Tag Archives: Blue Ridge Parkway

First Road Trip

For some time now, I have been thinking about what should be my first road trip after I retire. Just to be clear, I am not talking about a road trip where the destination is the main purpose of the journey. No what I am talking about is a trip where the drive itself is the purpose. I’ve done a few of these over the 20+ years that I have had fun little cars to drive but I have always been limited by the number of vacation days I could take from work.

One of the first of these road trips was my inaugural excursion on the Tail of the Dragon in Eastern Tennessee. My wife was not interested in a trip where the main purpose was to experience a road but when I mentioned the idea to my sister, she readily agreed to come along. We did combine it with a final destination to one of our favorite places in the world, Montreat, but experiencing that fun road with 318 curves in 11 miles was as close to a roller coaster ride in a car as you can get, one that I would repeat multiple times over the years.

Probably the granddaddy of all these road trips was in 2010 when I drove the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) together, another trip my wife was not interested in going on.

Over a five day period, I drove by myself about 2,000 miles, almost 600 of the total being just the two roads for which I took the trip. For the most part, the weather was perfect and allowed for all day top-down driving in my little red convertible. The only negative of the trip was on the last day when I encountered construction that had the last 75 miles or so of the BRP closed to traffic. 2010 was the 75th anniversary for the BRP and I was most surprised during its Diamond Jubilee year that part of it would be closed to traffic.

While I had driven the part that was closed many times before, it still irked me that I couldn’t say I had driven the whole road all in one trip.

So what will my first trip be?

Ever since I found out that I would be retiring this year, I have had this question in the back of my mind knowing that I would no longer be limited by the number of vacation days I had. Frequently as I would be driving to work or running errands, the question would come to the forefront of my thoughts. I know to interest my wife in coming with me that it has to be more about the destination and the things we may see along the way than the road itself. With two of our kids living on the west coast, I’ve thought a cross country trip would be fun as there are many things along the way that we would both want to see.

In fact, an opportunity presented itself for just such a trip this year when my nephew (the one that made me an uncle for the first time), announced that he was getting married in Pasadena in November. But a cross country trip at this time just wasn’t in the cards so that won’t be the first.

I also have been toying with the idea of trying to drive as much of the historic Route 66 that still exists. This trip would afford the opportunity to see many sites I have never seen and would end up also in Los Angeles where a fun drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) would allow a visit to San Francisco where our oldest son and his family lives.

I’ve also thought of doing the BRP again to complete the whole 469 miles in one trip. And I’ve considered that maybe I need to research another fun road to drive in the US and experience that.

My most recent idea is to just stay closer to home and head over to Nashville and pick up the Natchez Trace Parkway, not as long or likely as scenic as the BRP but a road that I have never done.

But with road conditions and open-air driving not conducive to the cold weather starting to creep into the forecast, it will probably be spring before I actually decide on a specific trip to take. However, this gives me the winter to research other roads that may be my first post-retirement road trip. And when I do, I’ll be sure and report all about it here so you can enjoy part of the trip too.

Because for someone who loves car and loves to drive, what’s better than a fun road trip!

Box of Old Photos

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I recently started cleaning out a rather overstuffed closet that was in desperate need of reorganization when I came across a plain brown box addressed to me. From the yellowed return address and postage, I could make out that it was sent to me from my brother in January 2000. Upon opening this box that had undoubtedly been sitting in this closet for over 12 years, I found it contained old black & white photos, negatives, and a letter from my brother. Needless to say, I had to pause my cleaning activities to go through the box.

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I first read the hand written letter dated 22 Jan 2000 in which my brother described how the photos had been included in a box sent to him that had contained some of his old things. He couldn’t recall how the box had come into his possession but that in addition to the photos, it contained some old photographic developing and printing supplies. He then went on to describe how seeing the photos had brought back wonderful memories of the two of us taking photos together and then developing and printing them in the darkroom we had set up inside the metal shed behind our parents’ house.

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I then turned my attention to the photos. These 5” X 8” photos, all with curled edges showing their nearly 40-year old age, were from 1977, my junior year in college when I had bought my first nice camera—a Cannon FTb SLR—for a photography class I took. Some of these black & white photos captured one of my assignments for that class which was to take a photo that had depth…

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… and one that was “flat.”

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This last photo was a test development where progressively longer exposures during the printing process helped determine the best exposure time for printing. This technique also can allow the photographer, in this case me, to correct for over- or under-exposure of the film in the darkroom.

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Also enclosed in the box were “contact sheets”, full size pieces of 8” X 10” photo paper where the negatives were simply lined up on the paper and exposed by the enlarger so that miniatures positives of the photos could be easily previewed before selecting the best shots for printing. I felt a bit sad when I recognized among the frames a thumbnail image of my mom, gone from us since her death in 1999.

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Another of these contact sheets included images we had captured in 1977 on a family vacation to Montreat, NC, a vacation spot we went to almost every year growing up. As I scanned over these small shots, I felt more sadness as I relived the disappointment we all had experienced that summer when upon arrival in Montreat, we gazed out over what should have been Lake Susan only to find no crisp lake, but rather a construction zone along the dam that formed the lake from the cold mountain stream that fed it.

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But there were also happier images of driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mt. Mitchell, a regular picnic spot for these vacations.

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And included was this near silhouette shot of our dad, from the tower on top of Mt. Mitchell, a shot my brother had professionally enlarged for all of us.

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There were also shots of that cold mountain stream that could be heard as a calming symphony almost everywhere in Montreat and where we always “rock-hopped” every visit there.

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I have to say to my brother thanks for this break from my task and helping me take this stroll down memory lane. I have recently written how important old photos are to me and this newly discovered box just adds to those treasures. So again thanks bro, for not just throwing those old photos away when you found them but rather taking the time to box them up, write a letter, and mail them to me all those years ago.

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As I return to cleaning out that closet, I do so without dread of an overwhelming task but with a happy heart filled with anticipatory wonder of what other treasures I may discover hidden away for all these years.

NC Road Trip: Tail of the Dragon – Quintessential Experience

It was just the next year in 2008 when I would have the quintessential Dragon experience.  That was the year our youngest son turned 21 and I suggested to my two boys that we take a sort of “coming-of-age” road trip together.  At the time I had two Miatas and the Mini so theoretically we would each have a car to drive.  Only problem was one of the Miatas was in San Francisco where my oldest son lived at the time.  But still with two little sport cars to drive, we were in for some fun.

The start of the Dragon is just about 400 miles from Memphis so there is always the almost day long anticipation just to get there.  My oldest son offered to drive the Miata and so my youngest son road shotgun with me in the Mini.

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Our trip was at the beginning of May and the weather was perfect.

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We made our first run with me in the lead and then my boys swapped so my youngest son could get his first chance to drive the Dragon.  My oldest son then acted as paparazzi for us snapping pictures reflected from the right side mirror making it appear we were driving right-hand steer cars on winding British roads.

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Our last run of the day, we came across someone obviously on the wrong road or foolishly thinking the Dragon would be fun to drive in an RV.

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We capped off the day getting our photos next to the Dragon sign and then heading over to Topoca Lodge where we spent the night.

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After dinner, a torrential down pour came and so we made our way over to the lodge game room and shot pool while enjoying a few adult beverages well into the night.

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The next morning after a hearty country breakfast, we decided to make two more runs before we headed off for our next destination.  After riding in the Mini for the first run, I decided to ride shotgun with my youngest son in the Miata.  This then allowed me to become the paparazzi for the drive.

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Only my photos came out a bit blurry as my son was taking the turns so aggressively that he had to reach his right hand across the dash just to hold on for himself.

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We then made our way to our next destination, Asheville, NC, where we took in some of the usual activities, hanging out in Montreat and visiting the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) where they interestingly had an exhibit on the building of the BRP.

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That night, we enjoyed more adult beverages at a pizza parlor in downtown Asheville.  We were reflecting on the fun we had had driving the Dragon and then I began to tell some stories of when I had turned legal age.  After I mentioned a couple of instances in college where I had had way too much to drink, my oldest son turned to me with a puzzled look and said, “But Dad, you told us when we were little that you had learned your lesson when you had too much to drink.”  To which I replied, “that’s correct, I just didn’t tell you that I had to learn that lesson multiple times.”

For our return home, we had planned on taking the BRP South of Asheville as the first leg of the trip but my oldest son was coming down with what turned out to be acute appendicitis.  So instead, we took the easier interstate route all the way home.

I know for my oldest son that this probably was not the best memory, as he had to have an appendectomy the day after we got back to Memphis.

I do have several souvenir reminders of these fun NC road trips.

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A raised relief map of the Smoky Mountains showing the route of the BRP.

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A poster of the Tail of the Dragon showing all of the named curves.

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And as a birthday gift from my daughter, a t-shirt of the Tail of the Dragon.

These road trips to NC gave me tremendous satisfaction in driving the Dragon.  But the little bit of BRP driving I enjoyed on these four trips left me wanting more of the BRP.  And so it was in 2010, I would get that chance (BRP).

But for the Dragon, I think an anniversary trip should be in the future.  And since both Miatas and the Mini are now in Memphis, no one would have to ride shotgun and all three of us would get to enjoy driving each run of the Dragon.

NC Road Trip: Tail of the Dragon – Two More Runs

Having just had a small taste of what it was like driving the Tail of the Dragon in 2005, I knew I needed more.  So when my wife and I were looking for a place to get away to for Labor Day weekend 2006, I of course suggested driving the Dragon.  This was the same wife who had just the year before, flatly declined this suggestion.  But things were different this year for a number of reasons.

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One of which was in April of 2006, I purchased a Mini Cooper S.  I still had my red Miata but now I also had a more comfortable car for my wife to ride in.  And since it was a hardtop, there was no chance of me suggesting to drive with the top down.  My wife found and booked us a cabin at the historic Tapoco Lodge—one of the lodging sites for Miatas at the Gap and for a similar gathering of Minis, Minis on the Dragon.  With arrangements set, we set out on our weekend adventure.

This was the first road trip in the Mini and I must say it was most comfortable—but this coming from someone who had been driving a Miata for almost 10 years.  Nonetheless, the almost daylong interstate drive from Memphis was pleasant, but the highlight of the day was the Dragon.  With the fun of my first Dragon experience still in my mind, I took the curves in the little Mini with similar delight.  But while the Miata drive was a fun wind-in-your-hair roller coaster ride, the Mini was an incredible go cart ride over the 318 curves.  And with 30 more horsepower than the Miata, it shot out of one turn and into another with ease, the whine of the supercharger adding a delightful auditory backdrop to the road.

Since it was getting late in the day and my wife had been in the car all day, we decided to make our way to our lodging for the evening.  On the way, we passed a familiar looking dam.  Turns out, it was the one Harrison Ford (or more likely his double) actually jumped from in the movie, Fugitive.

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The next day, we explored the area visiting the Fontana Dam and discovering the Appalachian Trail (AT) actually ran right across the top of the dam.  Since my wife has had for some time, the desire to hike the AT, we had to capture her photo on the trail.

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Since we weren’t going to have time to make it onto the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), we left the Tapoco Lodge and headed for the Cherohala Skyway on our return trip home.

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This road, which was just completed in 1996, was definitely a worthy cousin to the BRP.  Although it didn’t soar to the same heights as the BRP, it still offered fantastic views of the Smokey Mountains.  And similar to the BRP, it is just a two-lane road designed for easy driving while taking in the majestic mountains.

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As we returned to interstate driving on our way home, I was again saddened that the fun-driving roads were behind us.  My second road trip had certainly given me more than just that first taste, but I knew I wasn’t satiated.  There would need to be more.

And more came the next year in 2007 when we decided to vacation in the Asheville area.  For this trip, our daughter travelled with us since she just happened to be in town.  This time, we left early enough in the morning so that we would get to the Dragon with plenty of daylight left.  As we neared the beginning of the Dragon, I noticed something I had never seen before—a parking lot full of police and state troopers less than a mile from the beginning of the Dragon.

I tried to put this out of my mind as I began to take the curves.  It was another exhilarating experience, at least for me—my wife and daughter will have to speak for themselves.

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When we got to the end, my wife and daughter suggested they would hang out at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort while I ran the course again.

This was the first time for me to drive the Dragon by myself; and the first time for me to drive it South to North.  Without fear of scaring my passengers to death, I took the curves with even more speed and aggression.  On one particular curve, just as my tires began to squeal around the corner, I saw one of the policemen with a radar gun.  Fortunately he had it pointed in the opposite direction.  When he heard my tires, he turned to look in my direction but since I had managed to slow down quickly, he just shook his finger at me like a naughty boy.

I finished the run at the northern end of the Dragon and turned around to go back.   I unfortunately had to drive back past that same policeman to get back to Deal’s Gap to pick up my wife and daughter waiting at the restaurant.  I don’t know if he recognized me as the same car that had just received the shaking-finger warning but I do know that I was certainly saved that day from getting a speeding ticket.

During this trip, I also got to visit Montreat and got my picture driving through the Montreat gate, this time in the Mini and with no rain.

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And on our return home, I convinced my wife and daughter to take the BRP south of Asheville for the first leg of our trip, which gave me a chance to drive this picturesque road one more time and to get a shot of the Mini at the highest point on the BRP (Note for you detail-oriented people, Mt. Mitchell, at 6,683 feet is actually the highest peak East of the Mississippi River but it is not on the BRP, just accessible from the BRP).

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As we got back onto the interstate after the BRP ended, I felt much more satisfied.  On my third trip here, I had gotten to make multiple runs on the Dragon and spend more time driving the BRP in another fun little sports car.  But little did I know that my future held even more exciting trips for both the Dragon and the BRP.

NC Road Trip: Tail of the Dragon – First Experience

Cold wintery weather makes me long for warm summer days when I can drive with the top down in my little red sports car.

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And it was a warm August in 2005 when I got my first chance to experience the fun little road in eastern Tennessee—Tail of the Dragon.  I first learned about this highway that brags of 318 curves in just 11 miles in one of my car magazines.  The article featured a weekend Miata gathering—Miatas at the Gap—that included photos of Miatas everywhere on this road that runs along the western edge of the Great Smokey Mountains.

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When I first approached my wife about the idea of taking a trip to drive this road she had no interest.  While she thoroughly enjoys taking trips, it is the destination that interests her, not the driving itself, which would be the focus of this trip.  I mentioned the idea to my sister who happened to live in Memphis at the time and when we discussed this idea along with a visit to Montreat, a special place for us growing up, she was sold.  We made our plans and soon took off.

When we left home the weather was nice for almost a daylong interstate drive.   Once we were close to Knoxville, we pulled over and put the top down.  From there, it was a relatively short drive to the beginning of the Dragon.

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Having owned and enjoyed a Miata for almost 10 years, I had never experienced anything like driving it on this road.  With a grin on my face and a short laugh at almost every curve, I zoomed over the too short 11 miles in no time.  At one point as I was weaving up and down from one curve to the next, I literally felt we were on a roller coaster ride.  When we got to the end of the road right at the North Carolina state line and pulled to a stop, my sister admitted she had been scared to death the whole time but that it was so much fun, she would do it again.  Unfortunately, we still had to reach our final destination for the day—Asheville, NC—so we continued on our way satisfied that we had survived our first encounter with the Dragon.

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Once my sister was no longer fearing for her life, she—who is quite the photographer in her own right—became my personal paparazzi for the rest of the trip snapping pictures left and right while I drove.

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Once we neared Asheville, the weather took a turn for the worse and sadly we had to put the top up due to the rain.

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The next day, we made our way to Montreat, my enticement to get my sister to come along.  But the rain followed us there as well.

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Nestled among several mountains, rain is not uncommon in Montreat; it’s just when you only have one day out of 365 to be there, it seems it could have held off.  But undeterred, we snapped away photos as we dodged the raindrops.

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And upon leaving, my sister even agreed to stand in the rain and get my shot driving through the well-known Montreat gate.

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Our next excursion for our road trip was to hop onto the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and take in some of the sights we had so often seen growing up.  As we began our ascent up the BRP, the rain held off and the mountains living true to their name stood majestically among the smoky-looking clouds.

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As we made our way up the winding roads, my sister would agree to jump out and get a shot of me in the car on a particularly pretty stretch.  My intent was not just to get shots of the Smoky Mountains but of me in my little red car with the mountains as the backdrop.

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As we emerged from one tunnel on the BRP, the weather immediately changed and became not just cloudy, but rainy as well.

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As we neared our ultimate destination, Mt. Mitchell—tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River and site of many cookouts growing up—the rain really began to come down and visibility was essentially nil as we were right in the middle of a rain cloud.  But my sister willingly braved the cold and rain to snap some shots of me in the car.

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I must say that my sister was really a good sport when it came to driving with the top down.  For anyone who has a convertible knows, we will endure almost any poor weather to get to drive with the top down.  And my sister never complained although we did have to stop to buy her a hoodie when it got rather chilly on the BRP.

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The last day of our trip, I suggested we take the BRP south of Asheville as the first leg of our return home to experience a little more fun on the road.  We loaded up on coffee and began our ascent of the BRP.

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The Smoky Mountains again lived true to their name as we got some of the best photos of our trip, and with no rain.

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As we neared the end of the BRP at milepost 469, I knew that this road trip had just given me a small taste of the exhilarating experience of driving the BRP and the Tail of the Dragon in a fun little sports car.  I knew there would have to be more; and there would be!

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Glorious Top Down Driving Week!

I had planned on bringing you the second installment of my three part series on Building Books but I had to take a pause to share with you what a glorious top down driving week this past week was.  I know my fellow convertible owners will appreciate this and my fellow Memphian convertible owners even more so.  An advantage of living in the South usually means many days for top down driving but in Memphis we seem to have only two seasons:  summer and winter.  While winters are usually fairly mild, summers can be real scorchers.  And when the August heat spills into September with 90+ temperatures, we convertible owners long for cool mornings and cool nights; the kind we sometimes don’t get until October.

Being a hard-core convertible owner for the past 16 years—one with a willingness to drive in the winter with the top down and the heater full blast or in the summer with the top down and the AC on—finding cool weather is a real cause for celebration.

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In the past, I have suffered through the really hot and the really cold weather—times when one might question the sanity of driving a convertible year round—ever optimistic that pleasant weather is just around the corner.

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But now that I have more than one car to choose from, I usually reserve my top down driving in the little red Miata to the weekends and my Fiat 500 serves as my daily driver.  So when Tuesday after Labor Day rolled around this week, the first workday of the week when I would normally drive to the condo after work to swap cars, the weather seemed almost fall like when I came out from work.  I checked the weather and found that highs were going to be in the 80s and lows in the 60s with no chance of rain all week, perfect weather for a convertible.  I knew I wasn’t going to being swapping cars this week.

So for four glorious days this week, I drove into work with the top down and the wind in my hair.  I listened to my usual podcasts on the way in: Car Talk (always a good laugh for a Monday), Marketplace Money, NPR Books Podcast, and Travel with Rick Steves, enjoying them even more than usual while stealing glances at the blue sky overhead.  I also had time to listen to Pandora streaming over the phone on my Steely Dan station and even the non-Steely Dan songs that played just enhanced my driving experience even more!

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I found that I drove in to work a little faster than normal, zipping quickly around the few curves I encounter on my regular route to work.  I was reminded of my fun top down drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Tail of the Dragon (a story for another time).  If I closed my eyes while sitting at a traffic light, I could almost picture the winding, tree lined roads that had brought me such pleasure.  My only disappointment each day was arriving at work, not because I dreaded going into work, but saddened that my fun little drive was over.

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Sadly the heat is back (it is 95 as I write this) and more mid-90 weather is on tap for the week.  So after spending the night at the condo this weekend, I drove home in my Fiat for what will be just a normal week of driving to work.  Not that my little Fiat isn’t fun to drive because it is and it has all the latest technology my 2002 Miata doesn’t have—USB port for static free iPod listening, Blue Tooth connectivity, trip computer.  But it’s not a convertible.  I know this winter I will be more than thankful for the warmth of its hard top.  That’s when I will keep an eye on the weather wondering when that next warm winter day will arrive for a quick car swap and unexpected glorious top down driving.

Blue Ridge Parkway – Day 3

Refreshed from a couple of days of relaxation while reliving childhood memories, I was saddened to be leaving Asheville but excited about finishing my journey.  While this portion of the BRP (south of Asheville) was quite familiar to me, it still represented my completion of the entire 469 miles.

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Starting out, the day held promise as I soon saw clouds hovering below the peaks of mountains.  I imagined I would be capturing some great Smoky Mountain shots to overcome the sadness of finishing my drive.  But less than an hour into my drive, I came across a roadblock.  Road construction was again the culprit but this time rather than just a single lane being blocked, the entire road was closed—for the next 50 miles!

I was devastated.

After clocking over 400 of its 469 miles, I was going to miss the finish.  I pulled over and tried to decide what to do.  Anyone who has come this close to completing a dream can relate to the emotions I was feeling.  My thoughts ranged from ramming through the barrier and taking my chances to…I don’t know what.  I obviously wasn’t thinking rationally.

In the end, I exited the BRP and began to follow their detour route.  Soon I was driving among so many trees that even my GPS couldn’t find me.  I knew I was at least driving westerly in the direction towards home but I didn’t know what road I would come across that would lead me to a familiar route—for I hadn’t even brought a map knowing full well the route I would be taking.

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I soon came across a beautiful waterfall and decided to stop and take several photos.  Still not sure where I was, I continued on the road I was on never once seeing a “detour sign” indicating I was on the right road.  I eventually came across US 64, a highway I knew well and one that even ran through my hometown.

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I came across another waterfall I had never seen before and not long afterwards was passing the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 summer Olympic white water rafting competition.  As I entered Cleveland, TN, I was faced with the choice of taking US 64 all the way back to my home in western Tennessee or taking the faster interstate route.  Still feeling a bit of sunburn pain and sadness for the end of my adventure, I opted for the faster interstate route home.

With the top up and little of interest to see on the interstate route, I had many hours alone to think and reflect back over my trip.  My feelings were mixed.  While my goal had been to drive the BRP from beginning to end in one single trip, my consolation prize was that I could at least say that I had driven every mile of the BRP—just not all in one journey.  Although this paled in comparison to Mr. Browning’s walk of the BRP route before it was built over 75 years ago, it still satisfied my childhood dream of driving the BRP in a sports car.

I came home with some great photos and great memories.  However, I recall one of the photos I most wanted to come home with was the famous S-curve bridge known as the Linn Cove Viaduct (see day 1 photo) but now I can’t recall why I didn’t capture it.  I can only assume that the view I was most familiar with from years of seeing photos could not be captured from the road itself and so knowing my photo wouldn’t match the one in my mind taken from an elevated perspective, I didn’t take any.

In retrospect, I must say I am happy to have experienced parts of the BRP for the first time and as I visualize those sections in my mind now, I am confident that I will drive on those unfamiliar portions again one day.  It won’t be a trip from beginning to end like this one and maybe that fact will entice my wife to come along.  It will be a chance to explore the northern sections of the BRP for a second time and to learn first hand where the rubber meets the road, more of the secrets and history of this classic driver’s road.

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