I stayed in the nice Motel 6 on the outskirts of Roanoke on Saturday evening, then got politely kicked out of my room on Sunday morning by
a cluster of maids because I'd misread the checkout time (oops!) After sheepishly packing up my truck, I drove into Roanoke to get some
gas. Every now and then while driving across the country, I seem to have a "Duel"-like experience with a sinfully rude truck driver
– a nasty encounter that I had on a freeway in Indiana in 1998 was especially memorable –
and, as it turned out, today would be that day.
Above: Moments after checking out of the Motel 6 in Roanoke, I encountered a very nasty trucker.
For those of you too young to remember, "Duel" was Steven Spielberg's directorial debut in 1971,
a disturbing made-for-TV movie that starred Dennis Weaver as a guy who drove across an empty highway in the West
while being perpetually tormented, for unknown reasons, by a truck driver who's face you never see. I watched
"Duel" only once, in 1971 when it was first released, but the haunting story has stuck with me vividly all
these years. "Duel" was probably the first movie ever made about road rage, a term and affliction which,
unfortunately, have become commonplace in this country.
As I was merging onto the nearly-empty freeway heading into Roanoke, a truck who was barreling down the freeway at 65 m.p.h. in
the right lane refused to let me in. I have no idea why but maybe it was my colorful Oregon plates (remember how I got keyed
in Austin?), my Japanese import pickup, or the "Wisconsin" sticker on the back of my truck. Whatever it was, this guy was
determined not to let me merge onto the freeway. As the end of my merge lane quickly drew near, I floored the gas pedal and
pulled in front of the trucker, who greeted me with a bellowing 120-decibel blast from his horn.
He wouldn't let up, either, and tailed me closely into downtown Roanoke on a side street, finally passing me while giving me the finger
after I pulled into a Chevron. Yep, it was all my fault because I had the gall to get onto "his" freeway. Some
people shouldn't be allowed to drive – or have children. Anyway, I shrugged it off and, after grabbing some donuts in the
mini-mart, I felt much better. Donuts always have a soothing effect on me.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Here's a short version of the classic American folk song, Shenandoah.
I fueled up and left Roanoke, then headed up onto the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway about mid-day. The parkway is an amazing and
singularly-unique drive in America. It's a two-lane road that runs north-south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for
469 miles from Front Royal, Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, averaging between 3,000 and 4,000 feet in
elevation. Like the Natchez Trace Parkway (see News: June 29, 2001), which is also maintained by
the National Park Service, there are no commercial facilities allowed on the Blue Ridge Parkway and trucks are prohibited – even (and
thankfully) my Duel-ish trucker friend in Roanoke.
Above: Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway in western Virginia.
For the next several hours, I drove north on the Blue Ridge Parkway, pulling off every now then to soak in the
incredible vistas, either looking east down onto the Virginia piedmont or west down into the Shenandoah Valley.
That's the same "Shenandoah," by the way, that I used to play (albeit rather poorly) on my Hohner harmonica.
I used to take my harmonica with me wherever I drove or hiked and "Shenandoah" was always one of my favorite tunes.
Late in the afternoon, I drove into Shenandoah National Park, which straddles the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and lies
at the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The beautiful campground here was, amazingly enough, only about half-full and I spent
a very pleasant evening there while cooking up my favorite dinner once again: bratwurst and beans. What else?
Unfortunately though, the biting black flies came out in force the next morning, so I decided not to linger in the campground.
After doing a load of wash at the NPS laundromat, I headed back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and ate a quick breakfast of donuts and Diet
Pepsi at a pullout that overlooked the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley. No, the donuts weren't Krispy Kremes but they were still pretty
good – and very sticky. My favorite kind.
Above left: Looking east from the Blue Ridge Parkway into the John-Boy Walton country of central Virginia.
Above right: And on the other side of the crest, this is looking west into the Shenandoah Valley.
Above left: A typical pastoral view along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Above right: Looks like fun, huh?
Left: A National Park Service farmstead along the Blue Ridge Parkway,
with two goats at the cabin entrance (like Walmart greeters).
I thought the guy in the overalls was just some
hick. But as I discovered, he's actually the Parkway Superintendent – and a really nice guy.
Above left: Entering Shenandoah National Park.
Above center: Camping at Loft Mountain campground in Shenandoah National Park, on the crest of the Blue
Ridge Mountains. Note the extension cord from my truck to my laptop computer. I have an AC/DC inverter that plugs into my
cigarette lighter to charge my laptop and digital camera batteries. Normally, though, I charge up my batteries during the day when
Above right: One of strangest coincidences of my travels happened back in 1985 when I entered Shenandoah National Park.
The ranger at the entrance booth turned out to be Cary Wilson, a former student of mine at the University of Wisconsin. In fact, Cary
told me that I had been his inspiration for applying with the National Park Service, because I had worked as a BLM ranger in Colorado.
Schuyler, Virginia (The REAL Walton's Mountain)
If you watched television during the 1970s like I did, the name "Blue Ridge Mountains" might ring a bell because it was the setting for
The Waltons, one of the most popular shows of that decade. The Waltons was a fictional show but was based on the life of author
Earl Hamner, who grew up during the Great Depression in the town of Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler"), Virginia. Hamner wrote a book about
his upbringing in Virginia called Spencer's Mountain which, in 1963, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as Clay and Olivia
Spencer, and James MacArthur as their son, Clay-Boy, the model for Earl Hamner himself.
Above: The Waltons (plus Ike and Reckless) hanging out on their porch.
Hamner later wrote another book with a similar theme and setting called The Homecoming, which was based on an actual event in
his family one year at Christmas during the Great Depression. The Homecoming was made into a CBS TV movie in 1971, but since
the name "The Spencers" was copyrighted, Earl Hamner decided to call the family "The Waltons."
The Homecoming aired on December 19, 1971 and was a huge ratings success, so CBS decided to turn it into a TV series, which
debuted on September 14, 1972. The CBS executives couldn't have picked a worse time slot for the show, though, because The
Waltons squared off against two popular shows: The Mod Squad on ABC and the #1 rated program in the country, The Flip
Wilson Show over on NBC.
During its first few weeks, and despite critical acclaim, The Waltons wallowed near the bottom of the TV ratings. It seemed
that the show, stressing homespun themes, was doomed from the start given its glitzy competition, and no one in the Waltons cast expected
to stick around very long. To help rescue the show, CBS mounted a PR campaign, which was how I first heard about it. I remember as a kid
seeing a full-page ad in Life Magazine (remember Life Magazine?) titled, "Help Save The Waltons," so the next Thursday evening I checked it out.
Here's the theme song from the 1970s TV series, The Waltons.
Their PR campaign worked because, through the ads and word-of-mouth, not only did I start watching The Waltons every
Thursday night at 8 p.m., but so did millions of other Americans. The show received a lot of critical acclaim, as well, with both
Richard Thomas (John-Boy) and Michael Learned (Olivia) winning Best Actor Emmys that first year, along with Ellen Corby, who played the
crusty-but-loving Grandma, the first of 19 Emmys the show would eventually win. The show's family-oriented message was a welcome relief
during that time of political upheaval, with the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal dominating the news.
Above: The Waltons House. Gee, it looks suspiciously like the
Dragonfly Inn from the TV show, "Gilmore Girls." Hmmm...
The first few years of the The Waltons, when Ellen Corby and Will Geer (a.k.a., "You old fool") were both alive and
well, were definitely the best. After about five years, things started to fall apart and the show began going downhill. Mary
Ellen got married, Ellen Corby had a stroke, John-Boy headed off to New York, and Will Geer died. The show became pretty pathetic
towards the end, especially with Livvy shuffled off to a sanitarium and a reconstituted John-Boy working in New York City (does anyone even
remember the second John-Boy?) The final episode aired in 1981, although The Waltons probably should've said goodnight to
America a few years earlier. Nevertheless, the show has since thrived in syndication while endearing a whole new generation of viewers.
I had visited Earl Hamner's hometown of Schuyler, Virginia once before, back in 1985, but there were no signs or interpretive facilities
then so I didn't know which was the actual Walton (oops, I mean Hamner) house. I guess The Waltons have quite a following, though,
because in the early 1990s the old Schuyler High School was converted into the "Walton's Mountain Museum."
Above: The high school that Earl Hamner attended (class of 1940) is now the Walton's Mountain
Museum. It costs $5 to get in and if you're a Waltons fan like me, it's well worth it.
It's easy to get lost amidst Schuyler's winding, hilly roads, as I proved during my trip here in 1985. But the museum is easy
to find. It's located just up the road from the Hamner house, which is owned by the youngest Hamner child
(the "Jim-Bob" character in the show), and a short ways from what was Ike Godsey's
I walked into the Walton's Mountain Museum and paid my $5 admission fee to a pretty blond girl at the door. She kindly directed me to a
back room, where a video describing the making of The Waltons, narrated by Earl Hamner, had just begun. There were about 20 other
Waltons fans in the museum, and after we watched the video, we all got a nice guided tour. Altogether, I spent an enjoyable
hour at the museum looking at all kinds of memorabilia that only a true Waltons fan would appreciate, including signed photographs,
the original radio that was on the show, and a replica of the Baldwin sisters "recipe machine."
During my visit to Schuyler, I tried to imagine what life must have been like for the Hamner family while
living here during the Depression. No, there's no such thing as "Walton's Mountain" and there never
was. However, as I discovered, the town of Schuyler had its own special charm, and for that I was glad.
Above left: Here's the Walton (er, Hamner) house in Schuyler, Virginia. Earl Hamner's brother James
("Jim-Bob" from the show) still lives here. He was probably inside watching "The Waltons."
Above right: I took this picture of the original "Ike Godsey's Store" during my visit to Schuyler in
1985. Known in real-life as the S & H Grocery Store, it unfortunately burned down a few years later.
However, a new grocery store has sprung up in its place.
Above left: Inside the Walton's Mountain Museum.
Above right: These are Earl Hamner's siblings – the "Waltons" children from the TV series –
with Earl's parents in the middle.
Left: I bought a coffee mug at the museum's well-stocked gift shop.
I should've bought "A Piece of Walton's Mountain" though. It was soapstone,
which was mined in this area.
Note: Inspired by my 2001 visit to Schuyler, I later decided to create a section of my website
devoted to The Waltons, which I've posted in Close Ups. Here are the links:
Above: Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States.
My other major stop that day was at Monticello, the former home of
the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. I had read a fair bit about Jefferson over the years and visited
his beloved nearby town of Charlottesville once, but I had never been to Monticello. How could Jefferson afford to build this
elaborate mansion on a hilltop? He made his money the old-fashioned way: he inherited it from his dad.
I pulled into the Monticello (pronounced "monta-chello") parking lot late in the afternoon and paid my entrance fee
in the well-organized admissions building, then I hopped on a shuttle bus, which took me up to the hilltop.
After our small group disembarked, a guide here give us a 20-minute tour inside Monticello. The only thing
disappointing about the mansion was that I wasn't allowed to take pictures of the interior, so I can't show you what it
looks like inside, but it's filled with all sorts of Jeffersonian inventions and innovations. After the tour, we
were free to wander around the grounds for as long as we liked. I could've even taken another house tour,
which I thought about doing. Monticello is a fascinating place, and after walking through it, I felt for the
first time like I understood Jefferson.
After the tour, I popped into the gift shop, which wasn't nearly as tacky as I'd feared.
My dad is a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, so I wandered around the shop for 20 minutes debating whether
to get him the Thomas Jefferson golf balls, a Lewis and Clark t-shirt, or a Jefferson refrigerator magnet.
I figured that you can lose golf balls – or at least, I can – so I got a magnet for my dad and the t-shirt for myself.
Interestingly, I didn't see anything in the gift shop with the name of Jefferson's slave/mistress, Sally Hemings, on it. I guess folks don't like to talk about that sort of thing.
Above: Jefferson's home, Monticello. Looks like the back of a nickel.
Thomas Jefferson wasn't a perfect person: he was a slaveholder and an extravagant spender who was unable to manage his
finances. But he also had an unbounded curiosity about the world and an array of eclectic interests. Those
admirable traits have always intrigued me, perhaps because I (humbly) think of myself as being somewhat the same way. Along
with serving as President, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at the ripe old age of 33, and later he founded the
University of Virginia. He often observed the construction of the university, in nearby Charlottesville, with a telescope
set up on his porch at Monticello.
In one of the most amazing coincidences of American history, two of America's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John
Adams, both died on the same day. Not only that, but it was on a July 4. And not only that, but it was on July 4 in
1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two men not only were close friends but were
also the ones most responsible for the creation of the Declaration of Independence: Adams had the concept and Jefferson put
it into writing. John Adams, in Massachusetts, died in the late afternoon of that day in 1826 and his last words were,
"Thomas Jefferson survives," not realizing that Jefferson, in Virginia, had passed away a few hours earlier.
Even though I had heard wonderful things about Monticello and had high expectations, I was still very impressed. Thomas Jefferson
was an amazing fellow and I heartily recommend seeing Monticello to anyone who visits Virginia.
Above left: Here's our tour group about to go inside Monticello. Jefferson was a planter –
first tobacco, then wheat and other crops – and started building Monticello in 1768. He finished it about 40 years later.
I suppose that's usually what happens when you build your own house.
Above right: Monticello's "modest" back yard. I wonder if Jefferson used Scott's Turf Builder?
Above left: A passageway under Monticello where Jefferson's slaves lived, including his favorite, Sally Hemings.
Above center: Jefferson planted numerous crops and grew extensive gardens on the grounds, which are still maintained.