I spent most of today travelling through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is located between North Carolina and Tennessee as is perhaps most widely-known as the location of the Cherokee river and hence the associated tribe of Native Americans. While the drive wasn’t particularly long in distance it did traverse some pretty high peaks on some ridiculously windy roads so did took a bit longer per mile than the usual grind along the state highways.
The rural road system in the United States has always puzzled me a bit. As a general rule-of-thumb there’s a lot less government oversight of day-to-day activities in the US than there is in the UK. Federal regulation is generally frowned upon and what individual states are prepared to do varies considerably. As a result there is significantly more freedom to do all manner of outside activists – with the whole gun control thing one of he more extreme examples. The exception to this is the rural road system, which seems to have a ridiculous amount of regulation associated with it.
When I say ‘rural road’ what I mean is roads that are, at best, single lane state highways. They are the romantic US road, with the yellow line down the middle, that always appear on the front of US road trip guide books. There are two main types of rural road – those that are straight and those that are not (got that?). This may seem like a silly point to make but you’ve got to bear in mind that, in some western states, you can have single-lane highways that are dead straight for hundreds of miles (I know, I’ve driven down some of them). You will then have the winding mountain roads, like the ones I was on today, which are found all around the national parks.
In the UK the speed restrictions are pretty simple: On a motorway the limit will usually be 70mph and, on a single track rural road, it will be 60mph. With managed motorways now that has got a bit more complicated but the principle still stands – you’re left to just get on with it. Even on the most windy, narrow, treacherous country road the ‘national speed limit’ will still apply and you’ll be hurtling towards other cars on a road that is only just wide enough for both of you at a closing speed of 120mph. The approach of he government seems to be to apply one limit to all of those roads and then let the new drivers figure out for themselves how quickly they can take corners of varying sharpness. The ones that survive become good drivers. Simple.
In the US the rural roads are at the other end of the scale. The prescriptive nature with which speed limits are applied is astonishing. On a one-mile stretch of road you can find yourself going through twelve different signed speed restrictions. On a straight section of road the limit may be 55mph. If there’s a blind junction approaching the limit will be changed to 45mph. Another straight bit of road will see a 55mph limit again and then and sharp curve will see an explicit 35 or 25mph speed restriction around it. On a windy bit of road a blanket 35mph limit will be applied or indeed, as was the case today, 25mph if the windy road is going up a mountain. This results in it taking an age to get anyway as drivers religiously stick to these limits, taking a corner which you’d happily go round at 50mph in the UK at 25mph.
I think this stems from the fact that US people seem to be generally less confident drivers on these types of roads than you might expect, maybe because they only drive them very rarely. The speed limits reflect this. On the flip side of the coin they see they seem to be borderline suicidal on the seven and eight-lane freeways to the extent that is frequently causes me minor nervous breakdowns. They’re unwilling to take a rural corner at anything greater than 25mph but will happy dive across six lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting up multiple trucks in the process, to get to their exit on a freeway. It’s almost as if the US road network averages out: The freeways are basically a free-for-all rollercoaster of terror (maybe that’s why they’re called freeways?) whereas the rural roads are only to be driven at a leisurely pace while streaming Radio 3 on your satellite radio. At least it goes some way to explaining why the US business visitors I drove round the Lake District a few years back needed a heavy sedative and several stiff drinks after we got to our destination.
In the middle of my journey today I stopped off at the town of Cherokee and spent an hour or so wandering around. I found the legendary Cherokee river and very nearly fell into it while trying to take some pictures.
The whole town was actually quite pleasant. Sometimes these famous Native American towns go a bit too much down the tourist trap route but Cherokee has managed to strike a nice balance. The same can not be said for “Dolly Parton Ville”, otherwise known as “Dollywood” (I kid you not), which I had to drive through once I got into Tennessee. There are not sufficient words in the English language to describe how tacky that place was…