Posts Tagged ‘wagon train’

The Skyway’s the limit

June 26, 2009

As I was driving west toward Asheville yesterday I was thinking how five years ago around this time Wessel and I drove the same route, and hours beyond, to reach the Cherohala Skyway for a killer bicycle ride. It’s a fantastic and little-known mountainous highway from North Carolina to Tennessee. We saw more bikers there, of the motorized kind, than we did cars. I’d love to go back, but we don’t do many repeats. Meanwhile, I can relive it with y’all here. Though I can’t say this was my most inspired piece of journalism, I hope it at least piques your interest in one of our favorite American destinations. By the way, Wessel is the mysterious friend in the story. We were married a few weeks after publication of the article.

Published October 3, 2004, Boston Globe

View on the curving Cherohala Skyway from the Spirit Ridge outlook on the North Carolina side of the Skyway

View on the curving Cherohala Skyway from the Spirit Ridge outlook on the North Carolina side of the Skyway

TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn. — If you’ve been around long enough, you might recall hearing about real-life wagon trains rolling from Tennessee over the mountains into North Carolina. Most years, starting in summer 1958, the caravans got national media coverage, including Life magazine one week. In 1960, the train contained 105 wood-spoke, steel-tire, authentic covered wagons and 776 horseback riders.

While these reenactments, which continue in a smaller, less-publicized, and more comfortable (rubber tires, cushioned seats) form, took on a life of their own, they were started as a way to draw attention to Tellico Plains, a small town (population 860) that went nowhere.

Billie Nell and Charles Hall in front of a collection of vintage telephones

Billie Nell and Charles Hall in front of a collection of vintage telephones

“We were a dead end,” said Charles Hall, former owner of the Tellico Telephone Co., then mayor for 30 years, and now curator of a private museum bearing his name. Hall and some fellow Kiwanis Club members came up with the wagon train idea as a publicity stunt to draw attention to what they perceived was a need for a roadway over the Unicoi Mountains in the southern Appalachians, connecting the hardscrabble towns of Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, N.C. (population 750).

In 1996, thirty-eight years and $100 million later, 37 miles of new road was completed, and it’s beautiful. The history of the Cherohala Skyway is a good story, but the true drama lies in the scenery.

Diane cycles the Skyway

Diane cycles the Skyway

The skyway got its name (pronounced chair-oh-HAH-la) from the forests it connects, Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee to Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Some locals call it the Wagon Train Road, or simply Highway 165. (In North Carolina, it’s Highway 143.)

In 1962, Congress approved $6 million to build the roadway. Construction slowed nearly to a halt when conservationists stepped in. Some still wish the roadway had never been built. Still, a drive or hike or bike ride in this nearly pristine wilderness should turn anyone into a tree hugger, at least for the 90 minutes or so it takes to traverse in a car.

One of the things that makes the Cherohala special is the absence of big connecting roads. Mostly this is rugged, lonesome land, offering views, some above 5,000 feet, with no evidence of civilization.

Diane and mysterious friend later husband Wessel at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line

Diane and "friend," now husband, Wessel, at the N.C.-Tenn. state line

A friend and I stayed just off the skyway one weekend this summer. We love cycling on paved mountain roads, and knew we could get more than our fill here. Motorcyclists, who outnumbered auto drivers during our stay, are drawn to the Cherohala for the same reasons we were: the twists and turns, refreshingly light traffic, and stellar views. Not surprisingly, we saw only a handful of other bicyclists. With road grades upward of 9 percent and no shoulders, there are easier ways to see the sights.

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