I continued my roller coaster ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway as I crossed into Virginia. The highlands weren’t as high but the lowlands were lower so my overall impression of the Parkway didn’t change. I was growing more used to the ups and downs, however. I won’t say I didn’t notice them— the 6000-foot elevation change involved in dropping into and climbing out of the James River guaranteed that, but the beauty of the ride, combined with the interesting history, was enough to divert my mind away from the work my legs, lungs and heart were doing.
Besides, the only person that I had to complain to about the difficulty of the climbs was myself, and he’s a stickler for pointing out that I am responsible for 99.9% of the difficulties I get into. You would think he would be more sympathetic, maybe even lie a little. But noooo, he has to be disturbingly honest.
Plus, there was Orlena Puckett. She put things into perspective. There is a sign next to her sister’s cabin on the Parkway. Orlena was born in 1837 and spent the first 50 years of her life trying to have children. She actually had 24, but they all died, most in stillbirth. Given everything I’ve ever heard about the pain involved in having a baby, I would have sworn off sex after the first three.
Orlena spent the second 50 years of her life as a midwife, helping other women have children. She is said to have delivered some 1,000, the last when she was 102. The tools of her trade were soap, water, and a nip of whiskey. When times were good, she charged six dollars; when they were bad, one— or a few chickens. Legend has it she would drive nails through her shoes in winter so she could travel over icy trails to help women who needed her services. Imagine that with today’s medical care system, even a nip of whiskey would cost $100!
Groundhog Hill is located a couple of miles away from the cabin. I am assuming there were a lot of them there. They were also called whistle pigs, which I get. I’ve often encountered their marmot cousins in western mountain meadows. These large, fat squirrels whistle at you in irritation when you disturb their afternoon naps in late August. They’ve chowed down all summer so they can sleep all winter. Folklore tells us that groundhogs appear on February 2 to predict how long winter will last. (This custom originated with European badgers, who, as far as I know, would consider it great luck to find a tasty groundhog out and about on February 2, regardless of whether you could see its shadow or not.)
Today, Groundhog Hill is topped off by a fort-like looking structure that the forest service once used for spotting fires. The area also features the various types of chestnut split-rail fences the pioneers used to keep their cattle from wandering off and being eaten by bears.
Further along, I came to Mabry Mill (featured at the top of the post), said to be the most photographed site on the Parkway. It is quite striking in its pond setting. The water wheel driven mill was built by Ed Mabry in the early 1900s and served as both a gristmill and a sawmill. During the summer months now, park volunteers offer demonstrations on a number of pioneer crafts practiced in the area. It’s a busy place. Several hundred thousand people stop by to visit each year.
The 13 mile ride downhill to the James River was quite a thrill; I practiced not using my brakes. When I passed an auto, I decided it was time to slow down. At the bottom, I stopped to admire the river. At 649 feet, it is the lowest spot on the Parkway. Further east, Virginia slaves once toiled on farms along the river producing what was considered some of the finest tobacco of the time. I first heard about it when I was backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and had stopped at a Fur Rendezvous site where early traders bought beaver pelts from mountain men.
The James River tobacco had been an important trade item. The mountain men smoked it on lonely winter nights when they were back in their trapping cabins. Lower quality tobaccos were mixed with whiskey in cooking kettles and consumed on the spot, out of the kettles. Drunken debauchery is a fairly good description of the results. Early journals described a rabid wolf wandering through camp and biting people at will. Another image that stuck in my mind was a group of men using a dead man as a poker table. Now it will probably be stuck in your mind as well. (Grin)
Further up the Parkway, the historic remnants of the Irish Creek narrow gauge railway caught my interest. Logging had once been the dominant industry of the region until most of the virgin forests had been cut down. Over 100-million board feet of lumber had passed over the Irish Creek line alone. My dad had worked as the electrician for a lumber company that had a narrow gauge railroad when I was a child. I remember watching the long trains of logs come rolling into town. I’d stand by the tracks with my friends and wave at the engineers. On a good day, they would throw candy out the window to us.
Next Blog: We’ll say goodbye to the Blue Ridge Parkway and head into Shenandoah National Park on the Skyline Drive.