VIRGINIA, N. CAROLINA, GEORGIA Nov 8-Nov 20/08
The Skyline Drive runs 105 miles through Virginia and along the spine of the Appalachians with the Appalachian Trail (which runs from Maine to Shenandoah National Park along to Georgia) paralleling its course. Twisty and slow, there are constant pull offs and views off both sides. Most of the fall colour is gone on top but just below huge swaths of yellow still existed. To the west is the wide flat Shenandoah Valley and its patchwork of green fields. Views are panoramic and often stretch to the horizon. With hundreds of miles of hiking trails, most incorporating some portion of the AT, I did several day hikes, trying to find the most scenic. Unfortunately all were through dense forest, views were rare (none as good as from the road), and frankly kind of boring, especially after the hiking and climbing we are used to at home. The trail descriptions are sometimes humorous – the trailhead sign for one 5.5 mile trail described it as an exhausting 5 hour hike, my guide-book said it was a moderately flat 3.5 hour hike, and I found it an easy 2.5 hours with little elevation change. The title of Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods”, about his experience of hiking the AT, seems appropriate. The majority of hikers were backpacking doing short loops for a few days. I walked out one trail with a group of 4 marines (all 2nd lieutenants who had graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis), got a real work out, and found them a very pleasant, open-minded group of young men. None had been in Iraq.
Where Skyline Drive ends, the Blue Ridge Parkway picks up. The road is just as pretty (if not prettier) than Skyline and runs to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 469 miles. The fall colors were spectacular and the views huge especially to the east. Viewpoints were frequent. Rail fences, closely mown green fields, and farms were everywhere on top. Mabry Mill sits in a pretty green vale and is one of the most photographed buildings in the state. Short hikes lead to the top of the tree covered mountains. This is the birthplace of both country and blue grass music. Nick Sherstobitoff would have been in second heaven.
I left the Parkway at Ashville, NC and visited the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home with 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms. Built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt, the 8th child of Cornelius Vanderbilt and heir to the Vanderbilt shipping and railroad fortune, the French style château sits on 8,000 manicured acres (once 125,000 acres that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions). The tour was expensive at $61 including audio guide, but probably worth it (a good deal for locals who for $25 more can buy a years pass). The house was truly magnificent and decorated for Christmas. The grounds were designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, who also did Central Park in New York, and includes gardens, a working farm and winery. The fellow at the wine tasting knew the Kootenays well as his son had played hockey in Creston. I got to make butter at one of the farming displays. I don’t think I have ever seen so many obese people since leaving Washington (West Virginia has the highest rate of obesity in the US).
The Appalachians extend into northern Georgia and I had managed to avoid South Carolina completely. Tallulah Gorge State Park has a nice loop trail that encircles a pretty canyon with many waterfalls and pools. I wanted to go to Atlanta to see the Atlanta Aquarium, the largest in the world. But navigating the swarm of interstates and downtown streets overwhelmed me even though I waited till 11 PM to try to find a place to park for the next day. Hopelessly lost, I felt like a rat in a maze, but not one with dead ends, but instead wrong ways on interstates that led to places like Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is difficult to both drive and navigate. I eventually ended up at Stone Mountain about 20 miles east of the downtown core. The mountain is an 800 foot high granite dome with a nice walk up, four confederate flags flying below the stars and stripes, telephone poles covered in bubble gum and splendid views in all directions (could not see Atlanta because of smog – third in US cities), and Rushmore like carvings of the Confederate generals Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horses are carved into the side of the mountain. Other Atlanta sites include World of Coca Cola, many Martin Luther King Jr. sites and the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. This is a predominately black city.
A new term, freeganism has been coined. A freegan is someone who doesn’t pay for things that others do and was personally honed to a fine art by Ross Scott and me on our many trips to southern Utah. Call me cheap but now my sin is only to avoid paying for parking or camping anywhere. Economic conditions dictate a change in habits. Obviously if everyone became a freegan in all respects, our economy would not function well.
The 200+ miles SE to Savannah, Georgia was intensely boring – flat, straight, hemmed in by tall trees, and punctuated by billboards on massive 100 ft high steel poles. Doc Sarvis, the billboard eco-terrorist in Monkey Wrench Gang would have had a field day. Savannah is a gorgeous city – huge torturous oaks draped in Spanish moss, many squares with statues and monuments, a church (many of them massive with great steeples) on every block, and wonderful large southern houses. Zillions of tourists were on trolley tour buses, horse-drawn carriages and walking the historical walking tours. The place is drenched in American Revolution and Civil War history. Parked on a piece of empty black top in a very black neighborhood, I thought I was safe until I read in the local paper about a hold up by three gun-toting blacks in the same block on the first night I was there. I went to three museums, one with incredible glass work by William Morris from Washington state. It was warm and very humid, have stowed my down duvet and finally get to sleep under a Mexican blanket, and am in thongs and shorts (this was brief as a cold front descended from Canada).
It always surprises me how generally safe things are. Vancouver with the highest rate of personal crime in North America, strikes me as odd, as we always believe we live in such a safe country. My three children, who all live in Vancouver, find the only solution is to leave their cars open and unlocked. I wonder how they are going to deal with their problem in time for the 2010 Olympics. The root cause, drug addiction, will be difficult to solve. New York has cleaned up their city with and an intense police presence and cops walk their beats.
Okeefenokee National Wildlife Reserve is a 700 square mile swamp in southern Georgia. Situated in a giant shallow bowl once ocean floor, the swamp is basically a big peat bog. Most of the reserve was closed since fires devastated a huge portion of it in 2007 following a three-year drought. After any big wind the dead trees fall blocking the waterways. There is a swampers homestead in the reserve that was interesting. I was luckily able to get camping permits for the only two shelters still open. The water way initially fallows the Suwannee Canal dug in 1891-93 to drain the swamp to allow for logging cypress. The water is tea colored, the canal was lined by bush and large trees and then I entered a “prairie” – grasses and sedges interspersed with islands of bush and trees, all with 6-18 “ of water. The route was well-marked and in the prairie was very narrow and covered in water lilies and weeds with yellow flowers everywhere. The shelter was a partially covered 30×20’ wood platform surrounded by water (my hiking shoes were superfluous and sleep walking was dangerous). With clear blue skies, temperatures below freezing, and wind, it was very cold and I needed all my warm clothes. I saw alligators, turtles, a river otter, cattle egrets, great egrets, sand hill cranes (fly in V-shaped groups and very noisy), great blue herons, ibis and many other small birds and ducks I didn’t recognize. The next day I took a detour to a part of the reserve supposedly closed – Floyds Island (General Floyd expelled the last indigenous Indians, the Seminoles, in 1850, forcing them south into Florida). The very narrow, shallow water course went through dense forest with cypress, black gum, bay, red maple and pine trees. Reflections in the black, still water were perfect. The island had a beautiful old hunters cabin. The water way continued back to another shelter on the Suwannee Canal, again a small platform surrounded by water, and another cold night. The third day I paddled 11 miles back to the put in along the canal. It was beautiful paddling in a surreal environment. This was clearly one of the highlights of the trip so far.
Finally I will be in Florida tomorrow. Again I appreciate getting emails from everybody. Take care.