Thursday, March 15, 2007

Country Road - Take me Home

The "Smokies" beckoned us back into their hazy heights. Ridge upon ridge of the Great Smoky Mountains strode into the hazy blue of the distance. Well, at least they do on a fine day! Today the rain gushed down through the trees and thumped into the ground beneath. The forest smelled so much like the bush at home – clean, fresh, wild and pure.

The Great Smoky name comes from the natural haze that often hangs over the mountains. Hydrocarbons released by trees, as well as high humidity, produce this bluish cast in the sky.

However, today’s haze was mist and cloud, rather than from trees sweating out their hydrocarbons. In quiet interludes, when the rain paused to catch its breath, the views over the mist-cloaked mountain ranges revealed a mysterious and enchanted land.
I thought of ancient maps where these sort of remote areas contained the words "Here be Dragons".

In reality, we were in the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains. We started the day in Tennessee and finished in North Carolina, as the Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border between both states.
On the North Carolina fringes of the National Park lies the normally idyllic Maggie Valley.

The road followed a river, which was swollen almost to the point of bursting its banks. Another inch and the brown, muddy water would be pouring across the road. Large rain puddles had pooled on the non-river side of the road. We swooshed through them, the spray drumming on the underside of the Land Rover. Due to the incessant rain, we had been fighting a fogged windscreen for most of the day and, even though it was only just after 3pm, it sky was darkening. We started looking for a place to stop for the night.

Almost immediately, we spied a cosy little set of cabins for rent, which were some distance from the road and well above likely "high water". The cabins were clean, cheap and comfortable. John, the proprietor, was fascinated with everything about us - how we talked, our "antique Jeep", our expedition and, most of all, our digital camera. He invited us into his home on site for a warming bowl of chicken soup. He and TH talked technology, while I hungrily knocked back the soup. John was hoping to buy a digital camera and make a website to promote his cabins. We offered an exchange of services – TH would teach John how to use a digital camera and what to look for when buying one, if he let us use his phone lines to check our email. John readily agreed. He gave us more of his fabulous, home made chicken soup, too. It was thick, tasty and had big hunks of succulent chicken. I happily slurped it down and responded to emails, while the "boys" talked techy stuff.

Over night, the rain finally stopped. As if to show itself off in the sunshine, the Maggie Valley had donned its prettiest dress and spring bonnet.

The river had metamorphosed back into a babbling brook, happily tumbling over rocks or, in other places, slowly swirling in placid pools. Flower bulbs had pushed their stems through the rain-softened earth. The budded heads looked like folded-up sun umbrellas. Later, they unfurled into brightly coloured blooms. The fresh spring leaves on the trees gleamed lightly green.

Fine weather was what we had been waiting for. Especially today, when we had planned to tour one of American’s favourite drives - The Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic highway traces the ridgelines of the Southern Appalachians for a whole 500 miles, from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park (Virginia) in the north. And, not one billboard in sight. President Franklin D Roosevelt began the route in 1935 to provide jobs following the Great Depression, and with the proviso that it be preserved expressly as a scenic route.

Commercial vehicles and trucks were forbidden on the Parkway. As our sponsors’ logos were splashed across each side of the Land Rover, we hoped this wouldn’t ban our trusty steed from the route. The Parkway had a speed limit of 45 m.p.h. That, and the lack of big trucks to snort up our tail, sounded so perfect.

The Parkway was nearly deserted and no one stopped us at any time.

With its long vistas over rolling mountain ranges, waterfalls, craggy rocks, millions of trees, great lung fulls of fresh air to breathe in and an absence of traffic, we felt like we had driven into a parallel universe.

The road was just one lane wide each side, giving the appearance of a country lane. This was Daniel Boone country or, as he described it, "A high, far-seeing place." If you can imagine tootling along a quiet rolling road, in a beautiful area with dramatic views, with no ugly bill boards, and lots of trees that block out suburbia, while framing only charming, historic buildings, then that was us on The Blue Ridge Parkway. A stairway to heaven.

We turned off on a side route to explore Mt Mitchell, the highest point in USA east of the Mississippi. Our Series 2A purred happily up to the highest parking area, and we puffed ourselves up the last mile to the summit at 6684 ft. The cold weather suddenly screamed in. Far from friendly and fluffy snowflakes, it was freezing sleet. I had never encountered sleet before. Imagine almost-frozen slushy rain drops and then imagine these cold dribbles slithering down your neck. Eeeeeek!

TH is made of sterner stuff and, while I skidded and squawked my way back to the warmth of the Land Rover, he returned in a leisurely lope. I got there first and heaved on the door handle. It was locked. More screeches from me, as I hopped impatiently from one foot to the other. TH grinned at my torment, jauntily waving the keys as he approached. To be fair to him, he did unlock my side first.

The howling wind rocked the Land Rover as we eased our way back down the windy road. Sleet had frozen on patches of it. We drove off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the appropriately named area of Blowing Rock, looking for shelter for the night. We found a very quiet motel with lovely hot showers.

The storm blew itself out overnight. The new day was fine and clear.

We returned to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We planned to lazily hum along it all day with one excursion off it. We were going to dive off at West Jefferson to find the Episcopal churches with frescoes.

These two small historic churches are just twelve miles apart. From the outside, they are unremarkable.
But, there are treats inside for art lovers - full wall frescoes by internationally known artist Ben Long.

The churches, Holy Trinity and St Mary’s, were build in the early 1900’s by the Episcopal missionaries to provide schooling and medical help for the locals. The new minister in 1972, Rev. Faulton Hodge, found dilapidated buildings and falling congregation numbers. A chance meeting with artist Ben Long, along with the Rev’s "go getting" attitude, changed everything.

Ben became an apprentice in Italy to learn the art of true fresco and became an international master of the technique. When he returned to North Carolina he was keen to bring the ancient technique to his home State. When he met Rev. Hodge at a dinner party, Ben offered to paint a fresco as a gift. The good reverend responded enthusiastically, "We’ll take it," followed by, "What is a fresco?"

The frescoes were mainly painted in the 1970’s, over a lengthy period. Ben often invited fellow artists to assist him. They were an alternative and artistic looking group. In the community, gossip and speculation abounded about the artists. A persistent rumour circulated that the fresco subjects would be painted in the nude, and that even the painters themselves would be naked. Services continued and, each Sunday, the pews were packed to over-flowing.

Of course, the fresco subjects and the painters were clothed. However, people became so interested in the frescoes that they found ways to help and become involved. They were proud of their churches and what was being achieved. Congregation members would vie with each other to provide meals for the artists, competing to serve the best meal. Rev. Hodge rebuilt his flock and found a sure way of keeping up their interest. In addition, he now had a great revenue generator. Entrance to the churches is free. However, willing donations from tourists and art admirers continue to fill the coffers, paying for on-going restoration work on the churches.

We saw the first set of these frescoes at St Mary’s. They were very different to the traditional, "group tableau" style.

They were the usual religious subjects, of course, but the ones in this church were all of individuals and in unusual poses – such as a pregnant Mary and the fresco of Jesus laughing.

I was very taken with a wee bumblebee that was pictured in one corner of the John the Baptist fresco. Apparently, the artist had been buzzed all day by such a bee, and he decided to immortalise it forever in the work.

The church was very well organised for tourists. We were the only visitors at that point in time. However, there was a push button device that played a recording which described the works, who painted them, the technique used, and the inspiration behind them. Directions to the second church – Holy Trinity – were prominently displayed.

The frescoes at Holy Trinity were more traditional group scenes. Again there was the recorded message providing information about the paintings. This church also had a basement crypt under the church, set out like a miniature chapel. The cremation remains, known as "cremains", were stored here. I learned another new word too - this sort of room was a columbarium.

On one wall were the usual little cubbyholes for the "cremains", which had walnut exteriors and brass plaques. The other side had been developed as a sort of cave grotto, where the cremation urns stood in their own crevices.

While the columbarium wasn’t creepy or damp, it had a melancholy, abandoned feel to it. The atmosphere was heightened by the fresco of "The Departure of Christ" by Jeffrey Mims (a student of Ben Long). The fresco depicted Christ leaving home and was redolent with all the tears and feelings of people enduring a sad farewell. It had been painted as a memorial to a child who had been killed by a truck, in the nearby town.

Perhaps some found this fresco consoling and peaceful. But, for me, it reignited the painful memories of saying goodbye when we left New Zealand. Pangs of homesickness engulfed me and tears flooded my eyes. I rushed outside to the fresh air and sunshine.

The raw emotions exposed during this Land Rover expedition were frightening. I had sailed through life in the past without such personal troubles. I used to think I was wonder woman. This was supposed to be the big adventure but I felt so weak and pathetic. What was happening to me?

I pulled myself together before TH found me and we drove back onto the fabulous Blue Ridge Parkway.

The zigzag, split log fences around some of the historic buildings and farms distracted me from my anxious thoughts. While very attractive, the fences seemed like a complete waste of timber and effort.

I would have thought the farmers in by-gone days were busy enough, without making decorative fences. TH suggested they might be stronger against wind or snow. This would fit with the local wintry weather.

We had been told, when we filled up with petrol earlier that morning, that the section of the Parkway we were now driving on had been closed for a month recently, due to ice storms. Ice storms happen in cold weather, when the ground temperature is colder than the air. As rain falls, it freezes on contact with any surface it lands on. The ice builds up and becomes too heavy for the power lines, trees and any supporting structures not robust enough to withstand the weight. The recent ice storm had cut electricity for a week and had broken many trees. No wonder the historic houses and barns we had seen were built with steep, sloping roofs. I thought of the sudden storm we had been caught in, while up Mt Mitchell, and I shivered with what might have happened if we had stayed longer out in it. I gave myself a little rewarding smile at this point – there are some advantages of being a wimp and rushing in from the cold.

We stopped to photograph the historic Mabry Mill, which operated from 1910 – 1935. There were some information boards there and we found out that the early settlers built zigzag fences because they did not have access to a lot of nails, but had plenty of trees. Well, well, well – "for the want of a nail."

In the late afternoon, we sadly took our leave from the Blue Ridge Parkway. We went straight back into faster moving traffic, snorting trucks and ugly billboards. The Parkway had been a lovely idyll and so quiet. But, we had a date in Washington DC to meet.

In consolation, we sang the John Denver song to each other:
"Country Road
Take me home
To the place
I belong
West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains
Take me home
Country Road"

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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1 comment:

  1. Just doing a catchup, looking good. Your entries are getting longer. Has the novel competition made you write faster?


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