The iconic Iron Bridge
Winding thirty-four miles one-way through the high mountains of southwest Virginia runs one of the most popular biking trails around: the Virginia Creeper Trail which follows an old railroad grade between Abingdon and Whitetop Station, Virginia. The most beautiful section of this trail lies within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area between Damascus and Whitetop Station where it follows scenic mountain streams, crosses meadows studded with wildflowers, and cools you off in the fragrant shade of the many wooded sections.
This natural paradise is an easy day’s drive from several major metropolitan areas, the closest being Roanoke, VA, which requires about a 2.25 hour drive. From either Atlanta or Washington DC, Damascus is a six-hour drive, and about a five-hour drive from Nashville, TN.
The little town of Damascus, which touts itself as “Trails Town” because of the major trails running through it, is about halfway along the full length of the Creeper. Most visitors to this area, however, prefer to have their bikes shuttled to the highest point at Whitetop Station, situated at 3576 feet in the shadow of the second highest mountain in Virginia, Whitetop Mountain with an elevation of 5520 feet. No bike? No problem. About half a dozen bike rental/shuttle shops abound in this bike-friendly town. Among them are Blue Blaze Bike Rental & Shuttle (276-475-5095), Creeper Trail Bike Rental & Shuttle (276-475-3611), JC’s Outdoors (276-475-5727), and Sundog Outfitters (276-475-6252).
From Whitetop Station the trail descends about 1646 feet to Damascus with the steepest grade of 6% over the first three miles to Green Cove Station, one of the surviving depots from the trail’s glory days when steam trains chugged their way along here, transporting mostly timber until 1977. As a matter of fact, the last locomotive to operate on this line is on display at the Abingdon trailhead on Pecan Street.
The ride from the highest point on the trail to Damascus is practically all downhill, making it one of the easiest bike rides you’ll ever encounter. That allows cyclists the luxury of relaxing and enjoying the natural beauty surrounding them. For those looking for a little more excitement, the downhill grade allows them to work up a pretty good head of steam (pun intended) if speed is what they are looking for.
Several locations along the trail offer cold drinks and restrooms including the reconstructed Whitetop Station and the original Green Cove depot, which will transport you back to the early 1900’s, thanks to the work of volunteers and National Forest Service folks who have worked hard to preserve and maintain it.
If you opt to take the shuttle to Whitetop (mile 33.4), the ride back to Damascus (mile 15.5) should take anywhere from 1½ to 3 hours at an easy pace, allowing for stops along the way. (Those who choose to pedal uphill to Whitetop should allow more time, depending on your condition.) Quaint Green Cove Station is just three miles down the trail and definitely deserves a stop to immerse yourselves in its old-timey charm. Creek Junction with its HighBridge is at mile 27.0, while Taylor’s Valley, where you could get a substantial lunch, is at mile 23.0. At mile 17.5 is the famous IronBridge (pictured above). Beyond Damascus at mile 8.5 is the site of the old Alvarado Station where snacks and cold drinks can be purchased. From this site, if you continue to pedal toward Abingdon, you’ll pass through the River Knobs and finally the Great Knobs before reaching mile 0.0 at the Abingdon trailhead.
Although Damascus, Virginia, is a small main-street town, it is exceptionally bike friendly and offers interesting accommodations from cabins to bed-and-breakfast inns, along with a smattering of various types of eateries. As you re-enter the outskirts of town, do stop at Off The Beaten Path Ice cream Shoppe for some of their fabulous Hershey’s ice cream. The following link gives much more detailed information on the local area as well as links to individual businesses and more lodging: http://www.damascus.org/index.html.
In addition, nearby Abingdon with its beautiful historic district (about a 20-minute drive) provides even more in the way of motels, B&B’s, restaurants, and shopping. Go to http://www.abingdon.com for those details and website links. If you plan your visit for early August, you must take in the famous Virginia Highlands Festival near downtown Abingdon. Not only does it include a huge number of vendors displaying various arts and crafts, but also numerous nature programs, workshops, music groups, food, and more food. Go to http://www.vahighlandsfestival.org for all the information.
Even parents with small children can enjoy the VA Creeper Trail. The local rental shops offer a variety of equipment including tandem bikes and trailers for toddlers or four-legged fur-children. Although the trail is unpaved and tends to be a bit bumpy in places, it’s not unusual to see young children sound asleep in their trailers while their parent pedals them along.
Cyclists who also enjoy fishing will find numerous opportunities, as the trail parallels a number of streams, some stocked with trout. These fishing spots are easily accessed by anyone wanting to try their skill and luck. On hot summer days, these streams offer tempting swimming holes as well. Cyclists who prefer to cycle up the trail as well as down might appreciate a cool dip even more than those who choose to do just the downhill part.
Now the Creeper Trail is a multi-use trail, meaning that pedestrians and equestrians also use it, including dog-walkers who are supposed to keep their dogs under control at all times, meaning on a leash. Weekends can be somewhat crowded in the summer and especially in October, typically the busiest month of the year. However, the Abingdon section of the trail, which is also quite lovely, tends to experience less traffic, even on weekends.
Damascus is not called Trails Town simply for the Creeper Trail. The famous Appalachian Trail passes right through town as well as the Iron Mountain Trail which can be hiked or biked, although you might need quads of steel to bike it because of its many steep grades. Buns of steel wouldn’t hurt either, since it is rather rocky in places.
Whether you come to southwest Virginia to bike, hike, fish, or just enjoy the beauty, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is this an incredibly scenic area but the local people are friendly and will go out of their way to help you. In fact, Mount Rogers Area volunteers patrol that section of the Creeper Trail and have been know to go to extraordinary lengths to help cyclists in distress.
The Great Smoky Mountains. Just the name conjures up images of magnificent mountain peaks with “smokes” rising from their flanks. It’s easy to see why this is the most-visited national park in the United States with all that it has to offer, from activities that appeal to the outdoorsy, adventurous types to those looking for world-class shopping to the younger set wanting to fill their days with theme parks, game rooms and water parks.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, makes an ideal base camp for partaking of all the activities associated with the Smoky Mountains, with the literally thousands of hotel/motel rooms, overnight rentals and campgrounds available. The location, near the middle of the northern boundary of the national park, provides access to anything you would want to do while in the Smokies. Just 27 miles west of Gatlinburg along the Little River Road (allow a good hour to drive this extremely scenic but slow road) lies the 6800-acre Cades Cove. Settlers came into this beautiful valley in the 1800’s; the National Park Service has restored some of the original buildings to give visitors an idea of what life was like back then. Seven cabins have been restored along with three churches and the Cable Mill area which contains a number of buildings as well as an operational grist mill and a visitors’ center.
Near the beginning of the 11-mile loop road and accessed by a short, well-maintained and traveled trail sits the John Oliver cabin, the first to be built in the valley. I had an astounding bit of luck one day when I chaperoned a small group of mentally challenged adults around Cades Cove on their annual vacation. We walked the trail to the cabin when, lo and behold, a juvenile black bear crossed the trail just a few feet in front of us! As a matter of fact, another small group of tourists were just a little further ahead, and the bear actually passed between our groups, not paying the slightest attention to us.
I had been told that the black bear population is quite large in the Cove, and that was actually the second time I’ve seen a bear there, but this sighting was much better than the first one. Needless to say, my little group was overjoyed to see such a sight.
Not only is Cades Cove of historical interest, but the hiking is quite good as well. You can do an easy nature trail or one of the more challenging trails. The Abrams Falls Trail is about five miles round-trip and of only moderate difficulty. It presents a nice walk with a lovely waterfall at the turnaround point, although the trail actually continues quite a bit farther, all the way to the Abrams Creek Campground, if you feel up to it.
Not far beyond that point is the visitors’ center/Cable Mill area which sits beside the intersection of the loop road and Forge Creek Road, a one-way, unpaved, single-lane road leading south out of the national park into Tennessee. One morning in November some years ago, I got up especially early to reach the Cove as close to dawn as possible. It was well worth it: Spread across the Cove, peacefully grazing were literally hundreds of white-tailed deer. No one else was around. The scene was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. This was what it must have looked like to the early settlers. I had heard that early morning was the best time to view the deer, and it is.
But I got more than I bargained for that day. I was headed to the Forge Creek Road, off of which is the Gregory Ridge Trail, a 10-mile round trip hike up to the Appalachian Trail and back. The turnoff to the trailhead parking lot was not far from the loop road and just before you reach the one-way section. As I drove up the road, I spotted a wild pig trotting along the side, a pretty rare sight since these critters are extremely shy. Unfortunately, he veered into the woods before I could get my camera into position. That was my first sighting of a wild pig, although I had also heard that quite a few of them called this national park their home.
But that wasn’t the end of my wildlife encounters that day. The hike turned out to be quite exhilarating. The closer I approached the Appalachian Trail, the colder it became, of course, since I was about 2500 feet higher up. The weather conditions were just right for all the tree branches to wear sheaths of crystal clear ice. I appeared to be walking through a magical crystal forest. Quite a bonus!
Finally, returning to the parking lot, I heard the unpleasant sound of someone insistently blowing their car’s horn. To make a long story short, another tourist had been trying to drive away a black bear that had broken into a car parked there: my car! I had left an apple in the back seat that it smelled through the vent, and it almost tore the door off to get at it. The critter was just coming out of my car when I arrived. What an ending to an incredible day! (Check out my blog at http://www.hikinggal.blogspot.com for a more detailed story.) One thing I learned, besides not to leave any food in my vehicle, is that bears don’t necessarily stay in hibernation all winter. As a matter of fact, they may not hibernate at all if they haven’t put on enough extra weight before the start of winter.
Every season is beautiful in its own way in the Great Smoky Mountains. Although the Rocky Mountains are higher and more rugged, the Smokies are more accessible in the winter. (And did you know that, millions of years ago, the Smoky Mountains were higher than the Rockies are now?) You can marvel at frozen waterfalls, crystal-wrapped tree branches, bear tracks in the snow, rocks encircled with crystal necklaces in every stream and more. All you need to do is get out of your vehicle and look. The pressing crowds of summer are gone, leaving you with a quiet, peaceful wilderness just begging to be enjoyed.
To Who It May Concern,
Since finishing my blockbuster erotic novel “Beneath Me,” I been sending out – whatcha call them things-quiries I think. Anyway I sent them out to every agent in the book but only one of them bothered to email me back, and that one said “you gotta be kidding me”. I don’t even know for sure what he/she/it means by that, but I been addressing all my quiries like To Who It may concern, and sometimes Dear Sir or Madam as the case may be. But still only one weird response?
I know I got a killer novel, so is somethin wrong with my quirie do you think? Please help me Sir.
Dear Query not-so-Expert,
I really shouldn’t be responding to your email and break your losing streak, but being the sweet, lovable, compassionate kitty that I am, here’s my response. Just don’t expect it to be sympathetic.
First of all, the word you want for the type of letter you send to agents is “query,” not “quiry.” You may inquire about the status of your brain, but you query agents.
Second, you need to ascertain the genre your novel fits in, and then only query those agents who handle it. Contacting agents who prefer romance, for instance, with a manuscript in the sci-fi genre will pretty much guarantee no responses. Believe me, using the shotgun approach will not work.
Third, never, never, NEVER – did I say never? – address a query letter the way you demonstrated above. Besides determining the genres that each agent represents, get the names of the ones who handle your category and address each query letter with that agent’s name. For example, if the agent’s name is Suzie Blake – and you’re quite certain that this is a female agent – write the salutation part of your letter as:
Dear Ms. Blake,
Always be respectful in your letters to them, and never use an arrogant tone in your query. I guarantee those agents will hit their delete button faster than you can say catnip. Even if you think you’ve written the next Great American Novel, don’t say it. Let your manuscript speak for itself.
One last word of advice – not that you deserve it – but here it is anyway: Get an editor for your query letters before sending any more out.
Now I guess I’d better pretend to look for mice before my guardian kicks my furry butt out. Lying on the best seat in the house and looking beautiful doesn’t seem to be enough for her. Some humans just don’t know when they’ve got it good.
P.S. I am not a Sir!!!!! (sigh) Why do I even bother with blockheads like you?!!!
I read and took to heart your post about creating memorable characters, especially the protagonist. So I’ve made my protagonist into an alcoholic but a recovering alcoholic who’s always being tempted to take “just one little ‘ol drink”, you know how that scenario works right? And I also have taken to heart your post on how to show and not tell.
So I’ve been showing in my novel “The Recovery” how Jimmy, the ex-alcoholic, keeps turning down drink offers when he’s around his buddies who don’t know about his colorful past, but I’ve got him thinking each time something like “It won’t hurt to take one little ol’ drink, now, will it?” He’s asking himself that here. And then he answers himself like “Maybe not but maybe I’d better not.”
So do you think that’s enough to let my readers know about his history with booze and how much of a struggle it is for him?
Please advise me, Maggie, so I can make sure my readers understand how important this part of Jimmy’s character is.
Is It Enough?
Dear Is It Enough,
First of all, let me congratulate you on your high degree of intelligence in following my blogs and writing advice.
Now, let me get to the heart of answering your question. Having your character(s) thinking thoughts such as what you described is a step up from “telling” I’ll admit and may be enough depending on your skill at showing the struggle he faces in his self-talk. If you don’t think that’s enough to help your readers understand such a titanic mental battle, you can do a little telling without making it seem to be “telling.”
Here’s what you do. Once you are well into your story and have established Jimmy’s mental turmoil, during a dialogue between, say, two of his coworkers, who are exercising their elbows at the local watering hole, you could manipulate their conversation similar to this:
“I wonder why Jimmy never shows up at happy hour here whenever us guys get together after work,” #1 muses, partly to himself.
“Didn’t you know, #1, that Jimmy’s an ex-alcoholic? I used to know him years ago when he drank like a fish. He kept losin’ his jobs because he couldn’t stay sober long enough to do his work,” said #2.
“Wowie. No I didn’t know that. He seems pretty sober now. What happened?”
“He joined AA, and they helped him go on the wagon.” #2 answered. “But if he takes just one little drink, he may start his alcoholism up all over again.” After pausing to chug his beer down in one huge gulp, #2 continued, “He said his wife threatened to take their kids and leave him if he started doin’ that again.”
Do you get the idea,”Is It Enough”? If you’ve done a decent job of cluing your readers in on Jimmy’s character “defect,” if you will, then coming right out in the open with it in dialogue like the above will engage your readers more as your partners and co-conspirators. Not only does this insure that they “get” it, but it also provides their own egos with a boost in thinking that they figured it out all by themselves before you came right out and “told” it in dialogue. Of course, the dialogue could take place between Jimmy and one of his friends or coworkers as well. Dialogue can be used in both telling and showing but moves your story along much better than simply using a narrative summary, which is almost what Jimmy’s thoughts are verging on in your description above.
But be warned! Don’t overdo this form of telling, or it will seem contrived to your readers, and they will probably throw your book down in disgust. I know I would! Matter of fact, I probably would anyway since my first guardian was a lush and sometimes forgot to feed me. So I have a particularly strong dislike of humans who drink too much. They have no business giving a home to an elegant and dainty pussycat like me who requires regular meals. I’d be better off in a shelter. Just as long as it’s a “no-kill” shelter. At least I’d get my three squares a day!! However, even just one really long square would work as well.
Dear Maggie, Some my ex- friends been telling me that the action in my novel, Forever and Ever, is too slow and that my story is boring and my sentences too long and they had a hard time figuring out what’s going on, but I swear that I’m a really really good writer and have read somewheres that we should avoid short sentences because they speed things up too much so I write I guess sort of medium length sentences like this one here which should keep the pace down to a manageable level cause I don’t want things to move along to fast, you know what I mean, cause then the story will be over two soon and I really don’t want that to happen, so tell me Maggie that my ex-friends are wrong, right?
Mr. Well Paced
Dear Mr. Not-So-Well-Paced,
Wrong! If your novel consists of many – or even any – sentences like the one in your letter, then your problem is actually twofold. (Really, it’s threefold, but we’ll discount the congenital insanity for now.) First, that letter of yours is composed of a run-on sentence. That means it consists of two or more sentences run together without the appropriate punctuation to separate them. That not only confuses readers but also indicates a lack of knowledge on your part about the craft of writing. If I understand what you’ve written correctly, that letter of yours actually contains about seven or eight sentences, depending on how you want to divide them up.
Second, longer sentences do slow down the pace of a story, but in any event you should avoid overly long, excruciatingly convoluted sentences that leave your readers in the dark about how to interpret its contents; even if its meaning seems clear to you, it may not seem that way to them, such as this sentence demonstrates, although my use of a semi-colon between the main independent clauses does help somewhat. Both periods and semi-colons tell your readers to pause at those points. They are handy little critters, so I advise you to use them, especially the periods. A writer can live without semi-colons but not periods. Period.
Use short sentences to speed things up. Quick back-and-forth dialogue also helps in this respect. Novels should never be based on sentences that are about the same length and same basic construction. Your “ex-friends” were right, I’m not too sorry to say.
Play with sentence length and construction. Once you’ve mastered the typical subject-verb-predicate form, move on to variations, such as starting sentences with dependent clauses. Also allowed is reversing that order for emphasis. So is writing fragments. But don’t get carried away.
Word order matters. To emphasize a particular word, end your sentence with that word. For instance, you could write:
“Her claustrophobia was the result of her mother locking her in a closet when she was young.”
If you want to emphasize the word, “claustrophobia,” which is the strongest word in that sentence, a better way to write it would be:
“Her mother locking her in a closet when she was young resulted in her developing claustrophobia.”
Right now, though, I believe I’ve developed a new phobia for the psychiatric manuals. It’s called long-senteceophobia. I think I’ll go find a nice dark cubbyhole to hide in where I won’t be pestered by clueless nuts like you. It’s time for my hourly nap anyway.
I know yer not supposed to use a lot of sentences and paragraphs without no dialoge, but really I don’t see no harm in that. My jernalism perfessor always said to write whatever feels right and that conversations between your characters arent necessary. Now I thought instead of writing in lots of – whats it called – background for all of my 20 main characters I could jest use flashbacks, you know like what goes on in their minds as their walking along or pooping on the john or whatever. Course it still wouldn’t be conversations although I guess sometimes it could be part of the flashbacks.
Now don’t that sound like a grate idea, Maggie? I bet noone else came up with that huh?
Yours in litriture,
Dear Flashbuck – or Flashback – or whatever the heck you call yourself,
Concentrating on flashbacks for the moment, I’m afraid that technique for filling in backstory, as it’s called, is fairly common in fiction writing and has been around a long, long time. Let me state for the record – one more time – that anything that interrupts the flow of the story line is to be avoided, be it narrative summaries or flashbacks. Now that’s not a hard and fast rule, however. As long as you can make the scene as visual as possible and as immediate as possible, it may well serve your purpose.
Let’s do an example. Take the following sentence, from a flashback maybe:
George’s thoughts suddenly became filled with the horrible sights and sounds of the battle that had almost killed him 20 years ago and had left him traumatized every since.
Changing that flashback into something that will keep your readers’ interest, you should instead write:
Every so often, George’s mind would suddenly erupt with the blinding reddish-yellow bursts and ground-shaking thunder of bombs exploding all around him, as he knelt in the bloody mud of his foxhole. Helplessly he watched through slitted eyes the arms, legs, and even heads of dismembered comrades flying in all directions.
Now that will grab your readers’ attention and keep the story moving right along. Do you see the difference in the two flashbacks? If not, then maybe you should confine your writing to dog food commercials. But not cat food commercials. Your talent – actually, lack of talent – just doesn’t quite make the grade for such exalted writing.
One last caveat about flashbacks. You may or may not have noticed that my second, corrected example did not contain the word “had.” If you must use flashbacks, use the same simple past tense verbs you use throughout the rest of your story, assuming, of course, that you use past tense. That is the most common tense used and deemed acceptable by agents and publishers. Using “had” in flashbacks can cause some extremely awkward phrasing and, again, will unpleasantly intrude upon your readers’ experience. Not a good thing.
Oh, and by the way, just which “jernalism” school did you attend, The Lastditch School of Dropouts where “perfessors” are paid by how many they pass? Hmm, sounds like dog obedience school.
Now that I’ve mentioned cat food, I think I’ll go and stare pointedly at my guardian until she succumbs to my hypnotic eyes and dishes out the gourmet tuna.