Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia

As I write this from North Carolina, I am thinking back to our stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.   Our campground was right on the Parkway, “America’s Favorite Drive,” making it easy to get on and explore this famous road.   The main reason I wanted to camp again in Virginia was to be able to drive the Parkway which travels over the Appalachian Highlands with scenic views of rugged mountains and valleys.   I thought the name Fancy Gap, for the town and campground where we stayed was cute, but there really isn’t much of a town.   There are only a few businesses and not even a Main Street or business district.   In this part of the country I noticed other towns and areas using the word “Gap.”   I was curious what a “Gap” was and found in Appalachia it is similar to what we in the West would call a “pass.”    When we googled this we found gap vs. pass vs. notch vs. saddle and discovered they all mean about the same thing depending on where you are in the U.S.   We learn something new every day traveling.

This was our first time exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway.   An amazing road, the Parkway runs 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia all the way to Cherokee, North Carolina at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.    Along the way are many scenic overlooks, picnic spots, hiking trails, historic sites and visitor/information centers.   Periodically other roads intersect the Parkway so you can get on or off.   The above photo is a view from one of the overlooks close to our campground explaining the agricultural lease program.   This program began in the 1930’s to preserve traditional Appalachian farm scenes adjacent to the Parkway.   More than 4,000 acres of land is leased to farmers for crops and pasture.   This type of scene was a common sight along the way.

Heading north of Fancy Gap for a day of exploration we relied on a map from the National Park Service (NPS) that was helpful in identifying our route with mileposts and main points of interest along the way.   One of the first things I noticed was how well the Parkway is cared for.   Managed by the NPS, this road is pristine with grass and weeds kept cut along the sides and no unsightly objects or debris.

Our first stop was the Orlena Puckett cabin where we read about the unusual life of Orlena who lived to be 102 years old and lived in this cabin during the latter part of her life.   Orlena is a testament to how the later years of one’s life can be among the most productive.   She began a career as a midwife after age 50 and assisted in the births of more than 1,000 babies,  delivering her last one in 1939 the year she died.   It is tragic though that she gave birth to 24 children of her own and none of them lived past infancy.   I bought a book on Orlena’s life written by a journalist/author who spent several years doing extensive research and interviews.   Most of the people she spoke to were in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s at the time and had been delivered by Orlena.   I am looking forward to learning more about this amazing Appalachian woman.  Below is a photo of her on a signboard near the cabin holding the last child that she delivered.

Mabry Mill is reported to be the most photographed spot on the Parkway and you can go inside and see how the Mill operated.   Built in 1903 by Ed Mabry, he ground corn, sawed lumber and did blacksmithing here for decades.  Mr. Mabry created an extensive flume system to bring water from several creeks to the Mill.   While no longer used, it is still in great shape and a very picturesque place to visit.   On the property is a restaurant where we had breakfast.    The specialty here are pancakes made from stoneground cornmeal and buckwheat flour and I was looking forward to trying them having read they were made from meal ground on the premises.   But I misread as the meal is not ground from here but “for here” at another mill in nearby North Carolina.   We were told that the EPA has not allowed grains to be ground here for some years, although I couldn’t really get a clear answer as to why.   Mark and I visited a mill in Arkansas that I wrote about in an earlier blog and you could watch them grind the grain and buy different kinds of flour there as well.   Perhaps it’s the difference between a private business and one run by the National Park system.

There are a few other buildings on the property including this blacksmith shop.   I had to laugh at the sign inside the shop:  “Rarely seen today, the blacksmith shop was a vital home industry….”.    Mark and I often joke that there seems to be a blacksmith at most of the historical sites we have visited this past year.   If there is a single demonstration it is usually a blacksmith and I don’t need to see another, although we found this shop closed for the day.   I realize there is a difference between true blacksmiths offering a service to the community and the ones demonstrating at living history sites, but it still amused me as this is the trade I have most often seen during our travels.

Along the Parkway are overlooks or stops giving interesting information on the history or geography of the area.   Since I like seeing all the old time fences and there are many of them maintained along the drive, I found this stop with information on rail fences interesting.   It explained there are three general types including the one in the photo below, the “Buck Rail” which I don’t recall seeing before.   It was a good fence to put up on rugged, uneven terrain.   Here at Groundhog Mountain is a wooden observation tower with great views from the top surrounded by those different kinds of fences.

At another stop, I loved seeing this historic Appalachian cabin perched on the ridge.   What an awesome view from this very rustic home built by the Trail family in the 1890’s.   The sign noted that cabins such as this one were once common along the Blue Ridge, but now only a few remain.

I took the photo below of the parkway across from a small visitor center while Mark got Blue Ridge Parkway stamps for his NPS notebook.   Getting the book stamped at sites we have visited across the U.S. has been a fun endeavor.   When Mark first bought the book I thought we wouldn’t find that many NPS sites that carried the stamps.   But there are so many more historic sites than I could have imagined we have plenty of stamps filling his book.

A sky full of huge, puffy white clouds is one of the best sights I can imagine and we had the perfect sky on this outing.   We were treated to a wondrous sky throughout miles of driving and stops at overlooks.   While gazing at expansive views I was often exclaiming, “Wow, I can’t believe the sky today!”   I am often amazed at how beautiful the clouds can be in much of the Eastern U.S. where weather change is a constant.   I might complain about the abundance of grey clouds, storm threats and rain, but the sky is certainly magical at times.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway.   In the next post I will write about old time mountain music that is so much a part of the area.

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia”

  1. Wow the story of Orlena Pickett is incredible!!! I have seen a couple movies recently that has really shocked me as to how hard life would have been in the frontier, or in rural areas. Unbelievable that she lost so many infants herself. Amazing

    1. Yes, Orlena’s story is amazing but I learned some new things about her from the book I bought. The author did extensive research with past and present interviews and information she found. The theory is that Orlena lost so many children because of RH factor problems. Her first child lived to be close to a year before dying of a disease (can’t recall which one). Her subsequent children all died within a few days of birth. This would explain the RH factor theory as the first child would not be affected like the siblings would have been. I also learned from the book that Orlena never lived in that cabin that we visited and where her photo was taken. It was actually the cabin of an in-law. Her husband built her a two story log house pretty close to that cabin. When Orlena was in her 90’s, frail and sickly, the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built and the National Park Service wanted her out of her house so they could continue constructing the roadway. Relatives report that she begged the authorities to let her stay in her house as she was not expecting to live much longer and wanted to die there. They refused her request and her relatives (a great nephew and his wife took her in). She was too weak to walk so they carried her in a chair up to the house which was also near the Parkway route but not in an area where the road was going through. So, to sum up: The park service throws Orlena, very frail and elderly out of her house and she dies several months later. They then tear down her house for the Parkway, take a photo of her near that relative’s cabin and say that was her home in her later years! What a conundrum! Seems pretty shady of the park service. They might have a different story, but the author’s book seems well researched and accurate in my opinion. Who knows.

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