How to Use This Book

By means of this guidebook I hope to lead you down Skyline Drive and into the surrounding woodlands, just as if I were with you in person; to point out things that have given me pleasure, and to tell you what I've learned about them. As we go along I'll anticipate some of your questions and answer them.

Q: How can you do that on a printed page?
A: Like this.

We'll start with some background material, for orientation in time and space. I believe you'll enjoy your park experience more if you know where to go and what to look for, and if you have some idea of what happened here a hundred years ago, and a billion years ago. For a well-exercised mind, the knowledge I want you to carry is not a heavy burden.

After the introductory pages, the rest of the book is keyed to Skyline Drive, mile by mile. The first thing you'll see on each page is the mile number, so you'll know exactly what point on the Drive I'm talking about. Thus, if you know the mile number of where you are, you can turn at once to my discussion of that area.

Q: And how do I know the mile number of where I am?
A: There are mileposts—concrete with black numbers—beside the Drive. If you're going "south" on the Drive, that is, away from Front Royal and toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, the mileposts are on your right, and the mile numbers increase as you go. Of course if you're going "north" they're on the left, and the mile numbers decrease.

Q: Why do you put "north" and "south" in quotes?
A: Because they're not compass directions, but a useful convention. The drive twists and turns and doubles back, so that compass directions are useless for describing it. Therefore we'll agree that if the mileposts are on the right, you're driving "south". It follows that if you're driving "south", things on the right side of the Drive are on the "west" side, regardless of what your compass says. And now that you know what the quotation marks mean, I won't use them any more.

Q: I haven't noticed any mileposts. Where am I now?
A: Here are a few of the places you might be:

Mile 0.6.Front Royal entrance station.
Mile 4.6.Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
Mile 22.2.Mathews Arm Campground.
Mile 24.0.Elkwallow Wayside.
Mile 31.5.Thornton Gap (U.S. 211 interchange).
Mile 31.6.Panorama Development.
Mile 36.7. Pinnacles picnic area.
Mile 41.7.Skyland (north entrance).
Mile 51.0.Big Meadows.
Mile 57.5.Lewis Mountain Campground.
Mile 65.5.Swift Run Gap (U.S. 33 interchange).
Mile 79.5.Loft Mountain Wayside.
Mile 104.6.Rockfish Gap entrance station.
Mile 105.4.Rockfish Gap (interchange with Blue Ridge Parkway, U.S. 250, and I-64).

If you can, take a few minutes to thumb through the book and find out what you have here. Study the table of contents, so you'll know how to find the information you need now. If time is short, turn directly to the part of the log that deals with where you are. If you want to start hiking now (and, I hope, read the introductory material later) turn to page 59 for a list of recommended hikes. The list tells the milepoint at the trail head, length, amount of climbing, difficulty, and approximate time required.

Q: Actually, my problem is this. I plan to visit 24 National Parks in two weeks, and I have only three hours for this one. What do you suggest?
A: Get in your car and drive. If you go at exactly the speed limit you can do the whole of Skyline Drive, from one end to the other, in exactly three hours.

Q: But I've heard about viewpoints, overlooks, magnificent scenery.
A: Yes. As you pass each overlook take a glance at the scenery, but don't slow down. Skyline Drive is a thin gray line that passes through three hundred square miles of woodland. If you follow the line and keep moving, you can have a fine, brief, one-dimensional experience.

Q: How could I add a dimension?
A: Slow down. Have lunch at a picnic ground, or a wayside, or a lodge. Stop at the overlooks—all of them. Read what I say about them. Study the sketch, if there is one, that identifies the mountains you see. Don't just glance at the view, but invest a little time in it. Your investment will pay interest.

Q: And three dimensions?
A: Follow a trail into one of the hollows, down where the streams and waterfalls are; then climb back. Or climb a peak, and sit on the edge of a cliff, and look down between your feet at the scenery. You'll be sharply aware of a third dimension.

Q: About those sketches that identify the mountains. I'm just passing through, and I don't plan to come this way again. Why should I learn the names of your mountains?
A: After you've seen the same mountain from several different overlooks and several different angles, identifying it each time because it's named on the sketch, that mountain will begin to be, for you, a real and individual thing—not just another hump in the scenery. If you follow a trail to the top of that mountain, and get very tired doing so, then, wherever you may go, it will be not just my mountain but yours, forever.

Q: I was kidding about having three hours to spend. There's plenty of time.
A: Then if you'll bear with me and work a little; if you'll learn to know this place and cover a significant part of it on your own two feet; if you learn something of its trees and flowers, bears and deer, chipmunks and salamanders; if you become conscious of the people who once lived in these mountains, and know how to find and interpret the evidence of their life here; if you learn to read the stories written in the rocks; if you can see this National Park not as a thing but as a process; if you become more aware of your surroundings, and aware of yourself as an organism in this environment and the most recent event in its history; if you can become a friend of weather—all kinds of weather—and a connoisseur of solitude; then I promise you a polyfaceted, multidimensional, quality experience. Intellectually, as well as monetarily, the rich get richer.

Q: I'm not buying a package like that, but I'll take an option.
A: Read on.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved