Monthly Archives: July 2014
Walking the classy New River Trail
Visitors to the Galax, Va., area should take a walk on the New River Trail and see first-hand why Virginia’s State Park system has been voted best in the nation.
The trail is 57 miles long and runs from Pulaski to Galax in southwest Virginia and is designated a state park. The Norfolk Southern Railway donated the old railroad bed to the Commonwealth of Virginia which has built a trail that is perfect for walking, jogging, hiking, biking, camping and horseback riding. Restrooms are available along with water, picnicking and frequent scenic vistas from old railroad bridges along the trail.
The stretch that starts in Galax runs along the scenic Chestnut River and is flat and shaded with a thick tree canopy that provides cool temperatures even on a hot day. trail usage is free except for a $4 parking charge.
We have walked on many trails across this country and few measure up to the New River Trail. Our last visit here was in late July.
The “wild” horses of scenic Grayson Highlands
A visitor to Grayson Highlands State Park has a nose-to-nose meeting with one of the wild horses.
Our stay in glorious Galax, Va., is winding down. I’m sitt
ing at the dining room table in the Green Knight (our 2006 Monaco Knight RV) smelling slightly off-color after spending our final day here walking among the wild (?) horses of nearby Grayson Highlands State Park.
Although discouraged by park officials, visitors continue to have close up visits with horses.
A question mark follows the” wild” word because these smaller than normald but well-fed horses are far from wild. Mothers and new born colts and fillies mingle around us like stray dogs hoping for a back scratch or a morsel of anything edible. Despite official looking signs that discourage feeding and touching the horses, park visitors keep right on feeding and touching the horses, particularly the newly foaled.
Puppies offered free to “good families” at shopping center parking lots attract the same attention and affection.
Grayson Highlands State Park is part of the Jefferson National Forest in southwest Virginia.
There are at last two new babies in the small herd milling around the main trail going to the top of big Mount Rogers and eventually the popular Appalachian Trail on the day we visit and they have already learned that begging brings rewards. Small children are hugging them. Adults are taking pictures. Their mother, who is nibbling away at the short grass about 20 feet away, pays them a brief glance but acts unconcerned. This show goes on for about a half hour until the”wild” horses move away in a group to a small spring stream, obviously part of their daily ritual.
Finally, the crowd of about 20 horse loving people move back down the hill to the main parking lot about a mile away.
The horses are part of an overall herd that usually numbers about 125 head. Their numbers are maintained with an annual roundup and excess colts are sold at auction.
This small group Grayson Highland horses intercepted park visitors, many who were on their way to the top of Mount Rogers.
Lost in all excitement over the horses is the spectacular scenery of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area which lies within Jefferson National Forest. Admittedly, we were also attracted to the appearance of the small herd of horses.
It wasn’t until on our way down the mountain that we realized we had been to busy to take in the scenery.
At the higher elevations, the park offers huge mountain meadows and scenic views of the surroundings mountains.. Large rock outcroppings are popular challenges for hikers along the main trail.
We talked with several young couples toting heavy back packs who were heading out for extended trips on the Appalachian Trail. It was always on our bucket list to hike the Georgia to Maine trail but making a family and a living came first. Now we lament that those days are far behind us. Our camping is done in a 40 foot RV.
Using one of the trail signs to scratch an itch.
Galax, Va., feels like home; maybe its the barbecue?
Members of the Bubbagrills Competition Barbecue Team prepare huge pork butts for the Galax Smoke on the Mountain Virginia State BBQ Championship contest.
Trips to the Great Smokey Mountains and in particular, the less traveled areas of the Blue Ridge Parkway, have become so frequent in recent years that Galax, Va., almost feels like home. In fact we ran into some people on the streets of Galax listening to a live street performance that we had met the evening prior in Fries. Like I said, it’s almost feels like home.
This town of about 7,000 people just across the North Carolina border on the Virginia side of the mountains, is a popular summer destination for travelers and visitors who want to avoid the heavily populated areas of Boone, Banner Elk, etc., for a more laid back and less commercialized (if that’s possible) place to bath in the scenery. Most Floridians, we have learned, have bonded with the North Carolina side. Few venture across the mountains.
Showing off a fresh basket of fried pork rinds at one of the vendor booths at the Galax Smoke on the Mountain BBQ Championship.
But Galax is more than just a pretty place to visit. Located about eight miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and easily accessible off Interstates 81 and 77, Galax offers high quality year-round bluegrass and old mountain music, good barbecue, the popular New River State Park which offers a mostly tree-shaded walking/biking trail and friendly locals who actually speak to strangers on the streets. It’s also conveniently located for short day trips to Grayson Highlands State Park, Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, NC., and even Winston-Salem, NC, which is about 60 miles away.
We like this place so well we’re camping here for the fifth time in four years at Cool Breeze Campground, a quiet little campground located about two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the popular Blue Ridge Music Center. The Music Center offers live bluegrass and mountain music in a great outdoor amphitheater with the scenic Smoky Mountains in the background. In recent years we have enjoyed such popular entertainers as Ricky Skaggs and Rosanne Cash along with dozens of very talented bands from North Carolina and Virginia.
Through no planning but shear luck, we’re here during the Smoke on the Mountain barbecue contest where judges will pick the Virginia State Champion and a guaranteed entry into the nationally popular Memphis in May barbecue championships.
Like most special events in Galax, four or five blocks of Main Street are blocked-off for the contest. There’s live music, flat-foot dancers in the street and plenty of barbecue to eat. And, it’s a country comes to town day as the event draws people from neighboring communities along with tourists. It’s Galax at its best.
Despite the good barbecue served on the street, we prefer the Galax Smokehouse, a local purveyor who won this event several years ago and serves-up his own homemade sauces for those who don’t want to eat “naked” pulled pork, ribs and beef brisket. Others must share our preference because the Smokehouse is full and a line is formed at the front door. They are also serving barbecue sandwiches from a small booth in front of the restaurant. Business is good.
One of a dozen barbecue rigs at Smoke on the Mountain, Galax, VA>
Galax is also home to the Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company and no doubt its largest employer providing 700 jobs in plants here and in Elkin, NC. They have been making furniture since 1919 and can proudly claim that over 97 percent of their furniture is crafted in the United States. They are the largest manufacturer of wooden adult bedroom furniture in the country. Visitors to town can’t miss their plant–it’s only a block or so off the Main Street. In addition the wood is harvested near plants in the region.
This company has prospered in Galax while many other furniture manufacturers have vacated local jobs and moved overseas.
WHERE WE STAY IN GALAX
Cool Breeze Campground (http://www.coolbreezecampground.com/) offers plenty of full hookup sites with 50 amps and the usual campground amenities. It is located seven miles from downtown Galax but only two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Robert Sells owns this campground and between routine maintenance and checking in duties, he finds time to visit with campers almost on a daily basis. Get there in early summer and he shares with campers offerings from his vegetable garden which includes corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, squash, butter beans and okra. This is my kind of place to stay.
THE BEST BLUEGRASS, MOUNTAIN MUSIC
The Music Center (http://www.blueridgemusiccenter.org/) includes an outdoor amphitheater, an indoor interpretive center/theater, and The Roots of American Music, an interactive, and entertaining exhibition highlighting the historical significance of the region’s music. Free heritage music is played daily in the center and weekend events are held in the amphitheater. The Music Center is operated by the National Park Service with programming support from the National Park Foundation.
A POPULAR COFFEE SPOT
George’s Cafe-Cones N Coffee, (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Georges-Cafe-Cones-N-Coffee) has very reasonably priced specialty coffees, homemade pastries and a small menu for breakfast and lunch. It is located on Main Street.
Take a nice, scenic 30 minute drive through the mountains to Dobson, NC., on Highway 89 and have dinner at The Depot ( http://www.codycreek.net). The Depot is only open for dinner and also offers a popular Sunday brunch. The food offering is very good but it’s the rustic atmosphere that surprises first time visitors. And, if the time is right, couples can even get married in the on-grounds chapel. Stay alert on the drive because we found a couple young boys and their mother selling fresh-picked raspberries from their farm near Low Gap.
Mountain music in Fries, VA.
“Jack” shows off his well-used 1950’s era Martin D28 guitar at the Thursday Night Jam Session in Fries, VA.
Pronounce the town of Fries like its’ spelled and locals will correct you immediately: “It’s pronounced Freeze,” a longtime resident told us.
Laughed another, “It’s really Fries in the summer and Freeze in the winter.” The area commonly receives several feet of snow during the winter.
The town of less than 500 full-time residents on the banks of the New River in the Blue Ridge area of southwest Virginia once depended on a local cotton mill for its economic success. Today it shares in the old-time mountain music traditions of Virginia’s Crooked Road which runs along the Virginia-North Carolina border and has launched the careers of many well-known bluegrass singers and instrumentalists featuring fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins. Most every small town along the Crooked Road boasts local weekly mountain themed music jams, giving locals the opportunity to share their music.
Fries’ Thursday night Jam Session is held in the old Fries Theater. Sign on the wall advertises Wednesday evening shows from another era for 10 cent admission.
On Thursday evening in a turn of the century building that once housed a movie theater, local Fries musicians gather for a weekly jam session of old-time mountain music, a tradition that goes back probably 100 years ago in this region. Some show up to listen to the music, others to dance the flat-foot, a traditional dance with mountain origins. Singing and playing the old tunes remains popular among old and young alike in this region.
Like many small towns in Appalachia, hospitality is extended to first-time visitors like they have been friends for years.
Locals dancing the flat-foot at Fries Thursday Night Jam Session.
Around 300 houses, a post office, a church and a company commissary were wedged into the surrounding hillside before the mill began operation in February 1903. The mill continued in operation until 1989 when it closed, eliminating 1,700 local jobs.
Homes along Fries main street resemble “mill town wood-frame houses” without a front yard and built fronting the highway.
Scary cloud formation moving across Cocoa Beach, Florida
Despite its appearance this fast-moving cloud formation brought only a thunderstorm to Cocoa Beach, a popular east central Florida community near Cape Canaveral. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in Florida during summer but few display this near alien appearance. It did manage to clear the beach of sun bathers and surfers. This photo was taken from the safe confines of the second floor balcony at Ocean Landings Condos.
National Parks of the southwest trip
There are 59 protected areas of the United States known as national parks and while keeping track of those visited in four years of traveling the U. S. in an RV has not been a priority, this year’s park visits will be dutifully logged because 12 new and exciting national parks are on this summer’s travel agenda.
During the next four months we will visit parks in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and possibly a couple more in Texas. And, like most of our summer travels, more than 10,000 miles will be logged “roughing-it” across country in a fully- equipped 40-foot RV with two bathrooms and a couple roof air-conditioners and lots of other bells and whistles; most of which seem to sound off as it labors to the top of the mountain at Fancy Gap, Va., just across the border from North Carolina in the Smokey Mountains. The Green Knight is powered by a mostly competent Cummins 330 diesel engine which would rather travel flat country than mountains and sounds off with vigor each time we reach the I-77 summit at Fancy Gap. It tends to heat-up a bit just to let us know it doesn’t like the hard work of climbing mountains. Otherwise, it motors right along at 63-miles an hour safely secured in the right interstate highway lane with such dependability that its almost scary. After heating-up crossing the mountain last summer, an inspection of the air intake system revealed the culprit: an abandoned Carolina wren nest, complete with a couple cracked eggs.
A posting on an internet RV chat site suggested downshifting to fourth gear and holding the RPM’s at 2,000 to avoid the over-heating. I tried his suggestion and it worked. We sailed past a line of slower moving and heavily loaded semi-trucks across Fancy Gap yesterday at 55 miles per hour. Whoppee.
The Green Knight has taken us on white knuckle trips through downtown Atlanta at rush hour; belched diesel smoke in stop-and-go traffic in Calgary, Ontario, Canada on opening day of the Calgary Stampede; Charlotte, N.C., on NASCAR race day; St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, on no special day; Montreal, Canada during Jazz Festival week and other places most normal folk would avoid. Most of these places were traversed by accident because the driver missed a turn, says the co-pilot, who knows all (a retired school teacher) except how to drive a 40-
Currently we are camped at Cool Breeze Campground, near Galax, Va., where over-night temperatures were in the mid 60’s and we slept with the windows open last night under one of Martha’s homemade quilts. Dinner was prepared outside yesterday evening on a French gas grill (the American model wore out on last year’s trip to Canada and instructions are all in French) and consisted of grilled black drum, caught a week earlier on the Banana River near Cocoa Beach; roasted corn-on-the cob bought at a roadside stand in north Georgia, grilled fresh tomatoes from our daughter’s garden and asparagus from a local grocery store. Life has been good, so far.
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NEXT: Barbecue and mountain bluegrass music