Blue Ridge Parkway: Spring 2021

Travel may be the one expense that makes us richer. Although it is often fraught with short-term displeasure, the long-term effect – if you survive – is brain enhancing, life-rewarding.

Thirty-five years ago, my bride-of-one-day and I climbed aboard a used 1979 Honda Goldwing GL, a wedding gift from my parents, and rode up the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive to the middle of Maine and back.

Honeymoon suite, Vermont campground, 1986.

People we met on that journey still live in our memories – John Belushi’s doppelgänger (bugs in teeth, leather football helmet, and an ancient black BMW R60/2 ridden only at night), and a couple in a canoe tossing-and-catching a newborn baby high into the air while rowing across a lake. Dad ran anti-drug program; mom was a headless woman in a circus act.

You can’t make that up.

This spring we reprised a section of the route – from Mount Pisgah, North Carolina to Waynesboro, Virginia – with a twist.

Friends Eric and Judy Middlemas joined the expedition with Eric leading my 2011 Can Am on his Honda 500, and Judy riding shotgun next to Lana in the car. We helped each other carry bags into hotels each night, and enjoyed meals together. Now and then we’d cross paths on the Blue Ridge Parkway, when the women weren’t “researching winery tours”.

The Mount Pisgah Inn

Our first stop, after a ninety-mile ride through gorgeous Western North Carolina mountain scenery – GPS set on Avoid Major Highways – was the wonderful Pisgah Inn.

The views from the dining room are spectacular, but the cuisine is even better.  Where else can you get “Trail Mix Encrusted Mountain Trout”?  I chose the pastry-fresh Chicken Pot Pie – not indigenous to the Southeast – but perfected by Pisgah Inn’s chef, who briefly transported me to Wisconsin via taste bud memories.

We enjoyed the easterly views from our hotel balconies before turning in, and although black clouds were pouring in, I decided to go outside and look west one more time.  The sunset’s beauty mixed with ominous rain clouds predicted the next day’s adventure.

Ominous clouds predict the next day’s adventure.

The next morning beamed warm and beautiful, but five minutes after we headed north the rain poured down and never quit. I’ve been soaked on rides before, but not to the bone.  I hesitate to show this photograph (for obvious fat reasons) but the rain was so intense it soaked through my thick raincoat, an electric jacket, and three layers of tee shirts.  I thought the tingling was a little intense, but I had no idea it was burning the skin.  I’ve since recovered and the scars are gone, but I won’t forget to plan better next time.

Sizzling Fat

As glorious as the Blue Ridge Parkway may be, there is nowhere to hide from rain.  We saw two motorcyclists standing in one of the many tunnels we drove through, accidents waiting to happen on a dark rainy day with low visibility.  We just kept riding.

When we arrived at Blowing Rock and checked into the motel, I immediately jumped into a hot shower to raise my body temperature.  Eric – even more exposed with no handlebar or seat heaters plus a smaller windshield – felt hypothermic.

Adventure Motorcycling

When planning to head out on the open road, consider torrential downpours.  I’ve motorcycled for 50 years (age 15 to 65) and have covered much of the United States, but was never soaked to the bone and beyond.  A heavy raincoat, two tee-shirts, and an electric-jacket didn’t do the job.   Like an idiot, I’d left my motorcycle suit at home due to the high spring temperatures.

But an Aerostich suit will eliminate that threat if you soak it in TX-Direct Wash-In.  If you get hot, open all the zippers and add ice to the pockets as needed.

I’ll never ride a long distance without it again.


MEN'S ROADCRAFTER CLASSIC TWO PIECE SUIT by Aerostich MEN’S ROADCRAFTER CLASSIC TWO PIECE SUIT by Aerostich
Nikwas TX Direct Wash-In Nikwax TX Direct Wash-In

Blowing Rock, North Carolina

One-hundred-ten miles north of Mount Pisgah lies Blowing Rock, famous in literary circles for Jan Karon’s “Mitford Novel Series” as Karon lived there many years and details in the novels point to local landmarks and inhabitants.  Flocking tourists enjoy “At Home in Mitford Walking Tours”, lectures by local historians, “Mitford Days” and exhibits in the wonderful downtown park.   These books aren’t for everyone, but they do offer escape from our present situation into a world many still desire.

What Kirkus Reviews in 1996 called Karon's "literary equivalent of comfort food" would seem to appeal primarily to middle-aged women who don't care to hear about sex or violence or to read any swear words, not even "damn." (Karon says that at the age of ten she got a whipping from her grandmother after she wrote a story containing "a word that Rhett Butler used.")  -- The Atlantic, January 2002

The name “Blowing Rock” is born of Indian legend.

The Blowing Rock. Photo by Todd Bush.

It is said that a Chickasaw chieftain, 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. For people of other days, at least, this was explanation enough for The Blowing Rock’s mysterious winds causing even the snow to fall upside down.                

 -- The Legend of Blowing Rock 

Floyd, Virginia

Over the years we’ve enjoyed visits to “The Republic of Floyd”, a quaint little village with a hippy lifestyle theme offering lots of good food, music, art, and recreation.  The Hotel Floyd is a treasure, each room appointed differently from local sponsors.

Hotel Floyd sponsors a Floyd Center for the Arts Gallery located across from the front desk. When checking in, out, or just exploring the hotel, take a peek at some of the displayed artwork created by local artists.

Peaks of Otter May 2021

At the Floyd Country Store, you can enjoy performances from some of the finest musicians in the country. Friday nights feature gospel music and dance bands. Saturdays include an eclectic group of performers. And, Sundays feature bluegrass bands.

Mabry Mill

The next morning Eric and I stopped for lunch at this icon, enjoying a good meal and greeting the women as they pulled up and began exploring the mill before we rode ahead.

Photo by Mabry Mill.
Mabry Mill. Photo by Blue Ridge Parkway Magazine.
The historic Mabry Mill is perhaps the most iconic structure on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Experience live milling demonstrations, as this gristmill still grinds flour more than a century since its original construction! See the nearby Matthews Cabin, blacksmith shop and interpretive area. Here, National Park Service staff conducts demonstrations on blacksmithing, carding, spinning, basket making and other traditional Appalachian crafts.

-- Mabry Mill Restaurant

The Peaks of Otter

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Bedford, Virginia, visit the National D-Day Memorial commemorating those who perished securing Normandy beaches. Soldiers from across the nation sacrificed their lives on this day for America’s freedom, but Bedford took the biggest hit:

By day’s end, nineteen of the company’s Bedford soldiers were dead. Two more Bedford soldiers died later in the Normandy campaign, as did yet another two assigned to other 116th Infantry companies. Bedford’s population in 1944 was about 3,200. Proportionally this community suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses. Recognizing Bedford as emblematic of all communities, large and small, whose citizen-soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial here.  -- National D-Day Memorial

If  a quiet picturesque rest spot is required after visiting Bedford, The Peaks of Otter fills the bill.  Right off the parkway, this lovely spot offers hiking, rowing, and tasty meals.  They were just up and running after the pandemic when we arrived, and friendly service and gracious hosts out-dueled newly implemented software clogging the computers.  The local hospitality often outweighs inefficient government when tourism is key to economic survival.

Peaks of Otter.  Copyright, Alarice Multimedia, LLC.

Virginia Route 42

We finished the parkway and rode up to the gate of the Skyline Drive, which ventures another 105 miles north into Maryland, but pressing business at home turned us south to spend the night in the burgeoning village of Waynesboro, which offers a variety of excellent restaurants.

Riding home with the Alleghenies and West Virginia beside us, we tooled down scenic Route 42a superb motorcycle route – although covered with TRUMP 2020 signs pushing The Big Lie.

Virginia’s Route 42.

Just as I was pondering (philosophically, mind you) how to pull my pistol and eliminate some of that trash, we were stopped by a fallen tree lying across the road.

Had we arrived thirty seconds earlier:  splat.

Joining Hands

Eric, a retired Ph.D. holding several patents in the field of chemistry, dismounted along with his Type A attitude from the Honda and loudly asked:  “Anyone gotta a chain saw?  We need a chain saw!”

Eric dialing in the GPS

A minute later an old gentleman oozing work ethic and a lifetime of labor sauntered up with an ancient mid-sized Stihl and several of us pitched in to clear the scene in just a few minutes.

Which is emblematic of our culture these days:   as long as there’s a mutual problem to solve, we work together like beavers.

But give us some free time – like a year sitting around during a pandemic – and we prefer to stab each other in the butt. The search for grace continues while un-grace blocks the way.

Ironically, I’m currently reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace? which delves into the age-old question:   why do Christian’s hate so much?  

 

“C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of un-grace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.” 

― Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?

And it appears we’re right back in history’s saddle of un-grace, riding beside Henry the VIII, Oliver Cromwell, and seven wicked popes.  Power for the sake of power never works out in the long run.  History.

So we’ll take a lesson from volunteer tree cutters and stay in the saddle of grace as long as we can.

Long motorcycle adventures calm the spirit.  If one is lucky enough to to enjoy the history and beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it will raise awareness of our mutual blessings, and our need to share God’s unending grace with those we encounter along life’s way.

Our way of life — our egalitarian society based on open democracy — depends on it.

Opioid Deaths Sky Rocket

When Jellybeaners appeared in 2017 the overall death toll linked to opioids was 40,000 Americans per year. Now? It’s nearing 80,000.

Here are the current statistics about the opioid epidemic:

1. In 2017, health care providers across the US wrote more than 191 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication—a rate of 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people.
 
2. Despite guidelines to limit opioids as a first approach to managing most chronic pain, a study found primary care clinicians write 45% of all opioid prescriptions in the United States.
 
3. More than 11 million people misused prescription opioids in 2017.
4. Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.
 
5. In 2017, prescription opioids were involved in more than 35% of all opioid overdose deaths: nearly 17,000.
 
6. From 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people in the United States died from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
 
7. The CDC estimates the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the US is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

Want to know how this works on a personal level?   Read this well-received novel today.

Jellybeaners
Jellybeaners

Pearl

Pearl
Pearl

 Pearl was my first recording, issued seven years ago (4-2014).

Verse 1

Justin was tired of it all, though he was only seventeen.

Little Queenie – his sister – drove him crazy and his brother was a drunk Marine.

His parents sold crack in the back of a bar called the Silver Spur,

And the only one he could count on was Pearl.

Verse 2

Justin met Pearl one day down at the SAV-A-Lot.

He bagged her groceries and she stop for a minute to talk.

“I once had a boy like you,” she said, “and I love him so.”

“But the Lord called him home and he had to go.”

Verse 3

He told her all about his life as he loaded up her Cadillac.

She said she’d check out his story and maybe call him back.

Two weeks later the phone rang, and he picked it up.

He knew right then his new friend had changed his luck.

Verse 4

Pearl became the mother that Justin never had.

A loving sister, a steady brother, and a sober dad.

When Justin turned eighteen, Pearl sent him off to school.

And he forever slammed the door on that house of fools.

Verse 5

Now Justin is a teacher at the university.

He picks up Pearl on Sunday, and they talk over tea.

She knows her son’s returned in the needs of another boy.

He picks up Pearl on Sunday, and they talk over tea.

She knows her son’s returned in the needs of another boy.

And giving him a real chance brings her joy.

Where Are We Now?

By NYT Staff photographer Erin Schaff
By NYT Staff photographer Erin Schaff

Where are truth and love?

Where are we now?
Where has America gone?
Where are we now?
Is this the swan song?

Where have the morals gone?
Taught from above?
Where are the morals now?
Where are truth and love?

Where are the Christians now?
Since lies are King?
Where are the Christians now?
Does money mean everything?

Where are the brains now?
That death and ignorance reign?
Where are the brains now?
They took the chump train.

They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.

The Lifers’ Club

The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way.  When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly.  Kept our distance.

After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.

“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.

Uh.  This is why I love her.  No one else stands up to me this way.

So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee.   Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.

Hank and AJ.

Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape.  The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget.  Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.

The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.

Fast forward thirty years.

My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives.  We asked about the Fergusons.

“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said.  “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”

These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville.  He’s married and has a son in high school.

A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.

Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55
Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55

Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes.  That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons.  Since then  I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.

But it’s not about me.  I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.

And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.

Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.

According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice

Kairos Statistics
Kairos Statistics

Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates.  I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry.  Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.

Harold’s old prison name was Thumper.  Why?  If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell.  One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.

Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.

Not this Thumper.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history.   Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.

While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.

“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said.  “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”

“Because Thumper no longer exists. “

Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.

Then he told me what they do:  a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines.  And the final plank?   Lifers' Club Charter


Lifers pool their limited resources to help others. 

They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids.  Clothed and fed the homeless.  Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school.  Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.

Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.

How to Survive Life in Prison
How to Survive Life in Prison

The Lifers' Club Course Contents
The Lifers’ Club Course Contents

I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.

One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.

Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers.  And that’s ugly.

To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive.  Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:

One man's childhood memory...

I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.

We may be free, but do we cherish it?

Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that.  There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.

We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:

Hebrews 13:1-3

We all can lift ourselves.  By simply lifting others.

While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.

Photographing Faith

Our church family now publishes amateur photographs — scenes inspired by the Holy Spirit — on its social media site.  The response has been heartwarming, and immediate.

"Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God's love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  -- Amy Christine Pfieffer.
“Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God’s love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  — Amy Christine Pfieffer.

The visual world — shared through photographs since its invention in the mid-1820’s — affords free travel for all to locations and perspectives previously unimagined.

And because we’ve been awarded an ever-changing visual display of diversity — if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity — we need to note and share it, which is one more way to spread the peace and love of our Creator.

Watching our children grow and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see. Just an eye blink ago ...
Watching our children grow in faith and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see.

Unlike Francis Collins, the renowned American scientist who came to faith from an atheistic background, I was an early convert. A one-banana monkey.

At age seven I found myself alone in the woods where every branch was encrusted with a quarter-inch of fresh ice, the result of a slow, freezing, overnight rain.  Lying on my back upon encrusted snow, I witnessed the clouds parting, the sun arriving, the most wondrous light show appearing, the wind nudging branches in slow kaleidoscopic circles while my young brain popped with sensory overload.

A new vision every day ...
A new vision every day …

This spectacle could not have created itself, any more than all the other spectacles to follow, witnessed by seven billion different ways through seven billion different perspectives, all changing each half-second.

Francis Collins had to map the human genome to “get it”.  But this simple country boy was poleaxed by a simple ice storm.

***

My paternal grandmother put a camera in my hand when I went to college — a 60’s era Leica — and I wore it out, along with dozens of digital models over the years. Several file drawers now bulge with negatives and prints, and the safe is stacked with hard drives instead of cash.

Why?

Because there is no end to the ever-changing display of visual bounty He’s gifted the world.

One doesn’t need to be a photographer to enjoy the show, but one should notice, and share the experience — conversation works — and to feel a little gratitude for the gift.

Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting his entire life — for $50 — yet he produced a staggering amount of work, some of it now selling for millions.

What drove this creative genius who worked without reward?

The simple need to share.  When confronted with beauty, he became overcome with the desire to record and share it with his brother Theo.

When we step away from the mirror, when we turn away from ourselves, when we turn away from the noise of the man-made world to notice and share …

We remind each other how vital, how immediate, how visual, and how utterly generous The One really is.

From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it's diversity.
From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it’s diversity.


(Note:  Photographs will now appear on the site on a random basis, as they are revealed to the one who captures them).