|Blue Ridge Parkway ~ June 2005|
|It all started innocently enough. We drove
down the driveway around nine and turned left - south. Our first
destination was Little Pine State Park at the south end of the Pine Creek
trail. The weather? Well, it was cool bordering on cold - something like
twenty degrees below what passes for normal in southern NY and northern PA
- and spittin' droplets of rain. I was still recovering from my recent
episode of head & chest congestion, so we didn't push the envelope and
try an evening ride. Rather, we opted to take a hike up a fire road that
began near our campsite and wound its way up to the top of the knob
overlooking Little Pine Lake, which is impounded behind, yep, you guessed
it, the Little Pine Dam on Little Pine Creek, a tributary to Pine Creek. I
had gotten chilled while registering at the ranger station, so I opted to
wear my fleece and parka. The uphill climb quickly forced me to wrap my
fleece around my waist as though my butt were cold. Hey, you got lots more
insulation on your butt, so why is it okay to add more there when you
don't want it on your upper extremities anymore?
On the way back we noticed a small wooden plaque attached to a bordering tree. The plaque was nothing more than a ten-inch circular slice of tree trunk. It was attached to a living tree and festooned with dark black-green nylon webbing serving as somber, commemorative ribbon. The whole assembly blended into the background and would have been missed if it didn't have some hand-carved lettering. The words were difficult to make out … and even more difficult to remember a couple weeks later: Glenn We overflow with sorrow. It's so unfair That we lost you. Jan 14, 1969 We found ourselves wondering who Glenn was, what happened to him, and where the sorrowful people who posted this memorial are now. We empathized with their loss and ponder how a small amount of documented history can change your emotional response to an environment. Our walk back was a bit more somber and thoughtful.
It was a good walk and contributed to a good night's sleep. We arose and headed for the Rattlesnake Rocks parking area on the Pine Creek trail. Our intention was to complete the ride that trail maintenance forced us to abort last fall. We headed north along the trail, through the quaint village of Blackwell, to the end of the trail, which is bracketed by two state parks: Colton & Leonard Harrison. After Blackwell, there are no other towns or roads along the trail, so it is just you and the creek. However, there is increasing biker/hiker traffic as you approach the state parks. Along the way, we saw several birds and a possible mink. Here is a more compete list … Indigo Bunting (several, male and female) Common Mergansers (one female with little ones on her back) Mallards & Canada Geese Bald Eagle flying overhead Great Blue Heron winging downstream Spotted fawn crouching in the tall trailside grass Young Milk Snake (Red Bull Snake) Young Eastern Garter Snake Kettles of Turkey Vultures soaring in the "Grand Canyon of the East"
It was still fairly early when we got back to RVan, so we racked the bikes and headed to Waterville at the south end of the trail. They had just opened up a new section going from Waterville, near Little Pine SP, to Jersey Shore, where Pine Creek flows into the West Branch of the Susquehanna. The trail plays tag with the creek and PA-144. It isn't as scenic as the northern part, but, of course, we wouldn't know that until we'd tried it, right?
It was getting late, so we turned around about the seven mile mark. On the way back we noticed a rather large lump in the trail ahead. Hmmm, I don't recall passing a rock in the trail. Whatever could it be? We stopped and put the binoculars on it … it was a full-grown porcupine just ambling down the trail. There was a bit of a breeze, and we were downwind. I don't know for sure, but I think porkies are a bit nearsighted, so s/he couldn't see or smell us. We stood there as s/he slowly ambled toward us. To me, a porky-pine looks like a hairy rhinoceros, maybe that's where I get the nearsighted idea. Porkies are quite bow-legged and shuffle along comically. The comedy was enhanced when the porky stopped to scratch an itch. So did you ever wonder how a porcupine scratches itself? The answer is … very carefully … and only along the grain of the quills. So here was this very sleepy-looking bow-legged porcupine shuffling along the tail and occasionally stopping to scratch. Pretty weird.
When s/he got within a few yards of us, I let loose with an involuntary cough. The porky bristled and started searching for the source of the unusual noise. At that point, we made our presence known, and s/he presented us his/her spiny backside while ambling ever so slowly into the bordering brush. Okay, so it wasn't a bear or mountain lion or anything like that, but it was an interesting encounter nonetheless.
Bike data for the day: 44.5 miles, 5:47 bike time, 8:00 real time.
I was totally amazed that, given my recent health issues, I was able to muster the energy for such an outing. In fact, we could have done more if it hadn't been getting so late. However, GPFMR, so I suffered a minor relapse the next couple days - just when I needed all my strength for the big social occasion: Janie's Mom's 80th Birthday Celebration.
But foist … we decided to take a morning hike across the Little Pine Dam and along a lakeside trail. We had been told that there were eagles nested in the valley, so we were keeping a sharp eye out. Sure enough, when we got to where the stream enters the lake, we saw a mature eagle perched in a scraggly white pine. Although we looked long and hard, we never did find the nest, but the bird stayed put while we walked past and into the flats beyond. S/he was still there when we returned several minutes later. Must have been digesting an early morning breakfast fish, eh?
After the Friday morning hike … and some breakfast of our own … we were off to Hagerstown MD and a site at the Breslin Family Campground - Alice & Hugh's side yard. Alice was busy mulching her foundation plants but seemed entirely willing to stop and share all the latest Bannigan news. It was the Friday before the big gathering to celebrate the mother-of-them-all's 80th Birthday, so there were last minute preparations and plan adjustments to tend to. I drank beer and smiled a lot while Alice & Janie went about their family business.
To my great relief, the male members of the family had decided Hawaiian shirts and chinos would be the dress of the day. I had brought one of my cotton sports coats and a very old Kingston Trio shirt, or so dubbed by Amy Sheldon. I was reluctant to wear such a thing, especially with a so-out-of-fashion-that-it-may-be-back-in-style black knit tie. If I had known about the Hawaiian shirt thing, I could have brought my party-shirt companion to Mikey's parrot shirt, but, alas, I didn't.
Alice came to my rescue and offered a hand-me-down from her son Kevin's closet. It is a really good shirt and fit me well. Later, after seeing Kevin for the first time this visit, I came to realize why it is a hand-me-down: Kevin is no longer the stocky future line-backer he once was. He is now a stretched-out point guard - and a very good one at that. I now find myself in the position of wearing my nephew's hand-me-down clothes. Last summer, Kevin's older sister, Casey, and I shared a legal beer. I'm sure stranger things await - I just hope I never have to bail Kevin & Casey's brother Joe out of jail for consuming an illegal beer!
Saturday, we packed up and headed for sister Margaret's in Vienna VA. Vienna used to be a quaint village near, but still distance from, the megalopolis that is Washington DC. That is no longer the case. It still retains much of its former character … like an amazingly low crime rate for being so near the US crime capital … but it is primarily a bedroom community for commuters. Thus, there is no "back way" into Vienna. All of the nice little country roads have been widened and festooned with multi-lane traffic lights that take so long to change that you find yourself wondering if there is a malfunction in the circuitry. Well, there is a malfunction, but it isn't in the traffic lights … at least not entirely. This atmosphere is so different from what we are used to that we feel like aliens who were just dropped from the mother ship and left to fend for ourselves.
Once we pulled into Margaret's tree-lined drive, our moods improved. She lives in an old house that has been renovated by her contractor husband, Dan. It is like an island of solitude immersed in an immense blather of asphalt and delay (thanks to Lawrence Ferlenghetti). I drank beer and smiled while Margaret & Janie continued to fine-tune the preparations and plans for tomorrow's party. Talk about a worthless wart of a husband. Oh well, such is the lot of trophy spouse, eh?
The Bannigan Clannigan pulled off another great party for their mother - one each decade: 60th, 70th, 80th, … Janie's mom is one of four sisters, those 4 have ~30 children and those children have children who also have a few children, so there were lots of seldom-seen relatives in attendance. It was quite a gathering - maybe more like a reunion than a birthday party. We set up our notebook and attached a set of sister Therese's speakers and played R&R oldies for the party set up; then switched to 30s and 40s music for the party. Janie had prepared several posters with family pictures which were displayed on tables near the entrance. We set up three other notebooks and had them running a slide show of the resource pictures Janie used for the posters. So we had hard copy and digital images going back to great-great-grandparent's day for all the guests to look at. I was amazed at the attention the notebook slide shows got. It seems computer literacy has permeated the masses - at least people are much less computer phobic than just a few short years ago.
Therese had put together a memory book for her mom. Each member of the family had at least one page. When you consider that there are eleven siblings and most of them have multiple children, that's a lot of pages. All the preparation and planning paid off with a successful gathering of the extended family. We can't speak for all the attendees, but I can assure you that most people seemed to enjoy the event.
Pictures were taken … mostly digital … dinner was served … Sean beat his cousins in a burping contest … and more pictures were taken. The whole thing ended and several of the siblings and their kids headed over to the homestead to look through the memory book with mom. What with all the hubbub, she didn't get much of a chance to look at the displays, so we gave her a "private showing" in the comfort of her home. The leftover food was also put out and the teenagers made short work of most of it. It was a fitting end to an emotional day. Margaret drove us back to Vienna. It was around eleven when we arrived, and we were too pooped to even have a nightcap … it was goodnight and off to our respective sleeping quarters.
Monday, Memorial Day, dawned cool but sunny with a gentle breeze from the … hmmm, I was so disoriented I don't know the wind direction. Dan and Margaret are active members of the American Legion, and, this being Memorial Day, there were activities they needed to attend. We got out of their way by packing up and heading toward Front Royal. We had learned our lesson about the roads in the area, so we just got on I-66 and headed west. We didn't see the need to pay an entrance fee for the pleasure of driving down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah NP. Hey, in another month or so, I will be eligible for the Golden Age discount. We will do Skyline Drive next time - for half price. Janie pieced together back roads along the east side of the Blue Ridge down to Rockfish Gap, where we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed for Otter Creek campground.
Imagine a road that winds though nearly pristine mountain ridges for some 400 miles. Imagine a road with no billboards, no power lines, no garish commercial buildings, and no unkempt homes with yards full of discarded household goods and motorized conveyances. Imagine a road with no traffic lights, no stop signs, and a speed limit of 45 mph. Imagine a road with multiple scenic pullouts every mile; a road where you are encouraged to "lazy along" in nearly perfect scenery, picturesque rail fences, magnificently landscaped bridges, and serene quiet. Imagine a road where you are encouraged to drive slowly and enjoy the experience; a road where your fellow travelers are at peace and road rage is nearly unknown. You don't have to imagine it at all … it exists and it is the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP).
The BRP is such a phenomenal road, such a pleasant experience, I wonder why there aren't more of them. Well, there are pretenders, of course. The closest rival would be the Natchez Trace connecting Memphis TN to … Natchez in the SW corner of MS. Then there is PA-144, which bills itself as PA's BRP - we took it on the way home, and it is actually being developed as such. Alas, it is currently only 27 miles long. For sure there are not enough BRPs or even pretenders. Why not?
Let me get this off my chest. If you haven't driven the BRP, you MUST. If you haven't done it in a long time, go back. If you haven't driven it in spring, summer, fall and winter, weather permitting, make immediate plans to do it. The BRP is an experience from which everyone on this list would profit - it is OUR kind of road. And when you do it, be sure to get the guide books: Blue Ridge Parkway Guide by William G. Lord. We just call 'em 'The Lord's Books'.
Okay, the BRP is not prefect. There are too many people on it, but you know, they pay taxes, too and most of them are enjoying their experience like you are. Over the years, the BRP has evolved into a motorcycle road for those who choose to handle their mid-life crisis by blowing their children's inheritance on Harley Hogs. I would guess that 25-50% of the current vehicles on the BRP are motorcycles. There are increasing numbers of bicycles, too, but all these cycles are tolerable for the most part. Where the BRP traverses the suburbs of cities like Roanoke & Asheville, you pick up some commuter traffic where locals are using the BRP to avoid larger, more congested highways. Budget cuts have resulted in some maintenance problems and there is a shortage of enforcement personnel. This is an unfortunate condition in all National Parks and Monuments. Why? The demand is certainly there. I suppose there is no single constituency and, hence, no individual legislator to lobby for political favor. That's a shame. We need a place on the tax form to donate to NPs & NMs in addition to (or rather than) political parties - which is more important to you? Oh yeah, and as Sue found out, the BRP is NOT an expressway. No, it is a road to be driven casually while drinking in the serenity and pondering the inevitable question: why aren't there more roads like this?
For the first couple days we lazed along the VA portion of the BRP, stopping frequently, and taking several short hikes on trials that followed contours - no need to descend into one of those ever-present valleys to see yet another picturesque waterfall and then have to climb back up to the top of the ridge. Nope, we just stopped at the overlooks, got out, and listened to the gurgle of the rushing water below and the warblers above - and took a ridge trail to get the full surround-sound effect. Between stops, Janie read stories from the Lord's books. Here's a story from Twenty Minute Cliff, milepost 19, 2,715 ft elevation (with a picnic table) …
"The steep fields have a peculiar effect on cattle. Through the years they have adapted themselves to grazing on the slopes by growing legs longer on one side than the other. Naturally, they can travel in one direction only. A cow foolish enough to turn around loses her balance and tumbles down the mountain. If a cow should miss the cowshed coming in to be milked, she has to walk all the way around the mountain and try again.
"There are two breeds of cattle, this-aways and that-aways. This is important to know during a cattle swap, for it would never do to have the two breeds in the same field.
"It's hard to tell them apart when they're claves. A man, 'unbeknownst to hisself' came home from a cattle swap with a this-away bull calf. His cows were all that-aways. 'The calf were a red'un, but he growed awful blue. All he and the cows could do was walk around the mountain and rub noses passin' by.
"You may never see such fields, such cattle, or even a corn-planting shotgun, but 'they've been heard tell of.'"
Little did we know that the weather was about to change … again. We started the trip in abnormally cool temperatures. The next few days were still cool and we found ourselves immersed in a constant fog - not the usual mental fog, but rather the real meteorological fog - and an intermittent drizzle. The good news was that the deteriorating weather kept most of the other sight-seers at bay - we essentially had the entire road, pullouts, and campgrounds to ourselves. The bad news was that we were immersed in fog. Hey, when you get lemons …
The spring flowers were especially beautiful in the hazy glow of a foggy day. The flame azaleas were nearly at peak, the laurels were just coming, and the rhododendrons were just starting in some places and just finishing in others. The Quaker Ladies were in their glory, lining the road way and trails, happily nodding their pale blue flowers. The Trillium were just past peak, but many other, less familiar, woodland flowers were marvelously showy … Dames Rockets in the open areas Squaw Root in the deep forest understory Tansy Ragwort Blackberry bloom Wild Geranium Tulip Trees Chokecherry Spiderwort Galax Lily of the Valley (wild and escaped) Solomon's Seal (real and false) Lyre-leaved Sage Fire Pinks Wild Bleeding Hearts.
I had bought a weather radio so we could get weather reports while traveling. We learned that the fog and rain was being pushed out by a large high-pressure area that was settling in just off the VA coast - a Bermuda High. That meant the rains would abate and after a day of clear, blue skies, the clockwise rotation would pull Gulf air into the region, which would bring heat, humidity, and the threat of afternoon thunderstorms. Knowing the weather, at least as it is predicted to be, is a great help for planning our outings.
We learned that last year's hurricanes had washed out the road, so there were detours to deal with. That fact, coupled with our desire to check out some biking trails in western VA, induced us to leave our beloved BRP and head out into the "civilized" world with its associated icky-ness. Janie managed to route us along a patchwork of VA-6xx roads. They are narrow, windy and not quite as scenic as the BRP. However, they are not heavily trafficked, and they do afford an opportunity to see some local culture. We eventually found our way to Damascus VA, which just happens to be right in the middle of the VA Creeper Rail Trail. There was a NF campground a few miles outside of town, and, unlike most other NF campgrounds, this one had showers - and THREE campground hosts in each of two campground loops. We were in bad need of a shower and a holding-tank dump, so this nicely appointed NF campground served us well … and for only $16 a day.
The next morning found us parked at the trail head in Damascus. There are three trails that converge in Damascus: the AT, the Trans America bike route, and the VA Creeper Rail Trail. The little town is rife with outfitters and bike shops. We gulped down our breakfast and headed east up the trail toward Whitetop Station along Whitetop Laurel Creek. Most rail trails are fairly flat or have a nearly imperceptible grade. This one is a bit different. The original railroad connected an iron-ore mine up on Whitetop with distribution facilities in Damascus. This was before the discovery of the Great Lakes BIFs, and once that happened, the railroad made its living by hauling timber out of the surrounding hills. When the timber played out, the RR tried to subsist as a passenger train, but that eventually played out, too. It is called the VA Creeper Trail because of the slow progress of the steam locomotive up the valley - not because the trail is lined with five-leaved ivy. To the contrary, there was much more three-leaf than five-leaf ivy. Watch where you step and check out all vegetation that is overhanging the trail. What looks like an innocent tree limb full of leaves could give you a face full of blistered, itchy skin. "Leaves of three, let it be!" Right, Brian?
The Creeper follows a mountain stream and mirrors the stream's gradient. Thus, it is a steady uphill climb from Damascus, and the grade increases gradually as you approach Whitetop. This makes for an eighteen-mile uphill climb that gets steep-er as you get tired-er. Of course, many of the Damascus bike shops have a transport service - they will drive you and your bike up to the top, and you can coast back down to your waiting vehicle - and reward yourself at the local pubs & eateries. After finishing the ride up and back down, I don't have much respect for these "coasters".
Okay, so this is a mountain railroad that follows a mountain stream. Mountain valleys are usually quite narrow, which means the RR has to repeatedly cross the stream and its tributaries. The VA Creeper trail has 50-100 bridges (depending on how you count 'em) along its 38-mile length. Even at 50, that's a lot of bridges. This is why the RR eventually went out of business - it became prohibitively expensive to maintain the bridges … rebuilding 'em after spring floods and such. We saw large cables tying the bigger bridges to the upstream hillsides. Although there may be maintenance issues with the bridges, they offer great opportunities for viewing the stream and gorge that contains it. We saw rough-winged swallows and a black vulture from one of the bridges.
On its way to the top, the Creeper passes through civilization in Taylor's Valley and Green Cove. It was extremely rewarding to bike through this slice of rural VA living. These places harken back to a quieter, slower-paced time. Of course most of the houses have satellite dishes, but other than that, things were very rural and relaxing. It was balm for the soul.
Taylor's Valley was especially rewarding for us. For some unknown-to-us geologic reason, the narrow gorge opens up into a relatively flat plain. Beaver have taken advantage of the geography and built dams on many of the tributary streams. The trail passed along a few of these beaver ponds and it was there that we were privy to … mating snapping turtles. As I biked by, I noticed a sizable disturbance in the otherwise quiet water. I expected it to be one of the beaver architects, although having them out at midday so near a popular trail was unlikely. I stopped and was able to discern that the disturbance was due to a large snapper. Now this wasn't a large snapper by Dakota standards, but it was likely maximum size for an eastern snapper. As we watched him, and it was a him as we would soon discover, we noticed some bubbles breaking the surface a few yards away. Then we saw another snapper surface where the bubbles had been. This one was a bit smaller than the male, but commanded the male's full attention. He somewhat awkwardly paddled over to the female, mounted her, and they both disappeared below the muddy water. Okay, it is somewhat unusual to see snappers in the midday sun, and it is very unusual to see them mating. We were richly rewarded … to see nature, you just have to go out in nature.
Green Cove is just a cluster of houses, and a community center around one of the old station houses. This one has been not so much restored as frozen in time. When we walked in the door, we were greeted by a volunteer forest service person - Skip - who happened to be a long-time resident of the area full of interesting stories and brimming with enthusiasm to tell 'em. A still functional pot-bellied stove sat in the middle of the room surrounded by benches, which in turn were surrounded by glass-top display cases. The display cases and shelves lining the walls behind 'em were full of old dry goods: old kites, four-buckle Arctics, and period canned goods. It was like walking through a time warp. Of course, they had stacks of pamphlets, brochures, and Creeper clothing for sale, but we couldn't buy much because we were on our bikes and would just have to carry it up the next three miles of the steepest grade. We promised ourselves and Skip that we would return in a day or two on our way to the next destination - whatever that might be.
Whitetop is another collection of houses centered on an old, restored RR station. We didn't go into this one, figuring that it couldn't be any better than Skip's. Nor did we continue for the final mile to the NC border. There were a couple of reasons for making the Whitetop station our turn-around point. The final mile was downhill, which meant uphill on the way back, and we had had quite enough uphill for one day, thank you very much. Also, Janie had heard someone describe the end of the trail: "There's nothin' there but a beaver dam and the original cast of Deliverance." Nope, we don't need any of that - on either count.
You could easily cover half of the return mileage without ever peddling. I reached a max of 16 mph just coasting on the steeper sections. It got to the point that I had to use my brakes because things were just passing by too fast. You can't see the warblers and delicate woodland flowers at much more than 5 mph. Nonetheless, I let the big dog eat on some steeper down slopes. When Janie caught up to me, I got the inevitable, "Did you see …?" No, of course not, it was all just a blur. She went slow enough to view butterflies and other bugs through her binos. I went so fast, I just got bugs in my teeth.
Bike data: 35.75 miles, 6 hrs total time, 4:45 bike time
Back at RVan, we racked the bikes, turned on the AC, and headed back to the NF campground for a well-deserved shower and evening meal - and good night's sleep. The following morning found us back in Damascus getting ready to do the other half of the Creeper trail. This part of the trail is much more open as it follows the Whitetop Laurel Creek to where it merges with the South Fork Holston River, which later merges with the Middle Fork Holston just before the trail ends in Abingdon VA. The Holston has been dammed, and the Creeper crosses over the upper reaches of Holston Lake by way of a 500 ft bridge. When we stopped on the bridge to marvel at the flotsam that had accumulated below it, we were startled by loud splashing noises. The sound turned out to be large carp breaking the water in search of who knows what - maybe just pleasure.
Oh, you geologists in the crowd might recognize the Holston. The local bedrock takes its name from the stream. Variously called Holston Limestone and Holston Marble, it is more widely known as Johndite. The mottled pink carbonate is laced with carbon-rich layers. Differential compaction has offset these layers so they look like a jagged seismograph recording called stylolites. That makes the rock attractive when cut and polished and the finished pieces were widely used to make stall walls in restroom - hence the name Johndite. Before renovation, Mendenhall Lab was outfitted with Johndite - remember, Bob & Mikey? Geneseoites might have encountered Johndite in the restrooms in Sturges or Wells.
We saw more snakes, including a nearly full-grown black snake that almost became fodder for my front wheel. A little farther down the trail we saw a mature garter snake that hadn't been so fortunate - someone had run over it in mid body and then performed a mercy killing by smashing its head. Snakes are more delicate than you might think, and they seem to be surprisingly susceptible to bike traffic. Our second day on the Creeper was noticeably hotter and considerably muggier. The trail has two rises where it passes over some inter-mountain hills, so it was not a continuous uphill, nor were the uphills as steep. Nonetheless, it was hot and tiring, so we didn't lollygag as much on this ride.
Bike data: 32.17 miles, 5 hrs total time, 4 hrs bike time
We needed a day to heal, so Janie knit together another set of VA-6xx roads as we drove through the Jefferson NF on our way to the New River Trail at Foster Falls VA. We found another NF campground, but it was like the normal ones, not fancy with showers and such like the one we had spent the last two nights in, but only $5. We were the only campers and spent a quiet night listening to the pitter-pat of the falling rain. While sitting at the campsite I was struck with one of those little epiphanies that happen every now and then. I looked at the edge of the well-groomed campsite and compared it to the wildness of the forest beyond. In more populated areas, parks and campgrounds are a little swatch of wilderness immersed in civilization. In places like this NF campground, the campsites are swatches of civilization immersed in wilderness. We tend to prefer the latter.
I was nearly recovered from my congestion, but Janie had developed a nagging sore throat that was rapidly developing into laryngitis. It was Wednesday, and we were at least two days from home. If she wanted to see the Dr before next week, we would need to get on the road. Additionally, weather reports picked up on our new traveling radio suggested the hot, muggy weather would continue into the foreseeable future. Even the best trails are not that much fun when it is so hot - and when you are done, you return to RVan which is a not-so-cool 90 plus. Nope, this isn't good for (wo)man or machine. That morning we decided we would bite the bullet and get on the nearby I-81 and head home. We did over 400 miles that day, which was a radical departure from the 50-100 mile days we had been enjoying. As I drove along the Interstate, a lot of thoughts filled my brain.
Neither of us wanted to abort the trip, especially on these truck-infested, dual-ribbons of blather and rage dedicated to those who believe the greatest pleasures lie at the end of the road, which is in direct contrast to those of us who subscribe to the theory that getting there is a significant part of the joy. Young people live for the future. They tend to rush through the present to get to what they perceive to be a better future. Older people, more aware of their approaching mortality, take a more measured approach to life. For them, the present is by far the most important because the future … well, the future isn't someplace they really want to go. We more mature individuals are perfectly happy living in the present - and occasionally the past. We practice the art of living our lives in the now. We derive pleasure from our immediate surroundings and don't pin our hopes on something better coming along in our all-too-short future. Thus, Interstates tend to be populated with those who are young at heart, in a hurry to get to their future, and willing to suffer the hubbub of the freeway to get there. We reluctantly embrace these monuments to excess for a couple reasons: they tend to siphon the fast generation from our slow highways, and they provide us with a means of getting somewhere fast - when desired. In nearly every case, we are what you call a "shun-piker" and confine our travels to the back roads. However, there are the occasional instances where speed is a higher priority, so we become "reluctant-pikers" - this was one of those times.
Cargo transportation has been transferred from the RR to Interstate trucking. We are happy about the now abandoned RRs that are progressively turning into bike trails. We are not so happy about the train-sized, smoke-belching chunks of steel and rubber that blow past you on the Interstate. I believe it was AJ who said their bumpers weigh more than a car. It is especially scary when you see a couple big tractors strapped to a flatbed that is being hauled down the road at 70 mph. Holy crap, one tractor moving at that speed is scary enough, two of 'em PLUS the truck they are on is almost impossible to comprehend. Is it even possible to stop such a moving mass?
Anyway, we were not that happy about aborting our trip and that gave rise to a thought: Do what you can, cuz you can't always do what you want.
We had squeezed a high percentage of pleasure out of the days we'd had, so we were pretty happy about that. Human nature being what it is, we naturally hoped to have a few more days to practice the pleasure-squeezing thing, but it just wasn't working out, so we just relived our recent glories as the VA scenery zipped by … at a fuel efficient 55 mph. Yeah, EVERYONE was passing us. So what? I was getting nearly 18 mpg, which was comforting.
Interstates: monoculture tunnels filled with chunks of steel propelled by fossil fuel riding on asphalt - a testament to excess. Traveling on Interstates isolates you from local culture. You don't even notice the scenery changing because you have to focus on the mechanics of driving. If you stop at a rest stop or get off at an exit, you are exposed to franchise establishments with little or no local color. Sure, some of the attendants and waiter-persons may have a local lilt, but that's about the extent of cultural interaction. Interstates are culturally homogenized, which appeals to the connected world of shared values. The result is the feeling that you are playing a video game, watching fake scenery pass by while negotiating the knots of traffic that emerge every mile or so. I found myself thinking about the waste. Look at all the chrome adorning trucks and cars just to make them look spiffy. Sure, some Cr steel is necessary for trucking certain liquids, but do they really need a 500 pound Cr bumper? Then there are the fossil fuel issues. Not just the burning of it, but also the use of it to make the tires … oh so many tires … and plastic appointments. OMG, how much does it take? Can it ever be recovered and put to more productive use? And all of this is being propelled by fossil fuels along a highway composed of yet another petroleum byproduct - asphalt. I found my thoughts getting dark and gloomy, so I tried to focus on wildlife.
The previous day, while driving on the VA-6xx roads, we noticed a large number of blacksnakes. Most of them had been hit by cars, but at least one was still living. Its glistening, zigzag body looked like a living lightning bolt as it emerged from the tall grass on the side of the road. I swerved to avoid it, and as we passed by, I marveled at its beauty. Then I watched in my mirror as the pickup that was following us also swerved - to purposefully run over the snake's head. How can you do that? Even if you can't appreciate the beauty of such a marvelously adapted creature, you have to realize they prey on what humans consider to be pests - blacksnakes are RAT snakes. Why do humans have this fear and loathing of snakes? Is it Biblical residue? Why? I'm not particularly fond of snakes, but I don't go around killing them. They have a right to life - maybe more so than we humans, especially the one in the pickup behind us. A little farther down the road, the pickup passed us, flashing his Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. Where's my "Good Bush - Bad Bush" tee-shirt when I need it ;-)
After traveling on the Interstate for a couple hours, I noticed a remarkable lack of biomass - road kill. I had become accustomed to scanning the road ahead for elongated, black masses, which usually turned out to be dead or about to be dead snakes. There were many more elongated black things along the Interstate, but they weren't snakes, they were pieces of shredded tires. SHREDDED TIRES? Holy moly, the road was lined with 'em as though they were some sort of new fangled safety device. Once I got over the fact that they weren't snakes, I started to actually think about the ramifications. What if one of the hundreds of trucks that are passing me shredded a tire? What if I ran over a piece? What if one of those pieces of rubber - some of them several pounds for sure - smashed into RVan, our windshield, me or Janie? Okay, so I managed to control that bit of panic figuring the odds were against it - but I continued to monitor the truck tires as they rolled past my driver's side window. What about all that rubber? What happens to that? Is it picked up and recycled? Sure, that's about as likely as me winning the lottery, which is pretty unlikely since I've never bought a ticket. One day seeing black snake biomass along the road; next day it was shredded truck tires. Interstates are the antithesis of the Cherokee Way; nearly lifeless, not even road kill, or, if there is road kill, it is quickly pulverized into a wafer-thin mass of moist leather. The Education of Little Tree is educating me as well. I expect you will hear more about the Cherokee Way in the future ;-)
I needed to get off the Interstate just to preserve my sanity. We did so and found progressively smaller roads that eventually took us to PA-144 - PA's version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The traffic stopped almost as soon as we got on PA-144. That is at once comforting and disturbing. As you no doubt know, we hate traffic and will go 100s of miles out of our way to avoid it - driving in traffic is a calculated risk. Thus, the lack of traffic on PA-144 was welcome. However, one wonders why there are so few people on this scenic road. It is a perfectly good road with newly constructed pull outs with marvelous vistas of the surrounding terrain. Sure, the road goes from nowhere (Renovo) to nowhere else (Galeton). But, hey, this is a very pleasant drive through God's Country: Potter County PA (thanks to Rich Kilbury for introducing us to it). We drove the entire length of PA-144, found it to be a marvelous, nearly private, road.
We stopped at Jenkin's Farm Market on NY-63 to pick up some necessities: stone-ground corn meal, sugar-free apple butter and jams, and a fresh supply of sorghum molasses. Our BRP guide book said Uncle Newt's molasses supply ran low, so he traded his trusty mule for a gallon just to see him through to squeezin' season. That's how important molasses was to our ancestors, and that's translated to the present for me - I drizzle it on my morning cereal. We called the Dr's office from the market and made an appointment to see the Dr on Friday. Janie got her meds and is now fully recovered. Me, well, I started working out again. What with the sickness and the trip, it had been nearly a full month layoff. Needless to say, I'm kinda stiff - in all the wrong places - but it is good to be back home and planning our NEXT TRIP ;-)