Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Southern Appalachian Journey

Bob Leverett, old-growth forest guru, and wife Monica share their account of a trip taken through part of the southern Appalachian mountains with botanist friend Jared Lockwood. All photos courtesy of Bob Leverett, except as noted.


We take great pleasure in sharing our summer travels with good friends. On June 13th we set out on a trip to Bob’s cherished southern mountain homeland, a region that Monica is fast adopting. In fact, Monica has become Bob’s match in appreciating the area’s tranquil beauty and natural and cultural richness. She now claims the Blue Ridge Parkway as one of her favorite drives of all. At the start of the trip, it was a twosome (Monica and Bob), but our friend Jared Lockwood joined us in Appomattox, VA, and then we were three. 

This trip report has been written jointly by Bob and Monica. Consequently, we speak as a team, except where the message comes from or is about one or the other. In those cases, we use the first name of the subject.

On the Way - Tuesday June 13th 


We left Florence, MA about noon on a sunny day – perfect weather for traveling. First was a stopover at Northampton Coffee for our traditional send-off lattes. The latte is a mood enhancer for both of us, but especially Monica. With her, it is not optional. So, with latte froth on our lips, we rolled down I-91 south to the Mass Pike and then snaked our way west across the Berkshires, south on New York’s Taconic Parkway, west across I-84 to Scranton, PA, and finally, south on I-81 to Hazleton, PA and the Hampton Inn. It is a route we have taken many times.

Along the way we have our favored spots. For example, in Massachusetts, one of our place markers is the summit spot on I-90 at 1,724 feet above mean sea level. You have to travel all the way to Oacoma, South Dakota to reach a higher elevation on that Interstate (we’ve been there, done that). The fact that the eastern high point of I-90 is in Massachusetts is a source of pride for Bob, a confessed captive of statistics and numerical comparisons.

We left I-90 at Austerlitz, NY and started down the Taconic Parkway from its northern end. Although the Parkway runs for 104.8 miles, we generally leave it at I-84. Place markers for us are mainly the rest stops, which offer views of New York’s Catskills to the west across the Hudson Valley. In New York, the Parkway route down the Taconic Mountains is topographically across a rolling upland with pleasing contours. The countryside was heavily farmed and is generously sprinkled with names of Dutch origin. By contrast, the Catskills rise boldly above the near sea-level Hudson Valley, appearing higher than they actually are. There are two peaks over 4,000 feet above sea level, and 35 above 3,500 feet. 
Below is a view of the Catskills from a Taconic Parkway rest stop. When viewing those dreamy summits, Bob’s thoughts often turn to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. For us, there was no time for a 20-year nap, but we enjoy discussing our past forays into the Van Winkle country and the hikes up spots like hellishly steep Plateau Mountain.

Kaaterskill High Peak

In the image, the Catskills rise dramatically above the Hudson River lowlands. The peak in the center of the image is 3655-foot Kaaterskill High Peak, once thought to be the highest mountain in the Catskills. Looking across the Hudson Valley, it is easy to see why. The peak rises 3,350 feet above its base near Manorville in only 2.7 miles. There is no trail leading to the summit from Manorville. Hikers using the official trail network have much higher starting points.

Farther along, we stopped at A Taste of New York. It’s where Bob gets his sugar high from their delicious homemade pastries. One lady remembered Bob as the tree guy. His head instantly grew two sizes, and almost wouldn’t fit through the door.

Despite the familiarity of the route, there was actually a surprise on day #1. It was a beautiful view of the Wyoming Valley experienced from the patio of our Inn. Scranton and Wilkes Barre, PA are located at the north end of the valley. There’s little that is attractive to us in the long urban stretch. The surrounding ridges reflect their past as sources of anthracite coal. After years of mining, the ridges have been left barren. The vegetation is very scrubby. The land has literally been leached of virtually all life. But farther south, conditions improve a bit. The traveler is treated to a verdant valley surrounded by long parallel ridges and a single conically shaped peak. We enjoyed this exceptional view from our Inn accommodations – a decided relief from the usual storefronts and parking lot views one gets from most motels along the Interstate corridors.

We ate on their deck from our cooler, taking in the view to the west. Our traveling meals are highly nutritious – basically salads using only organic ingredients. We stock up on them before each trip from our River Valley Coop.

Below are two images that capture some of the panorama that stretched out before us. The second image shows a conical peak with houses encroaching on its base and a power line going across a shoulder. In the 1980s, there were none of these human structures. Elevation from our deck was 1,516 feet above sea level. The valley lies at an elevation of about 1,000 feet or 500 vertical feet below us.

Hazleton, PA

Hazleton, PA

After eating our dinner, we retired. The next morning, we enjoyed a great breakfast – a rarity for Inns. We vowed to return to Hazleton’s Hampton Inn on future visits south.


Inn at Sugar Hollow - Wednesday June 14th

We drove all day, dodging the heavy truck traffic of I-81 and impatient drivers going nowhere, but bent on getting there in record time. Compared to when Bob remembers traveling it in the 1980s, I-81 is now a handful, but still preferable to I-95 with its perpetually packed lanes.

Down I-81 to Staunton, VA and across the Blue Ridge on I-64, we arrived tired at the mercifully secluded Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm, located at the foot of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. We were given the Wildflower Room, their most expensive accommodation, for the price of the least expensive room. We were their only guests. We enjoyed Shiloh and Mandy, parents of Bonnie and Clyde (all four-legged canines with an abundance of energy and curiosity).


Blue Ridge Parkway and Appomattox - Thursday June 15th 


After an ample breakfast at the Inn, enjoyed with a view to the high mountain ridgeline that includes the Shenandoah National Park, we said goodbye to our host and hostess and headed back west to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap - its northern beginning. We turned our car onto that thin gray ribbon in the sky, and tranquility returned. Monica has described this in her recent brief essay on the Parkway as a spiritual experience.

A short distance on the Parkway, we stopped to gaze eastward down into the piedmont from where we had just come. Clouds hovered just above the ridge we were on, creating a sunlit window into the Afton valley about 1,000 vertical feet below. A mountain laurel that had passed its prime created a color contrast to the grays, greens, and blues. The photographic possibilities along the Parkway are endless. Accomplished photographers routinely match their skills against the range of features and colors. Some attempt to capture what the eye sees while others rely on heavy filters to change the colors and clarity of land features. Our preference is the former.

Afton Overlook - Blue Ridge

We drove along casually, Parkway style, to capture what can be a transcendental driving experience. Cruising the BRP by car or motorcycle is meant to be an exploration of what becomes poetry in motion at just the right speed - the intention of its designers. You move across the mountain contours and around the gentle curves. You flow with them, not attack them. Every mile is a visual feast with the driver integrated into the scene. It is an exercise in cooperation and integration, as opposed to conquest. For mile after mile, the
overlapping crowns of trees create green tunnels that you gently thread your way through until an overlook beckons you to stop and sample the ingredients of another visual feast.

Some Parkway stops have become traditional for us (e.g. Twenty Minute Cliff). Here is a view from the overlook. The boughs are of a table mountain pine, one of our favorite species.

Twenty Minute Cliff

Although most of our experiences place nature at the center, one stop netted us an unexpected cultural/historical bonus. At Humpback Rocks Visitor Center we met the lady who runs the center. It turns out that she grew up on the Parkway. Her father was one of its builders: he helped rebuild the James River Canal, and was part of the construction of Abbott Lake below Sharp Top Mountain. She knew Carlton Abbott, son of Stanley W. Abbott (for whom the lake is named), a main designer of the parkway. We regretted that we did not get her on video; she had a great Virginia accent and lots of stories to tell.

We heard other stories from locations where we commonly meet hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Thunder Ridge offered us not only entertaining accounts of the hikers, but a sweeping panorama. Here is part of what we saw.
From Thunder Ridge

We then drove to around milepost 86 at the popular Peaks of Otter. We had to exit the Parkway sooner than we’d have wished because our destination was the Appomattox Inn and Suites and we had to make it by mid-afternoon. This Inn is also a good place to stay, and it offers a bonus: it is near the historic Appomattox Courthouse of Civil War fame.

We visited the Historic Park and saw McLean House, where the surrender was signed to end the Civil War. Interestingly, Lee’s table, where he sat, was larger than Grant’s. We wondered about that. Compare them in the photos:

Grant's Table
Lee's Table

We watched the National Park Service’s excellent 15-minute film. It was very moving.

Back at the Inn, our friend Jared Lockwood from Massachusetts met us. He went to the cemetery, and saw a tombstone for a Confederate soldier who had fought in the war for 1400 days, and was killed on the last day. There’s lots of food for thought at Appomattox. The setting is pastoral and relaxing, but though it symbolizes the end of our bloodiest war, it still was a battlefield where over 700 soldiers died.


Tree Measuring Workshop - Friday June 16th


We attended a tree-measuring workshop at Patrick Henry’s Red Hill Plantation sponsored by the Virginia Champion Tree Program and the American Forests National Cadre. Dr. Eric Wiseman, a Virginia Tech Associate Professor, was the primary organizer of the event. Bob was the principal presenter. A total of 17 people attended. Eliza Kretzmann and Justin Hynicka, the two new national co-Coordinators came.

Bob’s presentations, on behalf of American Forests, were on tree-measuring methods applicable to certifying champion trees. The techniques are highly mathematical, but Bob has found ways to create Excel spreadsheets to be filled in with a few measurements, making complicated computations available to everyone.

After the lectures, the group had lunch and then went to measure the historic Osage orange tree located on the plantation. It is the national champion, and the folks at the plantation are mighty proud of it. It is a monster, but is not one tree (in the context of "one trunk equals one tree"). It is a tree-organism. Bob deferred to Eric to decide what to do. Eric wanted to establish a protocol for re-measuring the tree. The remainder of the time around the tree was devoted to sightings on the trunk for taking measurements, and discussions. Eliza and Justin got to hear about some of the tough issues associated with administering the National Register. A good time was had by all. Here is a look at the multi-trunked Osage orange.

Osage Orange

On leaving Patrick Henry’s historic plantation, we meandered across the Virginia countryside to Martinsville to a Comfort Inn. The Virginia piedmont is pastoral and very pleasant to the eye. There are lots of green fields bordered by white fences in good repair.

The Comfort Inn is okay for the price, and the management really wants to please, but its location isn’t especially inviting. Its breakfast offering was a big step down from the Hazleton Hampton Inn.


Back to the Parkway - Saturday June 17th


From Martinsville, we took back roads to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), and on the way, we found a fabulous farm stand (Po’ boy Farm stand) about 5 miles south of Meadows of Dan, maybe in Vespa, VA. We loaded up on great farm cheese and peaches. Bob proclaimed the cheese the best he had ever eaten. Oh yes, there was an abundance of Confederate flags around – goes with the territory. Once on the Parkway, we stopped at Mabry Mill (milepost 176), and took the requisite classic photos of the water wheel. The Mill was crowded, and Bob forewent his much valued blackberry cobbler. We wound our way down the BRP, stopping at various overlooks.

This was Jared’s initiation to the Parkway. As a botanist, he was instantly interested in every plant he saw. At an overlook, Monica met a Canadian motorcyclist from Ottawa and gave him points on where to stay and what to see. He shared an interesting interpretation of Parkway driving – more tiring than Interstates. It is constantly negotiating curves and looking out for deer.

For us, the highlight of this segment of the Parkway occurs around milepost 244. We like to picnic at a fabulous spot named Doughton Park, which sets at about 3,700 feet elevation on the high Blue Ridge plateau. Picturesque table mountain pines, blooming mountain laurel, grassy meadows, cooling breezes, and enchanting views of the surrounding Blue Ridge make Doughton a routine stop for us. Its meadows offer peace and serenity. Fritillary butterflies are abundant.

In the image below, we see a table mountain pine, a symbol of uplands in this part of the Parkway. The shrub in front and to the left of the pine is a mountain laurel that has gone by. There were plenty at the peak of bloom, but they were in the shade. 

Table Mtn Pine at Doughton Park

The part of the Parkway we were driving (south of Mabry Mill) meanders across the high Appalachian plateau. Travelers are not always aware of their elevation - unless they read the signs. They may even think they have exited the mountains until the Parkway swings near an escarpment with dramatic views down into a valley and across the ridges beyond. The sudden change from rolling terrain to breathtaking panoramas offers unlimited photographic opportunities, but in recent years, increasing pollution often obscures the features that the photographer wants to capture.

Scenes of mountains with clouds floating above and below are Bob’s perennial favorites. He loves the flowing forms of the ridges and their range of hues. For him, these are the signature features of the Blue Ridge. Case in point is the view in the next scene. Note the white pine on the right of the image.

Past the Moses Cone Memorial Forest, the terrain changes. A hulking landform appears, as the Parkway approaches one of the most special mountains in the entire eastern United States. Near milepost 300, the Parkway negotiates the shoulder of lofty 5,946-foot high Grandfather Mountain featuring the famous Linn Cove Viaduct. What visitors are unaware of is that the road passes through a swath of old growth forest. The only clue to the change from predominantly younger re-growth woodlands is the shaggier appearance and greater texture that the eye sees. There is more crown differentiation with the older trees.

The vistas from Grandfather’s shoulder are of seemingly endless mountains. The rock cliffs on Grandfather are spectacular and some of them were featured (totally inappropriately) in the movie Last of the Mohicans.

By 6:30PM, we reached Linville and the Pixie Inn, an inexpensive, but clean motel that allows you to meet local folks. The desk clerk was quite a talker. We got the motel’s full history. Later, we introduced Jared to Old Marston Mill for dinner, with folk singer and karaoke backup. It isn’t bad, and it is convenient, and the décor is truly original with memorabilia displayed in every spot. Here is a scene from a previous visit. Monica squeezes lemon to make her lemon water – a far cry from the favorite beverage of the region in the 1950s: notice the Royal Crown Cola sign on the wall.

Monica at Old Marston Mill

Back at the motel, we met Sophie the Chihuahua, who at first barked at us, then got used to us, and finally adopted us.




Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge - Sunday June 18th


We began the day with breakfast at a Scottish restaurant. Bob talked Jared into ordering country ham, neglecting to explain that one serving of that southern mountain staple gives one his entire annual quota of salt - very efficient. We observed Jared’s eyes widen as if his insides were becoming as cured as the ham had been. Fortunately, he didn’t turn into a pillar of salt. The salt-cured ham didn’t faze Bob. His insides were cured years ago.

We then drove part way up Grandfather Mountain into the state park to share its botanical and scenic treasures with Jared. Grandfather is a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, which about says it all. For example, the very rare pink-shell azalea finds a home on Grandfather. Its native habitat is the high elevation meadows, bogs, and spruce forests of the North Carolina mountains.

The mountain is a bundle of superlatives, and it offers them through a distinct personality. However, on the 18th, there were lots of people, and many, if not most, seemed to be searching for some kind of diversionary entertainment. They can get it on the famous mile-high swinging bridge. Bob and Jared joined the crowd. The temperature was mild and there wasn’t any wind, so the crossing was easy. On Grandfather, the weather is notoriously changeable, and people are not allowed on the bridge in high winds.

We then headed down to the nature museum and restaurant. It too was crowded with people, who were financially supporting the mountain, a fact not to be forgotten.

Most of our photos are of vistas, but as a change of pace, here is an intimate shot of plant life on Grandfather. The Galax was blooming.
Galax Flowering on Grandfather Mountain

Then it was off to scenic Linville Gorge (milepost 316). Like Grandfather, Linville has many exceptional natural features. For example, it is advertised as the East’s deepest gorge, although it has competition from a number of other contenders. Its depth varies, but averages between 1400 and 1600 feet from rim to river. People go to several observation points to look off into Linville’s depths and to enjoy its waterfalls. A couple of trails go to the bottom of the gorge. Most visitors never learn of its 10,000 acres of old growth forest, and it is one of the places you can see Carolina hemlocks, a species with a very limited range.

As we walked up the trail to the upper falls, Linville’s old growth felt especially welcoming to Monica. The ancient trees lining the trail have witnessed generations of visitors come and go. These old arboreal stalwarts project a kind of accumulated wisdom, perhaps shared by all ancient beings. The Ents of Tolkien exemplify this tree-based wisdom. Wisdom acknowledged, still in all things tree, a little measuring must occur.

Bob and Jared re-measured a 148-foot, 300-year old white pine right on the trail that Bob had measured years ago with a homemade measuring device. This time, Jared had the final say with his TruPulse 200X laser rangefinder. His measurement added 4 more inches to the Drinking Straw Pine, as Jared named it. We won’t further describe Bob’s homemade measuring device, but you now know one of its components.

The following image is typical of the Linville Gorge old growth. Eastern hemlocks and white pines thrust their straight trunks through a thick understory of rhododendron and laurel. They are easy to identify as old trees. Less so are the hardwoods, including species like Fraser magnolia, which shows off its creamy white blossoms in early May.

In the image, the blue paint identifies a hemlock being treated to kill the hemlock woolly adelgid insect. Without treatment, these hemlocks would be doomed.
Linville Gorge Old Growth Hemlocks

While Monica and Bob slowly made their way back to the parking lot, Jared continued on to see all the lookout points. Afterwards, we returned to the Pixie Inn and enjoyed dinner at Old Marston Mill again. The place has an authentic feel: it is what Cracker Barrel is trying to imitate in a sanitized version.






Roan Mountain and Round Bald - Monday June 19th


Leaving the Pixie Inn, we headed west to 6,285-foot Roan Mountain in the Unakas and a rendezvous with the clouds - literally. We first saw Cloudlands, where there used to be an opulent hotel in the 1800s that catered to international visitors. The charms of Roan Mountain were experienced by many in those days, but not enough to keep the hotel going.

As we ambled about, the clouds swirled, blowing in and out among the red spruce and Fraser fir. The scene was surreal: the trees appeared as ghostly images. After getting a taste of Cloudlands, we left Roan’s summit, dropped down to 5,512-foot Carver Gap and began the hike up to Round Bald, one of a half dozen famous southern Appalachian grassy balds, dating back to the ice age. Some scientists believe that Ice Age animals like mastodons and mammoths once grazed the tundra-like balds. Later it was elk, and bison. In modern times the cattle of the settlers continued the grazing history. Today goats and even a few Watusi cattle have been brought in as an experiment to see if they can save the balds from species like Canadian blackberry. Mechanical means are also used. Scientists believe that the Roan Mountain grass balds are older than other southern Appalachian grass balds because of their greater diversity of species.

As we climbed, we experienced more wind and clouds, but we were also blessed with astonishing views – some of the best in the southern Appalachians. From Round’s 5,825-foot summit, Jared pronounced the view spectacular, placing special emphasis on the word.

The image below offers one study of the major components of southern Appalachian grassy bald vistas. They possess a wide range of forms and colors. Grasses in the foreground present the viewer with shades of green in the summer and amber in the fall. The distant ridges appear in blue layers, each a different hue. Above, the clouds shift the color palette to shades of gray. The terrain features and forms and their associated colors fit together seamlessly.

When the wind blows, the grasses wave and the clouds move, each performing its specialized dance.

Round Bald, Roan Mtn

Looking in a slightly different direction, one sees the continued expanse of grass, mountains, and clouds. Notice the low cloud not far away. It drifted by without engulfing us – which, when it happens, is a lot of fun.

Cloud over Round Bald

Then it was back onto Roan to visit the famous rhododendron gardens, one of our reasons for the visit. The pink-purple blossoms were on their way out, but still impressive. Roan is the largest such natural rhododendron “garden” in the world - or so the signs say. What is probably true is that they are the largest gardens for the pink-purple Catawba rhododendron, i.e. for that particular species. The park occasionally cuts some trees and shrubs to keep the “rhodies” around. John Muir is one of the famous visitors to Roan, and before him, the likes of John Fraser, Asa Gray and André Michaux.

When the clouds drift across the summit of Roan Mountain, it is transformed into a mystical landscape. The mix of rhododendron, spruce, and fir, yellow birch, and mountain ash creates an impression of being in some fairytale world. Here is a glimpse into that world.

Rhododendrons on Roan Mtn

Oh yes, Jared measured a whopper mountain ash at nearly 5 feet in circumference. It starts as a single trunk and then forks at about four feet. The species is notorious for sprouting around the root collar, creating the appearance more of a shrub than a tree. This interesting morphological feature has created a debate within the state champion tree programs and the national one as to what kinds of forms should be allowed to compete with one another. We vote for Jared’s single trunk specimen over the multi-stem forms.

That generated a discussion between Bob and Jared about Roan’s climate, which is boreal, but not identical to its supposed Newfoundland equivalent. Here is a look at Jared’s discovery. 

 Mountain Ash on Roan Mtn (Jared Lockwood photo)

Leaving Roan, we took winding back roads up to Damascus, Virginia. Bob likes to make lame jokes about those winding mountain roads he grew up driving. He says that halfway around a sharp curve, you can see the back of your own head. Reaching Damascus, Monica was on the prowl for a latte, but that had to wait until the next day. We stayed at the Damascus Old Mill and Conference Center. It was originally Mock’s Mill, and was the first building in the area. The landscaping around the Mill was exquisite, and turning a mill into a hotel or inn is no small feat.

Grayson Highlands - Tuesday June 20th


Monica got her latte at a delightful place right on the Appalachian Trail, Mojo’s Cafe. We think they serve really good food as well. Then we took Route 58 east, winding and winding and winding to Grayson Highlands. Road signs were poor. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is amply advertised, but not state-owned Grayson.

We first went to the Visitor Center, where Bob loaded up on sweets. He says he is supporting the local economy. Then it was on to Massie Pass to park and walk on the highlands that offer a strange looking landscape. The high points reach to slightly over 5,000 feet elevation, but are still 700 feet lower than Virginia’s 5,729-foot Mount Rogers.

As a brief diversion, place names, especially for mountains, have always interested Bob. If you aren’t a geographer or cartographer, it can get confusing in the southern Appalachians. We have the Blue Ridge province made up of the eastern and western Blue Ridge fronts. Along the eastern front, the mountains are generally called the Blue Ridge. However, along the western front, they carry range names to include Iron Mountains, Unakas, Balds, Smokies, Unicois, and Cohuttas. Joining the eastern and western fronts, we have ranges with names like Snowbirds, Nantahalas, Cowees, Cheoahs, Plott Balsams, Balsams, Blacks, and Pisgahs. It’s all the Appalachians and all the Blue Ridge. West of the Blue Ridge across the limestone Valleys, we have the Allegheny Front. They are Appalachian, but not Blue Ridge, and so the naming goes.

The southern Virginia region of the Blue Ridge is a vast highland that contrasts remarkably with the rest of the state’s mountains. It is botanically diverse, and as a consequence, receives visitation from botanists from around the globe. Mount Rogers, the state’s high point, is named for William Barton Rogers, first state geologist and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At our elevation of just under 5,000 feet, the mountain laurel was in full display and it was gorgeous. We had been robbed of its floral show in most of the other places we visited.

Mountainn Laurel, Grayson Highlands

But the laurel had competition. There were other flowering treasures for our eyes to behold, including some eye-catching azaleas. Oddly, the rhododendron had passed. That species usually peaks around mid-June, but it looked like it might have been around the 12th for the “rhodies” on Rhododendron Trail.
A short distance up the trail, a bright red flame azalea caught our eye. It vied with the traditional yellow-orange color for having the greatest visual impact.
The following image does not do justice to the subject.

Azaleas, Grayson Highlands

We went on part of the AT, and on our way back on the AT towards Mt. Rogers, we saw 8 or 9 ponies, including 2 new colts (one brown, and one a tan and white paint). The most gorgeous pony is called Fabio, and he is reddish brown with blond mane and tail. They are wild, and people are not supposed to go near them, but people and ponies were together on the trail, and the people calmly walked by. No one was bitten or kicked.

The ponies were introduced by the state to help maintain meadowlands. Of Shetland descent, the herd is maintained at around 120. Without some grazers, the heath plants would move back in along with tree species like red maple, mountain ash, and yellow birch. Eventually the meadows would return to natural forest, and a cultural heritage would be lost. At least, that is the reasoning. The landscape around Mount Rogers reflects many past human disturbances, not the least of which was rampant, rapacious logging. These highland meadows do reflect a human altered landscape, but one altered for a better purpose.
Here is a photo of one of these delightful ponies.

The Virginia high country has its own special charms. We often talk about the unique feel of each place we visit: what nature creates from the totality of the biota, geology, climate, and the history of disturbance.

There are often unrecognized natural treasures under one’s feet, e.g., the Mount Rogers area of Virginia is one of the richest salamander areas on the planet. That probably explains in part why our friend Dr. Steve Tilley, a world-class salamander expert, says Mount Rogers is one of his favorite places on Earth. Grayson Highlands is a sleeper in other ways as well. Here's a vista from the Highlands.

Grayson Highlands Vista

Then it was across country roads and back onto clogged I-81. The heavy truck traffic induced wear and tear and fatigue. Most of the drivers are good and predictable, and definitely preferable to aggressive urban drivers, but we’re simply getting too old to handle these long drives. It was time to call it a day. So, we stopped at Christiansburg for the night while Jared motored on.

Our Inn was conveniently located and there was a strange looking restaurant within a short walk, so we elected to eat there rather than haul our cooler in. Besides, it had an intriguing name. We dined at the “Fatback Soul Shack,” an experience that requires more than a few words to describe, but I doubt that we’ll be dining there on future visits going South. I ordered fried catfish, which was delicious, and baked beans, which weren’t. It was 50-50 for me. Monica didn’t fare as well. She ordered chicken fingers and collard greens, neither of which was edible. Her coleslaw, however, was superb. The owners were gracious and didn’t charge her for the meal. We gave them high marks for their honorable treatment of Monica – a display of good southern hospitality.

On the positive side of the experience, the décor was interesting. Below is a photo of a booth in the Shack. Note that they use pickup truck tailgates for the backs of their seats.

Going Home - Wednesday June 21st


After a not-so-memorable breakfast, it was back onto I-81 with its caravans of trucks and impatient drivers. However, we were determined to return to the Hampton Inn in Hazleton, PA, a just manageable distance to drive. A little peace and quiet, our fine view, and a restful night would give us the energy to make it home on the 22nd. We would follow the same route that we had taken ten days earlier.

We’ll end our trip report with an image of the intrepid explorers Monica, Bob, and Jared on 5,825-foot Round Bald, part of the Roan Mountain Massif, in the North Carolina-Tennessee Unakas – a very content threesome, hoping the rain would hold off. It did.

Jared Lockwood (L), Monica & Bob Leverett

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