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August 20, 2012

It’s not every day that I drive 600 miles through five states. I did just that on Sunday though.

On the last full day of our trip (and Sam’s last day as a 10-year-old), the plan was to use the Blue Ridge Parkway to make our way from Asheville, North Carolina to northern Virgina. The parkway, which is maintained by the National Parks Service, winds 479 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia down to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s far from the most direct route but it’s known as one of the most scenic drives in the country.

We got on the parkway pretty close to its North Carolina terminus and stayed on for about 200 miles until we crossed the border into Virginia. Unfortunately, rain has been the default setting for the weather for most of our trip and today was no different. The clouds were so thick that they obscured the picturesque mountain views we had heard so much about. We still managed to sneak a peek through the clouds here and there, though.

Much more troubling was the fact that, as we gained altitude, those clouds enveloped the road itself. Forget seeing mountain vistas, I couldn’t see more than 30 feet in front of me!

Eventually we made our way to Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Rockies. I know this is not the most impressive distinction in the mountain world, and at 6,684 feet Mitchell is barely even a mountain. Last year we were about that high up on Mt. Rainier and we didn’t even get halfway to the summit! Still, whether you’re in the schoolyard or in the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s something fun about standing on top of the tallest thing around.

We still had lots of ground to cover but we still stopped off at various points to hike to waterfalls, enjoy the views at various overlooks, have a picnic lunch, and generally make sure to stop and smell the flowers–sometimes literally.

After a few hours we crossed into Virginia and decided to abandon the Blue Ridge Parkway for the much faster and more direct I-81.

[Side note: The stark contrast in both physical attractiveness and traveling effectiveness got me thinking about President Eisenhower. His terms in office predate me, so I can’t really speak with any authority on his political prowess. But is there any post-WWII president who’s had a more lasting positive effect on the country domestically? Our interstate highway system, implemented under Ike, is not beautiful but it is one of the most important parts of our national infrastructure. Trips like the ones Sam and I have taken–like the ones that millions of American families take every year–would simply not be possible without the interstates. And their importance to manufacturing and commerce in this country cannot be overstated. There’s barely an industry that isn’t helped by the ease of interstate travel. Nobody likes paying taxes or seeing the government spend lots of money, but when it’s well spent on useful infrastructure improvements the whole country benefits for generations to come. People complain about how ugly and boring the interstates tend to be, and they’re not wrong. But when you need to get from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in one day, as the Hamster and I did today, suddenly those ugly highways look pretty great.]

I wanted to make our last dinner of the trip special, so instead of our usual routine of grilling burgers or hot dogs or chicken at a highway rest stop, we grilled steaks … at a highway rest stop. It was good that we were well-nourished, because by this point I had spent most of the day behind the wheel and still had another 3+ hours of driving ahead of me.

Sam wanted to stay up until midnight so he’d be awake when his birthday started and I agreed, partly to make him happy and partly to allow us to get us closer to Gettysburg, which will be our last stop of the trip Tuesday. Sure enough, by 11 pm we were in southern Pennsylvania and I had enough time to get Sam showered and tucked into bed just in time to kiss him goodnight and wish him happy birthday at midnight. The Blue Ridge Parkway may have been the most conventionally beautiful thing we saw today, but we also saw beauty in some unexpected places.

This morning I woke up in North Carolina with my 10-year-old son, and tonight I’m going to sleep in Pennsylvania with an 11-year-old. Tomorrow night we’ll sleep in our beds back home in New York. It’s not easy to sum up three weeks of driving and sightseeing and bonding and arguing and adventuring, but here goes. In a weird way, this trip has been a lot like Michael Phelps’s performance in London: it didn’t have quite the same magic as last time (when just about everything worked out perfectly), and it was even a struggle at times, but there were still flashes of brilliance that showed just what can be accomplished with a little drive.

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