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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ridge running

Chattanooga seems unchanged since last time I was here, in, oh, about 1972.

Blue Ridge overlook on a late winter day, watercolor sketch by Carol L. Douglas
I can drive from Rockport, ME to Chattanooga, TN on less than $90 worth of gas. That’s the beauty of a Prius. But at more than 250,000 miles, my car is growing delicate, even though I attend to every rattle and gasp.

I spent the night near Sherando Lake in Virginia. I know this area well. GPS would have looped me north and back to US 81. Instead I headed south on Virginia 664 until it dead-ended at the Blue Ridge Parkway.

That was a good plan until my brake started dragging. I was out of cell range and miles from any services. I am carrying no tools, not even a screwdriver. It’s the off-season, so we were absolutely alone except for a few white-tail deer that bounded across the road. Even the black bears are still hibernating, not that they’re any more skilled at brakes than the deer.

It was dark and bleak, and then it started sleeting.
I prayed fervently and hit the brake pedal. Last time I did that—in populous Rye—a brake shoe fell out. This time it worked like it was supposed to. The brake sighed happily and gave me no more trouble. Vastly relieved but still a little anxious, I continued along that lonely ridge. It is one of the most beautiful roads in America, a long, skinny park with very few access points.

The mountains were unusually bleak. Usually they stretch to the horizon in billows of blue, growing lighter and lighter as they get farther away. But it is still winter, and the sky was gloomy. At this elevation, there were no tell-tale signs of spring—no green haze in the understory, no red buds on treetops. The ridge sits and pouts and waits for warmer weather.

I was planning on turning here anyway.
I found an overlook and did a watercolor sketch. It started to rain as I finished. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, I bent and felt the pavement. Slick.

The rain turned to sleet as I worked my way carefully south. At Route 60, I turned to the west and down off the mountain. It was a relief to pick up US 81 again.

The Blue Ridge Parkway on a less grumpy day.
The first (and only) time I was ever at a tent meeting was at Lookout Mountain in Georgia. The North in the late 1960s was much too decorous for that kind of exuberance. The meeting started at sunset, and I remember it as a beautiful place, bathed in golden light and with a terrifying, difficult topography. It all seemed wonderfully exotic to a young, unchurched girl from New York.

I’d hoped to make Chattanooga in time to detour back to Lookout Mountain. I remember that the mountain has a commanding view of the Tennessee River. It was beautiful, and it was also what made it strategically important during the Civil War.

Alas, it was not to be. Traffic around Knoxville was as dense as Queens Boulevard at rush hour. I was stuck.

My late cousin Joy, left, my late father, and me.
I arrived in Chattanooga as dusk fell. This city has always reminded me of my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I could almost, I thought, strike off and find my cousins’ old house. My cousin Danny would be careening around on his unicycle in the stifling summer heat, and his sister Joy would greet us at the door with a crackin’ loud “Hi, y’all,” while a passel of little kids milled around. 

But time doesn’t go backwards on its reel, I’m afraid. Dan is the only one left in Chattanooga; the rest are scattered by time and distance. So I turn my face resolutely south to Alabama and what’s called me here.

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