Blue Ridge Parkway-North Carolina

Take the slow road: Blue Ridge Parkway

July 23, 2010, 9:17 am

Ask Ellen Smith where she lives, and she won't name a town or city. "Milepost 246," she'll say.

That's because her home has been on the Blue Ridge Parkway since its earliest beginnings: "They were pouring gravel when I moved here when I was 6," she says. And on the parkway, they speak in mileposts. I met Ellen, for instance, at Bluffs Lodge and Restaurant (Milepost 241), between my stops at Brinegar Cabin (Milepost 238) and Northwest Trading Post (Milepost 259). That's about as specific about location as people tend to get.

Ellen is 80 now, only five years older than the parkway itself. Her father was a park warden, and her brothers were parkway maintenance workers. She has waited tables at Bluffs Lodge for 61 years, and she'd like to keep doing so for many more. "It's the closest thing to heaven there is," she told me, pointing to an old picture of the parkway hanging above a table of diners digging into country ham and buckwheat pancakes.

The trees in that picture were lush with flowers. These days, the trees are less pink and more green, but the view is otherwise pretty much the same. "The road's not changed, and the restaurant's not changed," Ellen said.

And that's the way the architects of the parkway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, wanted it. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hoping to prop up neighboring communities during the Great Depression, envisioned the road as a tourist attraction, much like the parks out west. Americans were falling in love with their cars at the time and didn't mind driving long distances. Before it was called the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was called the Appalachian Scenic Highway, or The Scenic for short, and to preserve the vistas, no billboards or commercial signs are allowed. Neither are commercial vehicles, except for tour buses.

"It was The Scenic. Nothing should detract from that," said Elizabeth Sims, a spokeswoman for the Blue Ridge Parkway Association.

Perhaps that's why the 469-mile parkway, built to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, has been dubbed "America's Favorite Drive," drawing almost 20 million visitors a year. Conceived as a New Deal project that would put people back to work, the road is actually an elongated park with 264 scenic overlooks plus countless picnic areas, campgrounds, hiking trails, waterfalls, streams and more.

The National Park Service is going all out to mark the 75th birthday, scheduling dozens of events that will culminate in an anniversary festival Sept. 10 to 12. I decided to commemorate this milestone my own way -- by driving, naturally. I knew where to start: Cumberland Knob, where construction began on Sept. 11, 1934, long before 9/11 took on other significance. And I knew where to end: the Linn Cove Viaduct, the last piece built in 1987. Because the parkway wasn't built contiguously, those landmarks are just 87 miles apart, mostly in the Highlands section.