It doesn't get much better than this. There just isn't a road as smoothly paved and beautifully shouldered as the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). There isn't a highway that snakes and tunnels quite so brilliantly anywhere. It's a 469-mile Kodak moment. No commercial vehicles, no billboards, no stoplights.
You've got to love it -- even if the 45-mph speed limit is nauseatingly monotonous and the Fedora-driven Cadillacs and spawn-laden Suburbans can induce weeping when they finally pull to the shoulder. There's really only one way to do it right, and that's to slow down and sink submissively into the snail's pace -- to really let go of the grind and drift without giving thought to time. As someone who tears through life with head-pounding haste, I find crawling along the Blue Ridge Parkway can be profoundly medicinal.
The last time I rode the Parkway from end to end was last October. The leaves were in the peak throes of change. It was literally raining yellow, orange and red. There was just enough chill in the air so that little puffs of fog pulsated on my face shield in time with my breathing. And I wasn't alone. There were about a million other camera-wielding tourists (dubbed "leaf freaks" by the locals during this time of year) there to witness the wave of color.
I jumped on the Parkway at the southernmost end in Cherokee, North Carolina, a kind of silt pond that accumulates tourists as they drain from both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cherokee includes -- you guessed it -- the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where the famous tribe prospers somewhat by selling trinkets to the touring throngs. But hidden among the trite tidbits are some truly delicate hand-made treasures that more accurately convey the intricacy and dignity of Native American art and heritage.
Climbing toward the crest of the Appalachian Mountains is thrilling. This range is distinguished as much by romantic legends about its hardy and humble residents as by its geological significance. These mountains are so old their once jagged peaks are smooth and round. The Appalachian Range is actually a classification, which includes sub-ranges that run from Alabama to Canada. In principle, the Appalachians actually continue on the other side of the Atlantic into Scotland and Norway.
The BRP's sweeping two-lane road is flawless, and the grassy sloping shoulder is always trimmed and tidy. It's a safe road by most standards -- the only real hazard being the distracting effect the view has on drivers. The southern end of the Parkway is part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Waterrock Knob parking area provides an excellent panoramic view. Over the next 450 miles there are, quite incredibly, approximately 250 viewing pullouts.
There are also 469 milepost markers on the road -- and I was counting backwards. Just before mile post 422.4 is the Devil's Courthouse, an exposed mountaintop lavishly endowed with Native American legends. I stopped here to get a view of Pisgah National Forest. Asheville, North Carolina, surrounded by this same forest is approximately 70 miles from Cherokee on the Parkway. I love Asheville for its charming blend of history and hippie culture. It's also the home of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Parkway Headquarters. We've spent a lot of summer days there watching the Honda Hoot change from a club rally into a major mainstream motorcycling event. Asheville had a completely different flavor in the fall, dressed in pumpkins and frost.
The Folk Art Center is one of the most popular places to soak up the cultural history of the aged hills, and just beyond that is Craggy Gardens, where in June the rhododendrons bloom a profuse purple. Aside from the falling leaves, everything on the ground seemed neutral this time of year. Even fall's tiny lavender wildflowers were silenced by the vibrancy of the trees.
Grandfather Mountain is a favorite destination, and a look at the Linn Cove Viaduct clinging to its side is a rather interesting contrast to all the natural wonders of the area. At Mile 308.3 you can take a short leg-stretch to Flat Rock for the best view of the Mountain and Linville Valley. If you're a waterfall fanatic stop short at Mile 316.3 for a walk to the Linville Falls.
After about 100 miles on the Parkway you begin to realize you're getting nowhere fast. Between the speed limit, sights and side trips you've passed away as many hours as it would take to ride to New England on the Interstate. For me, that's the beauty of this ride. I feel like I'm on a tramway above reality. The steady movement and unfailing scenery are so peaceful it's lulling.
After passing the landmark Brinegar Cabin, built in 1880, I pulled off the Parkway at Mile Post 238.5 and discovered a treat. The Station's Inn, a combination gas station/store/restaurant owned by Bruce Cook was hosting lunch for a local motorcycle club and I felt right at home. It's a regular motorcycle hangout and the decor echoes the enthusiasm. I plan to stop here again someday for a bit more barbequed pork and sweet tea -- my very favorite Southern treats.
Now well into the Blue Ridge portion of the Parkway, I was headed toward Roanoke, Virginia, where I spent summers as a child. It felt so strange to be back in a city that is all grown up. I could almost smell my grandmother's hollyhocks as I remembered crashing through her garden chasing lightning bugs. She lived in Virginia during the Depression era when the Blue Ridge Parkway project began. Construction started in 1935 and provided much-needed jobs for American laborers, contractors and immigrant stone masons. By the 1960s, all but the section skirting Grandfather Mountain was complete and open to the public. Final construction of the last segment, including the famous Linn Cove Viaduct at Milepost 304.4, wasn't complete until 1987.
In Virginia, the famous Appalachian Trail crosses the Parkway 25 times, letting day hikers sample a bit of the legendary 2160-mile hiking trail. The trail was cut in the 1920s in answer to America's post-war appetite for wilderness preservation. The same mountains, which had been a dreaded obstacle blocking colonial expansion, were crowned as sacred.
The Parkway through Virginia is quite different than in North Carolina. It peaks, tunneling through the dogwood and hickories, and then rolls gently down through valley farmland. It's my favorite portion of the ride simply for the diversity of views. There are many creeks and lakes in the area for summer play, and the Humpback Rocks area at Mile Post 5.8 is a great place to picnic.
No matter which way you travel, coming to the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway can be a bit of a tail dragger. If you have time, the continuing 105-mile ride north on Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park is a good way to walk it off. And to the south there's always the Great Smoky Mountains left to investigate.
If you've been dreaming of riding the Blue Ridge Parkway but live too far for easy access, there are options to consider. Two companies rent motorcycles for the express purpose of Parkway travel; Parkway Motorcycle Rentals (828/275-1100) will loan you anything from a BMW R60/2 to a Ducati Monster, and there's also FreeBird Motorcycle Rentals (828/645-0042) out of Weaverville, North Carolina, which rents Harleys. If you want help planning your trip, or hunger to share it with other riders, Blue Ridge MotoVentures (828/696-9298) provides self-guided and organized group tours through the area . And while you're brewing a plan, make sure to get a copy of Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain Motorcycle Adventure Maps, (828) 658-0239.
If you'd like to share your favorite ride that is 100 to 500 miles long and includes at least one interesting stop, send details of the route and your contact information to Motorcycle Cruiser, 6420 Wilshire Blvd. Floor 17, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515; or e-mail Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.