Day 3 and Beyond

Natural Bridge, VANatural 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.

Roanoke, VA

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.

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my shutterfly share site at


Out in the Woods

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway

We’ve been on the road for six days already and I haven’t posted a single update. My intention was to post something daily, but that’s just not happening.

I accept some blame for this dismal showing because I didn’t plan as thoroughly as I could have, but I’ll pass part of the blame onto the back roads of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. These remote routes and campsites along the way have no wi-fi or (GASP!) cell reception! That’s a minor annoyance though because what this area lacks in wireless, it makes up for in magnificence.

On Days 4, 5 and 6, we have been driving uphill and down and along steep, spindly roads that barely cling to the edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies. The land is so breathtakingly beautiful here that it’s easy to let your eyes wander out into the panorama and take in scenes that look like forever. The peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge form an enormous, hypnotic sea of mountains that rise and fall until they finally fade out hundreds of miles in the distance into a blue haze.

I thought of Thelma and Louise a few too many times as I jerked the wheel to keep from going over the edge. I stayed on the road though, and we ended up last night at the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The campground was an easy find, right at the Tennessee edge of the Park. It was also a lucky find because, 1) they had space for us, and 2) The Little River, which follows all of Route 441 through the Smokies, runs directly through the campground. During our stay, the river was running high and the white water rushing over the rocks was a perfect camp-side soundtrack.

After last night’s relaxation, I vowed today that I would find wi-fi so I could write and post. I must say, the quiet, civilized hotel room where I sit and write this blog is lovely, but it doesn’t compare to sitting river-side, sharing a bottle with my sweetie, and watching the campfire. Duty calls, though, and my duty these days is to write … write and not drive off the edge of a mountain.

So that brings me to the activities of the past six days. We’ve done a good bit of driving, but didn’t hit the 1000 mile mark until today. Despite the mileage, we’re still in the East … or, I should say the Eastern Time Zone, and we probably will be for the next few days. I’m eager to get some westward-ho underway, and we probably would if there weren’t so many interesting things to see around here!

Day One: Leaving Baltimore

When we left on July 29, we tried to mad dash out of Baltimore so that we could get to Yorktown, VA, in time to do some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the movers came late and heavy traffic/rain slowed us down too much. We drove through Yorktown after dark and didn’t see a thing.

Day Two: America’s Historic Triangle

We got an early start and spent the morning at Colonial Williamsburg. I had heard raves about the place for so long and was looking forward to seeing what all the commotion was about. Colonial Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia, is a huge living history site depicting life in early America. It is filled with authentic and replicated buildings; interpreters dressed in the clothing of the time interact with guests to share history, one-on-one.

The experience was better than I expected in the end, but at first I was put off by the immediate and blatant attempts to get visitors to $pend-$pend-$pend. Walking through the front doors of the visitor’s center, you’re flanked by two jumbo gift shops and an information booth, not about Colonial Williamsburg, but about getting reservations at the restaurants and inns in Colonial Williamsburg. My first impression was: Whoa! Too Disney-esque, but the site provides such a rich experience that it was easy to forget the commercialism. We only spent one day, but there is so much to see and do, it could easily have been stretched into a few more.

Williamsburg is part of an area called America’s Historic Triangle, which also includes Jamestown, the first English settlement and Yorktown, the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War. We didn’t get to Jamestown, but we did visit the Yorktown Victory Monument, a 98-foot statue memorializing the surrender of General Cornwallis to George Washington. The monument sits alone overlooking the York River. For all the grandeur of the monument itself and the importance of that final victory, in an unexpected and quiet way, its solitude is touching.

We ended Day 2 about 200 miles away, camping along the James River at the Wilderness Canoe Company in Natural Bridge Station, VA. It’s a tiny campground and only one other site was taken, so it was a very quiet relaxing night, made even more relaxing by the huge thunderstorm that rolled in right around bed time.

There’s no thunderstorm tonight, but it’s time for bed anyway. I’ll continue tomorrow with info on Day 3 and beyond.

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my shutterfly share site at

A Journey Begins

Yesterday was the Big Day, the Giant Leap. It was my last day at Ukazoo Books, where I was store manager for the last two years. Throughout the day, my emotions careened from one extreme to the next, like monkeys swinging wildly through the trees. First, feeling the exhilaration of leaving a job that it’s time to leave, then feeling the heartbreak of saying goodbye to employees who have wormed their way deep into my heart … the little buggers. Then the monkeys took flight again: excitement, then fear, then laughter, then tears, then, well, you get the idea.

After I boxed up the last pictures and chotchkies from my office, I took a long quiet look around the store and remembered some of the best times and some of the worst. It’s been a tumultuous two years, filled with the hard work and frustrations that come with being the manager of a brand new bookstore. It was also filled with the endless enjoyment of being the manager of a brand new bookstore. I’m an unbridled book junkie, so being able to share books, books, books every day with employees and customers AND get paid for it was truly a gift. Amplify that with a group of employees who shared with me more fun, friendship and belly laughs than I ever expected, and it’s easy to see that I had the best job in the world.

Deciding to leave that job took a long time and a lot of thought, but I know I made the right decision. Some meddling misanthropes … Oops, I mean well-meaning, concerned friends, say I should stick around and hold on to a secure job until the economy gets better, but good timing has never been a quality I possess, so I’ve learned to take my chances when a new adventure comes a-calling.

The new adventure is not just another job, but I will be working, hopefully working harder than I ever have, but this time it’s for myself, as a writer. That’s right! I said it! I’m taking time to work on my writing and get back to the career path I abandoned 20 years ago when I left a job as a newspaper reporter. This time I’ll work on both fiction and non-fiction, and this time I won’t take for granted how much I love to write. If being a bookstore manager is the best job in the world, than being a writer is the OTHER best job in the world. Lucky me, I’ve been able to do both.

I’m going to be starting this figurative journey with a literal one when Max and I move to Arizona next week. Yes, Arizona. Yes, we’re moving in the middle of the summer, and yes, average temperatures this time of year range from 110 to 115. (You may be starting to see what I mean about my timing.) In the end it doesn’t matter when I do this, it just matters that I do it. So, I’ll do it indeed, with anticipation and gratitude and the excitement of beginning a new chapter (I believe it’s chapter 92 or thereabouts) in this surprisingly fascinating, complicated and ever-changing life of mine.