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Tales from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

For $11.88 a week-the only deduction was 12cts for Social Security-foremen kept their laborers busy constructing the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930s. Completed in 1987 after 52 years, the parkway is today the country's longest, at 470 miles. Situated within driving distance of more than half the nation's population, it may be the country's longest stretch of litter-free highway.

Fifty years ago there were doubts about whether the back-country highway could be built. One mountain woman jeered, "One of them hardsurface roads like they have below the mountains? Why, Lord have mercy, nobody a-livin' could put one of them through here."

The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the crest of some of the oldest mountains in the world, connecting the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It climbs to more than 6,000 feet, averaging 3-4,000. More varieties of wildflowers grow here than are found in all of Europe. A twohour trip from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to higher elevations passes through as many plantfife zones as there are in the thousand miles from central Georgia to central Quebec.

Lying astride a major bird-migration flyway, the parkway shelters more than 100 species. Four-legged wildfife abounds, too, including deer, raccoons, foxes, opossums, skunks, squirrels (called "boomers"), bears, and bobcats, the last seen occasionally in the evenings walking along rock walls.

Many parkway visitors somehow find their way to Audrey Hash Miller's home in Mouth of Wilson, off the parkway a short distance. "The only landmark is Grayson Highlands State Park. We're two miles below it, on a rock behind a log cabin," Miller said. Most Blue Ridge addresses are as imprecise as hers. "You need an oak tree, a barn, old man so-and-so's place to find someone's house here," she said.

Visitors interested in musical instruments flock to Miller, a secondgeneration fiddle and dulcimer maker. Possibly the only female violin maker in the United States, she's completed 22 at prices from $500 to "whatever-it depends on the carving and age of the wood, usually maple and spruce." Her dulcimers, copies of 200-year-old Scottish teardrop shapes, bring $150 and take two weeks to finish. "After building 500 dulcimers in 19 years, I quit counting," she said.

Miller offers her advice and experience to hundreds of would-be dulcimer makers every year. They work alongside her for a 40-hour week in her dusty basement, where musical instruments dangle from the ceiling. Miller explains her every movement in making a dulcimer to the eager students. "There's no room for error in making these. They take a long, long time. Most people, therefore, don't want to take them on," Miller said.

"She'll let you get frustrated and then let you ask how to do something," a friend commented.

The last step is tuning it and smiling. "I've never had anybody who didn't smile yet," Miller said.

These traveling students occupy her basement for a week, use her equipment and wood (usually walnut and chestnut or cherry), interrupt her concentration, and in the end "owe me $3 for strings. If they want to pay, that's O.K. We're not nonprofit but we're close," she said.

The world's oldest and largest fiddlers' convention is held every second weekend in August seven miles from the parkway, in Galax, Virginia. Nearly 2,000 musicians compete in this four-day, nonstop musical extravaganza for $10,000 in cash prizes in 13 categ"We play traditional mountain music here, which should be preserved. People get tied up deep in it," commented Oscar Hall, the secretary of the Old Fiddlers' Convention.

An instrument maker, singer, dancer, storyteller, prospector (he's found small amounts of gold), medicine man, and musician, 76-year-old Stanley Hicks lives on Stone Mountain, about ten miles south of the Virginia-North Carolina border. "Too much racket goes to my head, and it sounds like a chicken's flapping wings": that's Stanley explaining why he likes living in the mountains.

He invites all visitors lucky enough to find his small house to sit down in his deep leather chairs in the living room. It's a tossup which he'll perform first-a story, a dance, or a song. But he always gets children's attention by telling them, "I want to tell you stories."

Rebecca Wood, a former principal, and her husband, Olen Wood, a retired high-school agriculture teacher, related how their seven-year-old grandchild looked up at Hicks spellbound, almost hypnotized, as he wove a story. "He's got a sparkle in his voice and eyes and tells stories as if they happened to him. Children can recall his tales because he makes them so real," Rebecca Wood said.

Storytelling is enjoying a renaissance. There are about 500 storytellers in the United States. Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake, North Carolinian cousins known as the Folktellers, are winners of American Library Association awards. Their art is an ancient one, passed from old tongues to young minds.

"These mountains kept people in longer and TV out longer. Our stories reach into listeners and open their hearts and the floodgates of the mind," the ebullient Freeman said. "All good stories have a sense of truth. Every time we tell a story, it's like meeting an old friend."

Right on the parkway, at milepost 382, inside the Folk Art Center theater east of Asheville, the Folktellers present their two-act play, "Mountain Sweet Talk." It is the story of two cousins, struggling to maintain their colorful mountain lifestyle, who were raised by their great-aunt Jenny, who "had a comment on everything."

There will always be storytellers, because "stories are too powerful to die," Regan-Blake said. "They've always been with us, and while we may have turned toward other forms of entertainment, the stories are still there. So we're not really changing."

Near the southern terminus of the parkway is Grandfather Mountain, 5,964 feet high, the highest mountain in the Blue Ridge. Its spectacular panoramic views stretch over 100 miles of surrounding mountains and valleys encompassing four states. The Mile High Swinging Bridge, 80 feet from the ground in the deepest place, connecting two peaks, sways laterally as it bounces up and down. Winds of 100 mph are not uncommon. The mountain attracts expert hang-gliding pilots from April through October. Grandfather Mountain will host the Masters of Hang Gliding Championships in September, an invitational tournament for 24 of the world's best hang-gliding pilots.

In Grandfather Mountain's five "environmental habitats," visitors can safely view bears, eagles, whitetailed deer, and cougars in their natural surroundings. Mildred the Bear, Grandfather's mascot, and her cubs reside in a spacious enclosure. Overweight now, she sits up on her haunches, mouth agape for visitors to aim peanuts at. "She's the nicest bear the Lord allowed to walk the earth," said Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain.

The mountain's 4,000 acres of wilderness have 30 miles of hiking trails. "Grandfather is the most rugged mountain in the eastern U.S. It is unconquered and untamed," Morton said with ever-so-slight hyperbole.

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans, called the best Highland games in America, are held the second full weekend in July.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is not a road on which to hurry, but a place in which to dawdle. Traffic creeps in summer, moseys in spring and autumn, and sometimes is not permitted at all in winter when the parkway isclosed by ice and deep snow. At all times, whether visitors are driving, hiking, horseback riding, or skiing, the Blue Ridge Parkway is well-manicured. Its designers never forgot it was to be a scenic road.


Connie Lynch of Cleveland exclaimed, "I've already had too much fun! I've been in there five times.

Lynch had just flown 21 feet avouve a wire mesh net that acts as a trampoline for the country's only free-fall simulator. "FlyAway," as it is called, is situated in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, less than an hour's drive north of the Blue Ridge Parkway's end at Cherokee, North Carolina. The vertical simulator's winds can reach 120 miles per hour.

FlyAway is one of 40 attractions in Pigeon Forge, best known for Dollywood, a theme park of Appalachian heritage. Dollywood sports working craftsmen, a five-mile steam-engine train ride, live music shows, and such rides as the "Mountain Slidewinder" and "Blazing Fury." Also in lthis mountainous neighborhood:

* The 520,269-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited park lin the Untied States. Cades Cove offers a lpaved, one-way loop winding through a 4,000-acre valley; it is an outstanding area for viewing wildlife.

* Gatlinburg, a town of 3,600 persons in eastern Tennessee, is the gateway to the Smokies. The largest group of independent artists and craftsperson in the nation works in Gatlinburg's Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, strung out along eight miles of curving country road.

* Gatlinburg's Christus Gardens is a nondenominational depiction of Christ's life in ten dioramas. In the patio garden is a six-ton Italian-marable face of Christ, the most-photographed object in Gatlinburg.

*Jim Wilkerson's woodcarving shop is situated in nearby Townsend, a village of 500 persons a the western entrance of the park. Wilkerson carves six to eight hours a day after his full-time job as a Delta Air Lines mechanic.

Also in Townsend is the artist laureate of the Smokies, Lee Roberson, a descendant of Cherokees and pioneers frm Cades Cove ("My favorite place except for home," he says). It can be an adventure reaching his 150-year-old restored log-home gallery amid 150 acres three-quarters of a mile off scenic route U.S. 321. Vistors have encountered wild animals and a cow giving birth. "You'll remember the trip, even if you forget the art," Roberson jokes with travelers.
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Title Annotation:includes articles on special attractions in area
Author:Crowley, Carolyn Hughes
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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