Article and photos by Jack Olson

Can you immediately recall the biggest surprise you have pulled off in your life? I couldn’t until last year. It was my sister’s 50th wedding anniversary and was going to take place at my niece’s house in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina in late July.

Surreal sunset over the Appalachian Range

I had contrived a ruse that I’d be camping with friends in southwestern Colorado. Ann bought it hook, line and sinker. No surprise since I had never celebrated their anniversary or even knew when it was. And I had never been to my niece’s house. But when my sister and brother-in-law drove up and entered the house I snuck out the back, crept to the front door and knocked.

“Mom, answer the door.”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Mom, answer the door!”

What followed were a scream, raucous laughter, and the biggest, longest hug of our lives.

scenic view Blue Ridge Parkway
Views from the Blue Ridge Parkway

But this wouldn’t be a Jaunt if it weren’t so much about the surprise as where the surprise took place. My niece lives out in nature, with hundreds of trees surrounding the house, tiny streams, and placid ponds floating colorful ducks. You could look to the west and scan the high Appalachian Range as far as you could see from north to south. The Blue Ridge Parkway traverses the hills just a hoot and a holler away.

The Parkway sinuously winds, for the most part, on top of the hills. You can see the highest stretches of the mountains to the west. But near the road lie meadows, woods, and historic sites. One surprise to me was the proliferation of Christmas tree farms. It often seemed that if you came upon an open meadow, Christmas trees were bound to appear.

Blue Ridge Parkwas
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

A misconception many people, including me, have had is that the Appalachians can’t hold a candle to our Rockies. Well, yes, the highest peaks barely scrape 6,000 feet elevation. There’s no timberline and the rocks you encounter on top are outcrops. But if you’re down in a valley at 2,000 feet gazing up, it’s about the same neck stretch as standing in a 10,000 foot valley in Colorado looking up at a 14,000-foot peak. Now, I’d rather be here but you get the idea. For the region, these mountains are boppers.

Clouds at sunset
Clouds at sunset over the Appalachian Range

For the most part, the Rockies are still rising. The Appalachians are slowly, slowly wearing down. But, give them their due; at one time they rose as high as the Alps and the Rockies. I once scaled a 6,000 foot peak in the Smokies in the dead of winter, 4,000 vertical feet, and believe me, it was a trudge.

Finally, returning to my niece’s house. Their back deck faces west and almost every evening a stunning sunset blazed over the Appalachian Range. If you can tear yourself from the Rockies for one brief trip, I heartily recommend a jaunt to the Appalachians.

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