On a spring afternoon, we threw the car keys to two of our editors and gave them one mission: Find the best ragtop drives in the South. One scooted along a beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Cherokee, North Carolina. The other headed southwest of Oklahoma City, up a twisting road leading to the infinite skies above Oklahoma's Mount Scott. Either drive is guaranteed to deliver a getaway like no other.
Breezing Along the Blue Ridge
Vroom. I smile when I see the thick wooden National Park Service sign with "Blue Ridge Parkway" carved in white letters. I'm happy for several reasons: I'm in a candy-apple-red Ford Mustang convertible; it's a sunny, light-jacket spring day; and there are no traffic lights or commercial vehicles on the Parkway.
Just for fun, I stomp on the gas pedal. The speed limit is a mundane 45 m.p.h., but I have to accelerate up this hill (my excuse) and let the reins out on this wild stallion I've rented.
I steer off busy U.S. 74 in Asheville, North Carolina, then stop at one of the Parkway's entry points. Hmm. North or south?
North takes me to the Folk Art Center and the Parkway's visitors center, then on to majestic Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain (6,684 feet) east of the Mississippi. The 469-mile road continues into Virginia, connecting with Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro. That would make a fantastic trip, but I've only got a day, so I jerk the reins (oops, the steering wheel) right and head south. Giddyap.
The 80-mile stretch between Asheville and Cherokee makes for an easy day trip or a nice weekend getaway if I opt to stay in Waynesville, Sylva, Dillsboro, Brevard, or Cherokee. I've driven this route before, but not in a convertible. Being in a drop top completely changes my perspective.
Amazingly, there are 17 tunnels within a 70-mile span. Sunglasses off and headlights on, I whiz through short bits of darkness with names such as Ferrin Knob No. 1, Frying Pan, Devil's Courthouse, and Big Witch.
With a convertible and a quick side trip down U.S. 276 toward Brevard, I can take in Looking Glass Falls from the car. The fresh, lime-green growth of spring frames the foaming white spray of this 60-foot waterfall.
There's nothing like a ragtop for pull offs and panoramas--and there are plenty of them on the Parkway. Favorites are Devil's Courthouse, with gorgeous views of Pisgah National Forest from its rock summit; and Richland Balsam overlook, with views of the remnant spruce-fir forest.
For more information: Contact the Blue Ridge Parkway at (828) 298-0398, or visit www.nps.gov/blri.
Motoring Where the Buffalo Roam
On a day much too perfect to spend indoors, I'm cruising up Oklahoma's Bailey Turnpike (I-44) in a shiny new rented convertible. Three hours ago, I left Dallas and headed northwest across the ranchland of North Texas. Out across the wide green prairie, I can see my destination, the jagged purple outline of the Wichita Mountains, on the horizon.
At Lawton, Oklahoma, I turn through the hills of Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. The 60,000-acre refuge, crowned by Mount Scott, looks like a tableau of the American frontier, frozen in time except for the roads that traverse its boulder-strewn hills and plains. Prairie dogs stand up on their hind legs to watch warily when I pass the mounds of their towns, built right up to the edge of the pavement. Clusters of yellow wildflowers, as bright as rain slickers, wave from the fields. This is real cowboy-and-Indian country--home to Apache, Kiowa, and other tribes. Comanche warriors once passed this way on horseback, bound for the mountains. Riding in a convertible, I get a sense of the freedom and openness they must have felt.
At the top of Mount Scott, I park and look out on a panorama that extends for more than 30 miles, past the timbered folds of mountains and out across the flatlands of silvery lakes and prairies, etched in boundless shades of green. Herds of buffalo graze in the distance, and roads twist across the grasslands toward Lawton, where I drive at sunset to spend the night.
The next morning, photographer Gary Clark and I head to the ranch of our friend John Zelbst so Gary can photograph John's favorite roads. He's lucky. He gets to drive them almost every day. John lives on a ranch adjacent to the refuge with wife Cindy and son Clay. When he drives to his office in Lawton, he often makes the trip in the red 1955 Thunderbird convertible he's owned since 1984.
John's friend and neighbor, Joe Maranto, a former Texan who owns the century-old Meers Store and Restaurant near the refuge, and Joe's daughter-in-law, Stacie Hood, join us.
It doesn't take long to find a herd of buffalo. Nearly 600 of the shaggy, lumbering critters roam the refuge. Moving with the surety of a glacier, a majestic herd ambles across the road in front of us. It's a thrill when you pass close enough to see them nose to nose.
Photographs of Geronimo and other famous American Indian leaders who once traipsed these parts hang on the walls of Meers Store and Restaurant, where we stop for dinner. We order Meersburgers, whopping burgers as big as the Thunderbird's hubcap, made with longhorn beef. The restaurant housed in the rambling wooden store looks like an Oklahoma version of Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lilly saloon. But Meers, population three, is quiet enough this evening to hear a coyote call beneath a sliver of new moon rising over Mount Scott.
For more information: Contact the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge at (580) 429-3222, or visit www.fws.gov.
Tips for a Trip
Convertible Rentals From Asheville Airport
Hertz is the only rental agency that offers convertibles. Weekend rates are $60 per day, with 100 miles included; 1-800-654-3131.
Part of the Parkway's appeal is its limited access, and that means you'll have to pull off the drive to grab a bite or bed down for the night. One exception is the Pisgah Inn, right on the Parkway, which offers spectacular views. For rate information call (828) 235-8228. Other lodging lies in Asheville, Brevard, or Cherokee. For convenience, try Asheville's Hampton Inn. Weekend rates start at $99; 1-800-426-7866.
You may have to pack a picnic lunch or pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, Brevard, Sylva, Waynesville, Cherokee, or any of the small towns clustered nearby. Pisgah Inn has a good restaurant with gorgeous vistas of the mountains.
Tips for a Trip Convertible Rentals From Dallas/ Fort Worth International Airport
At Budget, weekend rates for Thursday-Sunday rentals start at $276.15; 1-800-527-0700. Also try Alamo or Hertz.
The Stardust Inn Bed and Breakfast sits at the edge of resort town Medicine Park. Rates start at $115; (580) 529-3270. Or stay at the Holiday Inn in Lawton. Rates start at $55; (580) 353-1682 or 1-800-465-4329.
Stop for a Meersburger ($5.35) at the Meers Store and Restaurant. Try the Riverside Café in Medicine Park for chicken-fried steak ($7.99).
This article is from the April 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.