- Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
Anne Mitchell Whisnant begins her book with her own memories and early experiences of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I shall begin this review likewise: In my case, the year was 1958. With my wife, our two sons aged 6 months and 3½ years, and a newly granted degree in geology from the University of California, Berkeley, I drove my in-laws' new Volkswagen Kombi cross-country to my home state of Georgia, where I spent the summer field mapping the geology of Forsyth County. Heading back to Berkeley in August to pursue graduate work in geology, we decided to drive north along the Blue Ridge Parkway for no particular reason other than to see some different parts of the country on our long, unrushed trip back to California. The fact that a few places along the Parkway were not quite finished and might require brief detours did not deter us, as we embarked at its beginning near Asheville and stayed on the Parkway and then the Skyline Drive to its end at Front Royal, Virginia.
My wife and I recall two primary impressions from that experience: the spectacular views from the Parkway and Skyline Drive, and the feeling of a long, vast emptiness and loneliness as we passed very few other automobiles and rarely saw as much as a house light as we drove into the night. My wife recalls wondering what we would do if the car broke down and we were stranded somewhere along the way with our two young boys. In sum: nice view, but where are the people? We did not see God, as one of Whisnant's informants did, but it could be said that we experienced in a very small way some of the anxieties and concerns that our own pioneer ancestors may have felt as they left Virginia in the eighteenth century and confronted their own rambling trek southward and westward through a vast and seemingly empty wilderness toward Georgia or the Pacific Ocean.
Serendipitously, since that first encounter with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my wife and I have found ourselves spending much of the last thirty years working on [End Page 119] issues involving the impact of New Deal cultural programs in Virginia in the 1930s and on the history (the "real story") of the more than 500 families displaced by the creation of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive in that same period. In a very real sense and in terms of the latter work still underway, the question remains somewhat the same as in 1958: nice view, but where are the people?
As with Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the product of the altruism of some, the personal ambitions and greed of others, and of the changing ideas and values regarding the conservation of the natural and cultural landscapes. The project was sold, in part, through exaggeration (and at times, lies or deceit) about what the Parkway was going to be, what it would look like, what role local people would play, and what benefits they would derive from the Parkway's creation. Whether the local social costs of the Parkway were, or are, balanced by the benefits of the tourist economy depends—like many real world issues—on whose ox is being gored.
Whisnant has organized her book into seven chapters and investigates each topic in its local context, and occasionally within the context of broader national concerns. She grounds her study in a fairly detailed history of the creation of national parks in the United States, the Good Roads Movement, and the development of parkways. First came the cars, then the better roads.
Whisnant is keenly aware of the Parkway politics, and especially of the way local people—both well-to-do and poor—perceived the potential impact of the proposed parkway on the region. She discusses some of the conflicts that arose between residents, the relatively well-developed tourism industry, and the oft...