Last, gentle link in a long and winding road

ELLEN BARRIER BUSTLE grew up in an isolated village near Newland, N.C. Her great-grandfather had homesteaded the valley in the early 1800s, and ``when the Scenic took the land,'' Mrs. Bustle recalls, her uncle tried to hold off government purchasing agents with a shotgun. To get the right of way for the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, the state condemned a 14-acre strip down the middle of the Barriers' land. But by the time Parkway construction began in 1935, Ellen had married E.O. Bustle, and, with jobs around Newland as scarce as a stranger's face, he found work reinforcing bridges for the new road.

``The Parkway was a real help; ... there were no jobs to be had,'' Mr. Bustle recalls. Before the section in their county was finished, half a dozen Barriers had worked on it, too. ``It touched a whole community,'' Bustle says.

Now, the Parkway that so noticeably touched that community - and has so gently touched the land around it - is finally complete. Dedication ceremonies for the Parkway take place tomorrow at McRae Meadows for the highway considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

From Rockfish Gap, Va., to Oconaluftee, N.C., the 470-mile road with its 40-mile-an-hour speed limit loops through rolling farmland and national forest, around languid curves studded with overlooks, past plummeting valleys and the East Coast's highest peaks. A few days ago, many of the people who have put years of their lives into building and maintaining the Parkway were on hand for a final inspection.

``I'm thrilled,'' confided maintenance supervisor Joe Townsend, born in the mountain town of Boone, N.C. ``I know I've worked here 27 years, but I'm still thrilled about it.''

With its right of way ranging in width from 125 feet to several miles, the $130 million Blue Ridge Parkway is actually part of the National Park System, connecting the Shenandoah Valley with the Great Smoky Mountains and touching a series of smaller parks along the way. The recreational road is free of commercial traffic and advertising and is bordered by 190 miles of hiking trails.

Its design is largely the work of the late Stanley Abbott, a landscape architect whose ideas are still quoted by park officials. Under his guidance, engineers and architects walked every mile of the route before construction, taking note of fine old trees and striking rock formations. Today the road winds around rare plants and waterfalls, skirts the top of Mt. Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi, at 6,684 feet), and circles historic farms.

The road was begun in 1935 as a public-works project to combat the Great Depression. But for 19 years, completion of the last, 7.5-mile link at Grandfather Mountain has lingered over funding, right-of-way problems, and the challenge of rugged terrain.

The new link included a $10 million, free-standing viaduct that snakes around the granite face without disturbing a single rock outcropping or any trees except those that grew directly in the path of the bridge. Park officials point to the viaduct as an example of the design and environmental considerations that make the Parkway so uniquely beautiful.

``I walked this whole 7-mile section half a dozen times,'' reminisced resident landscape architect Robert Hope, who has worked on the Parkway for 24 years. When one of his team recommended cutting a few trees to open up an overlook, Hope cautioned reflexively, ``It's not going to make some sort of ugliness from the other side?''

Around a turn in the road, the sweet suburban smell of newly mowed grass mingled with the smell of mold and damp vegetation. ``We don't want the area to be mowed, do we?'' asked Hope, gazing at a neatly clipped slope. ``We want it to be natural.''

The highway's builders tunneled 26 times through mountainsides and built stone retaining walls rather than to resort to massive cuts and fills. The S-shaped Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain, designed by French architect Jean Muller, was built from precast concrete segments lowered into place by a train resting on the bridge itself, causing almost no environmental damage.

On top of the mountain, a wooden boardwalk lifts hikers up over the fragile ecology of thin soil and high altitude. Beside the walk, low Allegheny sand myrtle clings to granite, and wild blueberries cluster. A rare table mountain pine twists in the wind. In the distance a lazy patch of fog drifts around mountain peaks.

The boardwalk is an effort to protect the natural environment from the 22 million visits tourists are expected to make to the Parkway this year. Visitation has grown by 5 percent each year for the last decade. Increased traffic stresses not only the environment but the leisurely pace of the Parkway itself. Park officials already wince at any mention of October, when the mountains flame with color and the road is choked with cars. Summer houses and condominiums have been built along part of the Parkway lands.

The Bustles now live in a red farmhouse where Mrs. Bustle was born, about 300 feet from the road. Like many in their region they grow some Christmas trees and have an apple orchard, a patch of corn and a garden behind the house. During the quiet seasons they like to walk on the Parkway, and Mrs. Bustle says, ``Most people here enjoy it now they've gotten used to it. We've met some nice people that have come off the Parkway.''

At a rest stop a few miles from the Bustles' farm, John Ellis from Charlotte, N.C., gazes appreciatively at the forest. ``You can relax,'' says Ellis, who has bicycled the length of the Parkway. ``I do it for the state of mind.''

James A. Dacus, a retiree from Forth Worth, Texas, has traveled with his wife to Europe and Mexico and all across the United States, but ``we don't care too much for the big cities,'' he says. ``The Interstates are so buzz-buzz-buzz with trucks. Here it's more for people.''

Watching license plates from Florida, Kansas, Ohio, and Michigan go past, Mr. Bustle nods and says, ``When the leaves get right it does just glow.''

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