Higher than Denver?

I groggily rolled out of the back of my truck early Friday morning at Roan Mountain State Park while the moon was still up, took a shower and had breakfast at my picnic table in the darkness, using my little fluorescent lantern.  I had told my cousin Steve that I was going to arrive in Charlotte around 5 p.m. that afternoon.  Charlotte was only a few hours drive from here as the crow flies (or “drives”?) but I got up extra early because I planned a full day of exploring today along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I’ve driven on several sections of the 469-mile parkway before, including an area just south of here around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 (see my story) and, back in 1985 up in Virginia around Schuylerville, the “real” Walton’s Mountain (remember the TV show, “The Waltons”?)  But I’d never seen this section of the route in west-central North Carolina.

Above:  I headed back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway early in the morning and drove down to Mt. Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S.  In the afternoon, I dropped down to the piedmont and after an aborted visit to Cowpens, I headed into Charlotte to see my cousin Steve.

I left the State Park campground at sunrise, probably before most other folks there had stumbled out of their RVs, and drove for an hour, climbing back up onto the parkway and then headed south.  It was a glorious and sunny morning and the leaves were at their peak golden color.  In fact, between the beautiful weather and the stunning fall colors, it was probably the best day of the year, I figured, to drive on the parkway.  Later that morning I pulled off at Chestoa Viewpoint and took a 360° panorama photo of the golden hills, then continued south down the gently winding road. 

After a few more hours, including a stop at the North Carolina Mineral Museum (it really "rocks") and a fill-up for gas, I headed off the Blue Ridge Parkway once again and drove into nearby Mt. Mitchell State Park, a place I’d wanted to visit since I was a young geographer who pored over maps and world atlases in his bedroom.  Why the fascination with Mt. Mitchell, you might ask?  Because at 6,684’ feet in elevation, it’s not only the highest point in North Carolina, but also the highest point in the entire eastern United States – another geographic extreme.  In fact, it’s over a thousand feet higher than the mile-high city of Denver, something I still have a hard time getting my head around, having spent many years working in Colorado. 

I parked in the half-full parking lot and walked on a paved path a few hundred yards up to the crest of Mt. Mitchell where I – what else? – took another panorama picture.  It was perfect day and I could see for miles.  And I was glad it was a Friday because given the beautiful weather, if this were on a weekend, this place would be packed.

Down the Blue Ridge Parkway

“Dying” to See My Cousin Steve

I spent a half-hour at the top of Mt. Mitchell soaking in the sunshine, then left around 3 p.m. and headed down off the parkway, onto the North Carolina piedmont and on towards Charlotte.  I wanted to make one last stop along the way, though.  Just a few miles off my route lay Cowpens National Battlefield, just over the South Carolina border and the site of an important American victory over the British during the Revolutionary War in 1781. 

I first read about the Battle of Cowpens when I was about 12 – around the same time, I suppose, that I became intrigued with Mt. Mitchell – and was fascinated by the brilliant “fire-then-fall-back” strategy used by the Americans here against the British cavalry.  Ever since I’d first read about this battle, I’d wanted to visit the site.  As I pulled into the Visitor Center parking lot, however, the rangers here were falling back – or at least, closing up the building for the day and going home.

Greatly disappointed and vowing that I'd try another frontal assault in a few days, I found the Interstate and drove into Charlotte late on a sunny Friday afternoon, finally locating my cousin Steve’s apartment complex after making a dozen U-turns.  GPS?  Heck, only sissies use GPS!  Despite my navigational shortcomings – hey, I'm the Extreme Geographer, not the Extreme Navigator so give me a break – I somehow found Steve and was glad to see him again.  He’s my closest cousin in age and we’re both Wisconsin Badgers, having gone to college in Madison at around the same time back in the 1980s.  In fact, he nearly became the “Bucky Badger” mascot for a while.  And if he had, I never would have let him live it down. 

Steve and I chatted for a while, then we headed into Charlotte and ate dinner on the patio/sidewalk of a young-and-hip pizza place, with young-and-hip music pumping loudly nearby.  I’m a little less than young (and a lot less than hip) but we still had a good time.  We then headed back to his place and after we talked for a few more hours, I curled up in my sleeping bag on his living room floor and fell asleep.

Oh, I should mention that I nearly died the last time I visited Steve.  Back in 2013, a few months after I’d moved over to Qatar, I was returning to the U.S. for a hectic week-long vacation, and while changing planes at Heathrow Airport in London – and literally, running to catch my flight for America – I noticed a severe shortness of breath.  “That’s weird,” I said to myself as I slowed to a trot, because normally I’m pretty healthy.  After I arrived in Portland the next day, the pain in my lungs continued to worsen but I ignored it, figuring it would pass, and a day later I flew to Dallas to visit Steve.  That night at Steve’s apartment, I couldn’t fall asleep because my breathing was too painful, so I figured it must be pneumonia.  I’ve never had pneumonia but I figured this must be what it felt like. 

Steve was sleeping on the sofa, having thoughtfully given me his bedroom for the evening.  So around 4 a.m., I walked into Steve’s living room and nudged him awake, saying quietly, “Hey Steve?  Steve?  Hey, do you know a good Emergency Room around here?”  He instantly bolted upright and flew off the sofa.  "What?  What?" he said, instantly awake now and quite worried.  Being greatly concerned about me – much more than I was, in fact – he insisted on driving me to the hospital and after four hours, an unneeded CAT scan, and much poking and prodding by the doctor and nurses, they finally agreed with my diagnosis and, after a healthy dose of antibiotics, I was back on my feet.  I would’ve been fine driving myself to the hospital, but I’ll always be grateful to my cousin for making sure I was all right.  And it was a good thing I went in when I did, because the doctors told me that if I’d waited any longer, the pneumonia could’ve gotten a lot worse.  My mother died of pneumonia about 15 years ago after hesitating to go to the hospital, so I’ve learned my lesson.

This short foray to the Emergency Room in Dallas, by the way, cost a whopping $12,722.  And since my Qatar health insurance covered only a portion of it (“Sorry, we cover health emergencies everywhere in the world – except the United States, because healthcare there is so expensive”), I had to cough up (no pun intended) more than $7,000.  And for only four hours in the hospital.  Some Americans like to proudly brag, “We have the best healthcare system in the world!”  Well no, actually it’s ranked about #17.  But the U.S. does have the most expensive health care system in the world.  By far.

Anyway, getting back to Charlotte:  During this visit with Steve I was much healthier, so he took me into Charlotte on Saturday afternoon for a two-hour walking tour, then having walked up an appetite, we hit a BBQ place that evening.  I loooove barbeque and did myself proud, over platters of pulled pork and slathered ribs.  Steve loved the ribs, too – and he also loved it when I didn’t wake him up at 4 a.m. the next morning for a drive to the Emergency Room.  After Steve made me a hearty breakfast on Sunday morning, I packed up and said goodbye.  Jeez, what a great host.  Heck, the guy even packed me a lunch to eat on the road.

It was great to see Steve again.  And this visit was a lot cheaper than in Dallas back in 2013.  Over $12,000 cheaper, in fact.

Visiting Charlotte



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