Installment #9
  Jul 26, 2007 20:44 PDT 

   Installment #9

            Monica and I arose on Friday at Benge Gap to a typically cool mountain morning. I went for an early walk and cataloged a surprising number of tree species just around the motel including a number of young chestnuts blooming. The trees will soon be overtaken by the blight, but I was treated to a perhaps one time bloom for those chestnuts. I was taken with the sight. When the species was abundant, the spectacle of many large chestnuts in full bloom with their white tassels hanging from every branch must have been unforgettable. I recall my fatherís descriptions of the prolific chestnut bloom in the Cohutta Mountains of northern Georgia. He was personal witness to the demise of the American chestnut, a tree he truly loved along with many old-timers. Apparently, there was a romantic sense and a security imparted by the American chestnut, which has never been matched in the East by even charismatic species like the oaks, save perhaps the live oak. The chestnut touches the im
agination as few species do.

            As we headed north on the Parkway, I had a morning destination in mind Ė Doughton Park, and more specifically, Bluff Mountain and the abundance of grassy meadow Ė old fields The grassy meadows of Doughton Park have always been an attraction for me. They awaken some distant yearning. Overall, there is a pleasing quality to Doughtonís mix of forest and meadow and the view from Bluff Mountain is worth the short trek through very dry woods if you need a leg stretcher. In the entire region of Doughton Parkís 4,000 acres, there are around 30 species of trees, perhaps 33 or 34 were a thorough search made. However, Iíve never seen any truly large trees in the area. One enjoys Doughton for the ambience of its ridges and meadows, not the size of its trees.

            A point worth noting is that meadows speak to a human past. Pastures were created in the 1800s as the Scotch-Irish settled across the southern highlands. Doughton had its share. One resident Harrison Caudill (1839- 1924) sired 22 children from two wives Ė 6 by the first and 16 by the second. I suppose weíre expected to pay tribute to these God-fearing types who fathered huge numbers of children. But, their reproductive feats are lost on me. They literally wore out their wives, who were sentenced from an early age to pregnancy, childbirth, and endless toil raising children. However, I suppose it is all in the way one looks at the time. Harrison set the bar very high. Harrisonís son Martin fathered only 16 children. Southern highlanders were either ignorant or contemptuous of contraception, by whatever means. It is true that large families were needed for the added labor, but I think Caudill found and passed the point of diminishing returns.

            A cultural resource at Doughton Park is the Brinegar Cabin. It provides visitors with a peek at life in the southern mountains as lived by European Americans. It was an austere, work-filled existence. I doubt that few children visiting the Brinegar Cabin, accustomed to computers, televisions, video games, cell phones, and a constant intake of sweets and junk food have the remotest feel for how a young person would have lived in those days.     

            Monica and I took a hike up to Bluff Mountain to an overlook. The dryness of the surrounding woodlands created little of interest for me. I had seen the view before and it fallís in the ďvery niceĒ category. Fortunately, the earliness of the jaunt spared us from midday heat, which wouldnít have been oppressive, but still uncomfortable due to the humidity. On our return, we entered a large meadow where we were treated to a wonderful show of Aphrodite Fritillary butterflies. They are simply gorgeous. No Monarchs or Tiger Swallowtails are prettier. The Aphrodites were fluttering around as butterflies typically do. But when the silver spangles on their undersides were caught in sunlight, it was an almost breathtaking sight. I canít quite recall its equal.

            Continuing up the Parkway, we passed by many lovely spots as we ended the North Carolina portion of the trip and passed into the Virginia Blue Ridge. Virginia, the Old Dominion, has two large mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies, both part of the Appalachian chain. There are many peaks rising to over 4,000 feet in both ranges, but only the Blue Ridge has peaks over 5,000. Mount Rogers is the highest and rises to an impressive 5,729 feet above sea level, eclipsing the highest peak in the Alleghenies, West Virginiaís Spruce Knob, by almost a thousand feet. Rogers also tops New Yorkís Mount Marcy, which stands at 5,344 feet high. However, Marcy is a great peak. Its Algonquin name is Tahawus, or Cloud Splitter. It is steep and imposing. By contrast, Mount Rogers is a gentle peak and so does not have the visual impact of other comparably high peaks in the East. Nonetheless, it is Virginia's highest point.

            Our destination for the day was the lodge at the Peaks of Otter at milepost 86. I had misgivings, but the accommodations turned out to be very nice. Thankfully, there are no Televisions in the rooms, so you donít get the usual noise emanating from adjacent rooms when you want quiet. I suspect that the absence of T.V.s, plus the relative high cost of lodging, reduces the cliental and pushes up the average age. A small balcony for each room allows occupants to gaze at the profile of Sharp Top. It is a quality experience.

            The Inn overlooks a small, artificial lake and into the side of Sharp Top beyond. Sharp Top is a beautiful, cone-shaped peak that reaches a respectable 3,875 feet above sea level. It exudes a presence that has touched such notables as Thomas Jefferson. To Virginianís in the know, it is legendary. An early morning trek to the summit to witness the sunrise has served as a source of spiritual renewal for literally thousands.

            Monica was quite taken by the exotic profile of Sharp Top. I was unprepared for, but pleased at, her reaction. She found and bought a book on the history of Sharp Top and from the authorís account, Sharp Top has had a fan club of the rich and famous for years. BTW, Flat Top, Sharp Topís sister peak, is slightly higher. Its elevation is usually listed as 4,004 feet.

            As we settled in for the evening, the form of Sharp Top cast its spell. Although the Innís principal advantage is convenience, the area has plenty of hiking trails with fine views. All in all the Inn affords a quality experience that is in keeping with Parkway travel.

            Iíll pick up on our final Parkway day in Installment #10.