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.

Note:  Eric and I will ride the southern section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in July.  Stayed tuned for tales of further adventures.

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

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.

Standing Tall

A certified rock star, whose stage apparel and song lists hang in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, graced Johnson City’s Down Home Saturday night on February 8th to promote Stand Tall, an homage to Jason and the Scorcher’s 1996 release Still Standing.

Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

The owner of this famous pickin’ parlor – Ed Snodderly – is also honored inside the CMHOF, lyrics to his “Diamond Stream” hanging prominently near the rock star’s regalia. Don’t know Ed? Perhaps you saw him at the movies playing the “crazy fiddler” in the Cohen Brother’s classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

Ed Snodderly, Village Idiot, O Brother, Whereart Thou?

And here’s the kicker:  James “Jason” Ringenberg grew up on the neighboring hog farm outside Sheffield, Illinois, in the center of America’s heartland, graduating in 1977 from Western High School with my brother, also named Jim.

“Jason” – his middle name – wandered up and down the Rock Island Line south of his home, jawing Bob Dylan tunes on the harmonica to the beat of ground-shaking freight trains, getting the music down into his DNA … while the rest of us drank beer and drove too fast.

After strumming a guitar and singing a self-penned valedictory “speech” to his high school classmates, Jason slipped down to Carbondale, Illinois to earn a bachelor’s degree (with a minor in history) and to soak up the punk vibe sweeping small clubs in the late ’70s.

In 1981, Ringenberg moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he soon formed Jason and the Scorchers with Warner Hodges, Jeff Johnson, and Perry Baggs.[1] Their potent mix of punk rock and country gained them fans around the world.[1] In the words of Rolling Stone they "singlehandedly re-wrote the history of rock'n'roll in the South". They won critical approval with the release of successful albums and energetic live performances.[3] -- Wikipedia

Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

Seriously, there’s a reason for such longevity.

Way back in 1985 I enjoyed my first international trip to the British Isles — I’d paid for college myself through a series of part-time jobs — and was finally debt-free at age twenty-eight and able to travel. Luckily,  Jason and the Scorchers were playing an Independence Day bill at the Electric Ballroom in London while I was there.

So I witnessed several hundred British youth bouncing off the walls and waving Rebel flags to “Harvest Moon” – a song recalling our Midwestern youth.

Harvest Moon, shine on down
The chill of the air wakes the ghosts of the ground.
Northern wind, I hear your voice,
But killing frost takes all hope of choice.

The sight of all those kids inflamed and jamming to the boy next door raised my hackles, as the memory still does. Here’s an article claiming Jason and the Scorchers to be the greatest rock band in the world at the time I saw them.

Ironically, my first jet flight may have been my last.

While researching this story I discovered the 1985 Air India ticket that got me there. The plane behind us went down killing 329. Terrorists tried to put the bomb on our plane, but couldn’t get it done. They succeeded the following week. We happened to be in Ireland then, riding bicycles near Dingle and hearing depth charges going off as workers tried to locate the 747 on the bottom of the Irish Sea.

Air India Ticket, 1985.
Air India Ticket, 1985.

At the same time Jason rocked the Electric Ballroom, Bruce Springsteen enjoyed seeing his image – the iconic Telecaster draped across his back for the Born in the USA album – draped upon buildings in Piccadilly Circus, while Dire Straits filled Wembley Stadium.

I went backstage, met the band, shook Jason’s hand, and noticed Ringenberg had no interest in partying like his bandmates, obvious professionals.  Jason — the eternal designated driver — kept the guys together as long as possible.  The last tour (2010) featured two original members — Jason and Warner Hodges — still standing.

The last time we talked was at a classmate’s memorial, and although Jason had aged like the rest of us, the family genetics, a harmonious healthy lifestyle, and calm domestic life revealed a wrinkle-free face marked only by laugh lines and a perpetual grin.

Jason and I aren’t close, and honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the music, though I’m fond of O Lonesome Prairie, as corny as it is.  Golden Ball and Chain is a killer rock and roll thunder bomb, indeed.  But Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, and the mailman from Crystal Lake, Illinois – John Prine – do it for me.

Surprisingly, Jason reminds me of Porter Wagner, especially his sense of humor, body shape, and wardrobe.

"Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord," wrote Mansfield. "Back him with three of the town's most notorious rockers," and that was Jason & the Scorchers.  --  Index of American Biographies

I saw Porter Wagoner once, hosting the Opry to a packed show at the Ryman, and witnessed a bus-load of Japanese pressing the stage, looking directly up into the stage lights.

“How do my nose hairs look tonight, folks?” he cackled.  “Long enough for ye?”

Jason’s three years younger than I, and hog farmers usually don’t hang out with hog farmers due to the smell.  Two nice-looking farm girls living south of us were good friends, but they resided on the Hog Farm from Hell with thousands of confined porkers.  Made our two-hundred-fifty outdoor rangers smell like roses, so I never went over much.  When I did, we’d laugh at rich Chicago folks driving by with handkerchiefs draped over their faces.

Olfactory fatigue is God’s gift to the hog farmer.

One of my favorite images of Jason was on a summer day in my sixteenth year after I bought a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Princeton amp. Exactly two minutes after I hit the first power chord, there he was, standing in front of me asking about the guitar – his house a half-mile away.


I certainly admire Jason’s genuineness, his exceptional energyif we could harness that left leg, whole cities could remain off the power grid – the truth inside his lyrics, and the passion he brings to every show, no matter the size or location.

There were about thirty at the Down Home Saturday night, all rabid fans. They asked him to play obscure songs only true admirers would recall.  At the break, Jason sat down at our table to swap news. A polite word for gossip.

“The word is your mom is driving around town twenty miles an hour while reading the Bible,” I said, sheepishly.  Felt the blood leap up into my face.

Passing fake news is a Mark of the Devil these days.

A true hero of Sheffield, Jason earned it by exemplifying Midwestern values, kindness, humility and a perpetually positive attitude.  His mother, ninety-one this year, still drives to town for groceries and warms your heart with friendly hugs every time you see her. The intelligence flashing in her eyes mirrors Jason’s, smiling eyes perpetually admiring God’s handiwork, grateful eyes pondering the blessings and grace that make this life possible to navigate.

“That’s a rumor,” said Jason.  “She got picked up for driving too slowly and not knowing what to say, she held up a Bible that was lying on the passenger seat.”

Long pause.  Then wife Lana cut in, trying to save my trash face:

“I grew up on a small farm near Sneedville, Tennessee.  If nothing’s happening, folks make stuff up to fill the void.  Exaggeration is the name of the game.  Storytelling never ends.”

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping. 

One day you’re a teen power-chording a new amp on the front porch, the next day you’re watching the neighbor in his heyday wowing London, and then suddenly you’re receiving social security checks and the graying troubadour from across Route 6 croons to your wife in a small room of adoring fans while she marvels at human connections transcending space and time, connections threading through us from cradle to grave.

Which is something to acknowledge and cherish.

While we’re still standing.

 


Videos from The Down Home, 8 February 2020, Jason Ringenberg, Stand Tall tour.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Farewell Angelina
God Bless the Ramones
If Money TalksJohn Muir Stood Here
Mother of Earth (Jason Ringenberg)
Mother of Earth (The Gun Club)
The Price of Progress
The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug (Sheffield, Illinois, Brother’s Pub, 2014)