By Guest Blogger Andrea Ropko
Over the years I have noticed that my family sometimes wakes up on Saturdays with a certain restlessness; a palpable discontent that comes from living a busy life of early mornings and endless commitment. When it comes to a rare screeching halt, we barely know what to do with ourselves. There are two fixes for this dilemma. One is a week at the beach where we can wake up when we want, eat seafood for every meal, and breathe in the salt air that I truly believe cures all that ails anyone. The other is an extended visit with the out of doors.
So this one particular morning when my crew woke up and immediately began what looked like an emotional pacing back and forth like caged animals, and my oldest suggested a day trip to the mountains, rather than make a list of all the must-dos that needed to be taken care of, I said yes.
The Start of Our Adventure
It was an agendaless take-off as we launched ourselves onto 421 bound for North Wilkesboro. I had the New River somewhat in mind. In less than an hour we were scooting through Wilkesboro, and shortly after that, we came up on the first exit to the Blue Ridge Parkway (US Hwy 421 to Boone & North Wilkesboro–Mile Post 276.4). I shouted, “Get on that!” My husband skirted off the highway onto the BRP.
We passed the Entering Blue Ridge Parkway sign. I kid you not: the car exhaled.
The occasional motorcycle duo would come by, but mostly, we were on our own. The kids rolled the windows down and commented on the fact that it even smells better in the mountains. It does. Maybe it’s the rhododendron. Maybe it’s the frasier firs. I don’t know. If unfettered and calm has a smell, it’s the BRP.
We decided to make a random stop at The Lump Overlook at Mile Post 264.4 It has a brief trail that leads you to the hilltop (the lump) view. According to the milepost marker, you can see all the way into the Yadkin Valley. I don’t remember which family member said it, but someone piped up the inevitable comment as we all stood gazing at the endless mountain ridge: “They REALLY ARE blue.” It’s a blue that is never done justice through pictures or even memory. It’s a blue you have to see for yourself. It’s true. These mountains REALLY ARE blue.
The Lump Overlook also boasts a memorial to Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley). Dula was sentenced to death by hanging for murdering his girlfriend in 1868. Legend says that he wrote a song about the incident while he was in jail waiting for his death.
“I met her on the mountain/There I took her life/
Met her on the mountain/Stabbed her with my knife.”
This gruesome murder happened in Wilkesboro, NC. According to my grandmother, who was born in a nearby Wilkesboro holler, Dooley was a very distant cousin. I’m not sure how close or true the relations really are, but my ten year old was eerily delighted to know that we might be related to a murderer.
A Trip to West Jefferson
As we wound our way around the parkway, I realized that my agendaless, spur of the moment trip also meant that I had packed no food and my crew is also known for their hanger (getting angry when they are hungry). We decided to exit to West Jefferson off Mile Post 255.
We parked in downtown West Jefferson, and with much angry grumpiness and blame tossing, we disagreed over where to eat and what to eat. At least once, we all said that we should’ve stayed home. The first two restaurants we stepped in had 45 minute waits. My ten year old (the one excited about our murderous background) declared that he hates West Jefferson and it is the worst place on earth. I decided to pick up the pace and walk ahead of them to scout for something, anything to eat (while pretending that I was not with the arguing, crying people behind me). That’s when I saw the sign–at that moment it was lovelier than any ridge of Blue Mountains I have ever seen. Backstreet Subs. Picnic tables outside. No wait. And really good sandwiches. Phew.
With renewed energy and normal blood sugar levels, we wandered through the main street of West Jefferson. We visited North State Antiques where my youngest found a Pelé (the original Brazilian soccer GOAT) lunchbox from the 70s. We also wandered around the Ashe County Cheese Factory where my daughter got her favorite rock candy. My oldest didn’t get anything. But he did stay off his phone without my having to say a word about it.
Discovering a Tiny Town
I was still thinking about the New River, so we left West Jefferson and headed toward Todd, an even tinier town about 20 minutes away from West Jefferson. So tiny, in fact, if you don’t know where you are headed, you might miss out on it. We parked at The Todd Island Park, which is owned and maintained by the Todd Community Preservation Organization. It is part of the delayed harvest fishing program and is stocked regularly with brook, brown, and rainbow trout. We’ve been to that same spot before to fish. We’ve also been there for the New River Marathon and Half Marathon that runs each May. We were not equipped for fishing, but sitting while we watched and listened to the river rush by us seemed to be exactly what we needed.
When it was time to head back to Winston, I found myself anxious to get back onto 421. Suddenly, the laundry I had not folded all day seemed important. However, when the kids asked to hop back onto the parkway for one last hoorah, I surprised myself by saying okay. As we double-backed through the same route we came in on, they began expressing gratitude for the day, and asked questions about my grandmother who lived in the Wilkesboro holler and my grandfather who lived in an even deeper holler off the parkway. I found myself wishing that my grandparents were there so they could tell the same stories they used to tell me when I would make that same parkway trek to our family reunion at our aunt’s house at Mile Post 246. I used to sit on my grandpa’s lap and he would say, “You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.” It made me feel special. So I said it to my own children.
My youngest nodded his head and said with great sincerity, “And we’re related to a murderer.