The weather was much more promising today, cold but clear. I dropped Jim off at Tuggle Gap and quickly passed him on my way to the Rocky Knob Recreation Area. Jim’s bike plan was for 80 miles again and my hike plan was my longest yet, 10.8 miles on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. The Berg Wanderers have been camping and hiking at Rocky Knob (with side trips to the winery at Chateau Morrisette) and I’ve missed out, so I was very much looking forward to this hike.
The spur trail began across the road from the Visitor Center (surprise – it was closed). Near the junction of the spur and the Rock Castle Gorge Trail was an oddity – a silk flower arrangement in a basket of the sort used at funerals. A small patch of earth, maybe 2 feet by 2 feet, looked newly disturbed. This was not visible from the parking area. I’m just hoping it was someone’s dear pet and not…
I turned right onto the green-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail and followed it paralleling the BRP over open meadows, pastures, although with cows at a safe distance. How about this scraggly old tree? Once again I felt myself channeling a movie character…can you guess?...Julie Andrews! “The hills are alive…with the sound of muuuusic!” Soon the trail passed over a stile and then through a fat man squeeze in the fence and I began to walk down into the gorge. For a while I followed a stream downhill, and apparently sometimes the cows are allowed in this portion because a barbed-wire fence followed the stream too, until another stile put me on the other side of that fence and at last into the gorge. The trail went steeply down, down, down and I crossed the same stream a couple of times. Very interesting to note that there were benches here and there along the trail. There were also incredibly big mayapple plants, larger than my mother-in-law's Thanksgiving dinner plates! In the distance I heard some pretty big water and began to pray that there was a bridge to go over it – fortunately there was. I passed through a rock field of enormous boulders that no kid could resist climbing around on. And guess what? There was a stacked stone chimney there in the middle of a flat area, Smokies-style.
The downhill ended at an old road bed that paralleled Rock Castle Creek. I turned left and followed this for about a mile and a half, hopping across side creeks spilling across the road to join the larger flow. Now, I had read that there was an old house along here and even seen a photo of it in Johnson’s book, “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.” Sure enough, here was the Austin House. Grass grew quite tall in the front yard and birds darted aroun. I sat on the front porch to eat my lunch and decided to take a tour around the outside of the house. On one side I glanced at a window and – what’s this? Looks like a dining room table with a tablecloth on it. And what’s this over here? Looks like split-and-stacked firewood. Perhaps I should not be here…….
I skedaddled away, passing the falling-down barn, looking around for any signs of a vehicle (there were none). The road is in good enough shape that the house is perfectly accessible, so it is possible (probably? Likely? For-sure?) that someone still occupies the Austin House. Lucky for me it was a weekend and maybe they were at the office. I casually looked over my shoulder only about 37 times before I got around the bend to be sure no one was following me waving a shotgun or a chainsaw. (Note: the guidebook is vague, says it is the “only home in the gorge today.” Well, that could mean a lotta things!)
My route (okay, is it a trail or a road now?) continued for another one and a half miles or so to a primitive camping area, formerly the location of a CCC camp, and here my map directed me to turn left again for the 3-mile climb out of the gorge. For a short while the trail followed Little Rock Castle Creek before the creek turned away to the right. It was at approximately this point that the trail makers lost their ever-lovin’ minds, for the trail was ungraded and so steep in places that I actually had to side-step it up the mountain. Occasionally benches appeared and I realized that they are actually “cussing benches” where you stop to gasp and mutter very ugly things about the trail makers and their ancestors. I have never hiked such a steep trail – and I’ve been on Jenkins Ridge in the Smokies!
After a few miserable hours (okay, maybe it was just 2 miles) the trail leveled out and I passed another old chimney and old homesites, and I could hear traffic on the BRP. Yes – nearly there! No – not yet! I popped out into open meadows again and walked another mile under the blue skies singing, “Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun…” On this section I passed a group of cows, including a white one eyeballing me pretty hard. This reminded me of a story…
A couple of years ago I accompanied a group of Girl Scouts on a trip to Switzerland, the location of a world conference center for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. One of our grand adventures was an overnight hike where we would sleep a few hours in the cheesemaker’s hut and then continue on to the top of Mount Something to see the sunrise. The night hike was very foggy and I could see nothing except the hiker in front of me, but I knew we were walking up through open meadows filled with giant boulders and I could hear this beautiful music like bells. How wonderful! The cheesemaker and his wife are playing music to guide us in! Suddenly as I passed by, one of the boulders stood up and a loud clanging sound could be heard above my scream. Yes, we were walking amongst those wonderful Swiss cows with their giant cowbells on.
Back to Rock Castle Gorge. The trail turned back into the woods and I realized that I was going up to the namesake of the area, Rocky Knob, and another outstanding view of the mountains and valleys to the east. Once upon a time this was part of the AT, hence the shelter. I wonder if Connie still loves William?
I was overjoyed to see my car again – this hike really kicked my butt. I was tired and hungry, but I had completed it and in good time, too, about 5 hours. My car and I headed south on the BRP again and completely passed up Mabry Mill, supposedly the most photographed place on the entire Parkway. We had stopped there a couple of times before and I felt sure that Jim stopped today and got photos. One place I made sure to check out was the Puckett Cabin with its amazing story of “Aunt” Orelena Hawks Puckett, who became a midwife at age 50 and assisted at 1,000 births before her own death at 102. Ironically, none of her own 24 children lived past infancy. I am in constant awe of these women and the hard lives that they lived.
At Cumberland Knob I stopped at the Visitor Center at MP 217 – also closed. This area includes a picnic section and a cemetery, but I can’t report much else. Continuing on, I passed a little pond with a parking area and saw this weird guy lounging on the picnic table…hmmm…there’s a bicyle….that weird guy is my husband! I stopped to see how he was doing (fine) and he was getting ready for the home stretch.
Since I was a little bit ahead of Jim, I had time to check out the Brinegar Cabin, home of Martin Caudill, a weaver, and his wife and 16 children. You can’t get inside the buildings there but you can peer through the windows.
Our resting place for the night was Bluffs Lodge at Doughton Park, a simpler version of Peaks of Otter (yes, it’s possible), simple rooms, quiet, no air conditioning but a big porch with long views, and to my delight there was a large stone terrace and a fireplace. We ate supper at the restaurant across the road and went back to a roaring fire with other guests gathered around. After the sun disappeared we wrote notes for the next day, packed lunches, and slept the sleep of the truly contented.
Jim’s Day Four –
I planned today as another long mileage day (80 miles). The terrain was primarily rolling hills except for the climb up to Doughton Park at the end of the day. I could tell as soon as I woke up that I was nowhere near fully recovered from yesterday’s effort.
Smoky Scout and I went out to breakfast instead of eating in the room. A big breakfast would help. We went to the Blue Ridge Restaurant a classic small town place right in the heart of Floyd, simple good food and a pleasant staff with a lot of regulars. I had another motive for eating besides just fueling up. Smoky Scout and I happened to be eating breakfast at the Blue Ridge Restaurant on the morning of 4/16/07. We were on a weekend getaway to the New River. It was there that we first heard about the Va Tech shootings. The details were very sketchy at the time but the little I heard was overwhelming. We listened to the radio reports on our way back to our cabin and they just kept getting worse. I wanted to cleanse the memory of the last time I was at the Blue Ridge. Of course I will not forget that morning but by going back again it helps me regain a sense of perspective, accept what happened and move on. It is similar to the saying about “getting back on the horse that threw you”. Having additional good memories about a place helps dilute the bad ones (at least for me). It was a great breakfast and the Blue Ridge Restaurant was now much closer to simply being a restaurant to me.
Speaking of moving on……..Smoky Scout dropped me off at Tuggle Gap at about 9:30 AM or so which was about an hour later than my usual start. It was quite cold for mid May (about 30 deg F) but brilliantly clear. Just as I was pulling out, three other cyclists were pulling in. They were bundled up.
As expected my legs were pretty heavy. Early in the ride I decided to use my brain rather than my muscles. Hey, I couldn’t lie around the motel and recover but I could do a recovery ride on the bike. This is actually a common practice for cyclists. Work hard one day and take it very easy the next. Sometimes it is hard to do because the natural tendency for most cyclists is to constantly push yourself. I always tell Smoky Scout cycling involves a lot of pain and it’s true. But today I decided to make it a real easy ride….no more than 15 mph on the flats, coast when I could but still maintain my 7 – 10 mph climbing pace. The 7 – 10 mph climbing pace was already a relaxed pace compared to my usual climbing pace on the much, much, much shorter hills at home. Overall this strategy worked well. The cool weather and lack of big climbs helped a lot too. I felt stronger at the end of the day than the beginning.
The scenery was different than the first three days but just as striking. Lots of farmland and pastures and a brilliant blue sky. Within the first 15 miles or so I came to Mabry Mill, the most photo- graphed place on the BRP. Oddly I did not take a picture of the mill but I did meet a group of motorcycle riders and got a picture with them. Many of the folks I met on the trip were motorcycle riders. They were all cool people.
A little further down the road I came across this authentic country store, the Mayberry Trading Post. This was not a Disney version or a cutesy tourist version. Local folks and cyclists rely on it. Check out the sign that the nice lady running it keeps on the counter. I hope these places survive. If the entire world turns corporate it is going to be a bland place.
It was during this ride that I passed from VA into NC. You could see Pilot Mountain in the distance for much of the ride. Objects like that become true landmarks when riding a bike. You travel at a slower pace so you see them for a longer period of time. You can judge your location and pace by them.
The ride from the state line to Doughton Park was through forest much of the time. It was nice and cool. The only real climb was for a few miles up to Bluffs Lodge, our place for the night. Like I said before, I felt better at the end of the ride than the beginning. Honestly, the climb up to Bluffs Lodge was fun. Cycling does bring on endorphins. Smoky Scout got to Bluffs Lodge before me and I met her out on the large flagstone patio overlooking the mountains. We then did the Dew of course.
This was an 80-mile day so a lot more happened than I jotted down above. I’ll just throw out a few key words for the rest of the ride and you can imagine what you want for the details….Floydfest Park, Buffalo Mountain, rail fence exhibit, turkeys, cemeteries, Puckett Cabin, Brinegar Cabin, rolling mountains, Blue Ridge Music Center (closed, dang!!!).
A little about Bluffs Lodge before I close. Similar to the Peaks of Otter Lodge but a little smaller and more remote. It is a clean, rustic place to stay right on the BRP. No phone, TV, internet or AC. You don’t need them nor want them. The rooms are simple but have all that you need. It is fairly remote so the only place to eat is the restaurant across the road but it was just my style. Again, simple food in a vintage 40’s style place. I went with roast beef tonight. This restaurant closes by 7:30. If you are staying at Bluffs Lodge and get there late you are out of luck. After supper it was a cool night so someone built a fire in the fireplace on the patio. Smoky Scout and I met some nice folks from Kansas and Georgia while watching the fire but by 9:30 or so I was beat and away to bed I went.
Stats for day:
Mile marker start: 165.3
Mile marker finish: 241.1
Total day miles: 79.5
Climbing for day: Still need to get this
Avg speed: 12.9 mph
Mile marker finish: 241.1
Total day miles: 79.5
Climbing for day: Still need to get this
Avg speed: 12.9 mph
Max speed: 37.1 mphA bicycle does get you there and more.... And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun. ~ Bill Emerson, "On Bicycling," Saturday Evening Post, 29 July 1967