-year-old rock outcropping made it all worthwhile (maybe). That’s the Broad River as it begins to form Lake Lure. The far horizon is roughly 75 miles away, near Charlotte, NC.
After wobbling my way back down the stairs and drinking 2 bottles of water at the snack bar, it was time to continue my homeward trip. I took a series of back roads from Chimney Rock to Glenview, where I picked up Highway 221 toward the well-known Blue Ridge Parkway. I detoured over to Little Switzerland, NC in hopes of getting some outstanding mountain views—but it didn’t seem that impressive. Vertical, yes; otherwise, just a café and general store, plus a few houses.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is justifiably famous for its views. Construction started in 1935 as part of the federal government’s efforts to counteract the Great Depression. The majority of work was performed by private contractors, although the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and Emergency Relief Administration also contributed. Although most of the Parkway was in place by 1946, the final section was not completed until 1987. The road snakes its way for 469 miles across the Appalachian mountaintops of North Carolina and Virginia and is well worth a separate trip all of its own. Unfortunately, I had time to sample only about 16 miles on this journey. (Historical photo courtesy of Driving Through Time.)
This view shows Table Rock Mountain, about 9 miles in the distance.
My final tour destination was Linville Falls. I found the Linville Falls Visitor Center easily enough, and, after checking the trail maps there, I decided to hike to see the Upper Falls.
The day was still brutally hot and humid, but the half-mile trail to Upper Falls was fairly level and I reached the site quickly enough. The Linville River comes tumbling over these twin falls, spilling into a small (and inviting-looking) pool.
At the end of the pool, the entire river cascades through a very narrow channel, making so much noise in the process that it was actually hard to carry on a conversation.
As I was happily wandering around admiring the rock layers and taking pictures, this strange little creature began stalking me. At first I thought it was the legendary monster of my youth, the Frederick County Dwayyo, but then I realized it was much too small. I concluded it must be a large, probably rabid squirrel, or some sort of disturbed Appalachian gopher. At least it seemed friendly.
Back on the trail, I hiked quickly back toward the visitor center, since it was already 5:30 in the evening, and I still had hundreds of miles to go before reaching home. Except, after quite some distance, I began noticing trail features that I hadn’t seen on the way down! The thought occurred to me, correctly as it turned out, that I’d taken a wrong turn and had been heading away from the parking lot for at least three-fourths of a mile.
I continued on, however, since (i) I didn’t know where I was, and (ii) I was hoping there might be a shortcut back to the parking lot. I finally reached a trail sign, indicating that I was near the Chimney View of the Lower Falls. By now I was extremely hot and pretty tired. After looking at the steep series of steps leading down to the Lower Falls view, I reluctantly decided not to undertake any more climbing that day. I turned around, retraced my steps, and eventually found the turn that I’d missed. Of course, what I’d really missed was a look at Lower Falls! Only later did I learn how spectacular it is. I’ve borrowed an excellent photo to show you from Paul Croll, the Aging Photographer. Paul’s website, incidentally, has a wealth of stories, pictures, and photography tips.
With my endurance fading, and fruit smoothie mirages beginning to appear, I encountered this friendly group of students from Taiwan. After I took their picture for them using their cameras and cell phones, they readily agreed when I asked if I could take one more with my camera. For some reason, they didn’t look at all hot or tired. I guessed that there were approximately 45 reasons for the difference in how I was doing compared to them!
Once I reached the patient 335i, I hopped in and turned the AC up to Loud Plus. I wound my way along Highways 105, 421, and I-77, finally reaching Interstate 81 (and civilization) at Fort Chiswell, VA. I stopped for the night when the Dwayyo hallucinations began appearing outside my driver’s window… By the time I’d returned to Catonsville, I’d clocked a total of 1,360 miles across the 3½ days.
Although deeply saddened by my friend Phil’s unexpected passing, I pictured him co-driving with me throughout the trip, just as we had done so many times towing the race car to New York, or Ohio, or Georgia. I thought of his perpetual optimism, his willingness to try pretty much anything, and his love of his family and life in general. I like to think that he enjoyed my tour just as much as I did—especially those parts when the BMW’s engine was turning above 5,000 rpm.
Here’s to my friend and mentor Phillip L. Sibert. As the Chinese like to say of their most-revered friends and family, “I will remember you forever.”