The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from western Virginia through parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Mention the area, and a Midwesterner might tell you about Appalachia, where furniture is still made by hand, indoor plumbing is still a luxury, and Deliverance-style families still interbreed. Actually, only one of those is still true.
These days, the area has become a scenic destination, a hot spot for young and old alike. What attraction could draw such a diverse group? It’s not a theme park or a music festival (although you can find those too), but a road that winds through the mountains: the Blue Ridge Parkway. Built in the 1930s as a make-work project, it begins near Waynesboro, Virginia, just south of the Shenandoah National Park. From there, it runs southwesterly into western North Carolina, all the way to the Cherokee Indian Reservation that borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Along the way, it skirts only two major towns: Roanoke, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Otherwise, it winds its way through the mountains unimpeded by commercial vehicles, billboards, stop lights, and straight lines. A bare-bones operation, even the safety precautions are optional. For example, despite the precarious turns and dangerous drop-offs, the road has few guardrails. One wrong turn, and you become part of the scenery, permanently.
What the Parkway has plenty of is grandeur. You can find waterfalls, picnic areas, mountain peaks, and hiking trails. The Parkway draws motorists like a late-night drive-through window, except instead of counting your change for a quick snack, you get all you can eat for free. This national park, the narrowest in the country, has no entrance fee or stamped tickets. It also has no gas stations and few motels. A woman we know (whose name we cannot divulge unless we want trouble) said that a drive on the Parkway is her idea of “roughing it.”
The winding, two-lane byway—with its scenic vistas and mountainous topography—affords beautiful views all year round. Foliage season alone accounts for thousands of visitors every day. Most people drive the Parkway conservatively: if you’ve ever been stuck behind an overloaded land yacht doing half the speed limit, you know what we’re talking about. On a motorcycle, however, this is one of the all-time great rides, 469 miles of pure joy.
Despite the growing attraction, significant sections of the Parkway close intermittently. Just the threat of aberrant weather can be enough to shut it down. Too rainy? Too windy? Too snowy? Too sunny? It’s impossible to predict when or where it’ll close. January or June, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Do they close the road for maintenance issues? It’s not the government’s fault, it’s the asphalt. Repairing potholes is something the government actually does well, and the Parkway is, for the most part, immaculate. Do they close the road for safety concerns? More people have died hiking the nearby trails than driving the Parkway, even though it’s an unlit road, flanked by trees and cliffs. Death might lurk on every turn, but He seldom claims a soul. Maybe, like the rest of us, He’s distracted by the views.
We can’t identify a single valid reason why a major tourist attraction like the Parkway should ever close. Motorists go out of their way to get there—the road is rarely accessible from major highways—yet America’s Favorite Drive isn’t always open. This is no way to run a tourist attraction, let alone a country. The National Park Service, responsible for maintaining the road, claims they get funding each and every year the military doesn’t need the money.
All we’re saying is that there have been deaths at Disneyland, but that tourist truck stop doesn’t close its doors every time it rains. Why don’t they just post warning signs like the ones they put in fog areas: “Warning: If your windshield is icy, imagine how slick the road must be.” We vote for keeping the Parkway open. Year-round, like Disneyland.
Lessons Learned: If you’re unfortunate enough to find a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway closed, take our advice: park the car and walk around. You’ll feel like an outlaw; you’ll get views closed to all those car-bound yahoos; and the exercise will do you good. Then come back another day. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows? The road might well be open again.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
If You Won’t Listen to UsNearest Airport: Roanoke Regional Airport or Asheville Regional Airport
Native Population: No one lives on the Parkway, although Park Rangers prowl its length
Normal Attractions: Mountain peaks, waterfalls, flora and fauna, the slow pace of life in the hills.
Final Point of Interest: Even though construction on the Parkway began in 1935, it wasn’t finished until 1987 with the Linn Cove Viaduct (a worthwhile sight by itself).