The Blue Ridge Parkway unravels gracefully across the landscape, at times suspended from high cliffs and etched into rocky crags, then deftly shifting gears to skim over hayfields and past log cabins bound by split-rail fences.
The road seems unfazed by mountain topography. Arched bridges skirt rugged crevasses and stone-faced tunnels bore through the mountainside itself, always coursing onward and never compromising its smooth, undulating curves.
The Parkway moves so harmoniously through the scenery and lays so gently on the terrain, it seems possible that perhaps the Parkway was there first, or at the very least born at the same time as the mountains themselves.
“I can’t image a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail,” said Stanley Abbott, the chief landscape architect of the Parkway during its construction in the 1930s.
The task facing the early Parkway designers was enormous, with little more than vague parameters of where to put the Parkway. Blazing a scenic road through high and rugged mountain passes in the 1930s was an engineering and artistic feat. It also pushed the boundaries of competing American ideals.
The country was in the midst of a burgeoning national park movement, and many in the general public had already accepted a popular concept of preserving America’s grand landscapes. Meanwhile, a love affair with the automobile had likewise gripped the country. These two notions gave rise to the newfangled Parkway concept.
Yet merging the two was not easy.
“A road and a park are very different things,” said Ian Firth, an historical expert on Parkway design and professor emeritus in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. “Roads are meant to bring progress and development. A park is 180 degrees different. It is where you preserve something from progress and from development.”
Abbott, just 26 years old when he was hired as chief landscape architect for the Parkway, possessed both the skill and instinct to capture the Appalachian countryside and its sweeping mountain vistas from behind the windshield of an automobile. He often likened his approach to that of a cinematographer, training his camera on one frame after the next and eventually producing a 469-mile masterpiece.
While the Parkway’s design is often compared to art, Abbott and his colleagues applied a mathematical formula to achieve the serpentine line.
Abbott was a master of the spiral curve, a highly engineered and deftly calculated arc that eases cars gently into a curve and exits them smoothly. The turning radius broadens as you move through the curve, much like a spiral expands as it moves outward from the center. The Parkway owes its sweeping nature to the equation, which avoids the unpleasant centripetal force of standard curves.
The formula was perfected by railroads in previous decades.
“They had all these cars they were pulling, and if you didn’t have a gentle change in curve, you had lurches, bumps and screeches that were very uncomfortable for passengers and bad for freight and prone to derailment and accidents,” said Mary Myers, a Parkway expert on landscape architecture and chair of the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture department at Temple University.
Abbott deployed another geometric tool called the reverse curve, essentially two back-to-back spiral curves in opposite directions. Drivers barely exit one turn before they slalom into the next one. The reverse curve creates a rhythmic experience, as if swaying back and forth through the mountains.
“I don’t think you can find a better example of that beautiful line of grace,” Myers said of the Parkway. “The reverse curves do everything.”
Not only do they achieve a rhythmic motion, but they aim the car’s windshield toward the views, whether it’s a mountain vista on the outside curve or a rhododendron-capped boulder after rounding the bend.
While the Parkway often plunges in elevation from mountain peaks to rolling valleys, the grade is gentle, another area of careful calculation. There’s also one road feature markedly absent from the Parkway: no painted white lines at the edge of the pavement.
“They tried to make a very gentle transition between the road and landscape,” Myers said.
Abbott’s crew faced a great conundrum. Roads, by nature, scar the landscape, sometimes obliterating the natural topography, especially when forging a new mountain passage. Yet the Parkway’s success depended on protecting the scenery it passed through.
“As landscape architects they were very concerned about that,” Myers said.
Luckily, Abbott had hundreds of CCC men at his disposal to install the massive landscaping on the denuded road edges left in the wake of road builders. If a road bank wasn’t sculpted to his liking, he asked the CCC men to cart off more dirt and re-contour it by hand.
A bitter tug-of-war played out in the political arena over the Parkway’s basic route — mainly pitting North Carolina against Tennessee. Once North Carolina came home victorious, road builders and designers were left with little instruction on exactly where to put the Parkway aside from a few general mountain ranges. They embarked on a year-long reconnaissance mission through the mountains, arguing over which mountain ranges to pass over within the otherwise broad parameters of connecting point A and point B.
“Nobody came to the Parkway with a blueprint,” Firth said. “The design evolved and you can see it evolving as you read the correspondence and debates.”
Abbott didn’t set out to chase one panoramic view after another, fearing the high-elevation vistas would grow monotonous.
“Too much of any one thing becomes very boring,” Myers said. Even breathtaking vistas from mile-high mountain tops.
Instead, he brings the road to the cusp of a sweeping view, lets it hang there for a moment and then retreats, perhaps diving into a rhododendron tunnel or ducking behind a grassy boulder-strewn knoll. The compression and re-emergence of vistas creates surprise and intrigue.
“The physiognomy of the eye dictates that your eye has to be constantly scanning to stay alert. The Parkway does that very well,” Myers said. “Within each quarter mile, you have a variety of scenery. There is a sense of anticipation of what is to come.”
But when passing through the Craggy mountains and Plott-Balsams in the final 100 miles of the Parkway, Abbott was forced to get creative to break up the tedium of vistas. The best asset became the rock cliffs themselves, with the road often passing so close that it seems you can reach out and touch them from the passenger seat.
And, of course, tunnels.
“The tunnel produced a wonderful drama when you emerge from it,” Firth said.
The majority of the Parkway’s 26 tunnels occur on the southernmost section, starting in the Craggy Mountain range and continuing through the Balsams, where sheer rock faces leave few other options for passage other than boring into the mountain itself.
Tunnels preserved the natural contour of the ridges, avoiding a massive excavation that would gouge up the mountainside and mar its silhouette from a distance.
“When you travel in the valley below and look up, you don’t see the Parkway,” said Carlton Abbott, the son of Stanley Abbott, who, like his father, became a landscape architect.
Geology occasionally posed an impasse, however.
“They started to excavate tunnels and the roof collapsed,” Firth said. Some tunnels were abandoned and the mountain subjected to significantly more excavation instead.
When it came time to tackle the finer points of Parkway design, Abbott and his team worked in 10-mile sections, walking each one and staking three potential routes before picking one. Then they drew plans for each quarter-mile section, detailing every inch of the landscape for the 469-mile road.
Up to 50 landscape architects, many of them students, worked under Abbott to hone the drawings. They diagramed split-rail fences and rock walls. They mapped out how many trees and shrubs to plant and of what species. They labored over the placement of boulders and how wide the grassy areas should be before giving way to the tree line.
Gary Johnson, the chief resource ranger at the Blue Ridge Parkway, often consults those maps — 850 sheets in all — as the guiding management vision.
“It is a landscape that is very labor intensive,” Johnson said. “You can’t just let it go back to nature.”
Ironically, images of Appalachia were one of the most highly orchestrated elements of the landscape. Abbott’s vision of varying landscapes relied on pastoral farm scenes — not merely in the distance, but enveloping the road with split rail fences, rows of corn and grazing cattle. The National Park Service certainly couldn’t be tasked with farming hundreds of acres along the roadside, but nor could the land be left in the hands of farmers for fear it would one day be sold. So the Parkway bought the land, then promptly leased it back to farmers for $1 a year to keep on farming it as they had been, giving rise to the practice of agricultural leases still used in 400 sites along the Parkway today.
To complete the idyllic scene, the Park Service rounded up log cabins and put them on display as if they’d always been there.
“It has been criticized for being such a selective view of Appalachia,” Firth said.
But the distortion was deliberate, intended as a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and self-reliance during the Depression when a reminder of human perseverance from days gone by was an important message.
The scenes of early Appalachia on the Parkway look like archetypes, according to Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University.
“There was a time in American history when we made these kinds of scenes,” Coyle said. “At that time in history, we wanted to mythologize our past. I’m not saying that because it is false we should get it rid of it, but it is important to point out that it is not the actual history.”
It was a departure from most national parks, however, including the nearby Smokies that attempted to wipe out signs of human presence on the land in favor of nature. Once again, Parkway designers made a conscious decision to set up landmarks such as old mills for future generations to see.
“They were concerned if they didn’t, this fragile image would disappear from the landscape,” Carlton Abbott said.
That farm scene has changed. Tractors have replaced the draft horse and plow. The hand-baled haystacks that once stood as sentinels along the Parkway are gone, with tight, machine-rolled bales in their place.
The notion of Abbott penning the Parkway’s design in one fell swoop is far from the truth. Abbott plugged away dutifully from 1935 to 1944 until he was called into service for WWII. By then, only two-thirds of the road had been completed. Construction resumed immediately after the war and continued in sections until 1967.
“It is amazing it was completed because everything had changed so much after the war,” Firth said. “But the Parkway was always a blue-eyed boy and got certain preferential treatment.”
The final missing link around Grandfather Mountain wasn’t finished until 1987. Given the duration of road building that long outlasted Abbott’s tenure, it is amazing that the Parkway design retained its unity.
Abbott briefly took up the reins as the Parkway’s landscape architect following the war, but it was Ed Abbuehl, Abbott’s one-time college instructor and right-hand man in the Parkway’s early stages, who remained at the helm another 20 years.
“You find him saying ‘This is the way we have always done it, and this is the way we should do it.’ He was one of the forces saying ‘Let’s keep the original design going,’” Firth said.
The job of chief landscape architect continued to be passed among co-workers and handed down to apprentices for four decades—providing a continuous line from Abbott’s founding philosophy well into the 1970s.
“Apprenticing is the traditional way landscape architects learn,” Myers said. “It’s the design knowledge being transmitted from one generation to the next.”
Bureaucratic institutions like the National Park Service also served to protect the continuity of parkway design over the years.
“People work there for a long time — you don’t have radical changes,” Myers said.
Tim Pegram, a former park ranger who has hiked the Parkway, likens the scenic motorway to Michelangelo’s statue of David.
“The day it was finished is the finest it will ever be,” Pegram said.
The statue of David was subjected to the elements for three centuries. His base was struck by lightning, angry rioters broke off his left arm, and a mad artist took a sledgehammer to his left toe. Even conservators tasked with the statue’s care erred terribly by washing it in hydrochloric acid and gooping it up with protective wax.
“The same thing has happened to the Parkway,” Pegram said.
Views are being undermined by development, landscaping carefully selected by Abbott 75 years ago is showing its age and rockslides continually reduce sections of the road itself to rubble.
“It is being chipped away a little a time,” Pegram said. “Even the Parkway managers have messed it up in places.”
The Parkway is a labor-intensive landscape and lacks the workforce to keep pace.
“If you really look closely, you can tell we are not maintaining the Parkway as we once did,” said Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. “Overlooks are growing up. The mowing along the road shoulders is not as wide or manicured as it once was. Many of our historic buildings are suffering from neglect.”
The Parkway blames federal funding shortfalls. In the past decade, the Parkway has watched its maintenance staff shrink by more than one-third.
So they make compromises—the most striking is not keeping trees cut at overlooks. Many are so grown up they are hardly overlooks at all. An old signboard telling visitors about a view beyond the tree branches is the only clue it was once a vista.
“The number one, primary reason that visitors come to the Blue Ridge Parkway is to be able to look out from this table where they can see the mountains and drink in the views,” said Gary Everhart, a former Parkway superintendent in the 1990s. “It comes down to a simple little thing called dollars. Unfortunately the Parkway has been struggling with enough money to do all the things that need to be done.”
Ornamental trees and shrubs planted by CCC workers 75 years ago are now dying, and the Parkway must embark on a round of new plantings. Some specimens even require pruning by hand.
“Things change gradually,” Francis said. “It is like watching your kid grow. If you are the parent, it happens incrementally.”
Another challenge is rockslides, which are endemic to mountain roads, particularly those with the Parkway’s elevation. A year rarely passes without a rockslide or two, some knocking out sections of the Parkway for months during major slope repairs, while others may take just a few days to haul off a pile of debris.
There have been close calls — a boulder landed in a woman’s backseat — but no deaths or injuries from the slides, Francis said.
The constant barrage of minor repairs to Parkway infrastructure requires extra thought. Maintenance crews keep a stockpile of weathered and gray fence posts for repairing split rail fences. When the roof of an historic cabin springs a leak, park rangers spend their days splitting logs to make wooden shingles that will match.
Gary Johnson, the chief of resource management on the Parkway, is often torn between stop-gap measures versus more costly but permanent repairs. When a stone wall starts to crumble, he can slap some mortar in the holes and stuff the falling rocks back in place. But in the long run, the wall needs to be rebuilt on a better foundation.
A batch of federal stimulus money is allowing the Parkway to rebuild 31,000 feet of rock wall this year, which posed its own dilemma: balancing the historic character of the stone walls with a modern safety design. At two-feet-high, the rock walls aren’t terribly effective as guard rails, but Johnson is debating how high to make them without compromising their charm. The other question is whether to use traditional, dry-stack techniques versus super-strength mortar.
Park managers have learned to balance aesthetics with safety. For example, the historic wooden guardrails along the Parkway are reinforced by steel banding on the back that are not visible from the road.
When Johnson came to the Parkway in 1994 as its chief landscape architect, he was humbled by the footsteps he followed in. Nothing is taken lightly, he said.
“I often have the thought when we are making a design decision and are doing something differently than in the past I think, ‘What would Stan do?’” Johnson said. “Afterward I think, ‘I hope Stan is not up there somewhere looking down and thinking ‘Boy they are really messing this thing up.’”