More of The Mountains: Blue Ridge Parkway and Boone; July 31-Aug 1, 2016

Tootie needed to go to Roaring Gap for a day, so I had her drop me off near there on the Blue Ridge Parkway.     This is in northwestern North Carolina, about twenty miles south of Galax, Virginia.   My plan was to bicycle down the Parkway to Boone, spend the night, then come back the next day where she could pick me up.

Tootie and I shared a picnic lunch in one of the Parkway picnic tables before I set off.  Boone was almost fifty miles to the southwest.   It is a beautiful highway.


The Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived and built mostly in the nineteen thirties at a time when people really wanted to take car rides for pleasure.   The automobile vacation was a new form of escape from the confines of regular life.   Maintained as a linear National Park, this highway remains an American treasure, built specifically to have great views.



People have asked me “do you feel safe bicycling on such a narrow road?”   The answer is yes.   Even on a summer Sunday afternoon there was not much traffic.    By my vehicle count there were more motorcycles than cars.   Of the cars I saw, a much larger percentage than normal were convertibles, or some classic older car.    It is now mostly motorcyclists and bicyclists that still take trips just for the pleasure of the ride.   Maybe modern Americans spend so much time in their cars that taking a beautiful slow car ride does not have as much attraction as it used to.




The other attraction of this trip was altitude.   The whole ride would be at over three thousand feet in elevation.   Taking a bike ride anywhere else on the East Coast during late July would be suffocating.  Temperatures here were comfortable the whole time.  The bike riding, while pleasant, was tiring, always going up or down.   Compared to normal highways there is almost nowhere to stop and get a drink or something to eat.

It did feel sometimes like we were up in the clouds.




Eventually the clouds opened up and I got wet.    There being nowhere to seek cover, I just soldiered on.  Boone is some distance from the Parkway so I rode the last ten miles on US421.    There was a full size shoulder lane so it felt quite safe, but obviously biking this section did not have the intimacy of the Parkway.  The mountains had taken their toll on my legs; I was ready to stop.


I know something of Boone because my son Jack went to Appalachian State for four years and graduated in 2012.   For the past month I have been following the weather at various places all over the East Coast, looking for somewhere to bike that is not blindingly hot.    Boone seemed to be cooler than even some places in New England.  A Wikipedia search confirms this.    The average high temperature in Boone in July is 79, while the average high temperature in Burlington, Vermont in July is 81.  I learn that at 3330 feet, Boone is the highest elevation town (with a of population over 10,000) on the East Coast.  Boone is significantly higher elevation, and cooler, than other mountain cities like Asheville.

Culturally, Boone is a great place.   It has the cosmopolitan nature of a college town and the scruffy ex-hippie vibe of a small  Asheville.   Several famous musicians have come from this area.   The Appalachian State campus is right downtown with its almost twenty thousand students.   School was out for summer break but some young locals look like they came out of hipster central casting.   There were also other people roaring around in jacked up pickup trucks.   But the North Carolina Department of Transportation has insured that any growth beyond the small older downtown core is completely car-centered, and frankly unattractive.   Boone has grown tremendously in the past few years and it would be so much better if the newer areas were as pedestrian friendly as the small downtown area around the University.   I realize how complicated these issues are.    There is effectively no public transportation to the town of Boone from elsewhere in North Carolina.   Everybody is going to drive get here.   The town is built around steep slopes.   How does Boone prevent perpetual traffic gridlock without making much of Boone a strip mall wasteland stuck up in the mountains?

Over time the NCDOT chose the strip mall route.    North Carolina state law acts like the NCDOT does not do local zoning, but it effectively does.   As US421 comes into town, it widens even further.   The designers make themselves feel good by putting a bike lane and sidewalk along this monstrosity.   (The other side of town, near the Walmart, where US421 goes towards Blowing Rock, is even more hideous.)   Every North Carolina town, and indeed most American towns have this same problem.   But up here in the mountains it felt more of an affront to see chain motels lining a wide highway.


As you near the university and downtown it reduces to “just” four or five lanes.



Once downtown the town has a reasonable human scale.


There are lots of chain motels on the highway, but no motel or hotel in the core downtown.    At about six o’clock I found a downtown bar on Yelp and stopped for a beer to ponder the situation.


Eventually I booked a room at a Sleep Inn a mile away from downtown.   I biked back to the place, checked in, took a shower, and collapsed into the bed.   After chilling for a spell I got back on the bike and went downtown to eat.

I ate outdoors at a place called the Hob Nob Farm Cafe.   It tries to be simultaneously Mexican, Italian, Indian, and maybe a couple other ethnicities.   I applaud their ambition but the ravioli and meatloaf felt a little heavy, even after having biked fifty miles in the mountains.


The next morning I rode back down US421 to the Parkway.    After turning onto the Parkway, the first three miles were  continuously uphill.   The views were terrific.


My legs still felt sore from the previous day, so I decided after about twenty miles to ride “off”  the mountain.   Tootie could pick me up closer to sea level.    I could go downhill.     Near the mountain settlement of Obids I turned right off the Parkway onto NC Route 16.    There was a long downhill from here.


Even after a couple miles at about forty miles an hour, there was still more to come.



When you got off the Parkway you could see a less sanitized view of people’s lives in this area.




I stopped at a gas station and got a cold Starbucks Frappuccino.    However, after all these years I still have never eaten any of these types of snacks.


As I rode further  I talked with Tootie on the phone.  She would meet me near the main highway in Wilkesboro.    I stumbled onto Pa-Paws Bar-B-Que & Seafood just as I was getting into North Wilkesboro. I did not want to keep Tootie waiting, so I bought a barbecue sandwich, with slaw, to go.  It was a very white working class crowd.   I still wish I would have photographed the four pot-bellied sheriff deputies as they were leaving; all four in civilian clothes but each sporting a badge and a pistol on his belt.   They all silently watched me unlock my bicycle.



I struggled on the last few miles.   At the highway exit where I would meet Tootie, I sat under a tree and had lunch.


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