Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge ParkwayFor the first time in three days I have semi-reliable connectivity, so I’m hoping I can catch up on a few posts – hurray!  :)  This post dates back to Friday, November 7th. — We continue to make our way south.  We have a couple more national parks to visit before we take our Thanksgiving break back up in Chicago and Appleton with family and friends; visits we are very much looking forward to!  As we were planning our November travel, we learned that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Scenic Byway, making it a must-see/must-drive on.  It connects Shenandoah NP in Virginia all the way to Great Smoky Mountain NP in North Carolina – how convenient as that’s exactly our itinerary!

Not so fast, though… upon further study, we didn’t think we wanted to drive the whole thing.  Even through this is an All-American Road noted for its scenic beauty, we didn’t feel the need to enjoy all 469 miles of the parkway as the maximum speed limit is just 45 m.p.h. – a bit slow, even for Charley!  It seems to be a dream for motorcyclists, though.  Driving along the crests of the southern Appalachian Mountains through ancient bedrock, rolling forests, and 200+ small towns… not seeing a single billboard or road sign… marveling at the 151 bridges built by the WPA/CCC over several decades (construction on the parkway began in the 1930s, but it was not finished until the 1980s)… stopping at some of the 275 scenic vistas along the route… experiencing an untouched and untamed oasis of calm… while all of this would be lovely, we don’t have the time for it to take four days!  We decided to drive a few portions of it, so planned our itinerary accordingly.

View from atop our mountain at our campground in Asheville, NC
View from atop our mountain at our campground in Asheville, NC

We spent a couple of nights in a great little campground on a mountaintop just outside of Asheville, NC.  We had a few ‘big city’ errands to take care of there – got an oil change for Toad at the Subaru dealer and had some PC issues taken care of at Office Max – places we hope not to be too near any more than we have to on this trip.  As we left Asheville, we stopped in at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center for yet another stamp in our NPS Passport books, then headed on down the road, er, parkway….  Next stop:  Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"Fransel" Adams at work
Fred, a.k.a. Ansel Adams, hard at work (note beer in hand) at our Asheville campground
Fierce clouds
Fred’s shot of the fierce clouds over the mountains – these are what caused our overnight temperatures to dip into the low 30s and, for the first time, have us unhook our water hose overnight to keep it from freezing
Sunset in the mountains
Fred’s capture of the sunset in the Blue Ridge mountains


Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a true renaissance man – a scholar, a scientist in many fields; some not even yet defined and named, an “enthusiast” of the arts, a farmer, an architect, a global leader… the list goes on.  An avid reader (and that’s an understatement; he sold some 6,700 books that essentially created the Library of Congress, then deciding he couldn’t live without his books, started amassing a new collection), he read in seven languages, reading books only in the language in which they were written (apparently he didn’t like translations) and was teaching himself an eighth.  By all accounts Thomas Jefferson was brilliant – that’s an understatement, as well.  John F. Kennedy once commented at a gathering of Nobel Laureates, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  (insert laughter)

Monticello was inspired by the Roman neoclassical architectural style Jefferson saw during his time in Europe

Monticello is the home Thomas Jefferson always knew he’d build.  He was born and raised a short distance away and had inherited the 3,000 acres of the mountaintop and surrounding areas that had been his father’s tobacco fields.  And it was always his desire to stay in Virginia to read, study science, farm, raise his children, and live a tranquil life on this, his beautiful mountain.

Yet feeling that it was his duty to his newly-forming country, he wrote the Declaration of Independence [at the age of 33], and then spent the next 33 years in public life.  Post-Declaration, he served as a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and to Congress; he was the governor of Virginia; he was the minister to France; secretary of state; vice president; and, of course, the third president of the United States from 1801-1809.  Notable achievements during his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the United States, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition which furthered discovery and exploration.

Gardens on Mulberry Row at Jefferson's Monticello
Gardens on Mulberry Row, the center of plantation activity from the 1770s until the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826

Monticello itself is filled with household items, furnishings, paintings, and many other wonderful relics and artifacts depicting what life was like when Jefferson was here.  We easily spent six hours touring the house and exploring the plantation.  His land was subdivided into farms including Mulberry Row; the heart of the farming activities taking place at Monticello.  Enslaved, free, and indentured workers and craftsmen lived and worked here, with work changing over time ‘to accommodate the the varying needs of Monticello’s construction and Jefferson’s household and manufacturing initiatives.’  There is evidence that shows 23 structures on the plantation in 1796, but because they were mostly wooden, little of them has survived the last two centuries.

A striking aspect of the design of Monticello is how Jefferson hid the “dependencies,” or essential rooms the servants used, so that they were easily accessible to the house without being visible.  The ice house, beer cellar, wine cellar, kitchen, smokehouse, dairy room, carriage house, stables, indoor privies (a real rarity for the day), and household slave quarters are all below the main level of the house.  All are connected with an underground, unseen passage – quite a design!  Fittingly so, Jefferson is buried here, and his grave is in the family cemetery a short stroll down a path in the back of the house.

Fortunately, the only two owners of Monticello, prior to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchasing it in 1923, were responsible stewards to his legacy.  During the years they owned the property, they worked to restore and preserve the estate.  And perhaps understanding the importance of his life and his contributions to society, Jefferson was a fastidious record keeper.  Ensuring historical accuracy of all that is done here, his surviving collection of log books records every cent Jefferson spent, inventories of his assets at any given time, what was planted in each of the many gardens, genealogical details of all who lived and worked on the plantation; the list of lists goes on and on.  And still in tact are all of the 19,000+ pieces of correspondence Jefferson wrote and received.  In fact, one of the many wonderful implements on display in Jefferson’s study is the polygraph Jefferson used for copying all of his letters.  He’d use one pen to write, and a second pen attached to the writing pen he manipulated made a second copy of all that he wrote.

To this day, the words that Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago still inspire individuals as well as nations all around the world.  The ideals that “all men are created equal” … and all men have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” established the foundations of self-government and individual freedom in America.  Ironic then, isn’t it, that in his lifetime Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves?

For as brilliant of a man as Jefferson was, he couldn’t reconcile the issue of slavery in his own life.  He acknowledged that such a difficult problem would have to be solved by future generations.  By the same token, today’s conversations about Jefferson and slavery must also include Sally Hemings (1773-1835).  A member of the large Hemings family of slaves at Monticello, she was an enslaved lady’s maid in the house.  Recent DNA tests show a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings families, and based on existing scientific documentation, statistical evidence, and oral history, most historians now believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson fathered five of Sally Hemings’ children.

Visiting Monticello
Fred & Laura at Monticello

And on the thread of legacy, according to our outstanding tour guide, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for inspiring three things:  freedom of government, freedom of religion, and freedom of the mind.  With his writing the Declaration of Independence and the founding and designing the University of Virginia, I’d say he succeeded in helping inspire much of the world in these categories.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation that operates Monticello today continues to acquire Jefferson’s original artifacts as they become known and available.  They are now working to restore and develop the second and third levels of the house which consists of family bedrooms and the dome room.  Monticello is certainly a place to put on your ‘need to visit’ list when your travels take you to southwest Virginia.

Not Best In Show

The slalom

It is not a beauty contest, although, many of the competitors are quite striking. There are no style points, but the participants are very graceful, in a raw, athletic kind of way. Nicely attired handlers do not position competitors in statuesque poses and then slowly trot them around a ring. There are no “Best Behaved” or “Miss Congeniality” awards. In this competition, there is only one thing that matters: speeeeed.

This past weekend we were at a campground just east of Shenandoah National Park and as it so happened, our stay coincided with an event sponsored by the United States Dog Agility Association. In this event, dogs tend to be on the smaller end of the spectrum, with Border Collies typically being the largest participant. When you see the course that they run around, scamper through and over, slalom, jump over and through, and teeter on, you can understand why there are no German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, or Dobermans in the ranks.

I really enjoyed watching the dogs tear around the course being directed by a handler’s commands and hand and body movements. The dogs run the course in a set fashion, with time penalties being assessed for not getting cleanly over jumps and missing an obstacle. My favorite dogs to watch working were the Border Collies. As one of the handlers noted, they are “wicked smart and wicked fast.”

Here is the link to the association’s website: , and a few photos of the athletes in action.

Hover your cursor over the below photo, then click on the arrows to see Fred’s photos from the dog agility event:

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House
Painting of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House
The recreated room as it stands today - Lee's desk on the left; Grant's desk on the right
The recreated room as it stands today – Lee’s desk on the left; Grant’s desk on the right
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park property

On April 9, 1865, a dignified meeting of two military commanders in the rural central Virginia village of Appomattox Court House symbolically ended the American Civil War.  At the home of Wilmer & Virginia McLean, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, overall commander of the Union forces.

For Lee’s men in gray, hunger and fatigue were more deadly than bullets after four long years of bitter conflict.  Lee knew his troops were surrounded here.  And although other armies remained in the field, the ceremony at Appomattox precipitated the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.  Grant had been compassionate and generous with the surrender terms, sharing the Union rations with these hungry men, and as the thin, ragged gray line marched by with pride, honor met honor as Blue saluted Gray.  On April 12th, Lee’s soldiers stacked their arms, surrendered their colors, received their paroles, and began their long walks home.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park preserves and protects the village of Appomattox Court House, which includes the McLean House and more than two dozen original 19th-century and reconstructed structures on 1,700 acres.  In spite of the cold day, we enjoyed a brief stroll around the village, the two videos in the Visitor Center, and the artifacts on display remembering this day when two good men ended a war and a new nation was reborn.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
One of many splendid views from Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

October 27 – 31 — Just 75 miles west of Washington D.C., in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies Shenandoah National Park.  This park was established in the 1920s and ’30s as a response to the development of large national parks in the West.  With automobiles making getaways from big cities possible (‘within a day’s drive for millions,’ as it was touted), and large population centers in the East seeking places to visit, the demand for ‘an Eastern park in the Western tradition’ was answered by establishing this park.

Scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah’s boundaries are ragged, for it was created through an amalgamation of a 19th century resort, Skyland; a Rapidan River fishing camp; a large meadow, Big Meadows, which was purchased by the state of Virginia and turned over to the Park; and most controversially, small plots of land that were taken away from local residents in less-than-compassionate ways.  Running like a spine through the park is Skyline Drive – 105 miles of a lovely, winding roadway that runs essentially north to south through the park.  It ranges from 13 miles at its widest point to just over a mile at its narrowest.  Along this beautiful scenic parkway are 75 overlooks which offer views that stretch for miles.

A couple of U.S. Presidents are linked to this area.  First, President Herbert Hoover built Rapidan Camp – a.k.a. Camp Hoover; a.k.a. the Brown House (in contrast with the White House) – in these mountains and used it as a summer rustic retreat during his administration from 1929-1933.  Then in 1933, just months after he took office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for the creation of this National Park to help cure the ‘Depression Blues’ and bolster public confidence in the public works programs that we was establishing.

"Iron Mike" the CCC worker at Shenandoah National Park
“Iron Mike” statue that commemorates the CCC workers who created this park

We owe much of what’s in Shenandoah today to President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) works program.  I’ve talked about this group before in previous posts as we are indebted to them and their service in many of the national parks, and Shenandoah National Park is arguably their most extensive work.  Between May ’33 – March ’42, ten CCC camps were established to work on the park.  At any one time, more than 1,000 boys and young men lived in these camps.  They planted trees and shrubs; built trails, fire roads, and towers; built log comfort stations and picnic areas; and, most notably, built the stone walls that line parts of Skyline Drive.

On July 3, 1936, President Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah National Park.  In his remarks, he stated, “We seek to pass on to our children a richer land—a stronger nation. … And so, my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park, dedicating it to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which they shall find here.”

Indeed, much recreation is found here.  There are 500+ miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail (the A.T.).   Forty percent of the park is designated federal wilderness area, protecting 1,400+ plants and over 300 species of animals including one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the U.S.

As we are wont to do, we took two nice hikes in Shenandoah.  Our first was a 6-mile “moderately difficult” out-and-back trail to see Overall Run Falls – a 93′ waterfall.  The second, two days later, was the renowned “very challenging” 9.2-mile hike and rock scramble to the summit of Old Rag – a 3,291′ rock mountain created some 1.1 billion years ago.  This hike offered many spectacular panoramic views, but it’s best known for the rock scramble.  Challenging and steep, it requires squeezing between cracks in rocks, ducking through a rock cave, and navigating many narrow passages with several spots requiring hand over hand climbing.  It’s not for the novice hiker!

Here are a couple of pictures from our Old Rag hike:

A resting spot on our hike up Old Rag
A resting spot and beautiful vista about halfway up Old Rag


Part of the rock scramble up Old Rag
A section of the mile-long rock scramble up Old Rag
We made it - 2,510' up to the Old Rag summit at 3,291'
We made it – 2,510′ of climbing up to the Old Rag summit at 3,291′
The fire road trail back down from Old Rag
A lovely fire road with a pretty carpet of leaves on the forest floor; part of the trail back down from Old Rag

We visited the park from the north entrance – Dickey Ridge – then we dry camped (no water or electricity) in the park for three nights about halfway down Skyline Drive at Big Meadows Campground.  After three mostly-overcast days and very cold evenings in the middle of the park (with no power to run the furnace regularly, and following campground rules, only being able to run our generator a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening, and only until 8p – thank goodness for the flannel sheets I had recently purchased!!!), we drove the rest of the way down Skyline Drive and out of the park, then without passing Go!, we proceeded directly to our next campground with electric hookups to supply our heat source!

Layers at Shenandoah National Park
Layers of mountains extend out into the horizon at Shenandoah National Park


The fall that keeps on giving

Fall personThis has been the fall to beat all falls!  From the first color twinges we saw in New Hampshire when we hiked Mt. Washington back on September 6th, and all throughout Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland and West Virginia… on through yesterday here in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, we have really enjoyed the fall season this year.

Fall bittersweet in Rhode Island
Fall peopleI think it’s going to pass us here this week for we seem to be just a bit past peak now, but it’s been wonderful to follow it down as we, ourselves, are driving south.  I’m still holding on to fall’s beauty and all that we did in this fall season – it’s truly my favorite time of the year, and this year is no exception!
Fall is peaking in the Boston Area 10/06/14


Two Days; Two More National Park Units

October 25 & 26 — As we make our way to Shenandoah National Park, a couple other National Park Units are nearby – Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield.  A lot of history happened in these two locations that are only about 20 miles apart, and we couldn’t help but draw a significant connection between these two spots.

Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry today

Harpers Ferry is the town in the ‘V’ where the Potomac River meets the Shenandoah River in West Virginia.  People on the move – first the American Indians and later frontier pioneers – found their way through this natural corridor.  Robert Harper started a ferry service across the Potomac here in 1747, thus his name was given to the town.  George Washington picked Harpers Ferry as the site for a US Armory, with the rivers powering it and nearby commercial mills.  Innovations in factories here in Harpers Ferry helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.  Indeed, this excellent geographic location was a hub in the early years of our country.

Inside the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center
Inside the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center

But arguably the most notable event in Harpers Ferry happened on October 16, 1859, when abolitionist John Brown, together with his anti-slavery followers, seized the weapons armory.  Wanting to end slavery in the U.S., he armed enslaved blacks in the hopes of sparking a rebellion.  His raid failed, and most of his men were killed or captured.  Viewed by some as a hero and others as a lunatic terrorist, Brown was tried and executed for his actions, but his raid inspired further abolitionist sentiment and anti-slavery activities.

Three National Trails
Where three trails meet

With John Brown’s raid, Harpers Ferry became a symbol of freedom.  Storer College was founded here, with a mission primarily to educate former slaves, and writer, orator, social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass served as a Trustee.  A century later, Harpers Ferry also played an important role in the early civil rights movement.

Finally, here at the confluence of the two rivers, three important trails meet: the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Canal towpath, and the Potomac Heritage Trail.

Antietam National Battlefield
Battlefield at Antietam

Antietam, the battle which took place just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, is known as the bloodiest battle in the history of the United States.  In one day – September 17, 1862 – 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or MIA.  The details leading up to this day are too lengthy and complicated to include in this post, but in summary, the stakes were high and both sides were willing to fight to the death – the Confederacy for slavery; the Union for the United States to remain united.  And President Abraham Lincoln had one more important objective riding on the outcome – the emancipation of slaves.

Trying to take Burnside Bridge
Fighting to take Burnside Bridge

For over 12 hours, fighting ensued for 100,000 men in places like the Dunker Church, the East Woods, the West Woods, the Cornfield, the Sunken Road (later called Bloody Lane), and Burnside Bridge.  In the end, General Lee had lost one quarter of his men, and he did not succeed at what he came to do: achieve a victory on Northern soil.  Doing so here would have surely resulted in both Great Britain and France recognizing the Confederate states as a separate entity, thus allowing the South to secede.  As darkness fell, both sides held their positions, but the casualties were staggering.  The following day, fighting was halted as both North and South took care of their wounded and buried their dead.  That night, Lee’s Confederates marched back across the Potomac River and into Virginia.

The Union victory was a turning point in the Civil War, and just five days after the bloody battle at Antietam, President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation now tying the end of slavery to the preservation of the Union.

The Connection – What got started in Harpers Ferry three years before the bloody battle at Antietam was the reason fighting in Antietam came to be.  Abolitionist John Brown’s riotous actions focused attention on the issue of slavery, and no doubt propelled the nation towards civil war.  Three years later in September 1862, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson captured 12,500 Union soldiers and forced the war’s largest surrender in Harpers Ferry.  This gave General Lee the confidence that he could aggressively take the fight to Northern soil.  The battle lines were drawn at Antietam.

Park Ranger Dan Vermilya's ranger-led tour was outstanding!
NPS Park Ranger Dan Vermilya’s ranger-lead tour of the Antietam Battlefield was outstanding!

Our National Parks – It was six years ago that Fred and I sat on a couch in downtown Chicago and watched the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan film series on public television – The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.   For six evenings in a row we became engrossed in and mesmerized by the history of the parks and the story of their protection with the development of the National Park System run by a National Park Service.  We vowed then (before we took marriage vows some two-and-a-half years later) that when we retired we would go out and visit all 59 of the National Parks, and as many of the other National Park Units, as we call them – National Battlefields, National Historical Parks, National Seashores and Lakeshores, National Preserves, etc. – as we could.

What we did and saw and learned at Antietam was incredible… remarkable… unforgettable.  This was due primarily to the informative and impeccably-researched program that was given by NPS Park Ranger Dan Vermilya to accompany our two-hour ranger-led tour of the battlefield.  He made history come alive as he enthusiastically told the story of the events that happened here on that day some 150 years ago.  He related many stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things — thousands upon thousands even giving their lives — driven, as a memorial placard on the battlefield so eloquently states, ‘in maintenance of their principles.’  Ranger Dan concluded his program with one final story: that of a shoemaker, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh.  Rodebaugh was an ordinary man; a soldier fighting in a Pennsylvania Regiment for the Union, and he was killed on this battlefield on September 17, 1862.  Private Ellwood Rodebaugh was Ranger Dan’s great-great-great-grandfather, and was his inspiration to become an NPS Park Ranger.  His remains were never identified, but through Ranger Dan, his story, and those of many others, lives on.

With our visit here and this outstanding program, we are once again reminded how fortunate we are as citizens of this great country to have this treasure – our National Parks – and for them we are profoundly grateful.