What is a “historian’s Parkway”?

What is a “historian’s Parkway”?

(Original post on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, April 16, 2008)

Drivers, hikers, bikers, lovers, photographers, engineers, landscape designers, neighboring landowners, farmers, philanthropists, politicians, business owners – there are almost as many perspectives on the Parkway as there are travelers.

And each of us may experience the Parkway differently at different times. I first went there as child in the 1970s and 1980s – in the back seat of my parents’ Buick Century. Devil’s Courthouse was a favorite place for hikes then.

Going again later, as a college student waiting tables for the summer at Lake Junaluska Assembly, was a different experience. As college students will do, I tended to go up fairly late at night – part of what I’ve come to learn is a long stream of people “courting” on the Parkway. We won’t get into too much detail about that here!

It was only once I’d gone to graduate school to do a Ph.D. in history that I began to think historically about the Parkway.Super-Scenic Motorway book jacket

What do I mean by “think historically”? That’s part of what I’ll try to explain in this blog. I’ll be looking at the Parkway from the point of view of someone who has spent now more than 15 years studying the beloved road’s past – work that culminated in my 2006 book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (University of North Carolina Press).

What, then, is a “historian’s Parkway”? What do you see when you think historically about this place?

  • You see that the Parkway is a human creation. Yes, it is the natural environment of the mountains that makes it special, but mountains alone do not a public Parkway make. Without specific actions and decisions by specific people at particular times, there would be no Parkway.
  • You see that the Parkway as it now is, is one possible choice among many. There was nothing foreordained about there being a scenic parkway like this one in the southern Appalachians. There were other ways to build roads; there were other places to build them. Deciding to put this kind of road in this particular place meant choosing some options over others.
  • You see the Parkway as many Parkways, the “Parkway Story” as many stories. It had to be. After all, it was built over a 52-year period through 29 quite varied counties in Virginia and North Carolina. It pierces the lands of thousands of individual landowners. It was the creation of many hands. Design vision evolved, and political and social contexts changed. Landscapes differ markedly from place to place, and each local community along the road had its own experiences with it.
  • You see yourself as part of a continuum between past and present. You recognize that whatever the Parkway is and was, it is a legacy passed to us by a generation now mostly dead. They made the decisions that brought it into being, but we are not that different from them, as we will make the decisions that keep it vital. Surely as it links the Great Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah National Parks, the Parkway joins us to all those who came before and will come after.

I hope you’ll come along with me as we peer over at some historic “overlooks” and think about what they can teach us about the Parkway in our times.

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