Bend in the Road: 5 Tales of Road Trip Adventures on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Around every bend in the road, there is a great story to tell about adventures on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Written by Jason Barnette
on April 21, 2021
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I don’t know how many miles I’ve driven on the Blue Ridge Parkway – it’s a lot. Short day trip adventures have lengthened over the years into full week road trip adventures from end-to-end. It’s the one national park site I try to visit every year.

I never tire of driving the 469-mile Parkway. Gorgeous scenic overlooks, spectacular waterfalls, there is always something amazing to see. But my favorite reason to drive the Parkway is for the stories I have to tell when I’m done.

These stories don’t always fit into a travel article. How do I include the story of the half-naked man or misconceived injuries in an article about road trips and outdoor adventures? That’s why I decided maybe one day I’ll write a book about it – and I’ll call it Bend in the Road.

I never have to drive very far to find the next bend in the road – and I know the next great story could be waiting for just on the other side.

“E” is for Empty

My day began with a warning in the back of my mind. It was a warning I’d heard countless times before – and ignored almost as many times. “Get gas,” the warning whispered.

Filling up the gas tank is one of my least favorite tasks in life. I don’t really know why I despise it so much. It might be the noisy cars and trucks coming and going at the pumps. Or it could be those irritating video ads that play on the digital screens. Whatever it is, I hate it, and I put it off as long as possible.

Starting my day in Waynesboro, Virginia, I knew had a bit of a drive ahead to get into Roanoke that night. I took a good look at the gas gauge. The needle pointed to just a tick below half a tank. The digital readout confidently stated I had a 200 mile range – I only had 130 miles to drive.

I have plenty of gas, I thought to myself.

It was a gorgeous day to drive on the Parkway. Fluffy white clouds added a nice touch of contrast to the deep blue sky. The temperature was warm at the lower elevations – but on the Parkway it was a good ten degrees cooler. I was having the time of my life.

About mid-afternoon, I pulled off the Parkway at the James River Visitor Center. I walked across the James River on the pedestrian bridge, explored the remnants of an old canal, and used the restrooms.

When I came back to the car I started the engine to charge my phone – and my heart hit the floor. I stared at the gas gauge with a needle pointing at just a few ticks above empty. Where had all the gas gone?!

It must be a glitch, I told myself repeatedly. Traveling up and down hills and around tight curves must have knocked the gas gauge off. Right? Right.

I resumed my drive southbound on the Parkway. I only had 70 miles to drive to Roanoke. Easy, I thought.

And that’s when that familiar chirp sounded from the car – the low fuel warning. Why did that sound always make my heart skip a beat?

The interesting thing about that section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the drastic change in elevation. At 650 feet above sea level, the James River is the lowest point on the entire Parkway. And just 12.8 miles south, Apple Orchard Mountain is the highest point in Virginia at 3,950 feet.

I only had one gallon of gas left in the car – that was worth about 20 miles of driving. The nearest gas station was much further than that.

I kept driving southbound – I knew I could get help ahead. I gripped the steering wheel tightly because I was afraid at any moment the engine would die and take with it the power steering and brakes. When I drove around a bend in the road and caught sight of Sharp Top ahead, I let loose the deepest of sighs.

I pulled into the first parking space I could find at the Peaks of Otter Lodge and turned the engine off. It was a miracle I had made it that far. Out of curiosity, I tried starting the engine. It sputtered, but never started again.

It took nearly an hour for someone contracted by GEICO to bring me three gallons of gas – just enough to get me into town. I didn’t mind the wait. I took a walk around Abbott Lake, enjoyed the cool evening at the Peaks of Otter, and got something to eat at the restaurant.

After the tow truck drive filled the car with three small gallons, I drove into Roanoke for the night. I still didn’t fill it up until the next morning.

The Half-Naked Man

I have been to Linville Falls several times. It’s one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the Blue Ridge Parkway and visited by thousands of people each year. I had hiked the trails on either side of the gorge and even been to the very bottom.

But I had never been to Dugger’s Creek Falls.

During a road trip on the Parkway, I decided it was finally time to visit the small waterfall. I asked a park ranger how to get there. She stepped outside the visitor center door and pointed across the parking lot. “You’ll see a primitive trail cutting through the woods at the other end. Walk for about five minutes and you’ll see the waterfall.”

I grabbed my camera bag and tripod and headed across the parking lot. At the far end, I found a very primitive trail cutting through a thicket of rhododendron bushes. During the five-minute walk, I mostly kept my eyes on the ground. The trail was rough and uneven.

I could hear trickling water ahead. I must be getting close! I burst through the last barrier of rhododendron leaves to see a peaceful stream through the forest – and a man sitting on a rock nearby.

He quickly jumped to his feet and I realized he was wearing a sleeveless white t-shirt and hiking shoes – and absolutely nothing else. Without a single word or momentary eye contact, he headed off on the trail I had just walked. I turned around just in time to see his bare butt disappear into the rhododendron bushes.

I was dumbfounded for a long moment. Then it dawned on me. He wasn’t carrying any shorts or pants with him. What had happened to the rest of his clothes?

The worst part was that I realized I was in the wrong spot. I was much further downstream because I had taken the wrong trail. I backtracked to the parking lot and quickly found the correct trail just fifty feet away.

Just before I started the trail, I saw a late model BMW driving across the parking lot. The man was driving the luxury car – and he was still half naked.

Fog on the Mountain

In 2018, I had a rare opportunity. A friend had a one-week timeshare at a condo she couldn’t use and asked if I wanted it for a drastically reduced price. I jumped at the chance and two weeks later I was checking in to a two-bedroom condo in Beech Mountain, North Carolina.

It was my first workation. I didn’t have an entire week for a vacation, so I decided to work the first half of each day in the condo and then explore the region the last half of each day.

One particular day, I descended Beech Mountain into Banner Elk, quickly passed through town, and headed toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was eager for a day trip adventure to Little Switzerland – a charming small town I had passed countless times but never visited. I knew there was a good restaurant, bookstore, and coffee shop that I wanted to visit.

Just before reaching the Parkway, I drove into a dense fog. It was one of the thickest, darkest fogs I had ever seen. I remember seeing one those yellow road signs that said something like, “Avoid Parkway during fog.” I promptly ignored the sign.

The Blue Ridge Parkway has a maximum speed limit of forty-five miles per hour. I typically drive slower than that because I’m out to enjoy the experience. But the fog was so dense I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in front of the car. I crept along at a paltry ten miles per hour.

The thirty-mile drive into Little Switzerland would have taken about forty-five minutes on an average day. But this was not an average day. Ten miles down the Parkway I passed the sign pointing toward Linville Falls – I think the fog had gotten thicker. Twenty miles and I knew the Orchard at Altapass was below me – but I couldn’t see a thing.

Thirty miles down the road, I finally exited the Parkway in Little Switzerland. My fingers ached from gripping the steering so tightly for so long. I parked in front of the restaurant and noticed a sign that made my heart sink. It had closed just fifteen minutes earlier. I glanced at my watch and realized the drive had taken three hours.

Saddened – but not entirely defeated – I walked next door to the bookstore where I ordered a fresh coffee and sat on the couch in front of the crackling fireplace. But it was getting late and I didn’t want to drive back to the condo in that fog and the dark.

I didn’t want to drive the Parkway back to the condo because it would take too long. I exited into Spruce Pine where I got on US Highway 19E. There was no fog in sight and the sky was cloudless.

Are You Alright?

The autumn colors had descended into the middle elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway and I couldn’t have been happier. I was on my first epic road trip, a one-month journey from Syracuse, New York to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

On the first day of November, I stopped at the Parkway Craft Center. It’s located inside the old Moses H. Cone Manor hidden from the view of the Parkway. The brilliant white house was a gorgeous subject contrasting the vibrant autumn colors.

I captured a few photos of this gorgeous tree filled with vibrant yellow leaves. I moved beneath the tree for a different perspective when I noticed something crawling on the ground.

I dropped to one knee. Amidst the fallen leaves I found a wooly worm. I smiled with giddiness. Wooly worms had been as much a part of my childhood as lightning bugs and grasshoppers.

I cleared out a space and laid on my stomach. Switching out my camera lens for the telephoto macro, I started capturing photos. Macro photography is slow work requiring dozens – sometimes hundreds – of photos.

I had probably been laying on the ground in a prone position for fifteen minutes when I heard someone ask, “Are you alright?”

I craned my head up to see a concerned woman standing over me. “Oh I’m fine! Just shooting photos of this wooly worm.”

She glared at me for a moment, but after deciding I was not in any sort of distress she wandered off without another word.

I returned to capturing photos of the wooly worm, but a few minutes later I heard someone else ask, “Are you alright?” I looked up to find an elderly man standing nearby. I explained I was fine and just capturing photos.

But it was too late. Now I had garnered attention. As a small gaggle of people began clustering around me, I saw two park rangers approach and ask, “Are you alright?” I sighed deeply.

“I’m fine. Just shooting some photos.” I propped myself up on my knees and showed the onlookers the photos I had been capturing on my camera.

But as soon as they realized it was nothing more than a wooly worm, the crowd dispersed. A moment later it was just the wooly worm and me again. I was okay with that.

Do You Ever Travel Up North?

When I started my first travel blog in 2015, I searched my soul – and GoDaddy – for a good name for my website. I think I settled more than fell in love with Southeastern Traveler. I envisioned telling people, “Born and raised in Virginia, spending most of my adult life in the Carolinas, I am the Southeastern Traveler.”

Craggy Gardens is one of my favorite destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Located about an hour north of Asheville, there are three ways to enjoy the stunning views in all directions.

During a road trip along the Parkway, I decided to spend the day hiking the various trails. The 0.6-mile Craggy Knob Trail was easy enough. The 1.4-mile Craggy Pinnacle Trail was my favorite.

About halfway up the trail I stopped to capture a few photos. Two older ladies noticed my camera gear and asked if I was a photographer. “I’m a travel blogger and photographer,” I explained.

“Oh how neat!” one of the ladies exclaimed. She was the chatty one – I would learn – as we struck up a conversation about travel, road trips, and photography. We talked for nearly ten minutes before her friend – the quiet one – started getting a little antsy.

“Do you have a business card?” the quiet lady asked. I think it was her way of trying to end the conversation so she could move on. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her.

While the quiet lady looked at my card, the chatty lady asked, “Do you ever travel up north?”

Before I could answer, the quiet lady poked her friend on the shoulder and said, “No, he doesn’t. Look! It says right here he only travels in the southeast.”

I smiled and tried to explain, but it was too late. The ladies were moving down the trail again. But the experience left an impact on me. It was the pivotal moment I decided to rebrand.

Four months later, I retired Southeastern Traveler – the brand that had started it all – and moved everything to a new domain called Road Trips & Coffee.

Ironically, when I met those ladies, I was on a road trip to New York.

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