Not far down the road from my home in Asheville is a shortcut through a sparse tree line that edges Bull Mountain Road. The humble dirt trail is a bit like the magical armoire in Narnia—when I pass through it I’m transported to a different world, the otherness of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s rolling black pavement, which snakes through the Appalachian mountains. I pick it up is southwest of Mt. Mitchell, elevation 6,683 feet, and the highest point in the East.
Five summers ago, my husband and I rode the entire Blue Ridge Parkway from north to south, all 469 miles in five days. We rode for three days, took a rest day in Asheville, and then finished in Cherokee two days later. I found the descent into Asheville thrilling — the road kept unfurling down, down, down. We lost elevation by the minute. I had no idea, then, that I would one day live a few minutes from that same stretch of parkway, and that I would be blessed enough to be able to ride it everyday of the week, if I so wished.
But that’s just what happened, and after we moved to western N.C. in January of 2011, I fell into the habit of rolling my bike out the back door by eight a.m., then winding through a series of streets for a mile and a half to the end of Bull Mountain Road where the twenty-foot-long dirt trail lies off the shoulder. The trail pops me out near mile-marker 382, which is fondly associated in these parts with the Folk Arts Center and Big Boy, an amiable, often-seen local black bear. As the skinny tires of my Orbea road bike pinball through the obstacle course of roots, I peer through the trees both ways for cars and then dart out onto the parkway. I turn north and begin to climb up to Craven Gap, then past Bull Gap, through the unlit Tanbark Ridge tunnel (forever uneasy for passing cars), past the Bull Creek overlook and up to the Lane Pinnacle overlook.
Lane Pinnacle overlook is only ten miles on the parkway, but it’s ten miles of sheer climbing out of the Haw Creek Valley. It usually takes close to an hour to ascend from my home (elevation 2300 feet) to the overlook (elevation 3850 feet). My mind knows it’s not much of a vertical gain, on weekends my husband and I would sometimes do rides that rack up 5,000 cumulative feet of climbing, but riding the parkway every day, my muscles tell me otherwise. Spinning up to Lane Pinnacle, and then careening back down, quickly became an almost a daily excursion.
The short-cut through the tree line enables me to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains daily; and it grants me entry to witness the Blue Ridge Mountains in their many and varied moods.
When my husband and I first arrived to Asheville, the daily highs rarely reached more than the mid-30s. The parkway was closed to cars and we would wander all over the black pavement without a care in the world, except for keeping a vigilant eye out for black ice masquerading as road. Our first few exploratory rides took us north up to Craven Gap, where I noticed that passing even higher brought us above a predictable cline where it was noticeably cooler. The elevation there is above 3,500 feet and it seemed to coincide with some sort of upper limit above which my winter cycling gear was feeble and permeable. Snow coated the parkway ditches and crept like air-brushed frosting onto the road.
By the time we climbed up to the Tanbark Ridge tunnel mouth, my fingers were frozen claws clutching my handlebars through wind-battered neoprene gloves. I was aware of every stitch in the gloves, for cold air seeped through them. Cold air bit through Lycra into my thighs too. Descending from the tunnel was the worst. Tears were pulled from eyes and whipped off my face. Even pedaling, I froze. I learned that parts of the parkway were inhospitable in winter. Humans were not necessarily supposed to be visiting here in bike tights. The mountains, it seemed, scoffed at my cold weather gear, labeled by clever marketers as “wind proof.”
One day in early February we decided to see how far we could climb north. At the mouth of the Tanbark Ridge tunnel, I got my first taste of how fast black ice can wrestle you from your saddle. In a snap, I was on the ground, my hip smashed into the thin layer of invisible frozen water. We walked our bikes gingerly across the ice- and snow-covered patch to where it dissipated at the tunnel’s mouth and then rode in silence through the ghostly cold artery shooting beneath Tanbark ridge until we emerged on the other side. Within 200 yards, the parkway showed us its wintry wardrobe: a river of ice snaked down from a curve between two rock clefts and claimed the road. Frozen rivulets raked across the pavement, daring us to pass. There was no point, unless we wished to continue on foot, and I think we’d have needed crampons to do even that. We turned around.
Riding the parkway in winter had its hardships for sure, the ice and snow and cold being a few. But it also had its plusses. The absence of cars allowed my eye to wander over the views, soaking in the repetitive ridge lines stretching out and out and out. The views were mind boggling. We saw frost- and snow-tipped peaks smothered in the coniferous skeletons of evergreen pines and firs. The forest was laid bare, the trees like bones, not a deciduous leaf to be found, except the dried-out, tired hangers-on quivering from hornbeam branches. Snow carpeted the forest floor, and peaked through trees that appeared in summer as a monolithic swath of variegated green. The mountains seemed to be slumbering, reserved and dormant. Only dark-eyed juncos and squirrels moved. The lack of cars seemed a reminder that this place was not meant to be entered lightly. It harbored an austere beauty.
In spring, willow leaves burst back first, then the cherries and dogwoods bloomed. The river of ice north of the Tanbark Ridge tunnel melted into Bull Creek and we rode with less ice wariness. Next, the maple, elm and hickory leaves flushed in. The trilliums bloomed in carpets on the forest floor, and then rhododendron unfolded furls of pinks, whites and purples. Flame azaleas exploded in fiery bursts of burnt orange and amber red and I finally understood William Bartram’s observation that he mistook these hillsides as consumed in a wildfire, because mountain azaleas used to cloak the slopes.
After the last frost, some time after the dogwoods bloomed, the parkway was opened to cars again.
Last of all, the mountain laurels blossomed. Hard, tiny, pinkish packets of petals uncurled and formed perfect geometric clusters of pale white flowers with dark pink accents slashed deep inside. Riding up the parkway in May, I was shocked to see an entire side of the mountain that I thought I knew, abloom in a fog of white mountain laurels that had previously escaped my notice.
A few weeks later it was full-blown summer, the parkway pavement was hammered by car, truck and RV tires that rolled tirelessly north and south. For the hikers and cyclists like me that used the parkway and its trails throughout the quietude of winter, summer tourists felt like unwelcome relatives who barged in and overstayed their welcome. The cars cruised into infinity, an army-like drone of engines eating up the mountains and the solitude of the forests, oblivious to their intrusive nature.
For the first time since moving to the mountains, I pedaled past roadkill. A nursing groundhog, her teats filled to bursting, found belly-side-up, freshly deceased. Her young scampered away from her body as we approached. Two sad opossums in pools of fresh blood, no doubt returning to their hideaways at dawn, flattened by early morning commuters. A humming bird ravaged and crushed in the northbound lane, his greenish iridescent mermaid-like plumage fluttered from a moosh of meager flesh. A bright auburn red spring salamander smashed flat by a passing tire, too small to leave a blood smear.
In mornings, a fog sometimes rolls over the mountains and settles in the valleys. From my home, I often can”” not see Bear Mountain out the front window, a mere mile away. But I’ still roll my bike out the back door by eight a.m., pinball through the short-cut and start climbing. As I ascend, my tires roll through the fog in turn. The spokes on my wheels churn the moist air, and it’’s hard to see more than a few dozen feet ahead. Then, suddenly, I rise out of the cloud and turning back around I look down upon the Haw Creek Valley, below me now, smothered beneath a a rippling white surface of moisture, like flounced satin. The creamy white clouds stand out against the forest green backdrop of the valley walls.
Sometimes clear skies greet me when I emerge from the valley fog, but sometimes there is only a band of clarity before another cloud awaits higher up, cutting off my view of the ridges above me. I’m reminded of a passage, uttered by an old bear hunter named B.B. Walker who lived on a mountainside in Tuckaleechee Cove, Tennessee on the other side of the Great Smokies from me. Describing his home, he said, “I live betwixt two fogs.” The lower fog shielded him from the unruly valley towns below his house, and the upper fog was not so thick, he said, as to cut him off from the Almighty.
There are days too when, if I were to anthropomorphize things, the mountains are in a cheery mood. The sunlight drifts down on them from bright, clear, Carolina blue skies and the eastern towhees and wood thrushes sing exuberantly from the forest’s edge. When I climb high enough to have passed through some of the ridges and rocky crenulations, the bird songs ricochet off rock faces and within the drainage walls, resulting in an almost cathedral-like acoustic quality that amplifies and accentuates their calls.
The rock faces also ricochet the steady whir of my gears, and sometimes they trick me into picking up the pace, convinced a phantom rider has caught my wheel and is drafting off me as I climb.
When the fullness of summer strolls into autumn, the “leaf peepers” arrive en masse. The road becomes so packed with vehicles, that I almost don’t want to ride it. But I do. The photographers, too, can”t keep away. Sourwood trees lining the parkway erupt in the deepest shades of fuchsia, and sugar maples turn from red to green seemingly overnight. Sometimes I spot she-bears with their cubs, gobbling up fallen acorns beneath oak trees, trying to pack on a few more pounds before the cold comes. Although sometimes I’m too tired to roll out of bed and ride, I remind myself that there aren’t many warm days left, and that I should enjoy them while they linger.
When fall dissolves into winter’s grip, and I roll my bike out the back door by eight a.m., I’m surprised once more at how the loss of a forest full of leaves can alter a view so dramatically. I can gaze farther into the deep woods from the parkway, and I’ve learned to recognize the rhododendron and mountain laurel without their blooms. Rocks that glistened warmly with a sheen of water seeping over their face in the summer have now frozen. Ice sheets and icicles glint from their faces.
In many ways, when I’m going about my daily life, Asheville still doesn’t feel like my home. I’m a newcomer. An over-stayed visitor. A Floridian transplanted too far inland. But when I ride this section of parkway near town, this section I’ve come to know so well, the woods and mountains seem to speak to me. Sometimes I fancy they are encouraging me to stay a little longer, to ride a little further, and to wait, wait for the next season.