Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Appalachian Spring

If I told you that right now I can see a Hairy Cat's Ear, a Gray Beardtongue, and an American Bladdernut, could you guess where I am? No not an insane asylum - I haven't completely lost my mind (yet). I am touring Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the above are all common names of wildflowers indigenous to this area. Now they say that most of these common names were derived from physical characteristics that reminded folks of something else in nature. Judged in that light, I think everyone knows what a hairy cat's ear looks like (is there any other kind?), and I am pretty sure I've had a beardtongue the morning after a particularly late night or two. But what the heck is a bladdernut? Or how about a Toothwort? Jeez, I'd hate to get either of those.

Of course not all of these plants have such mysterious names. Some of them provide vital information in the name alone, like Touch-me-nots, Sneezeweed, Heal-All, and Stagger Grass. Others sound like they could be the names of folks songs, if they are not already, like the Highland Dog Hobble, Hearts-a-bustin', and Little Sweet Betsy. Of course a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, and so many of these flowers are just so beautiful, that it doesn't matter what you call them. Except for maybe the Naked Broomrape. I am sure that doesn't mean what it sounds like, but they just need to change it.

Regardless, there is nothing like springtime in Appalachia. Most of the trees have not yet fully put on their leaves, allowing hundreds of species of wildflowers to soak up the sunshine of these increasingly warm days. In many places in Virginia and North Carolina the mercury has already topped 80 degrees a few times and, as a result, this annual show is off to an early start. But once the dense canopy of leaves covers over, that will be the end of the display for this year. So if you haven't planned a spring road trip, what are you waiting for?

Skyline Drive is a 105.5 mile roadway that runs more or less along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap. The entire roadway is part of Shenandoah National Park and an entrance fee is required. But with 300 square miles of forest, hundreds of species of wildflowers, and tens of thousands of living creatures making their homes here, it is well worth the admission. All this just 75 miles from D.C. Of course, you want to get away from the rat race, so I suggest heading to the western side of the park and the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

If the America Civil War is your thing, you're in luck there too. There are fourteen battlefields in this region alone, where Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson waged the Valley Campaign. It was also known as the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy" as this is where most of the crops were grown to keep the rebel effort alive. A timeshare rental at The Summit at Massanutten in McGaheysville will put you right in the heart of it all. It features indoor and outdoor swimming pools, gymnasium, racquetball and tennis courts, exercise equipment, steam room, sauna, massage services, children's programs, and a PGA-rated 18-hole golf course, all on site. Plus it is minutes from an entrance to the park and who knows how many Black Bugbanes, Widow's Frills, and Dutchman's Breeches. And here's a little local tip for you: the town is pronounced mick-gack-ees-vill, with the emphasis on GACK. Which is unfortunate, but it will tip you off as a tourist if you say it how it looks.

The Blue Ridge Parkway starts where Skyline Drive ends, and runs 469 miles from central Virginia to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It's free of charge, and features stunning views, hiking trails, picnic areas, campsites, interpretative exhibits, and the most diverse collection of flora and fauna to be found anywhere on earth. On the Virginia end, be sure to check out the homes of no less than four U.S. presidents. James Madison and James Monroe were more or less neighbors to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, which is located in Charlottesville, VA. On the other side of the Blue Ridge is the birthplace and presidential library of Woodrow Wilson, in the lovingly restored 19th-century town of Staunton, VA. Another local alert: you say it Stan-tun.

As you ramble south towards North Carolina, keep your eye out for flowering dogwood and redbud trees all along the roadside. The dogwood is the state tree of Virginia, and the state flower of both Virginia and North Carolina. It has unmistakable white, four-petaled flower that many Christians believe looks like a cross. The redbud, on the other hand, is a dark magenta, almost purple flower that comes into bloom before just about any other tree in the area. Why they call it a redbud is beyond me, but you can hardly drive twenty feet along the parkway without spotting one of these beautiful specimens.

Once in North Carolina, I highly recommend a trip to Asheville. It's very near to the Smokys and is a vibrant college town. And if you haven't seen enough big houses or flowers, it is also home to The Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore was the summer residence of the Vanderbilt family, and is the largest single-family home in the U.S. The gardens alone are worth the trip, but at $60 a ticket, you are going to want to tour the house as well. There are no timeshare resorts in Asheville, so I suggest finishing up your excursion to the west in Gatlinburg, TN, or to the south in Cashiers, NC. The former is a quiet hillside community nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains and a short drive to Dollywood in Pidgeon Forge. So if you get a hankerin' for some good old country music, spandex, and rhinestones, head on over. You won't be disappointed. The latter is a quaint and picturesque village tucked away on a plateau in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, known as the "land of waterfalls" (there are 19 of them). And as a final local tip for you: it's pronounced cash-ers.

Well, I am off to see if I can forage myself a meal in the surrounding countryside. I am told that ramps (wild scallions), fiddlehead ferns, and prickly leaf lettuce are all in-season right now. There's even a choice of coffee substitutes in the form of both the Kentucky coffee tree and chicory. Just the same, I am pretty sure I passed a Starbucks on the way in here.

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