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.

Midwestern Lake Tour: Superior, Michigan, Dale Hollow (Fall 2017)

Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.

Near my hometown of Sheffield, Illinois
Western Illinois in late August

Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.

Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.

31 August 17

The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful:  endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills  snaking beside the Mississippi River.

But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.

Ironically, Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton) recently released a biography of the 18th president, which appears to lift him out of the scandal and booze for a bit and focuses on the advancement of racial equity.

Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.

***

1 September 17

Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy.  Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.

Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch.  While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.

Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.

US Conservancy picture of the North Mississippi in Wisconsin
US  Nature Conservancy photo of the Mississippi in Wisconsin

3 September 17

We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake.  One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.

Duluth roses
Duluth roses

A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota,  a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).

Driving to Two Harbors, MN
Lake Superior off Phil and Donna’s Porch

Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual –  for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.

Our gracious hosts
Moses maintains control.

4 September 17

After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding  1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.

As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.

Earlier in the day we’d visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park, known for its rock climbing.  All of these worthwhile stops appear along Highway 61 on western shores of Lake Superior between Twin Harbors and the Gunflint Trail.

5 September 17

The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.

Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.

6 September 17

Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.

Near Marquette, MI
Abandoned iron ore docks near Marquette, MI

Following Route 28, we stopped in Munising, Michigan to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its spectacular cliff and rock formations, but it was socked-into-the-fog so we headed to Whitefish Point where we thoroughly enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head.  The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths.  The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.

***

A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.

Lake Superior at Paradise, MI
Lake Superior at Paradise, MI

***

If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.

This has happened to me twice.

Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip.  Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.

While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off  down the street.

Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:

Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.

The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.

***

7 September 17

After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.

Gooseberry Falls
Tannin colors the water at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

8 September 17

Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree)  mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.

http://www.saultstemarie.com/attractions/soo-locks/
The Herbert C. Jackson

“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.

A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.

We can do better.

Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand:  a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly.  It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.

This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.

We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.

9 September 17

The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.

The sculpture is a composite of a typical ironworker, said the Grosse Point Park artist, typical of the men who began building the Mackinac Bridge May 7, 1954, 53 years ago.
The sculpture is a composite of a typical iron worker

Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.

Luddington, MI
Ludington, MI

10 September 17

The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.

The immaculate farms throughout Indiana, however, thrive under Amish and Mennonite ownership.  We made a mental note to return to this pristine countryside on a slow motorcycle ride.

Buggies clogged the roads...
Buggies clogged the roads…

11 September 17

During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.

Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake

***

Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …

Midwestern lakes always leave you longing for more.

One Lake Superior Mood
A Superior Mood