The first 12 years of my life were spent in the misnamed corner of central Pennsylvania known as Mosquito Valley. It consisted of a narrow neighborhood of 20-25 houses nestled in between lush green mountains. One way in, one way out. A creek ran the length of it, and both our front and back property lines were graced with a stream. I could name every family and child who lived in our neighborhood. It was the dream of childhood playgrounds. Free reign of the place, easily traversed on a bike in a few minutes. Daily we collected salamanders, crayfish and minnows in our red wagon and tried to sell them to the few passers-by, aka neighbors. Just down the street, Bower’s farm boasted a big barn with a hayloft made for climbing. Many a skit was acted out in that loft with the posse of kids in our ‘hood. We climbed in the Connor’s huge willow trees, with their fort-sized crevices big enough to hold 3 or 4 of our then pint-sized selves. Good times.
In sixth grade we left our valley home and headed up Bastress Mountain at the top of Jack’s Hollow Road. The neighbors were not so plentiful, but the woods provided its own fun. I always felt like we lived on top of the world, and the best views of the valley below were just a short bike ride away. They are still both the mountain and the valley in my dreams.
This was our simple life, and they are my forever memories. I think about them now, as I work my way through the valleys in the southwest corner of Virginia on into the edges of Tennessee before climbing into the North Carolina Blue Ridge. Memories of my carefree childhood seem fresh and near, though they are many years and hundreds of miles away.
Still, there is connection and it feels like home. Sweet ranch homes with pristine yards, shiny pickup trucks and neat gardens dot the landscape on this early summer morning. In the hills beyond, small farms with bulky black beef cattle add to the pastoral scene. I notice that I can’t travel more than about ten miles without passing a country Baptist church. They each stand small and proud, likely still the solid rock in the world of many of these people. This one fact is unlike my home, as the center of that universe was the beautiful old Catholic church which reigned postcard perfect on the side of the mountain watching over our beloved valley.
My plan on this day is an ambitious one, and ultimately will cover four states. For those of you who have been with me on the journey thus far, you were likely beginning to wonder if I’d ever get out of Virginia! Today’s the day! My primary focus is the Blue Ridge Parkway, but there’s much to explore on the way.
There is something satisfying about crossing the border into a new state, especially on a road I’ve never seen. I am tickled to have a peek into Tennessee. The pastureland and valleys near small southwestern Virginia villages with kindly names like Friendship and Love’s Mill give way to thick woods as I approach the Tennessee border. Unexpectedly I find myself on the edges of the Cherokee National Forest and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Another note to self to return here when there is more time. It is both beautiful and wild. Biblical names abound this morning as well: Damascus, Zionville, Canaan.
Slowly I begin the climb to Mountain City, Tennessee and onward to Boone, North Carolina. Whether hiking or in a car, switchbacks on a mountain always fill me with anticipation for the payoff at the top. I left the corner of Tennessee as quickly as I entered it, arriving in Boone. The town is bustling with a little more activity than I was wanting to be a part of this day. While beautiful, it has the feeling of a place that has been “discovered”. A destination for the future, I decide, and press on.
The town of Blowing Rock has been highlighted on my map and in my mind for a long time, and I eagerly head off down the mountain road to explore. While she won’t confirm it, Jan Karon, author of the beloved Mitford Series, may have based her idyllic town of Mitford on Blowing Rock. As a passionate lover of her characters and of Mitford itself, I couldn’t wait to see it. Winding down the mountain a bit, I turn off to the entrance of the town. I am equally amazed and disappointed. When a place conjures up imaginings of cherished literary locations, I ache to explore in peace and quiet, as if its my personal discovery. No such luck. The town is crawling with people, and police direct the crazy traffic at every intersection as a tour of homes was underway. This is not the Blowing Rock/Mitford that I longed for. On the bright side, it was without a doubt the most quaint and perfect little town. I could easily imagine Father Tim at the Episcopal church, walking down the street to the bakery and the bookstore, though he would hate all the traffic as well! Every house, business, nook and cranny is bursting with personality. I must go back!
My other Blowing Rock stop was at the town’s namesake. The actual Blowing Rock juts out from the top of the mountain, providing a most magnificent view of the Blue Ridge. It proved to be a perfect place to get my bearings before I hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for the rest of the day’s drive. And what a drive it was.
For the next 100 miles my head was on a swivel. At times soaring over 6,000 feet above sea level, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds and twists its way across the spine of these North Carolina mountains. I just don’t have the words for it. “Wow” doesn’t cut it, but I know this was my exclamation dozens of times during that afternoon. Usually followed by “You’ve got to be kidding me” and “Thank you Lord!”. It was almost too much. Is it possible to get a headache from overwhelming and staggering beauty? My head, and my heart, hurt from it all.
As each corner gives way to new remarkable views of gorges and waterfalls, I begin thinking about the creation of it all. I am a Christian. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Yes, yes, yes. And I’m always amazed by His creation, His imagination. It is all just breathtaking. But the thing that strikes me in these first few days of discovery is not just the physical creation around me, but the emotion it generates within me. How can the undeniable inner feelings of wonder and awe at the beauty of the world around us be the stuff of explained-away evolutionary apologists? It seems so clear to me, on that mountaintop, that He created this scenic landscape, and then He provided within us the ability to love it, to feel it deeply. In His image. A perfect marriage of Creator and creation.
I’m hopeful that my photos will help tell this story, as I cannot begin to do it justice. It would require great poetry or beautiful prose, neither of which I have been blessed with. Hopefully, however, it is enough to inspire you to take a drive and see it for yourself. For my part, I head south down out of the sky and back to the valleys below.