“God’s Thumbprint”, “Vanderbilt’s first choice”, “Garden Spot of the World”, or as the locals call it, simply “The Garden” are impressive titles for an area I have wanted to visit for a long time. As the story goes, James Burke camped here with James Patton in 1750, burying some potato peels. Another party camping in the same spot found a crop of potatoes and named the place Burke’s Garden. Known for its fertile soil and cool summers, it has been and remains a farming community. At 3,100 feet, it’s a good place to be in June. The temperature rarely gets above 80 degrees.
My plan was to drive the loop around the bowl, take a few side roads and get the big picture. Then I wanted to bike around the 12-mile loop to get a different perspective, after which I would have lunch at Burke’s Garden General Store. The drive up from Tazewell in on a narrow, curvy, mountain road, then back down the other side, then back up another mountain and down into the huge bowl, surrounded by Garden Mountain. It appears like a collapsed volcano, but probably not true.
“How was Burke’s Garden formed? There are more than a few theories about its geological origins. Meek thinks the valley was once a lake, while Rich Snapp offers another idea: “Some say a meteor hit it and flattened it out.” Still others suggest the area was once part of a volcano. Geologists get the last word, and they’ve apparently said, according to Tazewell historian and author Louise Leslie, that this bowl was once a 6,500-foot-high mountain largely composed of limestone, but with a sandstone cap. Slowly, that sandstone cap eroded, and the peak of Garden Mountain collapsed into itself. That’s the “common wisdom,” says Whitted. “And the limestone shifts all the time, so that’s a pretty believable story.”’ From http://www.virginialiving.com/culture/a-different-world/
Taking side roads, I drove slowly, stopping to take pictures many times. I would have driven Martha crazy, but it was nice to take my time. If you like farm land, it’s eye candy for the soul. There are no stop lights, no developments and very little traffic. The roads are narrow, so stopping to take pictures made me nervous, but maybe two cars passed on my whole loop. At the school, a big sign wished happy birthday to three youngsters. Sadly, the school is closed now, as redistricting sends the kids to Tazewell.
I don’t know where all the rainwater goes. The surrounding mountains have to drain into the bowl, yet this small stream ends in a lake caused by a dam. As I stood evaluating this lake, wondering if the water was cold enough for trout, I saw some big fish swirling and fins breaking the surface. There were a lot of these fish. After watching a while, I decided they must be carp.
If you want a place to stay, this looks very nice at $100/night: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/27662285?source_impression_id=p3_1623239957_TSPY1k0RJtksa3OC or https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/31799038?source_impression_id=p3_1623240196_pcJ85bJ0Rzp6xEEt&guests=1&adults=1. A hostel is opening soon, catering to Appalachian Trail hikers. The trail passes on the south rim.
I stopped in the General Store, where two Amish girls were working. I asked if I could park the truck while I rode the bike. They were very nice, telling me I could park next to the fence. I asked how far it was around the loop, and she said 12 miles. “Good, I’ll be back for lunch😊” I pulled up next to the fence as two boys investigated. They looked like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They were especially interested when I opened the tailgate, pulled out the sliding tray and unloaded my bike. Two girls in the yard spoke to them in German I think.
As I started down the road, a man driving two horses while standing in a wagon with some kind of farm equipment in the back. They were in a strong trot, heading to work with a purpose. He passed with a big smile and a wave. How wonderful in such contrast to our modern, crazy, rushing world! I stopped frequently to take more pictures with my phone. Just the opposite of what we are accustomed to, the houses are modest in general, but the land is spectacular.
Cows, cows and more cows. Knowing little about farming, I surmised this is a relatively easy kind of farming. They came to the fences and gates as I passed, perhaps thinking I was bringing food. God knows what they would need food for. The beautiful grass is up to their bellies. Although I didn’t see what I would call a horse farm, I saw many riding horses, and some nice ones. One horse stood in the front yard of a small house. At the edge of the porch, he looked into the screen door. A cat was eating its breakfast while a small dog looked back at the horse through the screen door. I quickly stopped to take a picture, but as soon as he saw me, he walked around the other side of the house to see what his owner was doing. Oh well, the picture is etched in my mind.
Arriving back at the General Store, I put the bike away as the boys came to watch. It’s a beautiful porch to have lunch with a spectacular view. The bonus is getting to see people come in for lunch and to listen to some of the conversations. The choices on the board were fried fish, hamburger and about any kind of sandwich you want. I ordered the fish and took a tour of the store. I had to remind myself this is the only store in the Garden, so there are plenty of staples in this small store – beans, rice, flour and cereal. There are also plenty of things you might find in many Amish stores. I bought some trail mix and a “tonic” made with apple cider and a lot of fruit juices.
The fish was excellent. I sat on the porch in the corner. Two gentlemen talked of people and where they were or had gone. The real entertainment was a tractor trailer that pulled off the road in front of the store. I thought he was stopping for lunch, but then wondered, “on his way to where?” He knew the girls, and came out with a slip. He pulled out into the road and started backing up. I figured he was turning around to head back out. There is really only one road entering the Garden, and it’s a narrow, winding one. Well, he started backing between a gas tank and my truck next to the fence. I got nervous, but in no time he backed it right in there and turned it off. I have a hard enough time backing my Airstream into a campsite, but backing it into that spot, I would have gotten out four times to check, but no, he just backed right in there….with a tractor trailer. He jumped out of the truck, went to the back of the trailer and unloaded two big tractor tires, closed the doors and he was out of there. Truck drivers amaze me anyway, but this guy was good, really good.
I enjoyed my day in Burke’s Garden. It is beautiful, and takes you back to a more peaceful time. It’s also as pretty a bike ride you will ever find. The road is very safe, with little traffic, and when they do come, they are in no hurry. Of course there is always one. I heard a car coming from behind, and then he floored it coming past me, and zooming up the straight stretch in a red pickup. About gave me a heart attack. Did he not like tourist bike riders invading his valley, or was he just in a foul mood? All other contacts were very pleasant. I was busy trying to get a picture of a beautiful woodpecker while sitting in the middle of the lane. A car slowly passed on the other side. A lady gave me a nice smile and a wave as her border collie looked out the window. Beside the lake, I laid my bike down to check out feeding fish. As I picked my bike back up, a truck slowed as he approached and rolled down the window. I waved and smiled to let him know everything was OK. I’d like to go back for another visit, maybe sitting on the porch longer, listening to the stories.