America by Air: ‘The Rice Fields of Arkansas to the Blue Ridge of Virginia’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This gorgeous series of shots from reader Bill Barse makes for one of the best—and certainly the most comprehensive—entries in our ongoing tour of the 50 states:

Hello Chris, I hope this note finds you well. For your America by Air series I want to share some pictures of a flight I took in 2009 from central Arkansas to Front Royal, Virginia, in a rather weather-beaten Grumman Ag Cat—a plane I bought for the heck of it:

I spent about three years working on it and learning to fly the little plane before taking it on a 1000-mile cross-country flight. It’s a 1963 “lite frame,” as the dusters call it. I first saw one of them in a duster’s field in Delaware some 40 years ago on the way to the beach. I passed that same plane several years off and on while taking the same route, and I told myself I’d love to have one. Now I have two.

They are really great planes to fly—quite simple, very agile in the air, and able to handle quite a bit of weight when used for what it was originally designed: ag work!

The first several pictures I took on my trip are those of the Arkansas River and Mississippi River. I flew out of Woodson Arkansas eastward. Here’s a picture flying rather low (as in 800 feet or so) over the Arkansas River:

This picture, using a disposable color-print camera, is about 40 miles south of Little Rock and reflects a rather undeveloped view of this portion of the state—very little in the way of dense populated regions. Also, it’s close to a town called Slovak, a center of immigration in the late 19th Century and a community that still exists with one church and several houses just north of Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Here’s a picture I took with a digital camera when crossing the Mississippi River:

I had just departed West Helena, Arkansas (where I re-fueled), a town about 40 plus miles south of Memphis. The airport there was a duster field. There was a series of barges plying the river upstream with goods on the way to Memphis or beyond. The [above] photo, looking upriver towards Memphis, shows one barge moving south. Although not seen too well, there was an incredible line of barges (pushed by tugs) going south towards New Orleans—something I had seen in a previous flight (with no pictures!) in 2008 when I flew into Arkansas from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Here are a few more pictures continuing my journey from a grass strip in Arkansas, across Tennessee, and up Virginia to the Front Royal airport near the entrance of Skyline Drive.

The first picture shows central Tennessee, near Shelbyville, with the trees showing fall foliage:

I was flying about 2000 feet above ground level. I made a left turn before the Smoky Mountains and flew up two ridges west of Roanoke.

Clinch Mountain, in this next shot, was impressive, and the view is looking west close to passing the Tennessee-Virginia border:

Since the valley floor was rising in elevation (ca. 2000 feet above sea level), I had to climb higher … eventually getting to 5000 feet and slightly above ridge level!  Since this plane had no transponder, I had to fly around Roanoke’s airport.

In this next picture you can see the deeply weathered ridges of the Ridge and Valley physiographic province (Roanoke is at the inner edge of the Piedmont province):

One thing that stood out on this and other flights: Once away from the cities, large portions of area east of the Mississippi were remarkable for the open expanse of country, particularly once I began to traverse the mountains!

Here is the last picture documenting my trip from the rice fields of Arkansas to the Blue Ridge of Virginia:

This image was taken just south of Staunton, Virginia, where I finally got out of the narrow valleys that paralleled the Allegheny Front and crossed over into the Great Valley that extends along the Ridge and Valley Province. Staunton, Harrisonburg, Front Royal, and Winchester, Virginia are all in the Great Valley, as is Hagerstown, Maryland. I was really impressed by the vast expanse of undeveloped—now, that is—mountain terrain, though I know at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries this area was heavily logged, leaving many areas essentially deforested.  

I did not use any advanced navigation for the flight—simply a set of sectionals. Here’s a scan of the World Aeronautical Charts, from CG-20:

I do hope you find my photos of interest. I have followed Mr. Fallows trips with fascination and find those areas of the U.S. off the beaten track far more culturally and historically complex than most people realize … at least until they visit and talk with those who have lived there for several generations. All are immigrants of a sort from one or more generations ago, reflecting broad patterns of settlement that have led to a very diverse nation, to say the least! As an anthropologist (and archeologist), I have found such travels mini-ethnographic studies.