Roanoke, a small Virginia valley city embraced by the mountains, is filled with energy fed by its proximity to both the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Northeast Ohioans can be there in about eight hours by freeway and in much less time on a US Airways flight into Roanoke Airport.
But the 45 mph speed limit along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is the choice for many astride motorcycles or in the family car. This scenic byway follows the crests of the southern Appalachians and links the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. More than 100 miles of the Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail parallels the Parkway.
Both hikers and motorists rest and replenish in Roanoke, a lively small city with plentiful amenities.
Discoveries are around every bend in the road in Southwest Virginia, a driving-distance vacation set amid the diversity of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Steam trains were built in the Roanoke Valley after the Civil War when the east-west and north-south rail lines intersected there.
The town was called Big Lick in 1882, when an enterprising railroad magnate began building a community planned around the Norfolk & Western Railroad's terminus with its repair shops and depot. Its centerpiece, and still one of its most imposing landmarks, was the Hotel Roanoke. By the early years of the 20th century, it was attracting well-off city folk who came by rail to enjoy its summertime amenities in the clean, cool mountain air.
Huge steam engines were built in the rail yards here, and workers in the Norfolk & Western shops built locomotives beloved by visitors to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. They include the massive Class A 1218 and the sleek Class J 611, the most advanced passenger steam engine ever built. Both are the only survivors of all those built in their time.
This museum has other transportation modes inside its 1918 rail depot headquarters, with 50 pieces of rolling stock on the rails outside that preserve the area's rail heritage.
In the 1950s, the city saw 35 passenger trains a day. But Amtrak doesn't serve Roanoke, so today there are no passenger trains.
But today's rail fans come from everywhere to commemorate the glory days of steam.
The one-third-mile-long Railwalk follows the tracks from the Transportation Museum into the heart of downtown. It's a fully interactive rail heritage park that allows strollers to activate a crossing gate complete with flashers and clanging warning signals.
Wisteria-draped kiosks give lots of other hands-on options, and holes cut into the tall chain link fence separating the Railwalk from the tracks provide unobstructed camera angles for those photographing the day's arriving and departing freight trains.
Appropriately enough for those photographers, the walk ends downtown at the O. Winston Link Museum which shares an old N&W train terminal with the city's visitors bureau.
Between 1955 and 1960, Link chronicled the end of the steam locomotive era with 2,400 photographs, most of them taken on the Norfolk & Western Railway Lines.
Along the way he captured day-to-day life in rural Appalachia.
See the film before touring the museum to appreciate how Link developed his techniques of shooting at night to better control the lighting. The viewer also learns how Link lost almost everything he'd ever done to a scheming woman.
The photos are stunning, even to those who are not rail fans.
Roanoke's compact 62-block downtown has at its center one of the oldest daily outdoor markets in Virginia, begun in 1882, when the city was chartered.
Redbud and dogwoods were in bloom, but farmers' growing seasons were just beginning at the time of my April visit. So vendors from the surrounding countryside brought freshly made cheeses, early lettuces and apples from cold storage to their outdoor stands. Flower and plant growers joined textile artists and crafters, all set up in their own areas of the market.
Aligned along mostly pedestrian streets surrounding the market are art galleries to country stores, restaurants and boutiques.
In contrast to the 1920s buildings surrounding the Market, the Taubman Art Museum has defined the skyline since 2008. Its flowing exterior lines are meant to reflect that of the mountains that surround Roanoke, and inside its sinuous ceilings represent the Roanoke River outside.
When that river floods, water sometimes comes in to the lower level of the museum, so no artworks are housed on its first floor.
Many of the Taubman Museum's exhibits showcase contemporary works by artists who are telling stories with their creations.
This youthful small and vibrant city brags of 40 restaurants and 60 retailers in a downtown that also has about 1,000 residents, many of them in condos and apartments crafted from historic buildings.
But reminders that downtown is within 10 minutes of the great outdoors are backpackers and the presence of vehicles topped by canoes and kayaks and shops specializing in hiking boots and outdoor gear repair.
Dozens of hiking, biking and paddling options can be found amid these mountains, along with retreats, and hands-on learning options from folklore, clogging and dulcimer music to glassblowing and slaughtering of pigs.
Secondary roads fanning out from Roanoke allow you explore the roots of mountain music and handcrafts in villages where front-porch plucking sessions and gathering of clay for pots lure visitors to become engaged in the processes.
Preservation of Blue Ridge folklife traditions means more than just exhibits at the Blue Ridge Institute. Indoors it showcases everything from moonshine traditions to dulcimer making.
Meanwhile, its adjacent farmstead replicates life in the 1800s with costumed interpreters cooking at the hearth over open fires, doing farm chores and tending to the breeds of farm animals that were common back then. In summer it's the headquarters for coon dog contests, horse pulls, sheep herding demonstrations and other old time traditions.
The fourth Saturday in October is when the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival celebrates music, foods, crafts and customs.
The Institute also is sign-posted as the northern terminus of the Crooked Road, Virginia's heritage music trail, which showcases hot spots of old-time and bluegrass music.
Descendants of pioneers who brought their music from Ireland, Scotland and Wales traded music traditions with freed slaves and passed them down through the generations. Impromptu front-porch concerts still spring up in villages along these back roads and evolve into venues that include a general store. The Carter Family Fold and Ralph Stanley Museum are among other stops along the Crooked Road. Those who play instruments are welcomed to join in when they bring them along.
The White Lightning Trail showcases artisans and crafters, many of whom adapted everything from basketry to cheese-making skills passed down through the generations. Gathered in clusters in villages with other like-minded folks or out in the Appalachian countryside, they throw open their studios to visitors. Some are found in the town of Rocky Mount, which has adapted an old Granary for a ground-floor glassblowing school and upper-level rental studios.
Heading toward the Booker T. Washington National Monument, we stopped for lunch and ice cream at Homestead Creamery. This small dairy processing concern uses milk from two fourth-generation dairy farms and bottles it in glass. It also has a team of milkmen delivering it to homes in the vicinity. Its ice cream has twice the butterfat of most ice creams, and because it's hand processed it has less air.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery nearby, where his mother cooked for a tobacco farmer. Her young sons slept on rags in a corner of the cookhouse and worked every day on the farm. Young Booker, who carried books to school for his master's daughters, was intrigued by school which was prohibited to slaves.
He was just 9 when freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and taken by his mother to join his stepfather in West Virginia.
The story of Washington's commitment to becoming educated and his subsequent founding of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is told in a short film at the visitor center. It's an easy stroll from there to the restored cookhouse, smokehouse and adjacent barns, where hams hang smoking and farm animals still are kept.
Not far away, but in contrast to the verdant Virginia countryside, is Smith Mountain Lake, which was created as a flood-control project in 1960.
Some of its 500 miles of shoreline are lined with spacious vacation homes and boat rental concessions. A fishing-boating-and-swimming vacation on the lake is possible here, thanks to a large number of cottage, condo and houseboat rentals, some of which even include a boat.
Action central for Smith Mountain Lake is Bridgewater Plaza with a half dozen eateries, rental concessions and visitor center.
Roanoke is a straight shot south from Northeast Ohio on Interstate 77 through West Virginia. Turn left on Interstate 64 to cross over the mountains, and in eight or so hours you're there. US Airways serves Roanoke via Charlotte.
For homework: www.visitroanokeva.com.
I stayed at the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel & Conference Center: 800-325-3535; www.sheratonroanoke.com.
But lodging options range from bed & breakfasts to camping, cabins in the woods to a houseboat on Smith Mountain Lake.
Blue Ridge Parkway: 540-767-2492 www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm
Virginia Museum of Transportation: www.vmt.org.
O. Winston Link Museum: www.linkmuseum.org.
Joint tickets for both the Virginia Museum of Transportation and O. Winston Link Museum are available.
Taubman Museum of Art: www.taubmanmuseum.org.
Virginia's music heritage trail: www.thecrookedroad.org; 276-492-2085.
Artisan Trails of Virginia: www.roundthemountain.org.
The Blue Ridge Institute; www.bluerideginstitute.org; 540-365-4416.
Booker T. Washington National Monument: www.nps.gov/bowa.
Smith Mountain Lake: www.visitsmithmountainLake.com; 800-676-8203.