By Dustin Swope -2014
Driving on public roads might be one of the ultimate ambiguous activities. For some people, driving means mind-numbing boredom and shifting around in the driver’s seat trying to figure out which butt cheek is more asleep. For others, driving isn’t just boring, is a stress-filled chore that took all the fun out of their sixteenth birthday. I don’t fall into either of these camps. To me, driving is something that I like to do. I volunteer to man the helm all the time for road trips because I find a strategy game in it. It’s a challenge to see which drivers can predict the ebb and flow of traffic best, stuffing one another in the slow lanes and surging ahead one car link at a time. On surface roads, I paint smooth lines and clip apexes through turns, take the longer way home for the high-speed S-curves, and I think any driver with a pulse likes to let their car clear its throat every now and again.
But alas, I do the heavy majority of my driving at home, in central Florida, where speedbumps pass for changes in elevation. Here in North Carolina, I don’t usually have an excuse to take my car much farther than the grocery store. Every once in a while I’ll get a taste of what real elevation feels like when I make the drive down I-40 to Raleigh-Durham International, but it’s all bittersweet to me. I know that this state has roads that dip, climb, and pivot with the best of them, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience them first-hand. That is, of course, until my fellow travel writers and I scheduled a visit to Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Finding our way off of Highway 64 and through Hendersonville to the local inn that we’d booked for the night, I was already having a good time behind the wheel. In the part of Florida that I’m from, there just aren’t many reasons to not lay the roads out in a clean, systematic, boring fashion. Growing up in that driving climate for twenty years, I was having about as hard a time playing it cool in the foothills of North Carolina as my co-pilots were trying to understand why I was having such a good time with it. We arrived late at night, and at the tail-end of a four-hour haul, there was only so much enthusiasm I could muster for the roads that brought us off the highway and into town, but I was enjoying myself.
Our morning started at 6:30am, dead-set on making it up to the top of Laurel Park’s Jump Off Rock to see the morning sun wake the valley up. The crisp mountain air and a supreme home-cooked breakfast courtesy of the Cedarwood Inn had our travel writing team in high spirits, so we plugged in “Jump Off Rock” in the GPS and took off. The drive started out innocently enough. We make our way North towards Hendersonville, realize we’re going the wrong way, spin around, and now there’s a little excitement in the car. We needed to make it back into Hendersonville by 8:00am to stay on schedule, but we didn’t want to tag the precipice and immediately leave – That just isn’t what travel writing is about. To be honest though, this whole ‘Jump Off Rock for not-sunrise’ plan was my idea, and my teammates had been good sports waking up early enough to make it happen. Now I was feeling the pressure to see that it wasn’t for naught, and that meant making up for lost time.
Just a few minutes into our 20-minute drive, we get clear of traffic lights and it’s just us, the road, and the rare stop sign. We start climbing, slowly at first, but then the road does a few dips and lifts that cut our line of sight to less than a hundred yards. A few more minutes of driving and the road comes to hug the side of the mountain. A few lofty banked turns, and now I’m awake. Climbing and winding, I’m powering through hairpins and letting the back tires slide out just a little at the exit because I know the elevation will cause a compression effect that’ll bring the car back under control. I catch hear door handles being grabbed, bags shifting around in the back seat, and a hushed “Oh! Okay.” I check myself, remembering that I’m driving with two other students that’ve never been in the car with me before this trip. They’re nice girls and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I apologize. I lie and say that that was all I wanted to do. But then, another happy surprise. The girls say that it was fun, just that they weren’t ready for it. With their blessing, I dropped back into a low gear and resumed my waltz with the road to Jump Off Rock.
Don’t get the wrong idea, this drive wasn’t about speed or fishtails, leaving smoky rubber scars on the mountainside, and it wasn’t a race. From Cedarwood Inn to the mountain top, I always left 10% of what the car could’ve done untouched. As far as I’m concerned, roads this pretty deserve only smoothness and composition to match. I wouldn’t take my dad’s birthday bourbon to a frat party, and I wouldn’t waste that trail pretending I was a stunt driver in the next installation of the Fast and the Furious series. No, a road like the one to Jump Off Rock can only really be appreciated by drivers offering grace and emphasis to match, and that’s exactly what I aimed to do.