I made two major life decisions in the summer of 1975, both of them related to my career and my dedication to the Blue Ridge Parkway. These were, in fact, decisions that today make me part of the parkway community celebrating our anniversary this year.
I had a degree in history that spring, but no clear path or direction in mind, so I made what seemed to be a logical choice – continuing on to graduate school. Deep in the rugged mountains surrounding Western Carolina University, I studied American history. When that fateful day came to choose a thesis topic, I found myself in a conversation with the historian at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Soon afterwards, I began writing a history of Cataloochee, one of the communities absorbed into the park. My interest and reflections on our region and its culture continued through the rest of graduate school, independent studies of mountain crafts and culture and attempts to play fiddle and banjo. These ultimately steered me to my parkway position where I have been for the past 20 years.
My second decision that year was to marry someone who has loved these mountains as much as I have. In the Blue Ridge home of our childhood, Carole and I had gone to school and church together, practically growing up within sight of each other’s houses. We have spent lots of time on the parkway over the years, packing picnic lunches and heading up toward Doughton Park or Grandfather Mountain on Sunday afternoons after church.
We lived “on the edge” of the parkway – in two of the adjacent communities – before I even began my career, and have lived in a third one – the beautiful Roanoke Valley – for two decades. We have friends and family who own vacation homes along the parkway. These are places where we’ve spent cherished times. On our first camping trip at Rocky Knob, I played my banjo with the musicians at Mabry Mill where that tradition still continues today.
I can hardly set foot on the parkway today without thinking about the same kinds of things that so many visitors sense when they come here…the nostalgia, the memories, the special times, the magnificence of the place. The parkway opens up our ancient and settled landscape, a landscape that has shaped the lives of those who live here and those who visit, a landscape that reflects the culture of those who call this place home.
We have the privilege of playing host to the millions of visitors who come – some for the first time – others who bring their out-of-town guests for a glimpse of wildlife, to savor a sunrise from a favorite overlook or to enjoy music and crafts at their finest. Shared experiences and shared memories that our entire region has an opportunity to join.
In the 1930s, Aldo Leopold wrote of treating the land “as a community to which we belong rather than as a commodity belonging to us,” words that make us think about the parkway, especially this year. This place belongs to all of us and protecting it is a joint effort by communities and park staff. How fortunate I am that I made those decisions in 1975 and that I’m here right now, this anniversary year.