Down the Valley
Saturday, April 24, was clear and sunny and warmed up as we made our way south on I-81 across narrow bits of Maryland and West Virginia and into Virginia. To save time, we chose to stay on the Interstate as far as Roanoke instead of taking Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, because we had been over those roads several years ago. South of Roanoke, however, the Blue Ridge Parkway was new to us.
I-81 took us down the “Valley of Virginia,” which for most of its length (though not all the way to Roanoke) is the Shenandoah Valley. On a larger scale, it’s part of the “Great Valley of the Appalachians,” which runs with a few interruptions the entire length of the mountain chain, starting in Canada. Toward the northern end it includes the Champlain Valley, and from there it runs south and southwest all the way to Alabama. We had been driving down it ever since crossing the Delaware from New Jersey into Pennsylvania the day before.
The Valley was its usual lovely self, peaceful and prosperous. The mountain walls along both sides — long ridges with occasional gaps — were soft with evergreens and hardwoods as well as mist. Redbud trees were in blossom all along the sunny highway.
We took an exit near Staunton in search of lunch. All the restaurants listed on the “Food” sign had chain logos except the Hilltop Diner, so we went there in the hope of avoiding corporate food. This turned out to be a mistake. We followed signs up a long winding drive to the top of a hill, and found the “Hilltop Diner” attached to a Howard Johnson’s motel. We decided to give it a chance anyway — bad decision. The menu was limited to melts and three kinds of salad. Nothing sounded very good, and nothing was. The only nice thing about the place was the waitress’s accent: Dorothea asked her to identify the blossoming trees we had been seeing, and she replied “rayud buuhhds” — taking almost as long to pronounce those two syllables as a Yankee does to recite the Preamble to the Constitution.
We switched to the Blue Ridge Parkway near Roanoke. The day was still beautiful, and we stopped to take a few pictures. We followed the parkway to Fancy Gap, Virginia, where we stayed at a Days Inn. Based on a friend’s advice, we drove the 7 miles to Hillsville for dinner at the Rio Grande Mexican restaurant, where we ate excellent enchiladas and chile rellenos, served by an efficient crew of young men who looked as though they were all from the same pueblo if not the same family.
Foggy Mountain Detour
The next morning, we found Fancy Gap enshrouded in fog so thick that it was hard to see anything 50 feet away. We worried that driving on the narrow, curving Parkway would be difficult, and that we’d be unable to see much of the mountains even if it wasn’t. The woman at the motel desk told us that Fancy Gap was always foggier than anyplace else, and advised us to try the Parkway. But we decided not to — instead we scrapped our planned route for a lowland detour to Asheville, NC, our destination for the day. We crept down the interstate out of the mountains, following a big truck’s taillights through the fog. After 8 or 10 minutes of this, the fog began to clear, and we were soon driving in the sun. The journey was smooth and easy from that point on. Maybe everything would have been fine on the Parkway, but we’ll never know.
Our detour got us to Asheville by noon, so we had the rest of the day to explore the city. We started with lunch at the Early Girl Eatery. Because of the big Sunday brunch crowd, there was a half-hour wait for seats, during which we walked around the neighborhood, which resembled a blend of the posh and funky parts of Newbury Street in Boston with a little bit of Cambridge in the 60s thrown in.
Service at the Early Girl, though a bit slow because they were so busy, was very friendly, and the food was wonderful. Although the restaurant is officially named after the tomato variety, it is owned and run by women. A few men were working in the bistro-style kitchen that you pass on the way to the dining room. I had a “Creole omelet with Italian sausage” and possibly the best home fries ever, and Dorothea had a ginger and almond salad with bits of orange and sunflower seeds, plus some wonderful pumpkin-ginger bread that tasted like Home. I ordered dessert, a superb slice of yellow cake with hazelnut icing.
We drove around the center of town for a while afterwards, looking at the sights. One of these was a woman doing a kind of “living statue” routine on a busy corner. She wore a long black dress and gloves and a broad-brimmed black hat, and had a pair of black feathery angel wings mounted on her back. Her long, straight hair — also black — was combed forward to cover her face completely. She stood completely still on a box, posed in a dramatically portentous position — we passed the corner more than once and saw her in several poses.
The rest of Sunday afternoon we spent at the city’s Botanical Gardens. That visit has the next section all to itself, so I won’t describe it here. Consider the picture a preview of coming attractions.
We ate pizza that night at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co., where I also tried a few of their beers. It’s a friendly, funky place that serves up movies as well as food and beer. (We only indulged in the last two.) The décor is mostly film-oriented. On the men’s room door is a big poster of Marilyn Monroe in the famous subway skirt-blowing pose; the women’s room is behind a big full-face portrait of James Dean.
Rain was falling when we got up the next morning. We returned to the Early Girl Eatery for breakfast: strawberry-pecan pancakes, with sides of double-cut (i.e., double thick) bacon for Dorothea and country ham for me. Again, everything was wonderful.
But we found a $10 ticket on the window of our car. We had paid for more than an hour, but the meter had expired less than ten minutes later. Back at the motel, I wrote a plaintive note to the parking authorities, explaining what had happened and urging them to get the meter fixed “before anyone else is abused.” We enclosed a check for $10 and dropped it in the mail. The plea must have moved their hearts, because in July, back at home, we got the check back in the mail, with a tersely worded notice telling me I was let off with a warning this time.
Foggy Mountains Again
We got back on the Blue Ridge Parkway in rain and considerable fog. We stopped at the Mt. Pisgah overlook and managed to take a few spooky-looking, mist-haunted pictures. It wasn’t far to Sylva, NC, and we reached the Comfort Inn there before 1:00pm. It was now the fourth day of the trip, but the first two had both been long drives, and I was glad of the chance to rest.
We ate dinner in Sylva at Lulu’s on Main, justly recommended by the AAA guide and the Frommer website. We both enjoyed pecan-crusted catfish with roasted red pepper sauce, which we accompanied with San Pellegrino limonata.
The sky was mainly clear at sunset, though we could see a few scattered clouds coming over the mountains from the west.
Over the Smokies
We woke to fog, and nearly gave up hope of seeing anything on our journey to and across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But it burned off before we set out, and we found plenty of sun and greenery, at least at the lower elevations. There was some fog up higher, but not enough to make driving hard. We took some mountainy-vista pictures, and a few more spooky clouds-and-fog ones — both kinds at Waterrock Knob, the highest point on the small part of the Blue Ridge Parkway we had left to travel, where we also saw a few snowflakes coming down. There was no traffic at all on the Parkway, and not much on US-44 in the park, either, until we were over Newfound Gap.
At some point during our several picture stops in the park, I lost the hearing aid out of my right ear. I knew that it was sometimes disturbed when I was pulling the strap of my camera bag over my head, but I never dreamed that I could lose it altogether without noticing. We were at the last visitor center when I discovered the loss; we searched the car thoroughly and even reported it to the park’s lost-and-found person, but the device was too small to expect anyone to find it, and no one did.
A wrong turn at a busy intersection in Gatlinburg took us 20 miles in the wrong direction before we discovered our mistake and had to go all the way back and start again. This unintended side trip took us to Big Wally’s Grill, where we got good sandwiches for lunch.
Back on our scheduled route, we drove from Gatlinburg through Pigeon Forge. Anyone who thinks Gatlinburg is over the top should see Pigeon Forge. It has every kind of tourist and consumer trap under the sun, and one theater after another owned by and dedicated to a particular country star or group: Louisa Mandrell, Alabama, etc., etc. The roadside carnival went on for such a distance that we missed our turn for US-321 and had to turn around in Sevierville and go back again. That brought our total wrong-turn mileage for the day to something between 30 and 40 miles. (We made a similar mistake later in Wyoming, but Dorothea pointed out that this wasn’t a bad margin of error on a journey of 10,000-plus miles.)
Once we found the right road, our drive to Chattanooga was uneventful — over easy roads in sunny weather.
This section last updated 12-13-2004