Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Days 29-32: The Great Smokies

Finishing the Blue Ridge Parkway
The southern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway was much better than the northern part, with better overlooks...
~270 mile marker 
A little farther south 
Grandfather Mountain 
An easy overlook to hike to 
Farther south still 
Lakes in the valleys 
Across North Carolina 
More of why they are called the Smokies
I'll come back to that last photo in a moment.

The road was only finished in 1987 with the building of a viaduct around Grandfather Mountain pictured above.
The snaking bridge
The model of the bridge being built 
Under it
We stopped for lunch next to a river which was popular with swimmers and fishermen.
A young man tries his luck
Of course there were tunnels for Karen to play in.
Chasing a biker 
Still chasing 
Quite the brightness contrast 
The longest tunnel of all
The road peaks out at just over 6,000' elevation just before making the National Park.
The marker with no tourists
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
We wanted to avoid the crowds on Memorial Day, but the weather forecast said Monday was the day to go out hiking, and so we did. It was busy; we probably ran into ~50 people on the 8 mile round trip hike we took, from day hikers to more people walking the trail from end to end.

There's bears in the Smokies. Want proof?
Bear scat, one of 3 piles we saw on the trail
I was under-impressed by the quality of the trail. Many sections were like this:
Heavily rutted
The trail was 18"-24" below grade, eroded from years of feet. The ground around the trail would have been nice to walk on, but the trail itself was exposed rock and not fun. There are shelters scattered throughout the park. They're really just giant open lean-to's, with huge bunks that sleep ~24 people, 12 above and 12 below.
KC in front of the bunks
The water source. Treat before drinking
We hiked to a rock outcrop called Charlie's Bunion.
Charlie's Bunion Rock, dead centre 
Zoomed in showing folks on it
Here's the view while sitting on the rock.
My feet 
Looking north 
Clouds building 
Look to the extreme left on the ridge edge
The mountain in the photo above is Mt. LeConte. It's visible as the centre peak in the photo above captioned "More of why they call it the Smokies".

The hike climbs 1,100', then descended another 250' to the Bunion. Then you climbed that 250' back up again to descend. But we opted to climb a bit higher to The Jump Off, which is on the extreme left ridge edge in the photo above. Right from the peak of the Bunion hike, you climb again, another 200', then descend ~100' to the cliff edge where the first two photos were taken (then climb back up). And when I say cliff, it was a 1,500' vertical drop. It was hot (26° C) and humid, and KC's energy petered out just as we were to descend to the Jump Off, so she never made it. All told, it was a 8.7 miles (14 km) round trip with a total 2,080' (630 m) height gain. Not an easy trail. The trail condition was poor, and while the views at the end were nice, it was mostly a disenchanted forest walk. Meh.

The Weather Changes
The weather Tuesday proved that our choice to hike Monday was a good one, as it socked in and rained occasionally during the day. We drove around doing short walks here and there. We went up to Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, and second highest point in the Appalachians. And the home of a UFO landing pad.
The Observation Tower 
Sun in the distance 
Rain arrives 
Clear in North Carolina
The woods here remind me of hiking on Maui, hot (29°) and humid. But because the woods here are native, they are more full of native birds and animals.
Is a snail an animal?
Like Maui, there are waterfalls everywhere, some big, mostly small.
One of many waterfalls
We drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which was a painful experience. It's a single lane, 10 mph road, and the tourists like to just park in the middle of the road and block it while gawking at everything from a squirrel to a unique tree. We ran into a multiple car jam with a whole lot of folks out of their car looking for a bear (hint: if you see a bear, get IN your car, not out of it). Hated the drive. Then we came through Gatlinburg, Tennesee, a place that makes Myrtle Beach look charming.

There were no showers in the campground, so we had to drive out of the park to take a shower on both Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday, by late afternoon, it was raining just outside the park, but not at the campsite. We got back from showering at ~6 PM and started to set up the rain shelter over the picnic ground, convinced rain was coming. We were about 20% up when the heavens opened with a thunderstorm. We finished getting it up in driving rain, and got soaked in the process (shades of Ocracoke). We were worried that the tent might leak; it wouldn't have, except I had left the door open (duh), so we had to dry that out a bit, too. It rained harder and harder as I cooked dinner crouching under the shelter, and we ate in a huge downpour with water splattering dirt up onto the picnic table and rivers flowing down the roads through the campsite. We did dishes in the rain in the wash house sink, and sat under the shelter until the rain finally let up around 10 PM. It didn't rain overnight, but it did drip from the trees relentlessly.

Moving On
So this morning, we had to pack up and head out, meaning we had to pack up the tent in a state of dampness. It will probably be moldy by the time we get home.

We headed out today, past Gatlinburg and immediately ran into Dollywood -- Dolly Parton's Theme Park.
Which is bigger, her or her coaster?
Her very own road
The journey today took us out from North Carolina, across Tennessee, through Kentucky and into southern Illinois. Four states in one day. Cool, though the drive itself was boring and lacked any interest save for a couple of cool bridges. Tomorrow we go through Missouri and into Iowa.

Illinois BBQ?

So when you think BBQ styles, you think, Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas & St. Louis. Whoda thunk that we would run across some of the best BBQ of the trip in Illinois?

My BBQ instructor, Ronnie Shewchuck of Rockin' Ronnie & the Butt Shredders, has in his BBQ cookbook a bibliography of other great BBQ cookbooks. One of them is called "Peace, Love & Barbeque". The author of this missive is Mike Mills -- from Illinois. He has a 6 restaurant "chain" in these parts (and Las Vegas) and one of them happens to be in Marion, Illinois, where we stayed tonight (other than the Vegas locations, the rest are are all within ~30 miles of here, and he lives here). Mr. Mills is a several times Grand Champion of the BBQ competitions in Memphis and elsewhere.

17th St BBQ & Grill is just awesome BBQ. We had the combo platter which is an excellent meal for two. It had brisket, ribs, pulled pork, links, chicken & turkey, all BBQ'd, plus we had the slaw and red beans and rice.

Where do I start?

  • The brisket was wonderful, perfectly sauced, great smoke ring, great crispy bits, falling apart tender yet not dried out. Very Texas.
  • The ribs would disintegrate at a touch. Great smoke ring, tender, excellent. St. Louis styled
  • The pulled pork was served more Memphis styled, with great applewood flavour and a nice and mild sauce.
  • The turkey was great, though slightly dry
  • The chicken was classically smoked chicken. The meat was fabulous. The skin was rubber, just like all properly BBQ'd chicken.
  • The links also reminded me of Texas with a nice spiciness to them.
  • The slaw was made in a Carolina vinegar style, which complimented the pork
  • The red beans and rice was spectacular and just like I used to have in Texas and Louisiana.
A couple of things were unique.
  • His dry rub (which was available to sprinkle on anything on the table) lacked the omnipresent cumin that I have run into so often down here. I don't understand the concept of putting dry rub on the table; it needs to work for a few hours. I didn't put it on anything, but it smelled great.
  • He has only one sauce -- his own, home made ketchup/mustard sauce. This is a treat in that his sauce goes with everything. So many places have too many sauce choices.
This was great BBQ with the only problem being the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong: the restaurant was very nice. But the best 'Q places have a seedy, cafeteria atmosphere. I was glad you could get beer & wine. But real BBQ places have only unsweetened (warm) ice tea and lots of ice, and they serve it in styrofoam cups. The best BBQ places are fast food, not sit down dining.

No, this is a homogenized BBQ experience but with real, genuine BBQ food. Accordingly, while the food hold up, Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City remains the best real BBQ place we have eaten thus far. 4.75 stars out of 5, but 5 stars out of 5 for the food alone.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Carolina BBQ

Carolina BBQ is about pulled pork, but more importantly, it's about vinegar sauce. This makes it very different from pulled porks from everywhere else and their tomato/ketchup/molasses based sauces. I finally got to sample some Carolina style stuff today at Smoky Mountain BBQ in West Jefferson, North Carolina (sorry, no web link, but if you search it, you'll find dozens of reviews).

This type of BBQ is much more subtle than the sauce heavy, messy pulled porks you get normally. In fact, there's a sweetened vinegar on the table, plus some home made BBQ sauce. Smoky Mountains pork was really tender, cooked nice and long but seem to lack burnt ends, much in the way of smoke ring, or discernible smoked flavour. In fact, according to their menu, they
"cook the whole hog long and slow over 20 hrs at low temperatures to insure the meat is tender, delicious and smoked just right."
Most folks just smoke the butts (shoulders) to make pulled pork. Cooking the hog whole would explain why there's not much crust and not a whole lot of smoked flavour.

But add a splash of vinegar, and just a touch of their sauce, and you get something that's very good. Unfortunately, the cold sauces on the hot BBQ makes it lukewarm BBQ by the time you're done. Still, very nice, though not spectacular.

A long list of sides included excellent cole slaw, a strange "red" slaw made with ketchup, delicious sweet potato casserole (with candied pecans), and a whole bunch of other stuff. So all together 4 starts out of 5, but for the BBQ alone, 3.5 stars out of 5.

Days 27 & 28: Shenandoah, Skyline & Blue Ridge

The airplane pictures are coming, I promise.

We left Washington and started one of the most leisurely drives in the US: Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Both are run by the National Park Service. Combined, they are 560 miles long. Max speed on Skyline is 35 mph (60 km/hr); on the Blue Ridge, 45 mph (70 km/hr). Access to each is very controlled, and although you are in some cases driving through suburbs of major cities (ie; Roanoke), there's only one way on and off. These are not fast routes.

But they are pretty and scenic. The road undulates along the top of one of the Appalachian Mountains, at elevations normally about 2,500', but as high as 4,000' and as low as 650'. In most places, they ride the top of the ridge, or swing from one side to the other, offering incredible vistas of the Shenandoah valley below to the west, and other valleys to the east.

Skyline Drive is the north end, and starts at Front Royal, Virginia. It runs the length of Shenandoah National Park, and has overlooks every mile or so for the whole 105 mile length. Here's the views from some of them.
Looking west 
Looking south. Note the cloud pouring over the ridge 
Looking north 
Looking at that cloud pouring over the ridge from up close 
West valleys
Clouds build and threaten
The puffy clouds got puffier as the day progressed, but only once did we get a very brief misting of rain from a cloud.

While everything is lush and green, there are very few creeks or waterfalls, as you are literally on the top of the ridge. There are a few tunnels, however. Karen likes tunnels.
Hangin' out the window
We got out of the car to do a few short hikes. Some are just to a little better overlooks, or some rocky outcrops.
Up close and personal with clouds 
Farms in the valley below 
Rock outcrops
One hike we did was a kick. 360° views here are rare, as are mountains with rocky treeless summits. We hiked to one. Or more precisely, we scrambled to one.
A deer greets us at the start 
I scramble up a section
Karen tackles a section 
On the summit
There are trails everywhere, and I wish we could have taken a day or two here to do more hiking. We did do a short walk on a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,184 miles (3,515 km) from Georgia to Maine. On it, we ran into two girls who are walking the whole thing non stop. They started March 1 in Georgia and were about 5 days from the halfway point. They expected to finish in mid-August. I expect they need psychotherapy now.

As the afternoon light started to highlight how humid it was, the mountains started to take on the famous smoky look.
Misty mountains that aren't misty
We overnighted in the south end of Shenandoah at a campground, where about half the sites of the packed campground were sporting flags or other decorations in honour of Memorial Day weekend.

This morning, we continued down the rest of Skyline Drive with more overlooks...
To the east
There's a lake down there!
and joined the Blue Ridge Parkway. No sooner had we done so than we met some vintage cars, all from the 1920's & 30's. Note: the roads were built in the 1930's, designed for cars like these.
1926 Ford in front
The Blue Ridge Parkway is faster and the overlooks and hikes are much fewer and farther between.
Looking northwest
Late in the afternoon, southern Virginia
But we found one place that was really nice, featuring both a waterfall...
The lower cascades
...and an old logging railway line.
Only about 200' of track has been rebuilt
The Parkway is know for its rhododendrons, some of which were still in bloom.
White ones
The lowest point of the Parkway, 670' ASL, is where it crosses the James River (which runs into Chesapeake Bay down at Jamestown, where we were last week).
Looking downstream
The crossing
There used to be canals along this river to barge good up and down. Not much is left of them any more.
A lock going nowhere
We made it 260 miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway today. While interesting and pleasant, it's nowhere near as picturesque as the Skyline Road and Shenandoah National Park. And it's really popular with packs of old fogies on their very noisy Harley Davidsons.

Tomorrow, we do the final 200 miles and get to our "last" stop of the trip, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we are camping for several nights. From there we head home, and after we get out of the park, I'll be able to get back on line again. Stay tuned, and I should be back posting on May 30th after we start home.