A Sunday Drive Through Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina
I looked out my little window at the sunlight swelling to a crescendo over the trees and rooftops of my neighborhood. It was a rare late Spring day in North Georgia not marred by intermittent downpours. I would have been in a great mood if not for the news on my laptop: Copa Airlines would be postponing operations until August 7th due to COVID-19.
I was supposed to fly with Copa to Panama and Colombia back in March, but the world abruptly shut down just three days before my departure. The new adventures and blog posts I was looking forward to would have to wait a while. Copa said they would issue vouchers whenever the planes started flying again. Until then they’d hold on to my money for me.
I needed to get out and clear my head. I had to take my mind off this pandemic that had ruined my plans and was doing far worse to millions of people around the world. I didn’t have the energy to go on a hike at Lullwater Preserve or Arabia Mountain, two of my favorite spots, but I also couldn’t sit still a moment longer. Without really thinking, I grabbed my water bottle, phone, and wallet, and then my keys as I walked out the door.
I got in the car, never even checking to see how much fuel I had; if I needed some, I’d get some. I took a second to find some good driving music, rolled the windows down, and pulled out.
My destination? North, somewhere. Today I felt like driving through mountains.
The first hour of the drive was pretty uneventful. The high points were the quick glances I could steal at the Atlanta skyline as I merged from I-20 onto I-75. Eventually, though, the traffic thinned out and the terrain began to undulate. Gray gave way to green. I passed Exit 285 for Red Top Mountain, another one of my favorites, and thought about heading that way. But I was in a state of flow, one with the road, and didn’t want it to end. I drove on.
I passed Acworth, and finally Cartersville, marking my exodus out of Metro Atlanta. The experience was marred by the increasingly common Trump banners and Confederate flag license plates (front “tags” aren’t required in the state of Georgia, so these guys had ordered them special). However, nothing is perfect. Like that character in that Robert Heinlein story, my favorite place was being en route to somewhere else, and I was perfectly happy. So happy that I did something I had never done in my life: drove to another state on a whim.
In Tennessee the humidity increased notably, and I had to roll the windows up and turn on the AC. The forest grew more bold, creeping up the very edge of the two-lane road, interlocking its fingers over the asphalt.
I thought about breaking west and driving over to Chattanooga, but I had had enough of the built environment. I cut through the backstreets of backwoods towns, my GPS taking me through this liminal space of narrow roads, cow pastures, and old, low houses.
The Ocoee Scenic Byway
I found myself on this questionably beautiful stretch of road, and sure enough I began to see signs designating it as a Scenic Byway. The Ocoee Scenic Byway, in fact. This 26-mile stretch of U.S. Routes 64 and 74 winds through southeastern Tennessee, traversing the Cherokee National Forest. It’s here that the drive really came alive for me. Steep walls of green loomed over me on one side, while the rapids of the Ocoee River bloomed beside me, a watercolor in motion. There’s a real kind of intimacy to drives like these that are particular to the Eastern United States, and the Ocoee Scenic Byway is one of the best examples of this.
At one point, I pulled into a turnout to get a good look at the Ocoee. Like a lot of the interesting names in this part of the country, its name comes from a Native American language: “ocoee” is what the Cherokee call a purple passionflower. I looked out over the blue glass of the river, etched here and there by speedboats and jet skis, but otherwise quite peaceful.
Something caught my eye, off the trail and down towards the water. I scrambled down a steep path and came out on a rock outcropping. Secured to a branch just above it was a rope swing, poised to send someone out into the water. I wish I had packed a towel and a change of clothes because if I had I would have absolutely left my electronics on the rock and swung out into the water.
After what seemed like a blissful eternity of driving on one of the prettiest routes I’d ever been on, my GPS gave me a message: Welcome to North Carolina!
Having passed through my third state in just one afternoon, I stopped at a gas station to fill up and get some snacks. This minor act brought me back into the real world, and I was careful to don my mask.
It was here, in far western North Carolina, that the mist shrouding the mountaintops really began to solidify. In all reality I was not too far off from the Great Smoky Mountains, and I was getting a taste of what to expect if I continued going northeast. Little did I know that this gathering of mist was more akin to a regiment of soldiers gathering into formation.
With no warning, a thousand bullets struck my vehicle, blocking out what little light there was. I was used to the on-again, off-again rain of the Deep South, but this was a storm. Visibility was not more than a few yards out and the sound of the rain on the car was nearly deafening. Surprising no one, I found that driving in the mountains during a massive rainstorm can be treacherous.
It was also at this time that my GPS decided to crap out, and it was getting late, so I figured this would be about as far as I’d get today. I pulled the car over and got out the ol’ atlas, something that I hadn’t seen in action since a cross-country roadtrip with my parents when I was a little kid.
It was kind of neat, having to actually rely on a paper atlas like the old days. Even the treacherousness of driving on hilly terrain in the rain was something that, while best avoided, was fun in small doses. Not wanting to push it, I waited until the brunt of the storm had passed and then went on my way. Besides, it was time to head back.
Back Home Through the Nantahala
I could’ve gotten on an interstate and zipped right back home, but honestly I was sick of them. I was good without the speeding drivers (seriously, I will never complain about Texas ever again) and the blown out tires on the side of the road. No, I wanted more of the green. I’d leave the predictable stretches of gray ribbon for the cover of night. I wanted to use the rest of the fading daylight for taking the long way.
I got on Route 19 going south and crossed back in Georgia. I was in the Nantahala National Forest, driving one of the most winding roads I’d ever driven. It reminded me of back when I lived in Central Texas, and I’d go biking and driving in the Hill Country, only this was more intimate and even more beautiful.
Eventually I was out of that green paradise and back into the world of the living. The whole way back I was thinking of how close I had been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and how if I had really planned it out I could have gone there. I thought of other scenic drives, like the Blue Ridge Parkway I’d often heard about.
I knew that as soon as I got back home I’d have to start doing some trip planning.
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