Sunday, October 30, 2016

Moving Near the Bristol Motor Speedway

Departure was easy from our Cracker Barrel boondocking spot near Roanoke, Virginia. After we went to church down the street, Mark turned on the key, took off the brake, and we headed down I-81 towards Tennessee.  Three hours later we made it to our next destination at Shadrack Campground in Bristol, Tennessee.

We would certainly return to Shadrack Campground. There's no pool or fancy amenities, but we had a great view of a mountain-side of autumn leaves right out our front door. We were blessed with the end site on a row close to the mountains.

This campground offers the half-price Passport America rate for as long as you care to stay--even during peak fall foliage when other places are charging extra. That's because they have close to 400 sites, and they just recently made the decision to stay open year round. We found out that there are several large campgrounds in Bristol that are only open two weeks each year--in April and August when the Bristol Motor Speedway hosts NASCAR races. For those two weekends when 100,000 extra fans arrive, Bristol transforms from a quiet little city into a race-crazy metropolis.

We visited the Bristol Motor Speedway when we found out they had tours that cost only $4 for seniors like us. We were the only two on our tour given by a delightful guide named Dave. He explained how these empty parking lots would transform into TV headquarters and race fan shopping malls. It seems crazy that this huge facility sits basically idle all but those two weekends each year.

It takes a staff of 75 to keep the facilities going during the rest of the year, but that grows to 3,000 employees during race weekends. Right now those 75 employees are hanging Christmas decorations for the "Speedway in Lights" event that starts in mid-November. For $10-12 per car, visitors can drive the 4.5 mile path through a fantasy-land of Christmas lights. That path would take them through the parking lots and into the second Bristol race track between the mountains--Thunder Valley. This is where the drag races are held.

It's called Thunder Valley because these natural rock walls echo the engine noise of the racers so that it is deafening in this valley. They host national events here once a year, and local races weekly during the summer. Anyone with $10 and a fast car can try their luck in a drag race. We wondered if there was a motor home category so we could put the bus on the track. This is the view from the start line--minus a few Christmas lights that are now going up on the track.

Because cars can achieve speeds over 300 mph on this straight-away, there is a sand box at the end of the track. Before hitting the canyon wall there is also a layer of netting like is used to catch jets on an aircraft carrier.

Thunder Valley drag strip was interesting, but seemed small in comparison to the colosseum-style half-mile track inside the speedway. Dave took us up into the owner's suite to see the deluxe view of the track.

The owner, Bruton Smith, can host 180 friends to watch the race with him in leather and stained glass comfort. Suites encircle the upper levels of the entire track. Dave said that one of the suite's best perks is the reserved parking spaces. Parking is at a premium when you have an extra 100,000 people in town.

From this vantage point, we can still make out the football yard lines on the track infield. The staff is still recovering from the September 10, 2016, football game between the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech that was held here at Bristol Motor Speedway. It took many weeks of work to transform the race track into a football field.

But they accomplished their goal of setting a new world record for the number of people attending an American football game when 156,990 fans attended. (That soundly beat the previous record of 115,000.) Dave pointed out that spectators sitting in the seats on the curve were actually a very long ways from the football field. Chairs and bleachers were added to the infield so that every possible space was used.

In comparison, this is what the speedway looks like on a car racing day.

The last part of the tour was the trip down onto the track. Dave took us in the slow lane first to see the straight-away on the half-mile track.

As we rounded the curve, we got a first-hand look at the sloped curve beside us. That 28-degree slope allows Bristol Motor Speedway to gain the reputation of being the world's fastest half-mile.

We pushed up the speed as we made the second lap--this time going high on the curve to actually feel that 28-degree slant. Have we told you that we thought this was a really good tour?

After riding for a fast lap, we walked up the ramp to the winner's circle. The slope is streaked with black tire marks. Dave explained that the race car tires are so hot by the end of the race they leave that trail of tread.

Mark and Dave are smiling, because the view from the winner's circle is a sweet one. We are actually standing atop the infield medical center, which is outfitted like a hospital to handle any type of medical situation on race day.

From this view we can see the framework for the new colossus--the name of the world's largest outdoor center-hung 4-sided video screen. Used for the first time in 2016, the giant television screens have now been taken down and leased to other venues until they are needed here for next April's race.

It's hard to tell just how big each screen is when it is suspended high above our heads so far away. So Dave told us that the banner next to the visitor's center was the same size. Denisa felt pretty small next to that banner.

After our tour we understand much more about our new home of Bristol. We would also recommend a visit here for others--except during special weekends in April and August.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

McAfee Knob--The Most Photographed Spot

We had read about McAfee Knob--a summit in the Appalachian Mountains--and gotten personal testimony from fellow hikers that it was a great hike. When we noticed that it was pictured in several Virginia travel brochures, we decided we had to see it for ourselves. We waited out a rainy Friday, and then headed there on Saturday morning. As we drove towards the trail head parking lot, Denisa estimated there would be 15 other cars there. It was more like 15 times15. Not only was the parking lot filled to overflowing, but cars were parked along the roads in every direction for a half mile--some of them right under "no parking" signs.

We had purposefully waited until around 10:00 to start the hike, letting the sun warm us up from the overnight temperatures in the 30's. (Wasn't it just two days ago when we had to hike early before it got too hot with afternoon temperatures in the 80's?!?!) It was 49 degrees when we started the hike, so we both were wearing jackets. As you can see from Denisa's hair, there was also a brisk breeze, making a crisp wind chill as we found the first of the white blaze markers on the trees. We are once again on the Appalachian Trail!

As many cars as we saw in the parking lot, we did have times when it seemed like we had the trail to ourselves. On a 8-mile-loop hike there's plenty of room for everyone, especially since we hiked the more difficult and narrow Appalachian trail route. We found that most hikers took the easier fire road route.

Two hours after we left the parking lot, we got to the summit of McAfee's Knob. It did not disappoint, as we took the first picture of Denisa standing on one of the pointed ledges of the knob.

It was breezy at the top, so we're both bundled up with all our layers. Denisa even had gloves for today's hike. But the views were very heart-warming.

There was a large group of people at the summit, and some were even celebrating. We recognized that hiking uphill for four miles is quite an accomplishment, but we thought bringing out the champagne to celebrate seemed a little excessive.

That's when we realized people were pointing at the open field, far below in the valley. It didn't match the trees or the green meadows, and were there words at the top?

That's when we realized there had just been a marriage proposal. 

James Wright had invited many of their friends and family on this frosty morning group hike. When they all got to the summit, he got on one knee and let the message in the mowed hay field do the talking. They had been dating for almost 9 years, and Stephanie definitely said "Yes!" She had found her Mr. (W)right!

It's always fun to find out the details of how such a plan unfolded. Mark is on the edge of the cliff, talking to James and his friend, who happens to own the land we can see below. The letters were made of black landscape cloth, pinned down to the ground. It was quite an engineering feat to get the spacing right, and the letters big enough to read from the summit.

After the excitement of meeting the newly-engaged couple, we spent more time hanging out on the cliffs, with ridiculous drops down into the valley.

This hike and this summit would be great any time of the year, but being surrounded by some nice fall foliage made it even better.

As the weather warmed, the crowds at the top increased. When we remembered that Virginia Tech had played a Thursday evening football game this week, we suddenly realized why there were so many people hiking today. All these VT fans didn't have a Saturday game to watch, so they headed to the mountains. We got to see the complete line of this year's Virginia Tech sweat shirts and fleece on the trail, as all the students were celebrating that Thursday night win by proudly wearing the VT logo. We joked with the students hiking that there must not be anyone left on campus this week-end. But we did discover that we could get away from the crowds if we continued along the cliffs to the area where the rocks divided into crevices that we could walk between.

Those crevices were filled with some lovely leaves. Let's face it--everything is covered with leaves by now. We are finding that this adds an interesting dimension to hiking. We can no longer see the rocks or tree roots that we need to dodge on the trails, because they are hidden by a layer of leaves. When this layer is wet, it makes for a slippery hike over uneven ground that can be perilous.

We stopped back by the summit for the panorama view over the Appalachians.

We also had to take one more of those cliff shots just because they are so dramatic. We had read that this is the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail, and now we can certainly see why.

Since we had hiked the four miles to the summit on the Appalachian trail, we decided to take the wider and gentler fire road down. That makes for an 8-mile loop hike. It seemed like the gold leaves were on fire!

It was after 3:00 by the time we got back to the parking lot. We had broken our rule of not going to popular places with the crowds on a Saturday. But our travel schedule and rain delay brought us here on this day so we could enjoy another marriage proposal. Even though it was one of the most crowded hikes of the year, there was still plenty of room to spread the crowd out and get some space on the trail.

We had talked to a volunteer ranger on the trail, who grimaced when we told him about all the vehicles parked along the narrow mountain road at the trail head. He said the county gives tickets and even tows cars that park in the no-parking area on the highway. Sure enough, we saw the cars by the highway with their $15 parking tickets blowing in the breeze. A crowded Saturday makes for an increase in the county's coffers!

It was a great hike, and we recommend it to anyone. We would also recommend doing it during a weekday, when the Virginia Tech students are in class (or the Saturday of a home football game). The number of pictures we took today should help to keep its reputation of being the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Natural Bridge and Our New Home at Cracker Barrel

For the first time in a long while, we have a rainy day in the forecast. The rain was supposed to start in the middle of the morning, so we were up early to visit the Natural Bridge. Our address has been Natural Bridge, Virginia, for the last two days, so it was time for us to see for ourselves this town's name sake. Tickets to visit this private park have been $20 per person for years. But three weeks ago it became Virginia's newest state park and the admission price dropped to $8.

We paid our money, walked down 137 steps, and found ourselves in front of the Natural Bridge. It's hard to capture the size and scale of this 215-foot-high massive stone bridge. It is 100 feet wide, and spans 90 feet between the rock walls. It's too simple to say that it is huge, so Denisa stood under the bridge to provide some frame of reference.

President Thomas Jefferson was actually the first American owner of the bridge. He purchased the bridge and the 157 acres surrounding it from King George III in 1774. The total price was 20 shillings or $2.40. We realized that we had just paid six times the purchase price just to walk through it. Jefferson loved this area and described it as, "the most sublime of nature's works." We would say that we had just wandered under another of God's wonders.

It's hard to tell, but Denisa has on a white hard-hat in the pictures above. There are caution signs that warn that because it is a natural structure, rocks can fall from the bridge at any time. As she stood under the arch she suddenly heard a plop in the stream beside her as a rock from above hit the water.

The trail continues past the bridge, where a Monocan Indian village is displayed for visitors. The re-enactors don't arrive until 10:00, so the gates into the area were still closed.

From our view point outside, we could only take pictures of the huts that have been constructed using traditional Indian techniques and materials.

The trail continues for a mile, ending at a cascade waterfall. We enjoyed our hike through the woods on an early morning with few tourists around.

Then we headed back to the entry, for one more pass under the natural bridge from the other direction.

One of the information plaques pointed out that Highway 11 still crosses over the bridge. We understand why those rocks some times fall from the natural bridge as big vehicles rumble over it. 

If we look carefully, we can now see the tall wall that covers the view of the highway at the top of the bridge.

It was sprinkling as we left the state park, and it turned into a full rain storm as we drove the few miles back to the motor home. We knew we were leaving our pricey resort camping spot today, but now we wanted to stay in the area longer based on the hiking advice we had been given yesterday. So we decided to head down the road just 40 minutes, for a boon-docking stay. As we headed down Highway 11, we now understand that we are actually crossing on the Natural Bridge. As our 26,000 pound motor home rumbles over the bridge, we hope those visitors below have on their hard hats.

Mark did some research, and found a Cracker Barrel restaurant with RV parking spots that welcome overnight stays. So we are feeling very much at home at the Barrel this night.

Even thought it was still rainy, we drove the few miles over to the city of Roanoke. Denisa bought a few vegetables at the farmer's market downtown, and then we headed to the Star Mill Park overlooking town. We had read that Roanoke is known as "The Star City" because of the large star on top of the highest mountain overlooking town. In fact, it is the world's largest man-made star. It was designed and built in 1949 and is lit up by 2,000 feet of neon tubing every evening until midnight.

It's hard to tell just how big this 88-foot star is, so Mark is standing under it in the picture below.

From the park at the top of the mountain, we can look over the city of Roanoke in the valley below.

Beyond the city, we can see the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains in the distance. The silhouette of the highest peak in the center of the picture is McAfee Knob. This mountain is the reason we have extended our stay in the area. It's been highly recommended from more than one source, and we'll be climbing it tomorrow.

It was cold and windy and wet, so we headed back to the comfort of the motor home and some Cracker Barrel home-cooking. We can recommend their delicious lunch specials, especially when they are so close to our front door.