June 4, 2012 - Two hours after leaving our mountain home near Young Harris, Georgia, we pulled into the KOA campground in Cherokee, North Carolina, the rendezvous point for the Taste of the Blue Ridge national Airstream caravan. The caravan will take us up the Blue Ridge Parkway for its full 500 mile length with six stops and many activities over the next three weeks. Twenty Airstrean trailers and motorhomes will join leaders Jamie and Susan King along with Bob and Marge Bennett for the trip. Every unit was given a drivers manual which outlined the caravan activities and organization with directions on how to find each new campground.
The first group activity was supper and an organizational meeting at the campground club house at 6:00pm. The spaghetti meal was prepared by a KOA cook, and it was a good one. The leaders previewed the trip and stressed these two rules: "never travel in groups larger than three units" and "never arrive at the next stop before the time specified."
June 5, 2012 - It rained all night, and the day began looking very gloomy. However, by the time of departure on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, the skies had cleared, and it stayed that way, We were joined for the trip to Bryson City by Kay and Devin Bowman, friends from a previous caravan. When we arrived at the RR Depot, we were given promotional cups with the promise to keep them filled all day with tea or coffee or lemonade or soda pop. We boarded our RR car at the end of the train at 10:00am. The train took us the several miles of wooded wilderness, crossed Fontana Lake, then followed the Nantahala River into the gorge of the same name. Shortly beyond the Nantahala Outdoor Center the train stopped, and the engine moved on a side track to the rear of the train and pulled us back to Bryson City. There was an hour stop for the light lunch at the NOC.
Fontana Lake was peaked in height, fuller than we had ever seen it. House boats that were on dry land the last time we did this were floating free, anchored along the edge of the lake.
There were just a few kayaks and rafts on the river, but no where near the crowds that are normal in mid-summer. Remembering our past raft trips down the river, it was easy to imagine how cold the water was. We had very little time after lunch to get back aboard the train to continue the return trip to Bryson City. The trip had taken an enjoyable six hours.
Once off the train we visited a model train museum, a craft store, a book store, and an ice cream parlor before returning the ten miles to Cherokee.
June 6, 2012 - The group activity for today was the outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, in Cherokee, but not until 6:30pm. So, we had most of the day free to do as we pleased. We chose to wander. We first drove over to the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway to take a picture of the entrance sign. Easier than stopping with the motorhome as we left the area the next day. We then drove back to Bryson City where I made arrangement to consign some of my bowls in one of the craft shops near the train depot. While there, I got some video footage of the departing train.
At Deep Creek, not far from Bryson City, we saw lots of folks getting ready to rent tubes for tubing down the creek. We also hiked up to the Juney Twang (?) Falls near the parking lot at the end of West Deep Creek Road.
At the Post Office in Bryson City we ran into Ann's nephew, Tim Creighton, a pleasant surprise. Ann had resolved to try to contact him while there, but hadn't done it yet. He had just returned from a trip to the Cayman Islands.
By the time we got back to Cherokee it was lunchtime. Since we had never been to the Harrah's gambling casino, Paula Dean's new restaurant there seemed like a good choice. What a humongous place the casino and adjoining hotel are! We must have walked a mile through the casino to the hotel to get to Paula Dean's, looking forward to a buffet like she had in Savannah. Not so. It was just a regular restaurant with high prices and nothing especially inviting on the menu. So, another mile walk back to the car and then Granny's buffet just down the road which was good.
Unto These Hills dramatizes the sad event of the late 1830s where most of the Cherokee Indians were forced from their homes in the mountains and removed to Oklahoma. The focus was on remnant few who escaped the exodus, stayong in the mountains. These hardy men and women are the ancestors of those that live here now on the Cherokee reservation and call themselves the Eastern Band of the Cherokees. The play was entertaining. The 40-person cast did a good a job telling the story of the unfair treatment and how Tsali gave his life to save those who were able to stay. There was mention of those who were removed to Oklahoma - the Western Band - but not much about the hardship. cruelty, and death that took place on the wagons to the west in the dead of winter 1838-39, now known as the Trail of Tears.
June 7 2012 - This was moving day and our first venture on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The weather was nice, and the flowers were outstanding - Rhododendrum, mountain laurel, flame azalea, and more. By the rules, we traveled in groups of three, leaving the campground at fifteen minute intervals, We traveled with the Devin and Kay Bowman and Ray and Paige Landes, stopping to admire the views at many overlooks. It took six hours, including a stop for lunch at the Piscah Inn, to travel the 75 miles from Cherokee to Asheville. The parkway is not the way to get anywhere in a hurry, The speed limit is 45 mph, but I doubt we ever got up to that. Speed was not our aim though. The outstanding scenery, especially from the summit at 6,057 feet, made it an amazing day's run.
After an impromptu social gathering, a caterer brought BBQ pork and chicken to the campground for our evening feed. We saw very little wildlife along the parkway, but after supper, a big bear wandered through, providing excitement for the evening. It seemed unperturbed by his audience.
June 8 2012 - Upon entering the campground yesterday our tire pressure alarm went off, indicating low air in the left front tire. By the time we got parked the tire had gone flat, so the first activity of the new day was to get that fixed. Thankfully, that didn't happen in the middle of nowhere on the parkway, and fortunately, a tire dealer was close by. Their service truck came to the campground within 20 minutes of my call, removed the wheel, re-inflated the tire, and quickly found the leak, There was nothing wrong with the tire. There was a pin hole in the pressure transmitter. So, for simply putting a regular valve cap back on, it cost $128 for the service call, and it will cost $50 for a new transmitter when we get home. Such is the fun of life on the road.
Meanwhile Ann went to the local laundrymat to take care of that chore, Once all that was done, we had lunch at The Moose Cafe, rated the best country cooking restaurant in the area. The food was good and plentiful, and there was a good crowd eating.
After lunch we drove back to the parkway and the Folk Art Center, a gallery of locally craft artwork - all very pricey, but nice.
A short distance from there is The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, a remarkable 1500 acre complex. The grounds were meticulously maintained. We were duly inpressed by the grandeur, and friendliness of the volunteer guides. The chapel was beautiful with antique pews and pulpit imported from England. There were lots of pictures and memorabilia from Billy Graham's crusades, along with quiet places for study and meditation. A seminar was in progress, so we didn't see those facilities, but it's those activities which bring in the income to support the place.
Then it was time for our evening tour of the Biltmore House. After parking in the upper parking area in the front of the house, we walked toward the huge mansion, silhouetted by the afternoon sun - the somber stone 250 room home of George Washington Vanderbilt.
He lived there with his wife and daughter, plus scores of servants. Billed as "America's Largest Home," the Biltmore house is enormous with 175,000 square feet of floor space. The house has 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, 34 bedrooms, and 3 kitchens on four floors above ground and a basement and sub-basement. It was just a bit overpowering. The estate is still owned by Vanderbilt descendants. It's obvious that they plow back the income into maintaining and renovating the house and grounds.
The guided tour of the house took about an hour and a half - narrated by a charming lady who really knew what she was talking about. Construction cost of the house, even in the 1890s, must have been enormous. It was completed in 1895 after seven years of building. Every room is filled with works of art, antiques, special tapestry and furniture. The formal dining room seats 64 people with a triple fireplace at one end, each one large enough to walk into without stooping. The basement houses a large swimming pool, two bowling alleys, a gymnasium, a number of changing rooms, the laundry room, and the kitchens. Many more rooms had been renovated and opened to the public than when we were there a few years earlier.
June 9, 2012 - A day of rest was welcome after several busy days. It was time to reflect on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Building this obscure road was one of many "make work" projects initiated by the Roosevelt administration to ease the pain of the Great Depression. Looking back, it turned out to be a worthwhile project, opening the ridge of the Appalachian mountains for millions to enjoy over the past 75 years. Construction began on September 11, 1935. The last section, for years the missing link, was completed and tied it all together in 1987. The picture at the left, taken in the fall, shows a part of that section,
Concrete mile markers begin with No. 1 near Waynesboro, Virginia and end with No. 469 near Cherokee, North Carolina. There are 275 overlooks that afford spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Even with 151 bridges and 26 tunnels to level out the roadway, there are numerous curves and steep grades to maneuver. The parkway can be enjoyed equally by recreational drivers and more adventurous explorers. Campgrounds and hiking trails make it possible to spend extended time on the parkway - maybe picking blueberries, searching out waterfalls, snapping pictures, or just "smelling the roses."
June 10, 2012 - This was a day for attending church and/or relaxing around camp. The group came together in the evening for individual introductions, for driving instructions for our next move, and for ice cream and other treats.
June 11, 2012 - Add rain and fog to the steep grades, numerous curves, and narrow pavement on the parkway, and speed is deterred to a crawl. That was the way of it on this day. In some ways, the fog and mist added beauty, but there were no long range vistas. Neither were there any opportunities to get out and stroll. All made it safely into our campground for the next few days - KOA Boone.
We were fed a light breakfast before leaving Swannanoa and a great family style dinner in Boone at the Daniel Boone Inn - fried chicken, country fried steak, country ham biscuits, corn, mashed potatoes, green beans, candied apples, salad, and dessert - big bowls full that kept coming.
June 12, 2012 - It rained hard during the night and appeared to be ready to rain during the morning. Some of the group went on a church tour to see frescoes while others scattered around to explore on their own. The frescoes were plaster paintings in two Episcopal churches depicting biblical scenes - the last supper, a pregnant Mary, the crucifixion. Most folks also visited the Mast General Store - and Walmart.
June 13, 2012 - The sun was out and the air was cool as we began this full day of activity. The first was a visit to Linville Caverns. Split up into three groups, we entered a narrow, wet passageway into the side of Humpback Mountain. Stalactites hanging down from the irregular ceiling and stalagmites growing up out of the irregular floor abounded. Water was dripping everywhere, running off via a small underground stream that at times pooled deep enough for fish. Strategically placed lights highlighted some unusual rock formations. We walked along with a guide through some narrow and low hanging structures thought to be a few million years in the making. These caverns were discovered in 1822 by fishermen curious about the appearance of trout at the mouth of a creek. The temperature in the caverns is a constant, cool 52 degrees year around. Our tour lasted about 30 minutes.
The next stop was Grandfather Mountain. We arrived at this spectacular place about lunch time, making our way first to a restaurant about half way up. The $18 per person entrance fee (paid for us out of the caravan kitty) was apparently not a deterrent to the general public. There were scores of people at every pulloff, the most at the top where a mile high swinging bridge crossed a deep chasm to a rocky pinnacle beyond. Several hiking trails are there for the hardy folks looking for such exercise. To say the views were awesome would be an understatement.
On the way back we stopped at the Original Mast General Store in Valle Crucis. This historic building remains much like it was a century ago.
The Horn of the West is an outdoor drama, telling the story of how Daniel Boone led men from North Carolina to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. The story was built around the reluctance of families in seeing their men leave for the fight. There was much debate. Our caravan leaders learned of the season's first dress rehearsal and obtained an invitation for us to attend. One would never have known it was just a rehearsal because it all went well without a hitch. There were forty or more performers, most of which were students from Appalachian State. An Indian fire dance included a boy who held a ring of fire that he danced around and through in a very athletic routine. There were no microphones which made it difficult to hear everything, but otherwise it was a great show. The show will open in a few days and be performed daily all summer. The performers appreciate our applause as we were almost the only audience for the rehearsal.