Roaming the Blue Ridge Parkway – 2012

Shenandoah

I’d been doing a little research on what’s regarded as the great drives in the USA. I was finishing up in Washington DC and four hours south was the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway is roughly 800km in distance and travels from Virginia to North Carolina and links the Shenandoah and Smokey Mountain National parks. Back in Australia these are places Id only heard of in song such as Bob Denver’s “Country Road” or seen on American Civil War movies. So my knowledge of the area was pretty minimal and I couldn’t wait to find out more.

In 2012 the Aussie dollar was bouncing between parity and exceeding the value of the US dollar. This made roaming the USA very affordable and so I could extend my travel budget to a few luxuries. My first luxury was outlaying a substantial amount of cash to rent an American muscle car for my 6 week road trip, a Ford Mustang. Usually when I go backpacking, I conserve my money and minimise my spending, 2-minute noodles for dinner with tomato sauce for flavouring comes to mind. For this roam I was on paid leave from my job and the favourable currency exchange made this extravagance affordable. I picked up the red convertible “Stang” from the airport in Washington, I think there were tears of joy in my eyes, I was very, very excited. I won’t focus much more on the car, this is a travel blog, not a car blog, but I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. It was a brand-new and the fastest car I’ve driven, with an excellent stereo system and good fuel economy, I was ready to go.

Ford Mustang Yee Ha

My destination was the Shenandoah National Park. The Interstate drive was anywhere between four and six or more lanes across and both sides of the road was constant trees and greenery, it was very picturesque. After four hours or so I stopped at the entrance and purchased myself a National Park Service Season Pass. A Season pass gave me access to all the US National Park for the year and was about three times the cost of a one-day ticket entry. I would be visiting plenty of parks so thought this was great value. I headed along Skyline drive for roughly 3 hours looking over an endless sea of green thick forest in all directions. It was a pleasant sunny day, there was little traffic and driving conditions were optimal, I was almost as pleased with the park as I was with the car. I did a little hiking, skipped a stone on the Shenandoah River, saw a few waterfalls and plenty of wildlife, but mostly I just drove with the roof down, wind running through my hair.

Wind running through my hair….. wait

In total, my first day of travel from Washington through the park was 8 hours, for the evening I’d booked a “luxurious” Hotel 6 in Asheville, North Carolina. I checked into the hotel and wandered around the small beautiful small tourist town , I found out Asheville is known for its idealic location, friendly people’s and quality eating. There are also 20 craft breweries in town which had a great appeal. I ate some buffalo wings and immediately started “sampling” as many local brews as possible. It was a quiet night and not many people about so mostly ended up speaking to bartenders and local barflies. This was my first time by myself in the USA out at night and found it all very friendly, I also managed to get used to the idea of tipping, something I have found to be very American. After several samples, I stumbled back to my hotel and fell asleep.

Cherokee

The following morning, I was up mid-morning and felt a little woozy from the “sampling”. The hotel restaurant had an all you can eat free breakfast menu, this is common in American hotels, so I took full advantage and had as much bacon, eggs, toast and biscuits with gravy as my stomach could hold, it was all every tasty and I was assured by the hotel staff also healthy… not sure about that. I wandered about town for an hour digesting last night and breakfast, Asheville really was beautiful, it was a shame Id only spent a night, but I had a timetable to stick to so I headed back to the hotel, jumped in the car and tore off again, this time to the Smokey Mountain National Park. Hopefully one day Ill get back to friendly Aeshville, I imagine on the weekends the town would be much more popular.

I found myself in the town of Cherokee, a small place and home of the Cherokee Indian, I’d heard of them on TV show F Troop, or maybe it was the Jeep Cherokee Car. The town is the entry point to the Great Smokey Mountain national park. I walked around the centre of town, a lot of which were tourist shops merchandising traditional Indian culture and souvenirs. There was also a museum that had details on the Chickamauga Wars which was when the settlers and the Cherokee Indians fought battles in the late 1700’s, also the American Civil War where the Cherokee sided with the Union and Confederates. After the museum I went and purchased myself a dreamcatcher to hang on the rear view mirror (its for luck) and then headed into the Park.

The route through Smokey Mountain was only 90 kilometres so I had plenty of time to take in the park. I went on a short hike, I found out the park is famed for its wildlife including black bears, forests and spectacular views. It in many ways resembled the Shenandoah from the day before. I then headed to the Clingman Dome, at its peak it is roughly 2000 metres making it the highest mountain in the state of Tennessee. After an hour climb, I walkied onto a sprial concrete walkway which leads to a domed shape observation tower. Unfortunately, the view cloud obscured the view by cloud so I could not see much, just low level cloud and a few hundred metres over the tree canpoy. I stayed there for about 20 minutes and then realised how chilly it was, apparently board shorts, thongs and a singlet is not appropriate clothing in the morning on Smokey Mountain. I headed back to the car and continued on.

Clingman Dome

 I exited the park, my destination was Nashville Tennessee, on the way through I drove through the town of Pigeon Forge an unexpected and surreal experience. The city essentially is one huge theme park with a seemingly endless variety of putt-putt golf greens, water slides and the massive Dolly World which is based on the life of Dolly Parton. I really only had time for one garish over the top display so I pulled into the carpark of the ship Titanic for lunch. I went into this “amazing” restaurant, Taco Bell, which the staff member assured me was very healthy, gorged myself on 12 healthy tacos and then headed for Titanic (after 12 tacos I was feeling Titanic).  Now the Titanic I found out is to scale, well half the scale as its half the shipt, it was designed however to look like the original ship and is to scale or at least the half what they built. It contained 20 galleries, had 400 exhibits and is the largest Titanic museum in the world. My expectation was pretty low but I actually learnt a lot in this frankly bizarre display, half a Titanic in Pigeon Forge on the other side of the world from England where the original ship was built. It was a surreal but educational experience, I often wonder if Dolly World is just as rewarding.

Well this was my drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It took a 2 days though I think much more time could be spent discovering the area with its beauty and history. I enjoyed my night out in Ashville, learning more about the Cherokee Indian than sound bites from old American TV Comedy shows. I also learned the history of the Titanic, its can be very weird what you discover when traveling on the road. Mostly however Id gained a further appreciation of American Muscle cars. I was very much enjoying being on the road for the sake of actually driving, the novelty of the car would wear off as I head further into the USA. It had been a great couple of days on my Road Trip, next up I was heading for Nashville and Ill have a blog out soon.

From Pure Salt Lake City then Flooring it Across Bonneville Racetrack to Decadent Reno

The end was fast approaching for this American Road Trip and I still had a lot of distance, cities and national parks to get to. I was headed south of the Grand Teton, my destination Salt Lake City for a few nights. The drive itself was roughly 5 hours south and uneventful, stopping off for some lunch somewhere in Idaho but with no time to take a look around it was back in the car arriving at the hostel. There was no one in the common area so I showered and walked towards the city in the late afternoon.

If you have no awareness of Salt Lake City it’s the chief headquarters for the Mormon otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Visiting here is like heading to the Vatican for Catholics. The city was founded in 1847 and is named after the Great Salt Lake adjoining the city by those people escaping religious persecution in the old American West. My personal experience with Mormons is meeting members from far and away visiting my local area in Sydney dressed in black and white attempting to hand me a leaflet and engage me in a conversation about their church. This church is not something I have ever found particularly interesting but as I was in the area and had come from a great distance I thought to find out more.

The first tourist site I came across on my evening walk was Mormon headquarters itself, Temple Square, a large 35-acre park made up of 13 buildings, museums, churches and visitor centres and parks in a very pleasant setting. There were a lot of people walking the grounds and I was free to roam in and out of the buildings, it’s quite an impressive structure and was built from a local white stone quarry that was blasted in the area during the beginning of the city’s foundation. The use of the stone means the structures are almost pure white giving Temple Square an almost shiny shimmering appearance looking like something from a fairy tale, I was quite impressed with it. I spoke to a Mormon priest for a while who as quite sociable, he was a fellow Australian and showed little interest in the fact I was Agnostic or converting me to his church but more about what was going on back in Australia where he had not been for in quite a long time.

I headed into the downtown area, most of the buildings appearing just as white as the Temple itself, the city was quiet and I had some difficulty in finding a bar. Mormons don’t generally drink alcohol and the city has a population of approximately 3 million people, the number of bars is ratioed to this meaning there are roughly 300 bars in the city and wider area, not a lot considering the size of the city. Eventually, I found a bar I could settle into and engaged in conversation with a few of the locals who happened to be anti-Mormons. The partons still lived in the city, however, they had little to do with their respective Mormon families and chose I guess what you would consider a more traditional lifestyle such as my self. There is a nightlife in Salt Lake City, but it’s not like any other American city I’d been to where the scene centres around nightclubs, bars and alcohol.

The following day I headed to the Great Salt Lake State Park, almost like an inland sea there is very little natural vegetation with the exceptions of weeds and grass I assume to the salt content. It’s approximately 8500km square kilometres in size making it the largest lake in the USA. There are a lot of watersport activities including fishing and sailing at the jetty, also bison grazing on patches of grass. I spent the afternoon in the lake itself, with so much salt content I could float with very little effort and when I came out to dry myself off, my body was almost shimmering with salt and my shorts were as stiff as cardboard. I headed back to the hostel, spent a quiet night in and was back in the car the following morning heading west along the Great Salt Lake towards Reno Nevada.

The drive between Salt Lake and Reno is not particularly scenic as its mostly the lake then desert, there is however one iconic stop off that I decided to check out, the Bonneville Speedway. This is where land speed records are set and I decided that I’d attempt my own speed record. The surface of the speedway is flat, rock hard and goes for approximately 150km in distance. An added bonus is there were no police in the area and the only sign of civilisation was the petrol station adjoining the track. As indicated previously in my blog I had rented a Ford Mustang for my road trip and now decided to see what the car could do in a straight line. I floored the accelerator and the car reach 100km an hour in roughly 6 seconds and kept accelerating rapidly until it reached 180km per hour when the limiter on the engine kicked in and the car started to slow down to 170km. Unfortunately, I could not break my personal land speed record which I set seven years previously in Australia but it was a lot of fun and with a big grin on my face I continued my drive to Reno.

I arrived in Reno and headed to the casino that I was booked into and located in the centre of town, indeed the entire downtown area appeared to be casinos. After all the national parks, quiet nights and small towns Id visited it was nice to be in a city with a vibrant nightlife. I enjoy nightlife just as much as road trips and nature and “The Biggest Little City in the World” has a population of 250,000, unlike Salt Lake City downtown Reno appeared to be one large drinking area. Accommodation is cheap, there is plenty of gambling and entertainment for all ages, the place felt like it was trapped in the 1970s. I saw very little in the way of new, from the machines to the poker tables to the carpets to the wall fixtures, it was all very retro and run down, I liked it a lot. My night involved a few restaurants, a lot of beers, some funny conversations with people who’d never heard my accent before and finally being talked into playing a game of Craps which involves dice and that’s all I really understood. I am not one for gambling and the fact I was indicated the beer was having the desired effect.

The following morning and with quite the hangover I had some breakfast and then walked around downtown. Apart from gambling there appeared little else to do, I found the National Automobile Museum and entered to mainly escape the heat. The museum itself is really interesting, it contains hundreds of vehicles from the turn of the century, and onwards, many of which being famous race vehicles, cars that featured in movies and those owned by celebrities including Elvis Presley, James Dean and Frank Sinatra.

I then headed to one of the pawn shops to have a look around, I purchased a watch, a few Zippo lighters and then enquired on the price on one of the assault rifles being displayed behind the counter. I enquired on the price of an M16 assault rifle which was $1400 and that my Australian driver’s license was enough proof to sell me the weapon. As I could not carry an assault rifle on my carry one back to Australia, I chose not to pursue the sale. Assault rifles are illegal in Australia and I don’t have any friends that own a gun of any sort. There are very different opinions regarding gun ownership in the USA compared to Australia and as I’m a travel blogger I won’t express my personal opinion on this.

That evening was much similar to my first so I won’t go into detail, the following morning I was back in the car and heading south. I’d enjoyed the religious and cleanliness of Salt Lake City as much as the decadence and bright lights of Reno. I was passing the beautiful Lake Tahoe towards California and Yosemite National Park, unfortunately, I had no time to explore the area as my road trip across the USA was quickly approaching the end and there was still a few more natural wonders to go…