With Sarah Palin and supplicants high-fiving one another at nearby Elon University, I was lucky enough to be pointed in the opposite direction. But freedom from America's hockey mom doesn't come without a price. No, to earn my reprieve, I had to once again pull off the improbable: I had to haul ass to the mountains. And back. Along the way, I was to shoot video of the eye-popping foliage, interview as many leafers as possible and have it all put together by the 6 o'clock news. What's that? You have no pity for a schlub like me - whose only job is to drive uphill, take some purty pictures and put 'em on the Tee-Vee? I hear ya - but before you christen me some kind of camera packing slacker, let's do the math:
The distance from El Ocho's news conference room to the Blue Ridge Parkway is - eh, 101 miles. That's not unheard of in the way of news sorties, but bear in mind every bit of it is uphill. Since it took me until 10 AM to convince the suits to let me go, I didn't arrive in theater until well after 11:30. At that point, the real driving began. See, the Parkway is a meandering two lane road that tattoos the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pockmarked with overlooks that offer debilitating views, it is best suited for rich guys in Harleys and elderly couples in motorcoaches - not hopped-up photogs with deadlines ridin' shotgun. Tell me - you ever snaked your way past a bus full of Shriners on a lonely mountain pass - only to have them throw club signs at you when they roar past your tripod a few miles later. I have and it shocks me the kind of sign-language those people use.
But it takes more than an angry guy in a fez to throw my focus. No - to really screw things up - you need road closures. Which is exactly what threw me for a detour soon after I headed South on America's Favorite Drive. Before I knew it, orange signs directed me off the scenic ridge an into rush hour traffic in Boone. That's okay if you're trawling for hippies, but I had a mission to complete and this circuitous route cost me plenty. When I did get back on the Parkway, the damn thing was clogged with Grandmas of every denomination. Running out of options, I tried to drive nice - but that one old bag had it coming and hey, unit 4 is unmarked. A half dozen terrified geriatrics later, I stared up at Grandfather's Mountain and realized it was time to turn around. When I arrived back at El Ocho, it was 4:30 in the afternoon and station promos were already touting the footage I'd yet to even look at. When everything aired as advertised ninety minutes later, no one was more surprised than I.
Except, of course, Sarah Palin. I'm told she was crushed I didn't show.