Week 72: From East to West

The Blue Ridge Parkway
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The Blue Ridge Parkway

Week 72: From East to West

Wright Brothers Memorial NM

Today we visit a site with an entrepreneurial and discovering spirit, as we go to the location where the Wright Brothers spent several years doing their tests with what they wanted to become the first controlled flight in the world. With a little imagination but thankfully aided by multiple pictures of that time, we are taken along their journey of trial and error, and finally to the success of those first four flights. The visitor center does a great job at explaining step by step the thinking process of the brothers and how they got to their end model, and then taking you outside to their ‘take off strip’.

The memorial built on the dune is quite enormous, but what we enjoy most is the life size statue behind it of the actual moment of take off, where you are allowed to climb on it and put yourself in that scene. It is a really fun experience and impressive how big the impact has been in the end of flight on our daily lives. The weather is still fantastic, we roll on in shorts back into Virginia towards the town of Norfolk for some shopping at IKEA and an outlet chain and have our oil changed for the last time :-). Our sleeping place is a Boondockers Welcome in town, where we have a nice and calm night.

Fort Monroe & Colonial NHS

Ok, so we are not heading west that much yet, but there is a lot to do and see around this area, and today we are combining several sites that commemorate the first colonists that came here and their impact on the area. First up is Fort Monroe, with a very rich history of settlers, but later on multiple stories around the Civil War and African American education (Hampton Institute) come into play as well. The casemate museum has a fantastic (and difficult!) scavenger hunt that takes us through all the exhibits as we explore further. The visitor center has more focus on the scores of slaves that were brought here as well as ‘contraband’ when fleeing the south.

Next up is the combination of Yorktown – the climax of the American Revolution was fought and won here over the British – and Jamestown – a settlement colony in the Native American tribe lands of Pocahontas – which are combined with Williamsburg under the ‘Colonial National Historical Park’ and for the fun of it connected with a great parkway of 23 miles. Of course there needs to be cycling, so we tour the battlefield while Sven heads out along the parkway where we catch up with him on the other side. This time we do not get lost – Take note Gettysburg! – and have a great time rolling along the coastline and through the woods.

At Jamestown there is a glasshouse that was built after the archeological finds of an original glasshouse, and demonstrations are given there throughout the day. We are quite in awe as the blazing furnaces melt the glass and the glassblowers perform their magic on this molten, glowing thing. They provide a lot of information on how it is done and how to become a glassblower (practice, practice, practice), and so we are hanging around the glasshouse for quite a while before calling it a day. With an hours drive we get to Petersburg’s Walmart for the night, it was a long day!

Petersburg & Richmond NB

You would think we have our bellies full of National Battlefields by now, but as in our minds the Civil War comes to a close, we are literally following its path on this part of our trip. It is around Richmond that the tilting point of the Union’s pushback lies, and especially the battle of Petersburg (lasting a whopping 9 months!) meant the Confederates where having less and less places to go but to back down south. At the Petersburg site unfortunately the Visitor Center has had a dreadful summer with a non-functioning air-conditioning, and thus all the artefacts and with it the entire exhibit has been taken out.

What we are left with is the audio tour along the tour road which gives us a retelling of the story of Petersburg. It is nice to explore this way, best part we felt was the tunnel that was dug by the miner-soldiers of Pennsylvania with the idea to sneak up and blow up the enemy from under them. They succeeded to do so (almost 300 dead), but the aftermath of it was unfortunately not in their favor. As the fighting continues, the battle for the Richmond area becomes more and more important.

In Richmond and surroundings is the Richmond NB, of which one site in particular stands out to us; the Chimborazo Hospital. In here, the story is told of the military doctors and nurses that took care of the wounded, both at this hospital site as well as the field hospitals that were set up everywhere. With more than 700,000 casualties in the 4-year Civil War, one can only imagine how many came through wounded and hurt in these facilities. Especially the demonstration of the ranger with the surgery kit, including the big bone saw of course made a lasting impression. Not knowing anything back then about bacteria and infections, it is safe to say that the many amputations have saved lives, but the aftermath was in many cases still death.

To shake off the death and despair we drive south towards the Pocahontas State Park for some mountain biking across their fantastic trails and pump tracks, and a bit of laundry and hot showers. We needed those especially as we are meeting up with some friends we met along the road (all the way on the other side of the US); Amy and Mike. We get picked up in a stunningly beautiful Ford Mustang for a true Americana experience as we head out to Mission BBQ for a good meal and even better conversation. They even surprise us with a goodie bag filled with Virginia fare… Absolutely amazing!! So much fun to catch up and connect, and thus a late night for all of us :-).

Appomattox Court House NB & Booker T Washington NHS

After a very comfortable Cracker Barrel night, we head out early in the morning for a 60+ mile drive further west. Our first destination of the day is the Appomattox Court House Battlefield and historical site, THE place where the Civil War was ended and Confederates surrendered under their leader Robert E. Lee. The town – a original population of less than 100 people of which more than half were slaves – has been restored and is fully run now by the NPS, with a good visitor center and many interesting buildings open to the public including the house where the surrender was signed. As always, the site keeps us entertained for much longer than expected so we have lunch here before we roll out on the highway again.

The second stop, another 60+ miles away, is the Booker T Washington National Historic Site, consisting of the farm where he was born (a slave) and freed (at the end of the Civil War at the age of 9). Here again, the site is very well restored, with the farm still holding animals (pigs, horse, sheep, chicken) and buildings kept the way they would have been at the time of Booker T Washington. The story of his life, pushing to learn to read and further his education by walking over 500 (!!) miles to the one university he heard of that would take colored children is then told in the visitor center through a movie end several exhibits. We continue to connect the dots on the history of the US, and today again was a day where we got to expand that horizon. With mid term elections literally happening tomorrow, some of that history is still very current…

Blue Ridge Parkway

While the temperatures have gone down drastically overnight, the sky is blue and clear, and invites us to start exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway. This road without billboards or traffic lights meanders along the Blue Ridge mountains for more than 450 miles! We get on it at mile point 86 with the intention to drive it all the way south in the upcoming days. Along the drive are hikes, visitor centers, lookouts and campgrounds, but many of the facilities have closed at the end of October. Of course the parkway also invites a bike ride, so Sven gets ready to ride the road for a few hours, while we climb up Sharp Top around the Peaks of Otter.

As we get to the stupendous views at the top of the climb, we hear from other hikers that they ran into a black bear on the same path just before us! We came prepared this time with bear spray and are sorry to have missed it, but with all the deer, squirrel and chipmunk action coming up we are already good on our share of wildlife. The sun starts to warm up the day as we head down, and catch up to Sven along the road. Unfortunately there are 2 detours off the parkway today, one of which blocks us from our meeting point, so we meet up in the town of Roanoke from where we continue the drive all together again.

The afternoon is filled with miles of flowing parkway, beautiful views around every corner and some nice and quirky stops. We have a break at Mabry Mill, an old water mill that still works right along the parkway, and then on towards Doughton Park for a coffee break. Our last stop is at Cascades, where we hike the loop trail out to the waterfall before it gets dark, and we see the sun set over the mountains as we roll along our final miles of the day. Our place to sleep is right off the parkway at an MTB park that the boys are VERY excited about as we roll in, so that will be a good start of the next day.

And mountain biking we do! The skills park is brand new and is incredible entertaining, but the trails that are laid on the Rocky Knob face of the mountain are just as fun to explore. The climb is quite strenuous as the trail is quite rocky, but the descend is really thrilling, and with a short-cut we manage to get the most out of the park. It was quite a cold night, so the heated bathrooms are a nice surprise, and the overall facilities are really top notch; if only we had something like it near our own home!

Then back to the Blue Ridge Parkway it is, and today we finally get to some of the visitor centers (after almost 300 miles!) that are still open this time of year. As we check in, turns out the Junior Ranger program is based on the entire length of the parkway, with different levels to achieve as you travel more of the parkway. Of course we would have wanted to achieve all 10 activity sheets and with that the beautiful pin, but as not all visitor centers are open we are left with only 5 activity sheets to complete. One of them is in the really nicely and interactively set up mineral museum of North Carolina.

As we get to the final visitor center we put on the charm for the ranger, and with Bo’s refined cuteness skills manage to still gather all the rewards: Badge, patch AND pin – Hurray! We drive on to an exit up the mountain into a national forest where we can park for the night. Unfortunately it was dark as we arrived – damn you daylight saving! – and the next morning we are blanketed by a thick cover of fog, so we have no clue about the view, but it must have been fantastic ;-).

Great Smoky Mountains

Rolling out of the BRP the next day, we notice traffic getting heavier as we cross the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains. First stop is the visitor center where we get greeted by a herd of elk as we pass the field, always an impressive sight. There is also a farm museum we get to explore which explains about the different crops grown in the mountains and how people survived in the mountains in general. Who knew you could make soap (lye) by pouring water through ashes? The park is cut in two by the main road, and as we drive it the traffic gets so heavy any parking lot along it is full, even at some of the lookouts.

This really takes us aback a little bit after hundreds of miles on a quiet parkway, and quite frankly takes the joy away of trying to explore more of the park. We take in some of the views still and hike out to the waterfalls by the visitor center on the other side of the park, but realize that maybe this is just really not the national park for us? There is a first for everything, so we continue the drive to land in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Next week: From starry nights to Civil Rights

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