[Or, "Look, Ma, I can fold a map and drive on a mountain road at the same time!"]
Tal & Sera's Excellent West Virginia Adventure
DAY TWO - Saturday, 16 February.
Final Destination: Mount Nebo, West Virginia.
From the As Seen on TV® outlet store, we turned back southbound on I-75 for the next exit, Tenn. 63 and US-25W. From 75 it was about 40 miles to the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, which opened to traffic about a decade ago. It replaced a dangerous (even by mountain road standards) clip of road between Cumberland Gap, Tenn., through about 1/10 mile of Virginia, and through the gap into Middlesboro, Ky. They've since pulled up much of the road, and restored it to its original Daniel Boone-era trail look.
But first, a little shout-out to Glass Source of (I presume) Jacksboro, Tennessee:
These yahoos were riding my ass while I myself was doing fairly fast (60 in a 45 zone). I merged to let 'em by ... then got a nice shot of their truck.
Remember them for all your glass needs.
ANYhoo, continuing up Tenn. 63, it was a nice and flat drive, running parallel to a couple of mountain ranges. It was a nice 36-ish miles, and soon we found ourselves at the intersection of US-25E, Cumberland Gap and the tunnel-ific fun thereunder.
Did we remember the Sudafed? It's pretty congested in there......
The Cumberland Gap is one of only two tunnels in the U.S. which cross state lines (the other one, which we'll do later on, is the East River Mountain Tunnel connecting Virginia and West Virginia). This new alignment burrows between just Kennessee and Tenntucky, cutting off about 23 inches of pavement in Virginia.
We spent all of five minutes, if that long, in The Bluegrass State ... then it was back into Tennessee for just a few more minutes to explore the breathtaking village of Cumberland Gap. Truly a beautiful little mountain town. What I wouldn't give to have this view right before my eyes each and every day...
And check out this sweet repurposing of an abandoned railroad overpass. The railbed is now a walking trail, and they built a covered bridge over the crossing. Cool, yes?
US-25E hasn't run through downtown Cumberland Gap since the tunnel opened a half-mile to the west .... but that was 10 years ago (or thereabouts). This piece of metal, still posted in downtown CG, nearly predates my 43 years: The "TENN-US" shield design hasn't been used since at least the mid '60s! Way to the cool! (go here for how it looked 10 and 15 years ago)
Y'know, In a town where time seems to have stood still, it's a nice fit.
Maps and Mayhem
We continued north of town on a small stump of the old 25E, then turned around to go back through town and back to US-58 for our foray into Virginia.
We were on a gentle winding incline, and I was going maybe 10 MPH. The street was as busy as our cul-de-sac, and had guard rails. Now, granted, I might could've waited until we were stopped, but I was folding up a road map while maneuvering this treacherous (*rolls eyes*) road. By my wife's reaction, you would've thought I was doing 50 MPH on this road when it was still original 25E, sans guard rails, and I was dodging 18-wheelers! Yeah, I guess you could say she freaked.
The good thing is, that became our "joke" for this trip. I loved torturing Sera with references to folding road maps. Hey, what good is a wife if you can't torture her? :-)
Into the Old Dominion.......
After that pleasant diversion, we got onto 58 and continued our merry way toward The Part Of Virginia Which Refused To Secede. This was a long period of simple travel ... we made a bathroom stop in Jonesville, and settled on Mickey D's for lunch in Duffield before turning south on US-23/56/421 (and retracing, from the opposite direction, part of our route toward Pittsburgh back in September 2006). The McDonald's/Sunoco combo was a repeat visit, as we made a pit stop there in '06. The only difference was that gas was much closer to $3.00 a gallon than $2.00 the last time we were here.
Matter of fact, gas was beginning a steep climb on this Saturday ... I'd checked gasprices.com to get an idea of how they looked. Virginia typically has lower prices than average (though not as cheap - relatively! - as South Carolina). I saw $2.65-$2.80 just days before, but today I didn't see anything lower than $2.89/9, and mostly flirting with three bucks. I shuddered at how high they were beginning to get back home in the Savannah area -- despite our gasoline coming in via port, our monopoly (Enmark/Colonial) has a stranglehold on fuel prices.
Well, knowing West Virginia's gas prices are vicious, even worse than Savannah's, I thought we might want to fill 'er up while we were still in Virginia. I settled on a small gas station maybe 20 miles outside of Bluefield, WV. The Rupert King Family SUV-ster got a tankful of petrol to the tune of $2.91/9. A handmade sign outside read "Look! Cheap Gas!"
Yeah, sure, if you say so.
We were both thirsty, so Sera got a Diet Coke, and I a can of 7-UP.
Wild and Wonderful at Wast!
We crossed Bluefields and were now in the embrace of The Mountain State. I like the background design of their welcome signage, but that's all I like. I revile the "Open for Business" slogan shown here -- yes, WV is economically depressed, generally poor in finances, but the sentiment expressed here smacks of desperation [Fortunately, the big slogan question was put to a vote ... and the longtime "Wild and Wonderful" won out. I hope to see different welcome signs on our 2009 visit].
In many ways, West Virginia and Arkansas are kindred. Both are 'poor' states who have to work overtime to live down unfortunate stereotypes and ugly misconceptions.
The difference is the people. The way I put it to my co-worker, who is a proud WV native, is that her state is "like Arkansas without a chip on its shoulder." Arkansas has her share of fine people ... in most cases, without a thread of pretension. The difference is, Arkansas tends to be a little too "xenophobic", and circle the wagons ... i.e., "if you're not from here, you're not one of us." I saw it to a smaller extent in Jonesboro and North Little Rock, but more so in Hot Springs and especially (!) Pine Bluff.
On the other hand, I haven't picked up any of those attitudes in West Virginia ... just the intense pride in their state (which Arkansans also have). You see the state outline on so many advertisements and businesses in both places. But instead of mistrusting outsiders, West Virginians seem to want to share their bounty with the rest of us.
I love the people up there -- truly good folk. Real salt-of-the-earth, not the largely phony "hospitality" veneer one sees so often here in the South.
Sometimes God doesn't make sense -- He has blessed this area with the most beautiful scenery this Earth has to offer, but with the other hand He has put prosperity out of reach for so many of her people. I don't get it. If anyone deserves to have it all, it's the people of West Virginia.
Since our Pittsburgh trip nearly 18 months ago, I've tried to put a finger on why I've become so smitten with West Virginia. If it were just the mountainous terrain, then why not Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and even Georgia? All have a share of Appalachia within their borders. But there's something about West Virginia, and I have a feeling it's more than just the mountains I love.
Perhaps I've grown to look at that area as my own church. I feel closer to God when I'm within the state's boundary, drinking in the raw splendor which He and He alone created, and my interaction with West Virginians, most of who are as pure and genuine as the day's longness. As I get older, I crave substance in a world where it's disappearing. Sprawl and generic, lifeless and plastic corporate conformity does not have a place in West Virginia. It's like an untouched piece of God's great bounty.
So could this be why I love it so much? It sounds less and less absurd to my aging mind the more I think about it. And the idea of retiring here someday hasn't faded, at least not now.
Whookay. That was deep. Let's continue with our adventure, shall we?
Over instead of under
Prior to the East River Mountain Tunnel opening up in 1974, the only way between the states was on a winding and dangerous two-lane US-52. The road still exists, as WV 598/VA 598. We took the road, and planned on returning into WV through the tunnel. At the mountain's crest is the state line (and some abandoned buildings which I understand used to be a fireworks/crafts/liquor superstore before the tunnel was finished) ... and there's also a city park which features one mean overlook:
If Wal-Mart bought this park, I'm sure they'd find a way to airbrush out the view of the Kmart in the right middle.
The state line signage was all missing. The only evidence of the line itself is the pavement change. But going down the Virginia side of 598/old 52, we encountered something intriguing:
Virginia normally outlaws radar detectors (which puts a crimp in the cops' argument that they don't work too well -- if they don't work, why would anyone want to ban their use??), but on this downhill slalom, they apparently allow 'em. "That's fine, son, but you better make sure it's turned off and put away by the time you reach the bottom."
I-77 was waiting for us at the base of the mountain, and we turned north and went through the tunnel to 'officially' enter West Virginia.
This time, it wasn't raining. And the welcome center was open. We stopped to get some information about the small Swiss town of Helvetia, which Seraphim wanted to visit while we were up here. The center had a small gift shop, which had something I was looking for: a West Virginia gazetteer (a topographical map with all the backroads). Fantastic! I didn't want to go on a wild goose-chase trying to find one, and the welcome center didn't let me down.
Three Out of Four Ain't Bad
It was now about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the winter sun's brightness was beating down on us. We accomplished the As Seen on TV® store, the Cumberland Gap tunnel, and old US-52 .... but I was beginning to feel like the late-afternoon sun wouldn't be conducive to taking pictures in Mullens. Besides, both of us were ready to get to the cabin. We'd just add Mullens to tomorrow's agenda.
We continued on the turnpike to our exit in Beckley, US-19 north, where we went through Fayetteville, and crossing the New River arch bridge, then passing US-60 and finally to our destination of Mount Nebo.
And as we drove down into the hollow toward our cabin, Traveling Wilburys' classic "End of the Line" came on Sirius 18, The Spectrum (their Adult Album Alternative channel). A very appropriate way to end our journey up here. We arrived at our cabin at just before 6:00 p.m.
Arriving, indeed! And, looking the other direction, here was the view of our hollow:
This is a very cozy and isolated piece of land. The driveway down here is a good 40-degree grade at points, but Rupert handled it capably. Cellphone signals? Fuggedaboutit. TV signals? As if.
This is about as isolated as it gets. And I'm loving it.
If this is my church, then it's worship time.
Chris Cornell, My mom, and Me
5 weeks ago