I learned everything I know about the Blue Ridge Mountains from a pair of musicians from the other side of the country.
For me, a child of the 70s and 80s, New Mexico native John Denver was an omnipresent part of my youth.
On TV with the Muppets, on the movie screen with George Burns, on the radio singing about Country Roads, John Denver was the man.
He made the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia seem like a faraway paradise.
It’s not that I was a John Denver fan, although for a time we had similar haircuts. It’s just that his pleasant presence was inescapable.
John Fogerty, on the other hand, was already mostly the stuff of classic rock radio by the time I was old enough to listen.
The genius behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, he stayed firmly in his lane of southern twanged rock. Except, that is, for a mostly under-appreciated foray into country and bluegrass under his Blue Ridge Rangers alter ego.
Fogerty took a scratchy, popping old song first recorded in 1924 and made it vibrant while somehow protecting the wistful longing of the original Blue Ridge Mountain blues.
That was it.
If you asked me about those mountains, I could have given you a rhyming couplet or two, but It can be hard to break the assumptions of youth based on the ill-formed impressions of information gleaned from sources we are not yet equipped to question.
Though I spent my youth in the farmlands of Indiana, most of my life has played out in the shadow of the mountains. I’ve traveled their backroads, explored the nooks, crannies and crevices.
I thought I had a basic understanding of the place where I live. Well, until very recently, at least.
As they like to say on the internet, I was today years old when I found out I had no understanding of the relationship between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies.
Like, at all.
Are the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains the same?
I thought, as do a lot of people, the Blue Ridge Mountains were a neighbor to the Great Smoky Mountains, riding up through North Carolina and into the Virginias.
The Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies were supposed to be separate puzzle pieces that comprise the Appalachian chain.
I thought they were siblings on the old western frontier.
Friends, and I know several people who would pay good money to hear me admit this … I was wrong.
It turns out the Great Smoky Mountains are Jonah and the Blue Ridge Mountains are the whale and, dear reader, I’m a bit shook.
I’ve been living in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the better part of the last 30 years and never knew it.
The Smoky Mountains get all the pub, but really, they’re just a relatively small part of the larger, more significant Blue Ridge Mountains.
Where do the Blue Ridge Mountains start and end?
It turns out the Blue Ridge Mountains are massive.
Inside their borders are two national parks (Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and eight national forests, including the Cherokee, the Pisgah, the Nantahala and the Chattahoochee.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles, connecting the two national parks along ridge crest lines.
Though the well-worn, ancient range is reduced to hills somewhere around Gettysburg, Pa., you can trace their fading spine through New Jersey all the way to the Green Mountains of Vermont.
You wouldn’t think information of this kind would be unmooring, but somehow it is.
My internal calibrations are off.
We navigate our world by our internal geography and when something isn’t where we thought it was – or isn’t what we thought it would be – we question the other bedrock assumptions upon which we’ve built our lives.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are supposed to be a far-off distant place, a wistful place you pine for, not the place where I go get groceries or play mini-golf.
I have met the wistful distance and it is us.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are a gigantic mountain range
Like a little indie band you loved suddenly making it big. The Blue Ridge Mountains being a gigantic range robs it of a little bit of its poetry.
And the Blue Ridge Mountains, at least as they exist in my mind, are about poetry.
The misty mountains have for generations captured the imaginations of artists and writers and, of course, musicians.
From Georgia to Pennsylvania, the mountains contain multitudes, forgotten stories and ancient lore. They deserved a bit of mystery. They deserved to be exotic.
Of course, this is something of a technical conversation, clinging closely to literal definitions. It’s an academic endeavor.
Like explaining to someone that a square is always a rectangle but a rectangle isn’t always a square. Are the Smokies part of the Blue Ridge Mountains? Science says they are.
Conventional wisdom, however, is playing another game.
In the real world, or at least the one I live, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies are neighbors, not intertwined.
Regardless of the physiographic province, if you told someone from East Tennessee that you wanted to meet them in the Blue Ridge Mountains, they’d expect to see you over the state line into Carolina or possibly Virginia.
Tell them we’re heading to the Blue Ridge Mountains and then drive them to Gatlinburg? They will look at you askance, my friend.