The "Happiest City For Women" ... But Where?

Trip Start Sep 19, 2012
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Trip End Oct 08, 2012


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Flag of United States  , North Carolina
Saturday, October 6, 2012

The origin of town names can be stories in themselves. This morning, we wake up in Fancy Gap Virginia, population 260. Fancy Gap has long been a major passageway between western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia.

Fancy Gap apparently got its name in the mid-1800s. Ira Blair Coltrane, a self-made engineer and a Colonel in the Confederate Army, was 15 years old in 1830 when he helped his grandfather drive loaded wagons up a steep incline. The legend is that he saw a better route up the mountains across the valley, and remarked that it would make a "Fancy Road." This route soon became Fancy Gap Turnpike. From there, you can easily see how the town became Fancy Gap. You can, right?

Heading south for another day on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we cross from Virginia into North Carolina. Shortly after that, we arrive at the Blue Ridge Music Center, which has an excellent display, depicting the roots of American music. We arrive just after the doors open at 9 am; too bad we're so early -- live music begins at noon.

But we have miles to go, so we skip the free concert and continue south on the Parkway.

The historic Cumberland Knob Recreational Area is ahead. Cumberland Knob is where construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935. It was the first recreation area on the parkway open to the public. From Cumberland Knob, it's about 100 miles to Grandfather Mountain, site of the Parkway's completion in 1983. At 5,946 feet, it's the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Grandfather Mountain is rich with history. It has a mile-high swinging bridge, and views that are beyond compare. The "swinging bridge" gets its name because of the bridge's tendency to sway in high winds. Yikes. Click here to learn more about Grandfather Mountain.

While at Grandfather Mountain, we could stop at Mildred's Grill for lunch. I'm pretty sure Mildred would personally take our order and bring our plates out. To see what's on the menu, click here.

But we skip Mildred's, because there's an $18 per person charge to ride up the road to the restaurant, which essentially means our burgers cost $30. Those are Manhattan prices, and in rural North Carolina, that's hardly palatable.

***

So we continue south on the Parkway for about 30 miles to Little Switzerland, North Carolina, where we have lunch at the Little Switzerland Inn -- and spend less than half of what it would have cost to be served by Mildred.

After lunch, we consider jumping off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 334 and taking a side road south on NC-226A. It's known as the Diamondback -- which has 190 turns in 12 miles, a little like the Tail of The Dragon (also in North Carolina), which we rode on Day One of our trip -- two weeks ago. Click here to experience the Diamondback -- which, of course,, is named for the snake you don't want to mess with.

We'll turn west at Buck Creek Campground & Driving Range, and join NC-80. Buck Creek, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, bills itself as having 74 hook-up sites and a state-of-the-art driving range. Seventy-four hookup sites sounds like something you'd find at a big-city singles bar.

Ten miles later, we're back on the Parkway.

That would have been a fun side trip, but we stick instead to the Parkway. It seems only right that we continue to ride all 469 miles from the northern end to the southern terminus in Cherokee, North Carolina.

***

We pass by Mount Mitchell State Park, North Carolina. Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Mississippi -- 6,684 feet. It's about ten miles from the Parkway, and surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, but its presence can't be missed. (Pisgah in Hebrew refers to a "high place" like the top of a mountain). The mountain was named after Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who determined its height in 1835 and fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls in 1857, when he returned to verify his earlier measurements. His tomb is at the summit of Mount Mitchell.

I said Mount Mitchell's presence can't be missed. Well, we actually couldn't see the mountain. It was shrouded in clouds and fog, which made the riding on the area quite challenging. We slow to 20 mph or so, barely able to navigate by the center yellow line.

Mount Mitchell is in the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains. The Pisgah covers nearly 513,000 acres, including parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Balsam Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway takes us along the southern edge of the Pisgah, through Craggy Gardens toward Asheville, North Carolina. Craggy Gardens is covered with purple rhododendrons in mid-June, which would be spectacular if it weren't early October right now.

We continue along the Parkway for about 40 miles, until we get to Asheville, our stopping point for the day. Asheville is at milepost 385 on the Parkway, meaning we are about 79 miles from where the Parkway ends in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Before the arrival of Europeans 470 years ago, the land where Asheville now exists lay within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. Today, Asheville is a happening place. Modern Maturity magazine named Asheville one of the "50 Most Alive Places to Be;" American Style magazine called it one of "America's Top 25 Arts Destinations;" it's one of AARP magazine's "Best Places to Reinvent Your Life;" and Self magazine named it the "Happiest City for Women." Magazines love Asheville!

Notables with Asheville connections:
  • Actress Andie MacDowell, who lives in Biltmore Forest, adjacent to Asheville; her film career includes "St Elmo's Fire" (1985), "Green Card (1990), "Groundhog Day" (1993), "Dinner With Friends" (2001) and "Footloose" (2011)
  • Singer Roberta Flack ("Killing Me Softly" and "Feel Like Makin' Love") was born here
  • Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald (who called her "the first American flapper"), died at age 48 in a fire with eight other women at an Asheville mental institution.


Lodging tonight at the Motel 6 in Asheville ($71.99 tax). Asheville will be the Happiest City for Ray and me, an alive arts destination that allows us to reinvent ourselves. Which may be a bit of a stretch for a rib dinner and a night at the Motel 6.

***

Oh, almost forgot to mention: this is our third and final college football Saturday on the road. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea who’s playing today. A game earlier in the week effectively ended my interest in college football for the year. On Thursday night, the University of Utah got crushed by USC. Ouch. And to my embarrassment, the game was nationally televised. For me, the season is over, and the annual healing process is underway. There’s always next year (though we did beat BYU on September 15 in the only game all season that really matters).

Utah’s had some strong football teams in recent years, including 2008 when the Utes finished 13-0 and ended up Number 2 nationally in the season’s final poll. The highlight of Utah's perfect season was humiliating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 31-17. Yes, Alabama of the apparently no-so-invincible Southeastern Conference, getting thrashed by a bunch of slow, white kids from the lowly Mountain West Conference. Just sayin' ...

***

Day Sixteen Summary: a Fancy Road, a swinging bridge, a big-time hook-up site, a Hebrew lesson, a great place to reinvent yourself, trashing the SEC. Miles ridden today: 218.

To view today's complete route from Fancy Gap, Virginia, to Asheville, Northg Carolina, click here.

What will tomorrow bring?
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