By Leigh Ann Henion, The Mountain Times, Boone, NC, July 2003
Randy Johnson knows the face of Southern Appalachia as well as others know the secret nooks of their childhood homes. Johnson has lived near the Blue Ridge Parkway most of his life. He grew up in Virginia and has lived in the High Country for over a decade.
Over the years, he has hiked every trail included in his new book, Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, A Falcon Guide published by Glove Pequot Press in June 2003.
There are several guidebooks for the Blue Ridge Parkway area, but to Johnson, it seems like many authors have trudged through brochures for information to include in their guides rather than paying tribute to what has been called America’s most scenic highway.
Even more disturbing, he felt there were no guides out there to encourage people, regardless of their physical abilities, to get out of their cars and enjoy the amazing trail system of the area.
As a pioneer of the trail management program at Grandfather Mountain, Johnson gained extensive knowledge of trail systems. He later acted as a trail design consultant for the Parkway’s Tanawah Trail and worked to incorporate the private and park service trails into the public systems enjoyed today.
A writer from a very young age, Johnson gained his first writing experience at The Mountain Times where he typed away. “I feel like it was at The Mountain Times where I taught myself to write,” he said. Johnson has written for numerous national newspapers, ski, and travel magazines.
In addition to Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Johnson is the author of Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie and Hiking North Carolina. He was also the editorial director and contributing author of The Age of Flight: The History of America’s Pioneering Airline, a book that seems particularly pertinent in the year North Carolina is celebrating 100 years in flight.
As editor of Hemispheres, United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Johnson travels often, but he knows the road home. Though he loves being on the move, Johnson said, “No matter where I am I keep my feet and my heart in these mountains.”
His intimate knowledge of Southern Appalachian trail systems and his topographical skills shine in Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, as does his passion for the area. The book includes numerous photographs, something Johnson, who is both a writer and photojournalist, felt was extremely important.
One of the most impressive facets of the guide is its collection of topographical maps. Johnson created each map to give hikers something more than the cartoonish state-issue maps available at visitors’ centers.
“I personally hiked all of these trails with blow-up map and a compass to make them as accurate as possible. With this guide, even if you got off of the trail and got lost you could make meaningful decisions to find your way back,” Johnson said.
It is conceivable that a person could follow the contours of the land that are shown in lines representing ridges and gullies. Try doing that with a map that only provides solid red and blue lines.
Johnson sees the Parkway as a motorized metaphor for the trail experience. “It’s got a limited speed limit,” he said, adding an enthusiastic tag line, “Slow down, look around.”
Even though they are in a car, Parkway cruisers traveling much slower than usual can enjoy the distant views and shady curves, but more importantly, they notice the signs that mark hiking trails along the way. “Hiking, to me, is probably the most intimate form of travel you can do and the Parkway invites that,” Johnson said.
The book is filled with surprising tidbits of Appalachian culture. “I think you have to appeal to people with more than, ‘turn right here, turn left here,’” Johnson explained. By striving to write a guidebook that he would like to read himself, Johnson has created a guide that goes beyond the Parkway and delves into the rich culture of the area.
Providing details of what life was like for settlers in early Appalachia, Johnson’s hiking guide appeals to the novice historian in each reader. To find out what Doc Watson was looking for when he sang, “I dug down but I didn’t dig deep,” read Johnson’s introduction. The guidebook provides the story of the land as well as its relationship to the people that were, and continue to be, tied to it.
In writing Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Johnson tried to keep the Parkway’s people in mind. His dedication reads, “To past and present Appalachian families – the people who know how much you have to love the mountains to make a living there. And to the men and women of the Blue Ridge Parkway - who help the rest of us appreciate why it’s worth the effort.”
In reflection, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to make a living in the mountains than it used to be, but it’s still hard.” With little industry, rising property costs and many service-oriented jobs, people often have a hard time making their homes in the mountains.
“I want this book to inspire respect for these mountains and the people who live here. I don’t see the Blue Ridge Parkway as somebody else’s vacation, I think of it as everyone’s avenue to understanding these mountains,” Johnson said.
Eighty years ago, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a ribbon of asphalt running through a vast wilderness. Now, the same cars that travel it are responsible for the changes visible from it. With a note of concern, Johnson said, “Who knew that a half-mile swath of land would not be enough for the experience to be preserved?”
As development encroaches, Johnson has noticed changes. Just outside of the Parkway boundaries, new homes are sprouting within view.
“You’ll pass somewhere that used to have a view of a beautiful meadow and mountains and now you look out and there’s a three story house in the meadow. I think its important that people understand how special this area is and how fragile it has become,” he said.
There are organizations lobbying to purchase additional parcels of land to preserve the Parkway experience. Their contact information is included in the book, along with suggestions for campgrounds and other useful travel information sources.
Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway is so comprehensive there are even a few hikes for city slickers. In addition to including several hikes that begin off the Parkway on Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain, Johnson has also included Asheville’s Urban Trail in the guide. It is a hike that may lead you to wildlife of the artistic kind.
Johnson loves the Parkway as well as the mountains it intertwines. “The Blue Ridge Parkway is an institution of education. I wanted to go as far as I could to deepen that experience for everyone,” he said.
Serious hikers will find the guide as steadfast as a walking stick; novices should find the guide much more comfortable than the new boots they are trying to break in. Hiking need not be an intimidating word. With Johnson as your guide, consider it a walk in the park.
Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Ultimate Guide to America’s Most Popular Scenic Roadway By Randy Johnson was published in June 2003. The guide is available for $16.95.