Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Time Travelers

There are a lot of things I like about the trips we take. I’ve talked about a few of them in this column, but one of the most interesting, to me, at least, is the way we manage to bounce back in time once in awhile. Our trip out to North Carolina last Friday and Saturday is a prime example of that phenomenon. We were actually whizzing along an interstate highway, like the vast majority of the traveling public does, when a few rocks got in the way, sending us careening back in time to our “normal” backroads ways. After getting all the way to Lexington, Kentucky on our first evening on the road, we were prepared to keep up our efficient pace and finish off Kentucky and Tennessee via Interstate 75 before crossing the Great Smokey Mountains on Interstate 40, a marvel of engineering that has made the crossing a simple affair, thanks to a combination of long, gentle, sweeping climbs and mile-saving tunnels. We were about to head into the mountains when we began seeing signs indicating our plans might be about ready to change.
“No through traffic”
“Detour ahead”
And finally,
“Interstate closed at state line”
Apparently, a major rock slide awhile ago has managed to close interstate 40 near the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. And the state of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen not to share that information until the last possible moment.
We had, of course, managed to miss all the official detour instructions, so we made up our own, relying on the trusty gazetteer to lead us across the mountains on what was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built.
“This was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built,” I said blithely to my passenger.
There is a special look that comes over her face when she’s not yet sure if she’s been hoodwinked and is trying to be a good sport about the latest pickle I’ve gotten us in.
“Are we going to drive past a shoe tree?” she asked with a sweet/dangerous smile, referring to a harmless reference from the previous week’s column.
“No, really, this was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built,” I repeated automatically. “We’ll be in North Carolina before you know it.”
Well, “before you know it” is a relative term, isn’t it? My state route detour turned out to be a seemingly endless stretch of twisting, turning, climbing two-lane blacktop that probably hadn’t seen an out-of-state license plate since they cut the ribbon on the freeway. We saw the French Broad, which is both the name of a town and a river. We traveled near and through Lumptown, Hurricane and Lower Big Pine, which is, of course, directly above Big Pine. Once we finally reached Carolina, I tried to cut some corners and shorten our route back to the interstate, only to send us up, up and away on another curling ribbon of road into the bordering Blue Ridge Mountains, with this one taking us through a series of burgs with names like Bearwallow, Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and--wait for it--Bat Cave, North Carolina.
They’re all among the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, but they have virtually disappeared from the beaten track, thanks to our national need for speed and our love affair with getting there fast. So, we pretty much had those roads, towns and amazing views to ourselves, with the exception of a few groups of fishermen and hikers there to enjoy the fast-moving mountain streams and the rocky trails and outcrops. I’m sure the pace picks up somewhat when the weather warms a little more. But I’m sure, too, that the bigger crowds head for spots like Dollywood and Gatlinburg, where a guy can buy a fast-food hamburger and an unattractive T-shirt before dashing off to the next shopping mall or indoor water park.
I couldn’t help but think about a time when two-lane roads were the only roads on the way to anywhere. About a time when the pace was slowed and the view improved by sheer geography and topography. About a time when time stood still in these beautiful, out-of-the-way places that have now been lost to many, except for those few of us who are lucky enough to occasionally get a little lost ourselves.

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