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Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway

Posted by Keith in United States on 11/Nov/2006
Mount Mitchell Trailhead
Might as well be Ol' Foggy Top. Mount Mitchell in the morning, somewhere behind the fog.
After spending days lounging around in the sun and surfing on deserted beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks (OBX if you're nasty), it was time for a change. Luckily, NC is a state that allows you to go from one extreme to the other pretty easily, so long as you manage, unlike me, not to get lost in Dismal Swamp. From the flat expanses of the Outer Banks, and without only a brief pit stop dedicated to the aforementioned getting lost (extended somewhat by the fact that I got caught in the middle of a massive frog migration, which is weird enough on its own and made a whole lot weirder by the fact that this is actually the second time I've been halted in my vehicle by a massive frog migration), I shot due west and straight into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to meet up with an old friend and put a feather in my knit cap by hiking the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi: 6,648 foot tall Mount Mitchell. It was also a grand chance to make one of the most beautiful drives in all of the Americas: the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn.

A few years ago, I set out on a quest to hike all of the mountains on the east coast above 6,000 feet, the vast majority of which are located in North Carolina. I started up north, in New Hampshire, with the Presidentials -- looming, dark mountains that look like someone scooped them up from out west and plopped them down in the Appalachian range, where their craggy windswept peaks of rock seem distinctly out of place amongst a range that is, for the most part, entirely forested even at its highest elevation. Although shorter than Mount Mitchell, new Hampshire's Mount Adams (not above 6,000 feet but still a challenging climb) and Mount Washington were backbreaking, leg-searing affairs, with Washington in particular being a real bear due to its honorable position as the location of the "worst weather in the world." People die up there -- and not rarely -- and a bright, sunny day can give way to a blinding blizzard, 205 mile an hour winds, or a torrential downpour with absolutely no warning. And sometimes all within the same hour. It's like some mad scientist is up there putting the finishing touches on the weather controlling machine with which he intends to blackmail the governments of the world.

Mount Mitchell Trailhead
Old Mount Mitchell Trailhead. Straight to the top from here.

With the Presidentials under my belt, I decided I might as well go for the biggest peak in the east. I was prepared for another hike full of agony and triumph, laden with the emergency gear and multiple layers of clothes Washington and Adams taught me to bring. Turns out it was all for naught. Despite its actual height, Mount Mitchell was a pleasant-looking lump covered with fiery red, yellow, orange, and green fall foliage and possessed of none of the ominous, bald-rock intimidation of the northern peaks. The hike up is surprisingly easy. My partner and I were up and down in two hours, and that includes time dallying about at the top. Comparatively, hiking up and down 5,774 foot Mount Adams took me seven hours and required extensive climbing. The Old Mitchell trail, which leads from the lower park ranger' station to the observation tower at the summit, is by comparison an easy hike that anyone in reasonable health could do without any fear or need for much technical ability beyond simple common sense.

Still, it's beautiful, and the drive along the two lanes of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville (where we narrowly missed being caught in the throng showing up for a concert by hippie jam band mainstays String Cheese Incident) to Roanoke, Virginia, is one of the most breath-taking drives in the country. I'd rank it above pretty much everything but the drive through Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation. In early October, the leaves are just starting to get fiery. Splashes of color abound, and mountains are ablaze with autumn. Frequent pull-offs and overlooks allow you to drink in the scenery or take a quick rest while foxes, woodchucks, and coyotes prowl about outside. If there is a better way to end the summer season, I can't think of it.

The Blue Ridge Parkway leading to Mount Mitchell
The Blue Ridge Parkway leading to Mount Mitchell. Yes, I am taking
photos while driving winding two-lane blacktop.
My friend and I make an ill-advised attempt to eat at a restaurant her father used to take her to when they left out of Charlotte and went for a ride along the Parkway. A hundred miles later, we find the restaurant is closed and end up eating at a Ruby Tuesday in Boone, North Carolina. After a week surviving on boil-in-a-bag dehydrated food, the Smokey Mountain Chicken is as disgusting as it is delicious. We loop back down a highway to Charlotte, and a day later I'm saying goodbye to my friend standing in her doorway while chilly rain pours down from gunmetal grey skies. Waiting for me up Interstate 95 on the way back to New York is a traffic jam outside of Baltimore, endless detours, and rain the whole way. Eight years ago, I left this same person standing in a doorway in this same city in the same type of rain en route to the same city.

In the Jeep, still full of sand from the excursion to the Outer Banks, I turn on the radio. Painfully poetic, as if the entire scene had been scripted, "All Summer Long" by the Beach Boys is playing on the radio. Through the streaks of rain on the windshield, I wave to her one more time, then head for home.

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