Monday, March 24, 2008

March 13-23 2008 – Road Trip – Part Three – North Carolina

The last destination of our road trip to the mountains was Western North Carolina. Our intent was to camp in one or two state parks in the mountains and ride more mountain roadways before making our way to my sister's home in Hendersonville for the Easter weekend with family. This plan was stumped when it turned out that western North Carolina doesn't have many state parks for RV camping and what parks they do have don't open until April 1! On top of that the weather turned cold and drear (apparently why the parks aren't yet open!), so we ended up making my sister's lovely home our home base for the week.

Once again, the management of Champion Hills found us an undeveloped cul-de-sac to stash the RV during our stay. Each time we have done this (this being the third time in three years), it has been a different cul-de-sac, but we speculate that this will be our last time to enjoy this very considerate courtesy since the development is almost fully built. In view of that future, Don and I spent one of our rainy days in the truck scouting out regular RV parks in the vicinity. None measure up to the beauty of a state park, but at least we have located a few convenient options, and at least they are open year round .

Our rolling home may be snug, but it is hard to match a cushy couch, a flickering fireplace, and a good book when the weather gets inclement. We'd hardly settled in when my brother-in-law Bob passed on a must-read book called Three Cups of Tea: One's Man Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg Mortensen & David Oliver Relin. Talk about a three-way culture shock. In the mountains of North Carolina, I put down Paul Theroux's Pacific island travelogue The Happy Isles of Oceania; Paddling the Pacific, and found myself transported to and immersed in a saga of cultural bridge-building in Pakistan. This true account of Greg Mortensen's ongoing life work kept me spell-bound for several days, and Don is currently in its grip. Anyone who needs an antidote to our current administration's warmongering should read this book NOW.

Monday morning finally brought a sunny, if chilly, morning. The temps were forecast to climb eventually into the sixties, so Don and I layered back up and got the Harley out of the garage where we'd stashed it during all the rain. We rode west over the mountain to Brevard and from there up into the Pisgah State Forest, winding our way up steep switchbacks to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs a total of 496 miles from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. When I was a child in the '50s, my parents used to drive this road south from Washington, DC to drop me off at summer camp in Brevard while they escaped the summer heat at a painting camp called Seecelo in Burnsville. Much of the Blue Ridge roadway runs along the spine of this Appalachian mountain chain affording unparalleled vistas on either side. Like the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, the Blue Ridge is, at least where we rode, mostly a two-lane, limited-speed roadway designed for sight-seeing. Despite breath-catching drop-offs, guardrails were few and far between, which loosed the butterflies in MY stomach, while for Don, wearing sunglasses and a smoked visor, it was the intermittent tunnels that were unsettling. Fortunately, the road's twists and turns were augmented by many pull-offs for scenic overlooks.

We came down from the Parkway just this side of Asheville, and after a warming lunch in a roadside diner, made another long loop on Rte 176 to Saluda and Tryon, picturesque mountain areas to the south and east of Hendersonville along the South Carolina Border. Unfortunately, the morning's weather did not hold and the afternoon temperatures began to drop again long before reaching even the mid-fifties. Under increasingly gray skies, we grew too chilled to enjoy ourselves, and we cut back onto the Interstate the better to scurry back to the fireplace.

Somewhere along the way, Don had discovered that the coach had a leak in the left rear dual axle seal. While I'd been wandering around in the mountains and villages of Baltistan (in the book), Don had been glued to the phone not just ordering the last of the boat parts we need to take back to Fiji, but also tracking down a service center that would honor our extended warranty on the RV. The appointment he made for us at Tom Johnson Camping Center in Marion, NC, even though it was about a two hour drive away, couldn't have been better timed as the weather turned crappy again. Wouldn't want to waste any fine weather on a service run!

Lying east of Asheville, Marion turned out to be nestled in more gorgeous country near Black Mountain. The service center, which we kind of thought might be some hick camper dealer, turned out to be a beautifully conceived high-end dealer with five lines of motorhomes, a slew of campers and pop-ups, and a rally campground equipped to handle about 350! The trim repair facility alone had 35 service bays plus its own 66 camping spots plus a nice lounge with snack bar, fireplace and Wifi! Wow! We spent Tuesday night there in order to make our 8am appointment, and then amused ourselves while the tech guys diagnosed our problems looking at new RVs…always a diverting pastime. When parts had to be ordered, we left the motorhome behind until Friday and drove back to Hendersonville in the truck.

Thursday finally brought gorgeous weather, and we hopped on the bike keen to get another ride in. This time we explored south from Brevard over Rte 178 to Rte 11 in South Carolina. It seems steep and twisty Rte 178 is a popular ride with the local crotch-rockets, especially on the South Carolina down-slope. Made us feel very sedate as these guys in their jumpsuits caromed past us on the tight turns, especially since we'd seen so few other motorcyclists the whole month! Seems these guys just ride up and down the mountain like a ski slope! It's also popular with the serious cyclists, and we passed several ambitious pairs doing what we do on their own pedal power. My nephew John and his wife Gay are part of this peculiar breed, and though we respect them, we can't even imagine doing it ourselves! At the base of the mountain we buzzed off east on Rte 11 and then climbed back over the mountain on Rte 276, a twin to 178, with more bikers of all ilk as well as hikers on several State park trails, everyone out enjoying the beautiful day. It was a grand ride through terrain we will have to give a serious second look on our next visit!

Friday morning we were up early to make the round trip to Marion to pick up the coach and still have enough time for another ride before my nephew Gregg and his daughter Jackie arrived from New England in the late afternoon. Their arrival inaugurated the beginning of a packed family weekend. It had been three years since we'd last seen Gregg or Jackie, and, while Gregg is as handsome as ever, Jackie has grown into a tall swan of an eleven-year old! My other nephew John and his family, with whom we spent last Thanksgiving, arrived by car on Saturday. Speaking of bikes, John and Gay had their light-weight wonders in the back of their Honda Odyssey, and they took off on the very same 25-mile circuit we'd squeezed in before Gregg's arrival Friday. They did it in two hours.

As family weekends are wont to have, there was plenty of fine eating, music (Tom and Karen on the piano, Karen on her flute, and Tom and Greg on their guitars), walking and loving on Cecily's Shih Tzu Tikka (both girls are dog lovers), and rides on the Harley! Cecily herself kicked this off by swapping shoes and jackets with me after we'd followed the others out to lunch, and the line-up after that never stopped. The girls were both pretty cute enveloped in my leather jacket and helmet on the back behind Don. They both dubbed it "awesome," and the rides definitely coaxed some smiles out of oh-so-cool Tom.

The weekend wrapped up with a huge Easter Buffet at the Hendersonville Country Club. Sometimes having to get dressed up can take the fun out of these events, but there is something about taking off the winter duds and donning an Easter outfit that everybody is willing to do. It was a mighty fine looking table of ten over which Bob presided, and he observed to Cecily at the far end that he could never have imagined such a moment during his days at the Coast Guard Academy fifty-some years ago!

We are currently southbound on I95 heading for home in Crystal River, and while we will both admit to being ready for a little "spring break" Florida warmth, I don't think anyone can know how much we enjoyed this road trip in the mountains: the great Harley riding, the solitary camping, the time with friends and family. Thanks to all of you who made it possible.

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