03 March 2008

WV-08 DAY 4: Sweet times in Little Switzerland

Tal & Sera's Excellent West Virginia Adventure

DAY FOUR - Monday, 18 February.
Agenda: The village of Helvetia, West Virginia.

What yesterday was – warm (60-ish degrees) and nicely overcast (no direct winter sun) – today wasn't. Cold and rainy. 34 degrees on the Rupert Thermometer as we left the cabin.

One big item on our to-do list for today: a pleasant day-trip to the small town of Helvetia (hel-VAY-sha), located about 75-80 miles from us in Randolph County. It's about 90 minutes by the route of least resistence (which resembled a hook), but that adds about 20 miles to the trip. Consulting our trusty West Virginia Gazetteer, I plotted a "short cut" routing that took us over some nice mountainous 2-lanes toward the heart of metro Helvetia.

Seraphim was eager about visiting Helvetia — it's a very (and I mean VERY) isolated town, in the middle of nowhere (even by West Virginia standards). It was settled in the 1800s by Swiss immigrants, and the isolation of the area caused the people to maintain their native customs and heritage. Some call Helvetia "Little Switzerland." Well, I too was fascinated about this place, especially after reading the brochure we found at the welcome center. There's a small restaurant in town called The Hutte. Now given that I am something of a "basic meat and potatoes" kind of guy, I was more than a little apprehensive about what constituted Swiss cuisine. Still, I wanted to experience the place. Heck, if nothing on the menu suited my taste, I could find some brown and serve rolls and eat ‘em raw.

We started by topping off our gas tank in Summersville – BP was $3.09/9 – and away we went. It's a pleasant drive along Route 41, then 20. There were some royally crazy hairpin turns along a mountain descent that took us into Webster Springs. The really cool thing about it was we had a super view of the town as we zig-zagged our way downhill.

And leaving Webster Springs, we continued on Route 20 northward (and up another mountain). This took us toward Hacker Valley, where the gazetteer indicated a county road connected us with the wilds of Helvetia.
I just love the look of pony-truss bridges.

Once in the town – or, as my Dad would call it, "wide place in the road" – of Hacker Valley, we crossed a creek – or, as my Seraphim would call it, "crick" – on a really nice pony-truss bridge, something one doesn't see too often in the Deep South. And then came our right-hand turn. County road 3, or Hacker Valley Road.

After crossing a short bridge over a creek-– um, crick -- running parallel to Route 20 (I'm Southern – it's awkward saying "Route" instead of "Highway"), we were in for the surprise of our lives:

There was nothing in the brochure about THIS!

HVR/CR3 is basically a one-lane road. There's a clear path of travel, a set of tire tracks along a quasi-paved roadway. There are ‘shoulders' every now and again for two vehicles to pass one another. But not everywhere. Much of Hacker Valley Road runs along a mountainside, with a very steep dropoff to our right. And did I mention there are no guard rails along this entire stretch of road??

Seraphim and I bravely, if with trepidation, continued on the road. The missus got nervous more than several times, as she'd look out her window and see about 100+ feet down. She felt vertigo a time or two! Yeah, the dropoffs came right to the edge of the pavement in spots. I was a little uneasy myself, in particular around those blind curves. Everything to the left was uphill, so leftward curves were a bit nerve-wracking .... I worried about the cocky local who'd speed around those turns, thinking "Nobody drives this road at this time of day, I have it to myself!"

What this was, was as rural and isolated as it could get in West Virginia. Picture, if you will, two "flatland tourists" from Georgia traversing through an empty, isolated one-lane road in pure Appalachian wilderness. Again, no guardrails. No signage. No pavement markings. No houses. But in spite of any misgivings, I was feeling such a rush. I told you, I love mountain roads!

It was around here that we began seeing snow mixed in with the (mostly light) rain. And about halfway down this roughly 12-mile stretch of county road, there was snow on the ground.

As for oncoming traffic, we saw just two (2) pickups, both together. Lucky for us, it was at a straightaway with some shoulder room. We could pass one another abreast. Phew!

Like I said, there were no signs ... I pulled over nearly halfway at a good spot, and while Seraphim got some good video footage of the snow, I consulted the gazetteer. The really cool thing about those maps is that the remotest backroads are listed, and with the average scale (one inch = 2 miles), nearly every curve is shown. And per this road's path, we should be crossing from Webster into Randolph County any minute now. Webster County 3 would become Randolph County 47.

The only evidence of changing counties was the pavement. One county's maintenance to another. Well, Seraphim could breathe again ... Hacker Valley Road was now a full two lanes. But for me, we went from one issue to another: at least the one-lane road was smooth and had few potholes. This two-lane portion was riddled with chuckholes!! Worse, they all were filled with water, so I couldn't tell the difference between small dips and enormously deep craters! I was dodging holes left and right.

Then there was evidence of civilization. Houses! Church steeple! Our mountainside path became a downhill pitch into the small community of Pickens.

Pickens is a beautiful little mountain village, and it was here that we saw another encouraging sight: pavement stripes! Pickens is served by two other county roads, and fortunately they're better maintained!!

From here, it's another five miles to Helvetia. We knew it was close at hand when we spotted an old, faded sign which had to have been a good 20+ years old: PHONE - 1 MILE

Ahhhh, relics of a day when cellphones were practically non-existent. No, wait – this is mountainous West Virginia; cellphones are practically non-existent. (Signals are plentiful, provided one is within sight of a major U.S. or interstate highway, otherwise you take your chances).
The Swiss flag flying proudly on the town quad told us we had arrived. Helvetia is a beautiful little village to hear it described, but to see it ... wow! The town can't be more than 300 or so people, and it's near an intersection of two county roads.

Helvetia: a million miles from the rest of the world (or so it seems)

"The Hutte" is located at the corner of said roads. It's a Swiss bungalow inside which is an amazingly intimate restaurant. There are books, knick-knacks, you name it. Seating capacity is maybe 24 at most. It's like you're eating a home-cooked meal at your grandmother's house, it's that homey.
The view from our table at The Hutte.

Two ladies were on duty, and both were the kindest and sweetest womenfolk you could ever meet. Seraphim ordered the bratwurst plate, and I had a roast beef sandwich on their (wonderful!) homemade bread. The tea was fresh, the service was highly personal, the atmosphere couldn't be beat – it was toasty warm in there, a good thing because it was 29 degrees and blustery outside.

Taking the "creative" route here felt like we'd gone far away from civilization to get to our long lost aunt's house for supper. The restaurant experience made the one-lane roads that much better.

As for the rest of the town, we didn't have much luck. Today was a weekday, and a Federal holiday to boot (Presidents' Day). The "Healing Honey" place was closed, as was The Cheese Haus. Of course, this means we'll have to make a return trip next year. And I want to do it again, too. Helvetia is a peaceful place within a largely peaceful state.
Going back, we took ‘the roads more traveled.' Yet, one doesn't find much evidence of commerce along any of these roads, either. Take gas stations, for instance. Helvetia doesn't have one. Neither did Pickens. And the small communities we passed through going back to Route 20 didn't have any pumps out front, either. Which leads me to this question: Where do these rural West Virginia people get their gasoline?? I mean, if you drive 30 miles in an F-150 pickup to the gas station, then you've burned at least 1/4 of your tank going back home. Hell, you'll need half a tank just to get to the gas station to begin with!!!

Once onto Route 20, then Route 4, then US-19, we made a slight detour to Walkersville to see a modest little covered bridge....
We stayed south on 19 until we got to Sutton ... we'd pick up I-79 around there and rejoin US-19 for the four-lane trip back into Summersville and Mount Nebo.

Just north of Sutton I spotted yet another magnificent "Mail Pouch" barn....
Once we got back into Summersville, it was about time for supper. We ate at the Bob Evans, then went to the shopping center behind it for a trip to Goodwill. Sera wanted to look around in there, and since I rarely ever turn down the opportunity to rummage through a thrift store, I was just as eager to make that diversion.

In the Goodwill, I found an old Gino Vannelli album from 1976 ... for 99 cents, it went home with Talmadge. Also I found a couple of VHS tapes worth looking at. One was the final episode of MST3K from 1999, and a Sesame Street retrospective special from 1999.

What's funny were all the Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Barry White albums I found in the bin. I dare say that was the closest thing to an African-American as we saw in West Virginia. ;-)

Both of us wanted to find out what the weather was going to do. So what options do a traveling couple have when there's no cellphone signal or TV reception at the cabin? Make that a traveling couple with a laptop. Any wi-fi hotspots around? We tried all the motels in Summersville, but all of ‘em are password protected, drat it!

We had one option left: WARDRIVING!

I drove around some residential streets, while Sera held the laptop as the signal-snooper did its work finding an unsecured wireless connection. Hey, as I see it, if you're foolish enough to use a wireless router without slapping a password on it, then you deserve anything that happens. At least we're not malicious.

We found one, conveniently adjacent to a shopping center parking lot. I pulled up a weather forecast, then we both checked our e-mail.

Our appreciation goes to the nice family who unwittingly supplied us with a side helping of their bandwidth casserole.

That pretty much took care of the driving around part of our trip. The plan was for us to just hang out at the cabin Tuesday before heading back home on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the snow was falling, and the forecast called for maybe an inch or so.

We settled in for another night in our happy little hollow.


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