IN AUTUMN THE OLD BIRD FLEW SOUTH
What old bird flew south? A robin? A bluebird? A goose? Well, that’s getting closer. In fact, the “old bird” in question is me. This October I fulfilled a long-held dream and went to see the country that has fascinated me for many years: the Blue Ridge – Smoky Mountain area of North Carolina and Virginia. I have always loved American history, particularly the Civil War Era, and have read a lot of both historical fiction and non-fiction about the area’s involvement in that conflict. Many of my favourite contemporary novels are also set in that part of the world. One author, Rita Mae Brown, sets many of her stories in Crozet, a real town in the hills of Virginia. Another writer, Jan Karon, places much of her work in the fictional (I think) town of Mitford which seems to be somewhere in the high country of North Carolina.
Visiting this area in my imagination is great but I really wanted to see the real thing. I had talked about going there for so long that, perhaps just to get me to stop yapping about it, three friends agreed that we would actually make the trip this fall.
We landed in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 1, a time which Al, our fearless leader, cleverly if accidentally, neatly slotted between the commotion of the Democratic Convention and the rain and snow of Hurricane Sandy.
The next day we were in our rented van, heading for the hills—or mountains, depending on your frame of reference. The highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway is 6052 feet. Compared to points in our Rockies this hardly qualifies as a bump. However, with its lowest altitude being only 649 feet, there is plenty of room for climbing. And that is what the road does, climb and twist, descend and twist, for 429 miles. I loved it all. At that time of year traffic was light so, although it was a slow road, one did not feel pressured to get out of the way. There were plenty of viewpoints or “overlooks” as the signs called them, where we could look down and across huge, wild valleys, filled with floating clouds even on sunny days. At one point the ridge we travelled was so narrow that we could look into those seemingly bottomless valleys on both sides of the road.
I was fascinated by the huge variety of trees. After a lifelong diet of spruce, pine, and poplar, it was a visual feast to see chestnut, elm, myriad types of oak, maple, and many others, most of which I couldn’t identify despite having bought two books on the subject. Fall colours added more gold to the sunlit drive and some views showed a sprinkling of scarlet but I think we were a little early for the brightest reds.
The most intriguing plant was one I had read about a long time ago and recognized as the infamous kudzu. It is a vine which deserves a role in the next horror film, “Attack of the Creeping Kudzu.” Having been imported from China or Japan to use in erosion control early in the 20th century, kudzu liked its new home very much. It now grows out of control through much of the eastern U.S. It climbs up power poles, completely covers and eventually kills big trees, leaving everything in its path looking like shapeless green blobs. An old poem warns people to be sure to keep their windows closed at night lest they are invaded by the kudzu, happily growing up to a foot a day in the summer.
One disappointment was the scarcity of wildlife. Although the area is reputed to have the largest concentration of black bears in North America, the only time we saw any of them was in our backyards before leaving home. There were a few small deer but the only exotic creatures were a few flocks of wild turkeys.
I enjoyed listening to the local people talk with that drawl, as slow and sweet as honey in the winter time. In no time, it was creeping into some of our voices and “Why bless your heart,” became the phrase of the day just as biscuits and gravy began to creep into our menus – not to mention our arteries.
When we left the mountains our next stop was Gettysburg, but that is a story for another day.