Natural Bridge, Appomattox and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
After a cozy night of sleeping to the sounds of a nearby thunderstorm, we started our third day with breakfast at the Country Café in Natural Bridge, VA. We had dinner there the night before and since it was convenient, cheap, and just about the only place in town, it was our top choice for breakfast. Our plan for the day was to go site seeing in the morning then spend the rest of the day driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway from Roanoke, VA to Asheville, NC.
After breakfast, Max had a semi-BFA planned. BFAs are Blind-Fold Adventures, surprises that Max and I plan for each other when one of us finds something we think the other one would like. Max visited Natural Bridge on an earlier trip and knew I would love to see it, so he planned a visit without telling me. It was only a semi-BFA though because once I knew we were staying in Natural Bridge Station, VA, it was easy to figure out we’d be going to it’s namesake.
Natural Bridge is exactly what the name says, but words or even pictures can’t adequately describe it. It is a 215-foot high solid rock arch that was formed when a cavern collapsed and left the span that remains. Cedar Creek, which carved out the original cavern, still runs beneath the arch. In order to see the bridge, you have to walk down 137 +/- stone steps through the woods.
At the bottom of the steps, Max asked me to close my eyes and take his hand. He was really serious about the BFA thing. I followed him step by step and when the bridge was in sight, he told me to open my eyes. My first view of Natural Bridge was hard to take in. It was so enormous that the size of it shocked me. Max told me about it, I had seen pictures and read about it, but seeing it for the first time was unforgettable. At 215 feet, Natural Bridge stands taller than Niagara Falls. I took picture after picture hoping to capture the magnitude, but I just couldn’t get it. Finally, I gave up and just enjoyed the surroundings. It is a very serene setting, and even the other site-seers walking along the pathway below the bridge didn’t detract from the peacefulness. The curving shape of the arch adds to the beauty. The stone was carved out over thousands of years by the movement of the water in Cedar Creek. At Natural Bridge, the Creek veered to the left and created a curve in the stone that adds to its beauty and gives it a sense of flow or movement, if such a thing could be said of stone.
The pathway follows along Cedar Creek and leads to a recreated Native American village. The recreation is authentic and guests are invited to take a self-guided tour. Unfortunately, the village seemed out of place and just the slightest bit hokey. Perhaps more information on the link between Native Americans and Natural Bridge would have made the exhibit more connected, but as it stands now, it doesn’t feel quite right. Overall, it didn’t take too much away from the magnificence of Natural Bridge, but it didn’t add anything either.
As if we hadn’t already spend enough time in Virginia, we decided at the last minute to visit Appomattox Court House. It was about 100 miles off our route, but since we were in the area, and we had never seen it, we decided to go. I’m so glad we did because I learned a lot and was very touched by the experience.
Appomattox Court House is the name of the village where Lee surrendered to Grant and the Civil War ended. It is a National Historic Park and there are exhibits examining various aspects of the War and, in particular, the end of the war. We got there at the beginning of a slide program that talked about the Lee’s surrender to Grant.
What was most touching to me was the gentle and civil way (pardon the pun) both generals handled the surrender. Touching and ironic, I suppose, when you consider the horrible violence and number of dead from the war. Grant and Lee had tremendous respect for each other and they each knew what their opponent faced during the years of the war. When Lee surrendered and Grant wrote up the terms of the surrender, it was without arrogance or gloating. He simply wrote up the terms and the war was over.
The final surprise for us at Appomattox was that the home where the surrender took place still stands on the property and we were able to walk into the room and see it set up, just as it was in 1865 I’m not much of a history buff, but being in that very room gave me chills.
We ended our day another 70 miles away in the renovated downtown section of Roanoke, VA. We window shopped and gallery hopped through an area called Center in the Square and the Historic City Market. It was a great way to wrap up a day that covered a lot of miles.
Days 4 and 5: Blue Ridge and the GSMR
I already wrote about our time in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies, but what I didn’t mention was the fantastic train ride we took on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. GSMR was a freight line running through North Carolina, but now it runs as a tourist train out of Bryson City. We rode the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, a four-hour trip that took us along the Tuckasegee River, Fontana Lake and the Nantahala River Gorge. It was a beautiful trip, and after driving up and down these mountains for a few days, it was a real treat to sit back and enjoy the scenery while someone else did the driving.
The tracks follows a lot of water and one of my favorite parts of the trip was watching rafters, kayakers and tubers bouncing along on waves and rocks in the Nantahala River. The train had a one hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where passengers could get off the train for lunch or just to watch the rafters do their thing. The day we were there, the NOC was hosting their annual Freestyle Shootout, a kayaking event where kayakers win big money and lots of applause for doing the craziest moves on the water. This video shows them practicing at the NOC a few days earlier and it’s pretty much what we saw when we were there. It was incredible to watch how daring and skilled these people are. It also made me happy that I was on dry land.
After visiting the NOC, we got back on board and I succumbed to the lullaby of the rails with a nice long nap. The final part of our Train Day included a visit to the GSMR’s Model Train Museum. The museum was a train lover’s paradise. Not only did it have beautiful and intricate train layouts, it also had hundreds of model trains on display. I never knew such variety existed.
As we stood and watched the trains on one of the set-ups, an older gentleman dressed like a conductor started telling us in detail about putting the models together. It turns out he was one of four people who started building them. He was a humble man, soft-spoken, but it was obvious that these model trains were his passion and he was proud to tell us about them. Even though I was starting to feel antsy, like I wanted to get back on the road, it was an honor to stop for a few minutes and listen to the train man share with us something he cared so deeply about. Time and the road kept calling, though, and finally we had to get back in the car and drive off to our next destination.
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