The idea for the Blue Ridge Parkway was an odd one in 1934, a time when federal funding for public projects was coming down like rain everywhere.
The notion of an attractive park-like road had been around for a while – the term “parkway” was coined by conservationist and civic landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, the guy who created Manhattan’s Central Park and the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore grounds.
But parkways had been like all roads – utilitarian but attractive ways to get from where you were to where you wanted to go. Several had been built in and leading to New York City. They were limited-access affairs, so you could drive at Sunday speeds and still make it to work on time.
Such a need didn’t exist in Western North Carolina and western Virginia. Asheville, the biggest town on the east side of the Continental Divide in the two states, had a population of roughly 98,000. Moreover, the projected route frequently ran across mountaintops, which made construction all the more difficult.
The road originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway was basically a make-work effort and was built by Depression-era Americans in the Civilian Conversation Corps, Public Works Administration and a number of other government agencies.
Work began in North Carolina on Sept. 11, 1946, near Cumberland Knob, and only wrapped up in 1987, when the final and most difficult connection was completed near Grandfather Mountain.
The Blue Ridge Parkway’s northern end was affixed to Skyline Drive, which takes motorists 105 miles up the Shenandoah Valley.
That valley has always been heavily traveled, but it’s the Blue Ridge Parkway that attracts more motorists.
The reasons are in front of your nose: beautiful vistas, tranquil expanses in all directions. All free to enjoy if you have a tank of gas. And just off its curved route are towns geared to passers-through – places where you can spend the night, get a meal and maybe see a sight or two.
The “getting there” is the fun, not the completion of your journey.
And that’s an element of old-time vacationing. Similarly, the quickest drive from Chicago to L.A. may be by interstate – but the real motoring adventure is doing good old Route 66.
The BRP offers the hassle-free and scenic allure of the former, and the easy pace of the latter.
Keep an eye out for September events tied to 45 years of the parkway.
In the meantime, think about heading to downtown Myrtle Beach, which is unveiling an old-fashion pedestrian version of it: a boardwalk along the shore.
Enjoy the “getting there.”