While no official research exists on the topic, a good guess is that enough books about the Blue Ridge Parkway have been written that they, were they laid end to end, would stretch the entire 469 miles of our nation’s most scenic drive.
But, with a new offering from Amy Waters Yarksinske, we need to make room for one more. Yarsinske’s “Blue Ridge Parkway: Through Time” (America Through Time) is different.
Many books about the Parkway showcase a selection of the more memorable mile markers, provide a trail for the trails or recount the dusty history of the roadway’s genesis. “Blue Ridge Parkway: Through Time” is not one of these. Or, rather, it’s all of these, but one compiled and written to include such things in an engaging, illustrated narrative.
Unique in its presentation, Yarsinske offers a historical perspective told through text and pictures. That in itself is not uncommon, but the America Through Time series of books’ use of modern photographs juxtaposed with historical images is unusual — and works well to engage older and younger readers.
Although the book spans the vistas of the entire Parkway, High Country readers especially will find something they haven’t seen before in the historical photos and images of West Jefferson, Tweetsie, Lees-McRae College and Cone Manor.
Wide in its modern context and long in it historical reach, Yarsinske offers in “Blue Ridge Parkway: Through Time” a concise paperback addition to the canon of literature covering what she rightly labels “America’s favorite drive.”
Yarsinske recently agreed to take a few questions from Mountain Times about her new book, what it was like compiling such a work and — if she had to choose — what her favorite mile marker would be.
The author’s answers have been edited for clarity and length.
MT: You write with such extensive knowledge about the BRP, what was your research like? Do you have any personal connections to the Parkway?
AWY: The research for the BRP took a little over five years of culling through documents and photographs, going back to original source material as much as possible and then figuring, given what had already been done — books, most especially, on the BRP — what would make my narrative of the parkway resonate with readers. To me, as the researcher, historian and writer, it became, at the heart of it, what wasn’t there, the greater story being the sum of what the BRP represents of our history, culture and environment — past and present. We drive the BRP but we need to appreciate the historical and environmental context. In a sense, the book is intended to take the visitor out of the vehicle and into the beauty of the place for hundreds of miles, and to demonstrate the march of history and those who made it, working decades to bring us the BRP we know today, but also preserve the spectacular beauty up and down its length.
There are many ancestral and personal connections for me both in Virginia and North Carolina in the reaches of the Parkway. Certainly, too, as someone comfortable in the outdoors — who has hiked and explored much of both states — every moment spent with the BRP book brought back some of the places and people remembered from youth through present, of the communities that flank the BRP, in particular. I think, too, that how I see places is layered by experience and education. My master of planning in urban and environmental planning came at a time when we emphasized a new way of seeing our surroundings, of envisioning them anew with greater care toward preservation and sustainability. The historical and environmental record of the BRP is an incredible volume of lessons learned, of a protracted build that ended with an engineering marvel. There are always surprises, information to learn and to explore further, too. Readers want to know more. The visual blended with the narrative provides an important reference point to that history.
MT: The use of new(ish) and old images creates a great juxtaposition. How did you decide what photos to use … and what to leave out? (it seems the historical tone — the spinning, old-time dancing and such were important to you).
AWY: Choosing the photographs for the book was challenging. I have, in total, some 3,000 photographs of the BRP and the people, places and events that have occurred before, during and after it was completed. The blend of new and old creates a reference point for readers so, in choosing the right photographs, there was a great deal of considering the history and context before making the decision to include or exclude each, also noting that what had to be kept in mind was the arc of the narrative from beginning, middle to end.
In the new photograph of an historic site/place or natural vista, the readers can put themselves in the dramatic leap of decades of history, to know how far we have come in terms of human history touching the natural environs of what is today the BRP and its surrounding communities. The question of whether we move forward and continue to preserve that history is predicated on understanding the past, to how we make use of and connect with it.
And yes, the historical context and cultural contributions of the Blue Ridge communities along the BRP — past and present — is very important to me. Connecting with it was connecting to that part of American folk art, music and craft that I professionally and personally appreciate and that it became a focal point of part of the BRP book was fully intended. The people who live and work in these communities, even before there existed a parkway, are the beating heart of the BRP. Much had to be surrendered of their way of life in the hollows and hillsides, of the indigenous communities, that were cleared to make way for the road. But there was also much of that culture that survived, at least until mid-20th century — and some beyond in music and craft that is extraordinary and to be celebrated. I don’t know how you could write about the BRP and not include the arts and music that threads through it. But, you also have the stories of environmental stewards like Hugh Morton, whose legacy is great in his conservation of Grandfather Mountain and the great natural, historical and cultural record that it represents. He respected and loved the land he inherited, making it one of the most beautiful nature preserves in the world.
MT: If you had to name a favorite section or milepost of the BRP, what would it be?
AWY: To choose a favorite stretch of the BRP — or a favorite milepost — is difficult because it is all so amazingly beautiful and pulls you in. But if there were a Top 10 list, it would include Craggy Gardens (Milepost 364), which is breathtaking; Linville Falls (316.4), the Linn Cove Viaduct/Grandfather Mountain (in and around 304), the Asheville/Biltmore/Chimney Rock (multiple mileposts), Moses H. Cone Memorial Park/Blowing Rock (294), Blue Ridge Music Center (213) and no visit is quite complete without a trip up to Mount Mitchell, which has its own chapter in the BRP book. The spur up the mountain was laid in beautifully and visits there recharge the senses and showcase the incredible natural beauty of the range.