Jeff Greenberg photo
Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center
Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center at MP 115 in Virginia.
It’s the most visited national park unit in the U.S. with more than 17 million annual visitors riding along the 469-mile ribbon of roadway that snakes through Virginia and North Carolina.
It’s also one of the most loved.
“There isn’t a sour note sung by anyone coming down the Parkway,” said Bill Carson, owner of the Orchard at Altapass, a cultural heritage attraction on the Parkway near Little Switzerland, N.C. “They are on a postcard trip.”
In its 75-year history, the Blue Ridge Parkway has welcomed about 875 million visitors. All that traffic adds up to big bucks in tourism revenue—$342.5 million for both states in 2008.
Ken Burns’ epic documentary last year on national parks coined them as “America’s Best Idea.” Burns theorized that national parks are part of the American idealism and a collective identity, with the very notion of patriotism wrapped up in majestic landscapes.
“If Congress ever decided the Blue Ridge Parkway was not worth the money and defunded it, it would be like taking people’s Social Security from them,” said Tim Pegram, a former park ranger who wrote a memoir about hiking the Parkway in 2003. “Everyone loves the Parkway. It is just grand. There is no place like it in the world.”
Love for the Parkway is presenting an unusual problem for Blue Ridge Baptist Church, located along the Parkway at Benge Gap north of Boone, N.C. What began as a small family cemetery beside the church a century ago has become a highly sought-after burial destination. The church must constantly turn away people who stop and see the cemetery and yearn to be buried next to the Parkway.
“They ask me all the time, and I say ‘I’m sorry but we don’t do that unless you’re a member of the church,’” Bill Watson, a member of the church, recounted during a 2003 oral history interview found in Parkway archives. “It’s filling up and we’re running out of room.”
Aside from the sheer volume of traffic the Parkway brings to the mountains, it also encourages town-hopping—a critical ingredient for the region to realize its tourism potential. Before the Parkway, a handful of locales monopolized the industry. While tourists poured into Asheville by the droves in the 1920s, rural outposts were largely left out.
The Parkway was the first paved north-to-south road through the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Roads historically followed migration and trade routes seeking passage through the mountains across low-lying gaps, and mostly traveled east to west. Few major roads connected rural communities with one another.
The Parkway changed that, according to Becky Anderson, the former director of Handmade in America, a nonprofit organization that promotes craft and heritage traditions of the Southern Appalachians.
“It was the one connector into the rural communities, which is where the great majority of our craft community lives,” Anderson said. “It provided a marketplace for our world of craft.”
It also spawned the notion of a shared mountain identity among previously disparate towns.
“I think it brought all people equally to the table,” Anderson said. “Everybody was a contributor to the uniqueness of the region.”
Instead of communities competing for tourist dollars, the Parkway encouraged them to work collaboratively as a region in branding their cultural heritage to the outside world.
“That’s the way we began to think,” Anderson said.
As a result, the Parkway motivated residents in the region to preserve their cultural heritage.
“The Parkway really in some respects has encapsulated a period of time in the Southern Appalachians,” said Dan Brown, a retired superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “It has held it in suspense.”
With 100 cultural sites, the Parkway fosters an image of bygone days with old mills, one-room schools, log cabins, and the historic Moses Cone Manor, an estate near Blowing Rock, N.C.
“People come to the Parkway to get a glimpse of the Southern Appalachian culture,” said Brown. “It has caught the fancy of the American public.”
No doubt this year’s anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway will bring more visitors to see those breathtaking views of mountains, to hike and camp, or to learn about Appalachian culture. Even in the throes of a national recession, tourism hums along on the Parkway. It’s a toll-free ride, and families are choosing to visit local attractions, so the Parkway continues to be a safe bet for vacations, according to Angie Chandler, executive director for the Blue Ridge Parkway Heritage Area, which promotes the Parkway as a natural and cultural destination.
“It’s a natural resource that is an affordable resource,” Chandler said.
The Parkway’s designation as a National Scenic Byway in both states allows its partnering organizations to apply for grants that help market the region through educational programs that promote sustainability and stewardship. Working with dozens of partners in two states can be a bit of a juggling act, Chandler explained, but conference calls and emails help to keep people connected.
“Everywhere we have gone, we have received incredible support,” Chandler added.
The Parkway has a $2.3 billion economic impact in North Carolina and Virginia. It is responsible for 27,000 jobs and $508 million in payroll in North Carolina.
The Parkway also has a hidden economic impact that goes beyond the traffic counts and multiplier equations used by economists. The Parkway is a drawing card when courting new industry. Becky Anderson, an economic and community development consultant in Western North Carolina, would frequently take a detour on the Parkway after picking up corporate executives from the Asheville airport.
“We would get off the Interstate and come into Asheville on the Parkway,” Anderson said. “I did it every time. I wanted to ‘wow’ them with the place they would be coming to live.”
Navigating rocky relations
The Parkway hasn’t always been embraced by local residents living along the popular scenic highway.
“This road doesn’t go anywhere they regularly go in their lives,” Carson said. “It doesn’t go to the store. It doesn’t go from city to city. It is crossways to how people live their lives here.”
Couple that with the irritation of the seasonal tourist onslaught—the out-of-towners who may ask questions with obvious answers—and some simply don’t see what good the Parkway has brought them.
The Parkway has struggled over its 75-year history to maintain a good relationship with its neighboring communities: 29 counties, dozens of towns, more than 81,000 acres of Park land, and more than 4,000 adjacent landowners. Many families still harbor deep-seated resentment for the farms and land claimed by the Parkway’s construction. Ill will toward the Parkway is something most people can’t fathom, said Gary Johnson, the chief of resource management on the Parkway.
“They look at the Parkway and think everyone must have supported it because it was such a great idea,” Johnson said.
Johnson once fell into that camp himself. But only a couple of months after taking the job, he was summoned to a meeting with the congregation of a church along the Parkway that wanted to cut down trees for a bigger parking area. One of the church members laid into him, fighting back tears as she recounted how the coming of the Parkway had bulldozed her family farm and broken her father’s heart. She was certain it caused her father’s heart attack.
“She could never forgive us for what we had done to her family,” Johnson said. As he was walking over the church grounds with the woman’s son, however, Johnson learned the son didn’t share the same resentment.
“I think as generations change we are getting further from some of those negative feelings about the Parkway,” Johnson said. “I think with how important travel and tourism have become along the Parkway, there is a greater sense of the value of the Parkway.”
Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University, captured those shifting attitudes toward the Parkway in an oral history project sanctioned by the National Park Service in 2002.
“Older generations held a grudge against the Parkway but later generations basically came to terms with the Parkway and increasingly saw its value,” Coyle said. “They saw it as an opportunity to maintain environmental scenes they enjoy and protect a way of life they see as being eroded by the modern world.”
Coyle collected 50 interviews with old-timers along the Parkway’s route. He admits there was an inherent bias in the project, since those with major hostility toward the Parkway refused to participate.
“I called some people up and they said, ‘Oh it’s about the Parkway, forget it,’” Coyle said.
But many displaced by the Parkway have softened their stance in the intervening decades. One Cherokee elder Coyle interviewed captured the nearly universal attitude.
“We didn’t particularly want the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee, but we got it,” the man said. “Now that we have it, we start realizing it is a pretty valuable thing to have, so let bygones be bygones.”
Tommy Beutell, a Christmas tree farmer in the Tuckasegee community, went to court after being offered what he felt was too little for his land on Richland Balsam, the highest point along the Parkway outside Waynesville, N.C. The value of Frasier firs growing on the property, which he planned to sell as Christmas trees, wasn’t included in the compensation.
“I might still be a little bitter about it, but I have gotten used to it,” Beutell told Coyle.
Like many landowners, Beutell has compartmentalized his negative feelings toward the federal road bureaucrats, which allows him to feel favorably toward the Parkway as a whole.
“I am just tickled it is there,” he said.
Commercial interests haven’t always had a cozy relationship with the Parkway either. Since its inception, business owners along the scenic route have been at odds with the park service over policies that seem unfriendly toward commerce.
Signs and billboards are banned. Restaurants and shop owners aren’t allowed to display their flyers in Parkway visitor centers. Park rangers couldn’t even recommend local motels to travelers.
The Parkway took great care to preserve the rural character of the road and block views of nearby development. As a result, the average tourist believed he was in the middle of nowhere when in fact small towns with motels, diners, gas stations and craft shops were a stone’s throw from the Parkway.
A coalition of business interests along the Parkway corridor formed the Blue Ridge Parkway Association in hopes of wielding more influence through a unified voice.
Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis said the Parkway has to balance economic desires of the business community with what visitors want—primarily a scenic, commercial-free experience.
As a former Parkway superintendent, Dan Brown saw a love for the Parkway being passed down from one generation to the next. Those who visited as children with their parents return as adults with children of their own.
“They remembered that experience and like to come back and try to recapture it and pass it on to their children,” said Brown. “It’s always what’s around the next curve, that exploration and excitement.”