View From the Editor’s Desk: Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, Boosters, 1/6 Hearings

My husband and I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway last week and dove into autumn along the way. I’ve got to say, it was a nice respite to travel the high peaks and enjoy nature. What could be more American for those of us who live on the east coast than to drive the Parkway in the fall and meet friendly faces along the way?

Like Skyline Drive, BRP is divided into three sections.

Living in the shadow of its starting point on Afton Mountain, family and friends often spend time along its ridges picnicking and hiking and enjoying the vistas, so we are very familiar with the 217 miles located in the Commonwealth (MP 0-217).

My family is also very familiar with the middle section that runs from Fancy Gap at I-77 in Virginia to Asheville. During the years living in NC, we spent much of our recreational time during all seasons in Blowing Rock, Boone, Banner Elk, and Beech Mountain in the High Country as well as other areas of the middle section including Mt. Mitchell (highest point east of the Mississippi River) and Craggy Gardens (MP 218-377). My first Mother’s Day with our three-month-old Matt was spent on Mt. Mitchell’s high summit, picnicking in the chilliness and reveling at the views of other mountain peaks. At the summit, it smells like you’ve stepped into a Christmas tree forest as the fragrance of Frasier firs fill the air.

The third and final section at the most southern end of the BRP is our least traveled and one that I had been trying to get back to visit for the past nine years.

This year we made the journey in early October, driving from Asheville to Cherokee, and in the process, we were able to see Graveyard Fields, known for its early color, at its peak autumn leaf showiness (MP 377-469). That was a huge highlight of this year’s trip.

Price Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blowing Rock, NC

Another highlight was spending time in Blowing Rock and retracing my tracks from my days as a mom of young children who hiked and picnicked in the area with other young moms, with memories of our years attending late October Wooly Worm Festivals in Banner Elk every year with the kids, and the quiet of the heights and isolation of Beech Mountain, and other NC memories. Autumn was in high spirits everywhere with leaf color peak probably around mid-October for that area.

Another highlight of this trip was seeing elk in Smoky Mountain National Park. About 50 elk were introduced in 2001-02 to see if they could once again thrive in the mountains where they were hunted out in the late 1700s, but I had never seen them during our previous trips.

This time we hit the jackpot.

Elk in Smoky Mountain National Park

Late in the day as we exited at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Cherokee, we had to merge into a line of vehicles backed up for … something. Car wreck? Too many tourists? As we crept toward the Oconaluftee Visitor Center’s grounds, we realized this line of park visitors was there to see the elk. The grounds of the visitor center were full of females and calves as well as several bulls.

Side story: As we sat at a standstill in the line of vehicles watching the elk, we were behind a sports car with a young couple. After a bit I asked, “What is that smell?” I thought someone’s car was overheating or something. My husband laughed and said, “That’s marijuana.”

I hadn’t expected to smell marijuana at this particular place. “I feel like I’m at a concert,” I laughed as we watched the young man hold his weed outside the driver window as a park worker approached from the passenger side on traffic control. The driver didn’t sweat it; just waited for her to move on before pulling it back inside the car. They eventually parked on the side of the road to mellow out with the elk as we drove past on our way to Newfound Gap and points beyond.

Last year we had enjoyed watching the autumn elk rut in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park with the bugling from bulls echoing off 14,000-foot mountain heights. This year we heard the bugling of bull elk on the North Carolina side of Smoky Mountain National Park. What an opportunity in the fall to experience, both out west and here.

As we sat in the line of cars and watched, a huge bull reclined on the ground while two others bugled, one chasing the other into the nearby woods. Long after the bull was out of sight, his bugling could be heard echoing off the mountains.

Some background on the elk from Smoky Mountain magazine:

The stronghold of the elk population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the remote Cataloochee Valley in the southeast. This mountain-fortressed basin, also known for some remarkable remnants of early Euro-American settlement, provides a wonderful refuge for wapiti.

But elk have spread out from the Cataloochee country in the 20 years since their reintroduction. Nowadays, they’re also commonly seen in the vicinity of Cherokee, North Carolina, including around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the south entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In both the Cataloochee Valley and the Oconaluftee lowlands, your best chances of seeing elk are in the early morning and the evening.

It was late afternoon as we observed the herd and viewing was great.

The last time I remember seeing so many vehicles pulled onto the shoulders of the roadway in Smoky Mountain National Park and blocking traffic, stepping out of cars with cameras in hand, was when my family first camped in the Smokies when I was six years old. At that time, it was to see black bears that roamed everywhere.

In those days, elk had not yet been reintroduced; bears were all the rage for visitors. To prevent the bear jams, the National Park Service came up with bear-proof trash cans and enacted all kinds of rules and regulations to protect not only those visiting the park but also the bears, and the black bear traffic tangles pretty much ceased.

Quick story about camping in the Smokies: My sister was four that summer, and I was six, when our family camped in Smokemont campground. Our youngest sister would not arrive for another three years. As we had done all our lives camping in Shenandoah National Park, we tent camped.

One day as my sister was napping inside the tent with the flap open, probably so my parents could keep an eye on her, a couple of black bear cubs rambled through the campground. As they approached our campsite, my dad who was the naturalist in our family became very concerned that one of the cubs would go into the tent with my sister.

Knowing the mother bear was somewhere nearby, Dad watched anxiously as the cubs curiously sniffed and meandered, checking out everything in their path. Thankfully, they eventually moved away from our camp site, but I can still remember the tenseness of my parents and how they slowly relaxed as the cubs moved on without the mother bear making an appearance.

That and the bear traffic jams were my main memories from that camping trip. Oh, and the people in the next campsite who did not secure their cooler, so a bear helped himself to it, ripping in and making a meal of its contents while destroying the cooler.

After elk, the species we saw most on this trip were wild turkeys. Not a single black bear was seen.

Blue Ridge Parkway viaduct on the slopes of Grandfather Mountain, NC.

We rounded out our mountain adventure by trekking west on the backroads to Nashville for a visit with our daughter and son-in-law and the grand-kitties. Temps in Nashville are a little warmer than the Shenandoah Valley but not much, so we enjoyed the feel of fall the entire time we were gone.

During the years I ran the local GOP headquarters (September through Election Day; August through Election Day in 2004), I usually worked seven days a week and so missed fall for the most part. No weeklong adventures, no running up to the Parkway or Skyline Drive for the day, no wandering west to Highland County and West Virginia. After moving on, it brought the freedom to once again enjoy autumn and all its splendor. Last year and this were especially spectacular.

They say you need to stop and smell the roses. If you’re in politics, you may want to stop and observe the beauty of autumn color to find that peace to continue the journey until election day.

Boosters and flu shots: Got the latest Covid booster and a flu shot several weeks ago. Some medical professionals believe another Covid wave could be heading our way, and the flu has been extremely bad in other countries which may be an indication of what is heading our way. The holidays are coming up and who wants to be sick when we can spend time with family?

Day 9 of January 6 Committee hearing: A first look at yesterday’s hearing … Day 9 of January 6 Hearings: WSJ Opines That the Die Is Cast for Trump.

The photos are mine, taken in early October 2022. Enjoy your autumn and be well….


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