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.
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.

Pisgah Inn, May 2021

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
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
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 within itself, 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
Picture by Mabry Mill.

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.

Mabry Mill

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

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 Virginia’s Route 42.  Motorcycling paradise.

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 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.

Tribal Connections

Whenever my life begins to feel too “cushy” – which is often since I’m a spoiled American Baby Booming corpulent white male with a loving/doting wife, a squared-away son, a reasonably functional family, early retirement, and a supportive church family – I sign up for a mission trip, foreign or domestic.

Which cures the spoiled-brat syndrome pronto.

If you embark on such an adventure, expect:  crushed legs on long flights, strange food clogging the septic system, strange water unplugging the septic system, flat-hard hotel beds, endless oversize bags full to maximum 49.9 pounds of cement-grade calcium carried up and down steps via human chain, sleepless nights filled with the cacophony of poultry crowing contests and spontaneous dog fights, mission beds made of burlap and two-by-fours, water-less showers until Angel Plumbers work their magic, twelve-hour days spent mostly on the feet, the ringing sound of eighty voices banging around the cement walls of the clinic, three languages bouncing in a Babel of towering intensity.

So, why do we subject ourselves to that?

Probably for the same reason soldiers return to Afghanistan seven-or-eight times.  Why firefighters rush into burning buildings.  Why doctors continue to practice medicine into their eighties, serving a network of friends they’ve made over a lifetime.

My personal physician, Paul Brown, Jr.,MD., has lead a mission team to Mexico for over thirty years.
Paul Brown, Jr., MD., leading missions for 30+ years.

They do it for the tribe.

Opinion:  we are designed by the Creator to function in small groups, say twenty-to-sixty people – all carrying different abilities (spiritual gifts) – a tribe where everyone has a job, everyone is respected for their contribution, and everyone is connected to a purpose outside their own agenda.

“In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about a curious phenomenon in the American west. White prisoners rescued from Native American tribes were seizing the first chance they could to flee into the wilderness and rejoin their captors. There were no reports of native warriors migrating in the opposite direction. Perplexed, Franklin concluded that the errant whites must have become ‘disgusted with our manner of life’ despite being shown ‘all imaginable tenderness’ on their return.” (Source).

Sebastian Junger, author of Restrepo and The Perfect Storm, recently penned a book titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which focuses on the War in Afghanistan and veterans’ mental health.  Junger writes:  “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”

Instead of focusing on job training and social re-conditioning, we treat vets like pariahs and load them up on drugs while ignoring the root cause of their distress and side-stepping psychiatric care, which is expensive and time consuming.  We treat veterans as if they aren’t worth our time and effort after they return with lost limbs and shattered psyches.  The suicide rates for white males over sixty-five, many of whom are Vietnam vets, bears witness to these unresolved issues.

“In 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.” (Source)

After listening to Junger’s podcast, it occurred to me that we are indeed better beings when connected to a well-functioning small group, which is why churches, synagogues, mosques, Boy Scouts, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Crips, Bloods, and Hell Angels exist.

The last three will probably lead to harm, but the call of the tribe is embedded into our nature, and that is why making a conscious decision to serve on a positive team is a healthy choice.

Let’s take a look at contemporary suicide rates

White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016; and, the rate of suicide is highest in middle age — white men in particular (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).

Sadly, suicides in all demographics have risen dramatically since 1999, though Hispanic males are much lower than white males.


The March 2018 medical mission I joined to Ixtepec, Tatoxcac, and Xochiapulco, Mexico offered unending examples of a high-functioning tribe  than I can list (starting with the angel who swapped her airline aisle seat twice for my leg-killing window view); furthermore, this team comes together bi-annually to bring medical care to under-served residents in the rugged mountains northeast of Puebla, Mexico. Nearly half of the folks treated were indigenous, speaking Totonaca, a native language “not closely related to other native languages in Mexico.”

Which required three levels of translation:  English – Spanish – Totonaca — and back again.

This year I was the “optometrist” which meant that I helped 320 folks find workable reading glasses over four days using two Bibles (the KJV, and a Totonaca New Testament), a spool of thread, a needle, a flashlight, and a pocket knife to cut plastic.  The spectacles were donated by the generous Lion’s Club Tribe.

The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.
The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.

My Spanish interpreter – Fany (pronounced Fanny), from the Methodist College in Puebla – was coming off a semester of concentrated French, so the combination of suddenly switching to English while simultaneously deciphering an unknown indigenous tongue wore on her along with all the physical challenges, yet she hung on to gain a second wind and finish the week admirably.

Local teens connected to the Ixtepec Methodist Church also saved the week by giving fully of themselves, obviously loving and cherishing their elderly by listening carefully to their needs, then translating them into Spanish, where Fany would pass it to me, and then back again.  Three hundred twenty times in four days.

Multiply that by the entire cohort of volunteers (approximately 120), and you begin to perceive the amount of coordination it takes to make this mission work.

Plus eleven months of planning and preparation up front.

Sebastian Junger claims that we need three essentials to live healthily and harmoniously: 1) we need to feel competent at what we do; 2)  we need to feel authentic in our lives; and, 3)  we need to feel connected to others.

Looking back at the suicide statistics, it must be noted that the Hispanic males take their own lives in much fewer numbers than Caucasian males.

“White men over the age of 65 commit suicide at almost triple that overall rate.  These men are also eight times more likely to kill themselves than are women of the same age group, and have almost twice the rate of all other groups of male contemporaries.

Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates.”  (Source)

Research on the “why” is thin, but after spending a week in Ixtepec, casual observation of the culture exposed a deep connection to family, community, nature, and God:  all characteristics of a healthy tribe.

In contrast, the phenomenon of disconnected angry white American males sitting in dark rooms drinking alcohol and absorbing CNN or FOX is ending badly.

Imagine that.

Our Mexican patients exhibited a wide range of physical needs – missing teeth, scabies, parasites, allergies, an entire gamut of untreated ailments testing the knowledge and experience of the mission doctors, nurses, and pharmacists – but the local populations’ connectedness to the spirit, energy, patience, and genuine good nature lifted the hearts of all servants, Mexicans and Americans alike.

Pablo, a minister from another province, traveled to Ixtepec with his teenage son, both patiently washing, drying, and treating foot ailments.  Ricardo and LuLu traveled from Nicaragua to lead the translating team, and three other college students traveled with Fany from Puebla to sacrifice their free time and comfort to serve their country.

Foot Care
Foot Care via agape.

The exact ratio of Mexican-to-American servants on this mission is unknown, but it seemed like 3:1 as local teens, the church pastor’s family, and other Mexican missionaries – plus half the congregation – pitched in to make it work. Villagers lined the street to tote heavy bags down to the church the minute we arrived, and waited patiently for hours on end — often in the rain and wind – to receive their annual medical care.

We didn't ask for help, but we received it with joy.
We didn’t ask for help, but we received it with joy.

The Ixtepec-Tatoxcac-Xochiapulco clinics succeeds because everyone has a job – or three – everyone is valued for their contribution, and all are connected through Jesus Christ.

No matter where our travels take us – Johnson City, Ixtepec, Tasmania, wherever – if two-or-more are gathered in His name, we are connected. We are also connected by our willingness to serve, to share that last full measure of devotion that propels The Tribe.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:1 NASB

My two previous mission trips to this beautiful mountainscape northeast of Puebla occurred in the late Nineties, and I must say there is a noticeable improvement in infrastructure – the highway from Puebla to the mountains is new and modern – plus the thirty-two years of medical mission work is revealed in the faces of the people, who look much healthier. Even the dogs show fewer ribs.

Waiting for the clinic to open ...
Waiting for the clinic to open …

The visiting team stood in awe of these patient, hard-working, community-loving, God-present, spiritually connected folk – The Tribe – functioning as it’s meant to be.

Meanwhile, reality-show Americans continue to back-stab each other on social media, ignore common values, highlight differences, suck down opioids and alcohol in record volumes, endlessly eyeball the latest fear-mongering headlines slanted to feed personal preferences, and commit suicide in record numbers.

Simultaneously, church attendance in North America is dropping like a rock.

Suicide stats don’t lie. Broken lives parading past our eyes don’t lie.

"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?"  -- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

You don’t.

Those who serve rely on the tribe:  church family, Sunday school classes, spouses, and relatives, all connected through Christ – who finance our way, who donate medicine, eyeglasses and crutches, who pray for and bless our service with their love.

We certainly relied on the tribe in Mexico who fed, housed, worked diligently beside us, and have served faithfully for over thirty years.

From desert wanderers seeking the Promised Land … to disciples sharing the Good News … to medical missions serving the needy in foreign lands … The Tribe functions with efficiency through its unselfish connection to The One.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with The Tribe.


Note:  More pictures here.