In the house in which I grew up there was a door frame that had accumulated a lot of pencil marks over the years. It was where our dad would measure our height from time to time so that we could see how much we had grown since the last time we had been measured. It was always a thrill for me to see that I had gotten taller, even if it was only by a sixteenth of an inch or so.
A road trip that I took this past Thursday made me hearken back to those days because, for just a few minutes, I stood taller than anyone else east of the Rocky Mountains. More on that in a minute.
I recently joined James Spurck, the managing editor of The Times Examiner, and his family for a day trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our main destination for the day was Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak in the eastern United States.
Along the way we made several stops. A couple of times we parked at overlooks and looked through James' high-powered binoculars at the scenery below. With his binoculars, tiny dots in the far distance could be easily made out as homes or barns or smokestacks, or even a billboard. Two tiny dots at the bottom of one valley turned out to be charter buses parked in a yard.
James' young son Josh was particularly enthralled with the several tunnels through the mountains through which we traveled. I remember when I was his age looking forward to the trips that my family would take going from Baltimore to Virginia because it meant driving through the Harbor Tunnel, which was much longer than any of the Parkway tunnels.
Our first stop was the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, located just a few miles north of Asheville at Milepost 384. In addition to some displays and some brochures, the center features a 24-minute film about the parkway. This film about a father/daughter motorcycle trip along the parkway is a must-see for anyone motoring north of Asheville along the Parkway. The aerial cinematography is outstanding.
The next stop is just a couple of miles farther up the road. The Folk Art Center is a nice place to stop in and browse the various country arts and crafts for sale. Fancy glassware, fancy woodcarvings, fancy furniture, fancy artwork, among other fancy concoctions from the fertile imaginations of many a crafter are on display and for sale. But be forewarned; you will need to take out a second mortgage to purchase some of the items.
After several more miles of curves and tunnels we reached the turnoff for Mount Mitchell State Park. As we drove the few miles to the top, James remarked that the trees looked different from the ones in the lower elevations. Indeed they did. We could definitely tell that we were not in Kansas anymore. Sporadic trees, grayish-white in color and denuded of any vegetation, were sprinkled throughout the forests of mainly evergreens.
After reaching the top parking lot we walked the remaining few hundred yards to the very pinnacle of the mountain. I had visited Mount Mitchell once before, about a quarter of a century ago. I remembered having climbed a stone observation tower way back then, but it was no longer standing. It turns out that the tower had been demolished in the interim and had been replaced with a stone open-air, circular viewing platform.
As we and a dozen or so other tourists gazed in all directions for several minutes from atop the platform we struck up a conversation with a friendly park ranger who asked us where we were from. It turns out that he has been to Greenville many times and even bought a car from one of the local dealerships.
James got out his binoculars, determined that he was going to spot a black bear somewhere in the distance. I assured him that he was very unlikely to spot one, and I was right. As he engaged in his futile search for Ursus Americanus, I viewed some of the nearby peaks and marveled that Mitchell was the tallest of them all, for it seemed as if a couple of others were taller. Looks can be deceiving, at least so they say.
We walked back down the pathway to the visitor center, which sports a small museum and gift shop. In the museum, a display explains how Dr. Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857), a geologist and Presbyterian minister and after whom the peak is named, was able to determine the mountain's elevation. He used a barometer to measure the air pressure at the top, which would have been lower than the air pressure at lower elevations.
Several years after his initial survey, Micthell's measurement of the mountain's elevation came under dispute. In order to put the matter to rest, he returned to the mountain to recheck his numbers. While on this trip, while caught in a thunderstorm, he died after falling down a waterfall. His body lies buried at the summit, just a few feet away from the viewing platform.
It turns out that Mitchell's initial measurement was off by a few hundred feet. In the 1930's, the United States Geological Survey determined the actual elevation to be 6,684 feet.
After lunching at the nearby cafe, we continued north a few more miles to the small mountain village of Little Switzerland, which is located just off the parkway. We stopped in at a tourist attraction called Emerald Village, where people can still pan for minerals. We toured a multi-story collection of Americana, including vintage farm implements and musical instruments, among other things.
We then paid a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Minerals, located a couple of miles further up the parkway, after which we headed back to Greenville. We got off the parkway and headed down the mountain on Route 226. The first three for four miles were very curvy and steep. We had the extra pleasure of being stuck behind a slow-moving logging truck with very loud brakes. After coming down from the mountain, the rest of the ride home was smooth sailing.