Road Trip: New Map Tour Explores Appalachia
Felberbaum, Michael, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
RICHMOND, Va. -- Bustling textile and furniture factories that used to churn out blankets and beds have moved out of southwest Virginia, taking jobs overseas.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing left in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along with the enduring traditions of hard work and faith remains the tangible treasure of bluegrass.
"Music is the most valuable commodity that we have to sell here in these mountains," said Debbie Robinson, program coordinator for Blue Ridge Music Center, one of the many attractions included in a renewed effort to bring visitors to the heart of Appalachia.
A new driving-tour map developed by National Geographic and the Appalachian Regional Commission features 28 suggested routes, all reflecting the diversity of the 13-state region that stretches from southern New York to northeast Mississippi.
The routes include scenic staples such as the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina and Virginia, and lesser-known car trips through historic towns, back roads and artisan trails.
"We're actually placing much more value on our music, and it is drawing people to our area," said Robinson, who also volunteers at the Rex Theater in Galax, Va. The restored movie theater is home to a weekly show featuring mostly live local music acts playing banjo, fiddle and guitar that's broadcast on the radio and via the Internet.
National Geographic was paid $80,000 by the commission to develop the new map, which was distributed this spring to 865,000 subscribers of National Geographic Traveler. It also is available through the commission and state tourism offices.
"Appalachia, in a lot of ways, is one of our most important regions," said Keith Bellows, the magazine's editor. "This is kind of travel ground zero. The idea that you can drive it and see those nooks and crannies of our past, they're all there."
The commission estimates tourism as a more than $29 billion industry in the region, employing more than 600,000 people.
Economic woes have led more people to travel within the U.S. than abroad, sticking with getaways closer to home. And despite rising gas prices, Bellows believes that traveling, even by car, will not slow.
"The truth is we're all going to travel," Bellows said. "We love it. We can't help ourselves. It's something that we absolutely love to do and I suspect that no matter how expensive it gets, we're going to want to explore our own backyard."
In Virginia, drivers can take a trip on the Crooked Road, the state's heritage music trail along the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the coalfields region. …