In a land of Milk (Snakes) and Honey (Bears).

Most of us take a lot of time deciding and planning on an adventure, a holiday, a break from the monotony of the daily grind.  I certainly do, much of the winter is spent in fantasy land, planning expeditions to the furthest regions of the Realm. Every so often a surprise trip lands on the breakfast table, unexpected and unplanned, a bit like a pregnancy really.  Four weeks ago I ‘conceived’, or rather, was ‘conceived’ of such a surprise adventure.  Sure, it involved some graft, sure, it involved some heat exchange, sure, it involved endless hours sitting in a silver metal cigar high in the sky.  Sure, it was WORTH of all of it.  I was needed out west, in those famous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I’ve been out to the ‘Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave’ several times and each time I have to pinch myself; I find it hard to believe I am actually there.  The long flight is even getting shorter – in my mind at least – and Airline food is actually very enjoyable !  This time my outward journey took me to Charlotte in North Carolina.  The normal crossing via Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence river and onward down the Shenandoah valley to Atlanta or Washington D.C. was not on the route card.  Instead we slipped out over St. David’s Head to cross the Irish Sea then onward over the Emerald Isle and began our Oceanic stage by passing over the Dingle Peninsula, glistening thirty six thousand feet below.  Landfall some five hours later was near Baltimore and off the port wing the great white edifices of the Capitol could be seen.  Next came the winding shores of  Chesapeake Bay and in the clear afternoon air I could see the great naval base of Norfolk in the distance.  Soon the hills of the Appalachian range appeared, through cumulus clouds rising in the heat of a May afternoon. “We are beginning our descent to Charlotte”, and in a short time the ground rushed up and we bashed onto the hot sticky tarmac of the runway. My previous excursions to the land of the Cherokee had steeled me to the elongated wait-in-line, the scary approach along the yellow line to persuade a stern Immigration Official that I was worthy of the stamp that allowed me to enter the Homeland.  This time it was a pleasant surprise to be politely questioned and bade ‘a pleasant stay’ – after checking I was leaving in a few weeks ! Outside the air-conditioned  glass edifice someone had left the oven on, it was HOT !  Miss Carolina, as is her way, eventually turned up having allowed me time to acclimatise, and we set of north toward the distant haze that was the Blue Ridge and the land of Daniel Boone and Cumberland.  A couple of hours drive along Highway 77 took us to the edge of the Piedmont and the foot of the mountains.  Soon we were high in the woods and before long my most favourite road in the whole wide world was slipping by under our over sized ‘tires’ ….  The Blue Ridge Parkway HAS to be seen, especially in mid May when Flaming Azelias and Rhododendron, Dogwoods and Tulip Poplars are in full bloom.

Azelias on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Parkway is ablaze with Azelias in May,

The four hundred odd miles of the quiet two lane road runs from just south of Washington all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains in north Georgia.  With no trucks or commercial vehicles, with a 45 mph maximum speed limit, with altitudes over five thousand feet and views to distant horizons from specially constructed ‘Overviews’.Give me the Parkway as my morning commute and my evening solace, everyday !

It's what is says on the sign !

It’s what is says on the sign !

I would, one day, like to drive the whole length of that amazing road but for this trip a short daily commute of some twenty miles had to suffice. Ever since I was first taken up there – and I mean ‘up there’, the road runs higher than the great mountains of Wales (which rather suggests they are not that ‘Great’ !) – I have been fascinated to see the ‘worm’ fences of cleft hemlock (they were once of Chestnut but the great blight of the  1920s killed off all those immense trees) which line the upland pastures.  This time, in the house in which we were staying, I found an old book that explained how to make them, watch this space !

Appalachian Tulip Poplar

The ground was covered in the blooms of the Tulip Poplar which ranges throughout the Appalachian Forests.

Virginia Worm Fences

These cleft Worm fences line the Parkway where pastures grow adjacent. So simple and easily moved, they are so attractive don’t you think ?

The work-station was a few miles off the Parkway and involved passing through a small country town called Floyd.  It was absolutely the quintessential time-warp where wooden walkways in front of porch framed stores and good old boys sitting out front was the norm.  I immediately knew I was in a place which would bring a big wide smile to my face each time I went through.  That smile got even broader when we stopped to climb a rickety old wooden staircase to enter a small coffee-house.  The charming young waitress greeted us with the common question, “How are y’all today ?”, and a smile that shamed you into smiling back.  I’m no connoisseur of the coffee bean but with a little guidance from my host I soon got into the swing.  A rather good coconut macaroon set me up for a day of walling in sunshine that had me melting.

Floyd is a quiet sleepy sort of town but it comes alive on a Friday night and a Saturday morning when the streets are thronged with mountain folk and those that have ‘blown in’.  The locals seem to accept the presence of ‘white settlers’ and tourists although I did hear some laments at the loss of the ‘old ways’.  The incomers have come up from the hot south seeking the cool of the mountains and the lush green forests, those from the north have come in search of warmth and sunshine in clean clear air and the slower pace of country life.   If I  decided to move, Floyd and its environs would be high on my wish list.

Floyd in Virginia.

A ‘one horse town’ from an age long gone. Floyd is THE most charming of Virginia towns.

The Friday night music is famous and small bands lined the streets whilst in the ‘Country Store’, where a strict ‘no booze’ rule applies, locals sit and listen to local fiddlers, banjo and guitar players and ultimately rise to their feet to enjoy  traditional ‘clogging’ and a two-step waltz.

Music at the Country Store in Floyd

Floyd’s Country Store is the place to be on a Friday night – if you love the fiddle that is !

“Take your partners by the hand…”

I enjoyed wandering the street listening to astounding banjo and fiddle playing and even joined in with a small trio, singing some well know Irish ballads of all things. “As I was going over …” etc.  So impressed were they at my vocal dexterity they gave me a copy of their CD, with a suggestion I should listen to it before returning the following week … ahem.

Tower Spring Band of Pembroke, Virginia

Three members of the Tower Spring Band from the nearby town of Pembroke in Virginia, warm up on the Floyd high street prior to their appearance at the Country Store later in the evening.

There is something truly addictive about a fiddle and banjo pumping out a foot-tapping’ traditional song of the southern mountains.

The walling was a mere inconvenience to an otherwise thoroughly enthralling three weeks.  The heat was bearable, especially as a convenient hose provided hourly cooling off sessions.  It is always interesting to visit the ‘Stone Stores’ which are the depositories of geology from all over the United States.  Apparently both Pennsylvania and Tennessee are getting flatter and flatter as stone from these states seem to be very popular, at least with my colleague Whitneybrownstone .com but luckily it is a very similar sandstone to that which I encounter here in mid Wales.

Along the Parkway are various historic buildings which show the type of house and farm buildings that were commonly used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Unsurprisingly they were always on my ‘stop to have a look’ list.  Close-by our woodland residence was an old mill which is apparently the MOST visited cultural site on the whole Parkway. Mabry Mill is a fascinating insight into an old Appalachian family who built the grist mill and adjoining saw-mill.

Mabry Mill, Meadows of Dan

Mabry Mill sits next to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is a real tourist hot spot though I think I was the only Welshman !

Ed Mabry was something of a ‘Heath Robinson’ character who, with no formal engineering or carpentry training, built the mill and all its working machinery.  He began as a self taught blacksmith and wagon builder having bought some land nearby the present site.  By 1910 the mill was in full swing grinding the corn of locals (there were over 15 such mills in Floyd County at that time) and Ed’s thoughts turned to installing a sawmill to provide the locals with good sawn ‘lumber’.  Together with his wife Lizzie he soon had the rack saw-bench up and running with its own separate power source delivered by the mill wheel.  The mill race was a wooden box construction which delivered the required water in an ‘over-shot’ manner thus providing much more power to run all the machinery.

Mabry Mill overshot wheel

The over-shot water wheel delivers more power by virtue of the full half turn of the wheel full of water.

The construction of the wooden race is a feat in itself running, as it does, over several hundred metres.  The trestle on which the wooden trough sits appears to be of chestnut and may be the last vestiges of that once common tree which provided much income to the mountain folk of the Appalachian chain.  The chestnuts were a valuable product that brought much needed cash flow to subsistence farmers.  In 1910 the neighbouring county produced over 160,000 pounds of nuts and the three counties that make up that part of Virginia produced in excess of 360,000 tons, over half of the total produced by the state of Virginia.

The current mill still contains the machinery of production and surrounding the building is the old blacksmith shop which Ed Mabry used and a small log cabin.  Various pieces of farm equipment and timber working artefacts are scattered around the well kept grounds.  You can be sure I visited that delightful oasis on more than one occasion !

Wooden mill workings

The internal workings are still in-situ and a local guide is on hand to explain what’s what.

There is something in all of us that finds the past intriguing notwithstanding nostalgia is not what it used to be… To see old homesteads and to imagine the lives that were lived therein, especially if some small details of the previous occupants is known, is of particular fascination to me.  The old log built houses of the area stopped me each time.

Slave house rebuilt at Virginia tech

This old slave house has been rebuilt on the site of an old plantation in the grounds of what is now Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Cabin of Mrs Puckett on Parkway.

This single room cabin was the home of the local midwife, Orlena Hawks Pluckett. She delivered over a thousand babies but all 24 of her own died in infancy … not the best of recommendations perhaps.

Appalachian homestead

This old cabin once housed a family who farmed a small acreage out near Indian Valley west of the Parkway.

Parkway Homestead

This old homestead sits longside the Parkway near Meadows of Dan.

The whole landscape was evocative and shows how hard a life it was living in the high mountains.  It’s hard for a non American like me to forget the displacement of the Native Americans which prefaced the settlement of these regions but putting that to one side there has to be a certain wonder and respect at those early pioneers who battled all of nature’s artillery to clear small parcels of land and eke out an existence up there.  I read in one of the many books I perused whilst there that the Cherokee, who had been driven from the lowlands, the Piedmont, to the mountains, found it just as hard as did the white settlers and of the three hundred thousand or so that fled from the lowlands of the Carolinas within but a decade only four thousand survived to be driven into the reservation.

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of  the Blue Ridge

Typical dispersed farmsteads and meadows in the valleys of the Blue Ridge

The over-riding matter on my mind when thinking of those pioneers was how on earth did they deal with the totally alien wildlife !?  The animals, great and small, of the Appalachian range, indeed of the whole of America, are a total wonder to me.  I suppose I would be thought of as an amateur naturalist, I have always had a fascination with all manner of wildlife, plants and animals.  Thus the days driving the Parkway and nearby country roads were spent in total 360 degree observation, hoping and waiting just to catch sight of any of the animals that inhabit the region.

Appalachian Deer

Deer were the most common sighting, before they ‘high-tailed it into the woods.

Of all the animals of the region deer are the most commonly seen and, I think it fair to say, the most annoying to the inhabitants.  They are apparently the cause of more motoring insurance claims than any other factor in the whole U.S.A.  Fortunately the speed limit on the Parkway gives some chance to both deer and driver but even here we saw road killed animals.  May is the time for babies and sure enough I saw a newly born fawn with mum close by.  I got my chauffeuse to halt and got out to take a photo but mamma deer high-tailed it into the wood (the term refers to the habit of lifting the tail to show the white underside, much as do rabbits, as a warning to other deer that danger is near and its time to get gone and it also gives the deer its correct name of White Tailed Deer) and without a subsequent movement, little fawn slunk to the ground and disappeared into the tall grass with only its ears to give its position away.

Some years ago whilst visiting me in Wales, Miss Carolina was driving ‘baby car’ (her term for my rather small Ford Fiesta of the time) down my bumpy track when she suddenly slammed on the brakes shouting “Turtle!” …. Naturally I was somewhat confused and assumed this was some colloquial American term which referred to a female condition of some embarrassment or other. No, the dear girl had genuinely believed that a large round stone, which I have to say did resemble the back of a turtle,  was indeed a native Welsh animal.  She was rather dis-believing when I pointed out that, in fact, we did not have such animals which were indigenous to Britain.  This trip made me understand her confusion.  Box turtles, which resemble the tortoise I had as a pet an age ago, are quite commonly encountered and we saw two within a matter of days.  Snapping turtles are rather bigger, think steering wheel size, and rarely appear on land although I saw one idling along a roadside near a pond one sunny morning and another one floated aimlessly in the rather grand pond of some English folk we had lunch with.  That poor creature was about to experience a specially shaped fishing hook which would jank him out of that particular pond to be re-housed elsewhere, the lady liked to swim you see !

Box Turtle

This little creature was about to get its shell shape drastically altered as it slunk across the track.

They are the strangest of animals to see on a road in the middle of woodland.  The Box Turtle actually lives in woodland and only rarely immerses itself.  It is so called because it can literally shut both ends of its shell and disappear inside, I nicknamed him FedEx.

The Snapping Turtle is far more fierce-some and grows to over 20 inches (50 cms) with a rather scary beak-like tooth which it reveals as it holds its head aloft and gets ready to snap the jaw shut on some poor critter, or your finger if you get too close – I’m glad I wasn’t on the end of the rod !

Boxy turtle

Are you sure it’s not a Tortoise ? This little Box Turtle was heading in out of the rain.

Other critters which were seen in the fields were the beaver-like Groundhog or Woodchuck.  I saw several in mown meadows, they are big animals to live in holes in the ground, about the size of a small badger.  My favourite little animal is without doubt, the Chipmunk, something which will horrify a certain Berea Gardener for whom the cheeky little critters are a total anathema.  They dash about in the undergrowth or commit suicide on the highway where the largest bald-headed ugly buzzards you have ever seen devour them.  As usual road kills were numerous with Racoons and Opposums being the favourite, but I also saw Fox and Skunk.  You don’t actually need to see a Skunk to know one is about …

On my first visit to Carolina, while digging away the bank of a small creek in readiness to build a bridge, I disturbed a snake which turned out to be rather unfriendly but then I had awoken it three months early from a winter slumber.  It was a Timber Rattler which is apparently quite a nasty critter.  This time, hot steamy May, I was well aware of the likelihood of such an encounter especially as a pile of stone which had lain undisturbed for a few years was the source of my back-fill.  I gingerly removed stones over a few days and gradually got nearer the ground.  I reckoned that the cool damp earth under the bottom stones of the heap was the most likely hiding place … and so it turned out !

Milk Snake

This 4 ft long ‘snake in the stone’ was just where I expected him to be.

A rather long, if somewhat thin, banded beauty was curled silently under a nice flat stone and as its head was buried in a hole, it took a while before it realised the sun was on its back.  It then began to unfurl itself allowing us time to see it in all its glory, head and tail.  Now I have no knowledge of American snakes and unfortunately neither does Miss Carolina, her instinct is always to assume it is the dreaded Copper Head or Cotton Mouth, a bite from either proving rather paralysing if not fatal !  Thus extreme care is required, like shooing it away into the long grass.  Later photographic interpretation showed it to be a Milk Snake (Lampropeltis) which is harmless to us but not very nice to either other snakes or little mouse-type critters which it winds itself around and constricts the life out of them.  At up to 4 feet long and banded very similarly to the more venomous others it can easily be mistaken and often needlessly killed.

Virginian Band Snake

This little snake needed just as much care. it turned out to be a harmless Band Snake.

A short time later and a few stones more removed, another little wriggler was revealed.  This, to me, actually looked more sinister.  Black with a band around its neck, this much smaller snake had all the qualities of a killer, or so I thought.  Again it proved to be quite harmless.

Snakes are one of the earth’s creatures that generate fear and unbridled venom amongst us humans and the instinct is to quickly kill them.  It was a shock to me to discover this mind-set but similarly it was a pleasant surprise to find that our hosts/customers were not of that ilk and, as a matter of course, remove any snakes they discover whilst gardening, to a quiet corner.

I found myself tense and alert each time I went to the stone pile, actually I was both excited at the prospect of seeing another snake but also  nervous and tentative at such an encounter.  It was indeed an unusual walling experience.

Of all the animals that roam the forests of the Appalachian range one stands out more than any other as an animal I dearly wanted to see – but had no prospect of so doing.  I have, on my study wall, a picture of the animal which is the symbol of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Ursus Americanus is the must-see big daddy of the mountains and I SO wanted to see one.  On each previous trip I have bored my hosts going on about it.  To see a Black Bear was my all time desire.  It was a futile hope really, they are so elusive, so much so that few locals have ever seen one.  Except that is, the man whose wall we were building who not a few days previous had seen, and photographed (which he delighted in showing me …) a female (Sow) with two cubs in a hay meadow on his land.  On the very last morning of our walling at Check, north of Floyd, I casually glanced over to the left into a field below the road with a large wood along its edge.  There, plodding purposefully along the edge of the field was a very large, very black BEAR !

Ursus Americanus

I swear he’s looking at me … but is he licking his lips ? This made my day !

In one sense the sight of that beautiful beast ruined my trip.  For one thing there was seemingly nothing else to look forward to – but that was idiotic.  For another it was like the end of a long, hopeful campaign and the ending of such searches is often anti-climactic.  But it will stand as one of the memorable moments in this whole long exciting journey which makes up the life of Welshwaller !

Three weeks in the Blue Ridge Parkway was unbelievable.  I met some super folk and enjoyed illustrious hospitality.  I saw scenery and architecture, flora and fauna to fill several calenders !  And yes, we did some good walling which will hopefully remain for several centuries, just like the mill of Ed Mabry and the cabin of Orlena Hawks Pluckett

Welshwaller and Whinteybrownstone

Me and Miss Carolina,Whitneybrownstone sitting on the ‘stairs’ (that’s garden steps to you and me from the old world) which we knocked up in the last couple of days, just to show off you understand !

And what was it all in aid of ?  So Miss Carolina can get on a plane and spend the next three weeks in Wales … it’s hardly environmentally friendly walling, is it !?

Thank you, all you kind folk of Meadows of Dan and Floyd, for welcoming me and feeding me all kinds of amazing food and enduring my endless questions and exclamations !  See y’all again one day I hope ! And thanks Miss Carolina, you have no idea how I enjoyed that trip !

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One Response to “In a land of Milk (Snakes) and Honey (Bears).”

  1. Nikki Says:

    You create the most wonderful pictures in our minds that make us want to follow in your footsteps to them Blue Ridge Mountains and the Parkway, can we plan a trip for Spring 2016? Sis Nik xx

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