A tour of Appalachian America, soul of the nation

Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway, (photo by Doug Kerr)
Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway

One-quarter of all Americans have ancestors who passed through the Appalachians on their way to new homes. This is where many folkways and traditions of the “real” America developed. One of the best areas to explore that history is along the Blue Ridge Parkway. USA travel writer Fran Severn takes us on the tour...


The Appalachians were the border between the original colonies and the new lands to be explored and settled in the west. New arrivals looking for land to start farms and new lives found that the forests could be cleared to become homesteads. Others decided to keep moving to the other side of the rugged hills, where the land was easier to turn into a home. For the Native Americans, it was their traditional and sacred home.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Scenic Byway that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from central Virginia to North Carolina. Here you’ll find small towns where neighbors greet each other by name, shops filled with locally made crafts and locally grown foods, inspiring scenic vistas, and living history sites that demonstrate how settlers and natives survived in the mountains. Plan to spend two days to thoroughly enjoy all there is to see and do.


Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, by Army Jacket via Creative Commons


Mountain music 

The region is known for its music, which seems to be carried by the breezes across the ridges and into the valleys. Whether it’s called “mountain music,” “old time,” “bluegrass,” “hillbilly,” or “traditional,” it’s recognized by the fiddles, dulcimers, and banjoes which play the melodies with Celtic and African roots that derive from the English and Scot settlers and the slaves some of them held. Living together, their traditions merged. British ballads and hymns merged with African rhythms to become ‘gospel’ music; the African string instruments evolved into the banjo. The songs tell of love and loss, faith and endurance.


Touring the Parkway

Floyd, Virginia, is a hub of the mountain music scene and is a great place to start your trek. Always a busy mountain town supplying farmers and settlers, it developed into a social center, too. With music the main entertainment, it’s long been a center for the mountain music scene.

The village is a lively mix of musicians, artisans, farmers, and merchants. The general store is the center of life. There’s music weekly on the store’s small stage, often with old-time dancing. You can also buy everything from a field guide to cows to rolling pins to bib overalls to organic dish towels.

About ten miles south of Floyd, Mabry Mill is a picture-worthy grist mill once used to grind grain harvested from the steep, rocky hills. Seasonally, you’ll see demonstrations of apple butter making, blacksmithing, and other skills needed to survive in these isolated mountains. (The whiskey still is restored but, alas, no longer operates.)

Still humming tunes you heard in Floyd, stop at the Blue Ridge Music Center (milepost 213; www.blueridgemusiccenter.org) where the small, but wonderfully interactive museum puts the toe-tapping tunes into the context of the history and the people of the region. You’ll listen to songs that arrived with the first Europeans to today’s bluegrass artists, play instruments, and enjoy the daily free jam session in the plaza.

North of Asheville, NC, the Folk Art Center of the Southern Highland Craft Guild (milepost 382; www.southernhighlandguild.org) shows how the essential work-a-day crafts of the mountain settlers – like pottery-making and weaving – have evolved into art forms by talented artisans.


The Cherokee

The Parkway ends in Cherokee, NC. Like the arriving settlers, the Cherokee were farmers and hunters and lived in towns. Recognizing that the best way to survive the influx of outsiders and their new government was to adapt, they developed their own written language and adopted a government with a constitution and laws similar to those of the U.S. Originally, relations were generally genial, but as settlers wanted the lands the Cherokee claimed, relations soured.

The town of Cherokee is the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation who live on the reservation that encompasses the town and surrounding mountains. It is all that is left of the sovereign nation that originally covered much of eastern Georgia and western North Carolina. Recognized by the US Supreme Court, its legitimacy was ignored by President Andrew Jackson, who ordered that the Cherokee be removed to Oklahoma via a forced march known as the Trail of Tears. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian tells the story of the original people of these mountains with great dignity, as does an outdoor theatrical performance held nightly during the summer. (www.cherokeemuseum.org). 

The town is a good place to pull off the road for a few days and enjoy hiking through the mountains and along the creeks before returning to city life or taking the next leg of your road trip.


Fran Severn has written for publications including Delta Sky and Western Horseman, is a contributor to online travel publication Striped Pot, and blogs for Chesapeake Life Magazine. franstravels.wordpress.com


Practical information


In Floyd, the General Store serves great sandwiches, soups, and salads. Natasha’s Market Café advocates Slow Food and has excellent vegetarian selections. Hotel Floyd is recognized for its green technology, and the second floor has a balcony with great views. In Cherokee, the Hampton Inn is centrally located and the room includes a substantial hot breakfast, while Granny’s Kitchen serves Southern favorites buffet-style.


Plan your US road trip


To read more about what to see in the United States, visit Insight's USA destination pages. Or choose from one of our fantastic USA travel guides, including US on the Road...



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