BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS, Va. — The Blue Ridge Parkway, a ribbon of road bordered by mountains that are older than the Alps and the Himalayas, meanders for 469 miles, linking the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. America's longest linear park, it has been called "a moving postcard."
The parkway offers famously spectacular scenery. In spring and summer, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and dogwood provide splashes of color amid the lush green, while in autumn, brilliant foliage dazzles as oak, hickory, tulip poplar and ash trees change into their fall wardrobe.
It offers a heart line to our nation's history — from early settlers to the Revolutionary War and Civil War to the Depression era, when construction was begun under President Franklin Roosevelt.
It offers recreational opportunities galore for gypsy travelers who aren't on a set timetable and relish stopping and staying awhile.
And with our national holiday fast approaching, it offers a genuine slice of Americana.
Botetourt County looms large in history
My parkway adventure focused on the area in and around Roanoke, Va. With mountains up to 4,000 feet in elevation, it's rife with recreational opportunities — climbing the Peaks of Otter, which tower over the town of Bedford; biking or canoeing at Explore Park, a pristine wilderness near Roanoke, or hiking the Appalachian Trail.
It's also a slice of history, especially in Botetourt County, which looms large on the Virginia landscape. In addition to the Blue Ridge Parkway, it's home to a segment of the Appalachian Trail and the headwaters of the James River.
In the 18th century, the county loomed even larger — greater in area than the entire rest of the state. From the southwestern corner of Virginia, it encompassed parts of present-day West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as the entire state of Kentucky.
Today, though vastly diminished in size, Botetourt County is still eminently rich in history. See it on a walking tour of Fincastle, a town closely associated with explorer William Clark, and visited by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry (you can ask to see documents with their signatures in the courthouse.)
Fincastle's architecture ranges from Federal to Antebellum, and two late 19th-century churches still serve their congregations. Also worth a visit are the Old Jailhouse, Blacksmith Shop, and Museum on Courthouse Square.
Following your tour of Fincastle, stop for lunch at the White Oak Tea Tavern, situated in a circa 1783 historic home. It may have the feel of an early American inn, but the menu is thoroughly modern (the chicken salad, peppered with cranberries and pecans, may be the best I've ever eaten.)
If you're a craft beer lover, make the effort to find Flying Mouse Brewery, tucked away in a secluded mountain hollow. It's one of the stops on the Blue Ridge Beerway, a self-guided loop that features eight local breweries.
At the Flying Mouse, the beer is excellent, but its secret edge just may be the adventurous Flying Mouse mascot himself, Bartleby Hopsworth (his image is everywhere) who has a whole back story that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Surely a Marvel comic book can't be too far away.
If you're more into grapes than hops, don't miss Chateau Morrisette Winery, one of the largest and most scenic wineries in Virginia, offering 15 different varietals. If the Flying Mouse has its rodent, Chateau Morrisette counters with its own mascot, a Black Labrador featuring prominently on its distinctive label, as well as a semi-dry table wine, the Black Dog.
Both the tasting room and award-winning restaurant overlook a panorama of vineyards and mountains stretching to the horizon.
Step back in time in Floyd County
Mabry Mill in Floyd County may be the most photographed spot on Virginia's Blue Ridge. After taking your picture of the mill, framed by rhododendron this time of year, follow a short loop trail to a small cabin, blacksmith shop and the mill itself. All three allow a peek at rural Virginia life at the turn of the last century when the mill was built.
On Sunday afternoons, old-time bluegrass music accompanies demonstrations of blacksmithing, basket making and weaving.
One of the parkway's cultural treasures is the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail. If your idea of country music is Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, keep on going, but if you want to tap into the taproots of traditional bluegrass, gospel and mountain music, plan to be in the tiny hamlet of Floyd on a Friday night.
At 7:30 p.m., the Friday Night Jamboree gets underway at the Floyd Country Store. Regular displays are pushed aside to accommodate chairs for those who want to listen to fiddlers, banjo and guitar players, and anyone else who can coax sounds out of a wash tub or a set of spoons. Enough room has to be left, however, for engaging in a bit of flat footing or clogging as it is more commonly known.
Some 400 people from inside and outside of the county congregate here to listen to music that counts among its practitioners the legendary Carter Family and the equally legendary Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
If you're looking for an experience you're not likely to have anywhere else in America, be in Floyd on a Friday night.
If Floyd represents the rural yin, Roanoke — about an hour's drive away — is the urban yang. The largest city in southwestern Virginia, Roanoke is the business, cultural and recreational center of the state's Blue Ridge Region.
Start your visit on Mill Mountain for an up-close look at the Roanoke Star. At 100-feet tall, it is the world's largest man-made star, erected in 1949 by the city's merchant association as a means of kicking off the Christmas season. Nearly 70 years later, it has become Roanoke's most visible symbol, illuminated in white lights every night.
If there is a symbol of modern Roanoke, it has to be the Center in the Square, an architecturally stunning building which combines under one roof many of the city's cultural attractions. Admire the six giant aquariums in the lobby atrium, and then take in the History Museum of Western Virginia, Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. Attend a performance at the Mill Mountain Theater, or wander through the glass-enclosed Butterfly Garden where jewel-toned butterflies flit from tree to tree.
If you haven't had your fill of museums, spend an afternoon at the Taubman Museum of Art. The modern flying buttresses may make you think a giant spaceship has landed in the city center, but the interior of the Taubman is sleek and contemporary, all the better for showing off its collection of American art. One gallery sure to please the female of the species showcases the artistic bejeweled bags of Judith Leiber.
For a different kind of artistic experience, head to Grandin Village. This 1920s neighborhood is home to some 80 shops and restaurants as well as the historic 1932 Grandin Theatre. However, fans of the DIY TV network may want to head directly to Black Dawg Salvage, whose 40,000 square feet of space is filled with one-of-a-kind treasures salvaged by the "Dawgs" — Robert and Mike. When they're not out salvaging, they'll be happy to show you around.
In fact, pretty much everyone in the Blue Ridge will be happy to show you around their beautiful part of the state.