Image: official White House photo by Pete Souza.
Barack Obama on the Blue Ridge Parkway
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet Karen Russell on a hiking trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, N.C.
You can imagine her, can't you? A 65-year-old woman, visiting from Ohio, getting up on a spring morning, deciding to take a hike. She puts a few items in her fanny pack, makes sure she's got her camera, sets out to enjoy a day in the mountains. She's on vacation, out for a little exercise on no particular stretch of trail, just a section of the Mountains-to-Sea running along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville.
It's a Friday, the 23rd of April. The not-yet-full-sized leaves on the tulip-poplars are that incredible, incandescent yellow-green; spring beauties, toothwort and wood anemones are blooming along the trail. It's a fine day, a fine hike – she meets almost no one – and she is happy that this is the way she chose to spend the afternoon even before she rounds a bend and encounters the president of the United States and the first lady, also enjoying a hike in the Carolina mountains.
Well, of course, it didn't happen exactly that way. Before she looked up to see the president approaching her on the trail, members of the secret service had checked out her fanny pack and made sure that her camera really was a camera. They'd run one of those wands over her that the security people at airports use. Before that, she'd seen the presidential motorcade pass on the parkway below her.
She thought no more of it until she encountered those first men dressed all in black "with little pins and earpieces," and still came to the wrong conclusion: she thought they were on the lookout for snipers along the president's route to Mt. Mitchell. Then she ran into more men and a woman in black, the one with the wand, and after they'd checked her out, she told a reporter later, "I probably went 10 feet and I couldn't believe it. I just looked up and I said something really stupid like, 'Are you who I think you are? You are!'"
The president and first lady shook her hand and exchanged brief pleasantries, and that was it. She did tell him that she'd voted for him, though not that she'd campaigned for him, or that one man had answered his front door with a hunting bow and told her he wasn't interested in hearing what she had to say about her candidate.
Ten days before the first sitting president ever to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway stopped to hike near Bull Gap, I'd birded that stretch of parkway. Among other things the ornithologist who led our tour succeeded in showing us were 11 species of warblers. I'm terribly sorry now that I didn't happen to be on the trail on the 23rd, but I wasn't sorry on the 14th. It was only the third time I'd gotten a good look at a cerulean warbler.
The Obamas' parkway visit happened to coincide with the date of the first of two symposia being held this year to celebrate the parkway's 75th anniversary, which explains why most of the parkway's top brass were in Boone rather than at headquarters when the word came that the first couple would be squeezing a parkway visit into their brief vacation trip to Asheville. Parkway superintendent Phil Francis wasn't in Boone, though he was headed there from Roanoke, where he'd just addressed a Virginia Press Women's conference, when he got the word about the impending presidential visit. "Something told me to take the interstate," Francis said. (Cell signal is notoriously difficult to find on the parkway.)
Not surprisingly, the superintendent headed for Asheville after getting the message, though he turned up in Boone that evening to tell us the story. He'd gotten back to headquarters in time to round up a couple of rangers to take the Obamas on their parkway tour and hike; he'd had time to tell the president that the parkway was the most-visited unit in the national park system and to mention a bill that members of the Virginia and North Carolina congressional delegations have introduced that would authorize expenditure of $75 million over a five-year period to protect parkway views.
He told us he'd met three U.S. presidents in his life, and that they're more impressive in person than they are when you see them on TV. He stood at the edge of the platform in the room where we'd just had dinner, clasping his hands, and you could see the movie that was running through his head, because more than once he stopped what he was saying to tell us: "It was just… [long pause]… a wonderful day."
It was strange, the effect this story had on us. That very day, the president of the United States had visited the object of our celebration. It wasn't that we needed the presidential seal of approval, but it sure was nice to get it. We felt immense pride. We felt invested.
I have no idea how much else of what I felt was felt by others, so I'm speaking only for myself now. The theme of the conference was "Imagining the Blue Ridge Parkway for the 21st Century." The morning of the president's visit, I had listened to a series of presentations that had made clear the gaping holes in 20th-century parkway interpretation. A member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee pointed out that all but the northernmost 100 miles of the parkway run through what had once been Cherokee land. Yet the Cherokee remain unmentioned along the parkway until you reach the Qualla Boundary, the tiny corner of their nation that remains to the Cherokee who escaped removal.
Two Appalachian State University graduate students presented the fruits of their research into the stories the parkway does not tell about African American history in the Blue Ridge, including the failure to mention segregated CCC camps, or the parkway's sad pre-World War II "Negro policy" that would have sent the Obamas and their children to one of the few picnic tables and comfort station stalls set aside for "colored" visitors to Cumberland Knob, Doughton Park, Smart View and Rocky Knob.
Even the history of ordinary mountaineers was under- or misrepresented during the parkway's first 75 years, despite the fact that the parkway was intended to be, in landscape architect Stanley Abbott's words, "a museum of the managed American countryside." Unlike Shenandoah National Park, where evidence of previous habitation was removed and the land allowed to return to a wild state, the parkway set out to tell the story of the human use of the land through which it traveled.
Yet the story it chose to tell adhered to a "pioneer theme" of rugged but primitive mountaineers isolated from the world that surrounded them. The white clapboard farmhouse Ed and Lizzie Mabry lived in was removed and a log cabin was brought in to replace it at Mabry Mill. The farmhouse the Johnson family sold to the park service at Peaks of Otter was, at one point, stripped of its clapboards to reveal the log cabin it had been originally.
Not surprisingly, black Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are under-represented when it comes to parkway visitation, and visitation at national parks in general. Also under-represented are families with children. As park officials are all too aware, if the park system is to survive and thrive, it's going to have to tell more inclusive stories, including those that acknowledge that the United States has not always been the land of the free and the home of the brave. Admitting mistakes hasn't been our strong suit in this country.
And yet, I feel great hope. That the country's first black president became the first sitting president to visit the parkway on the same day that buried stories were being given center stage at a conference looking ahead to the parkway's next 75 years – well, as Phil Francis said, it was just a wonderful day. An encouraging beginning, a new chapter.