Carolina On My Mind (Part II) - Appalachia
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
For the next few days of my East Coast road trip, I wandered through Appalachia, starting in South Carolina and working my way northward. It was September 30, 2020, just after dawn, when I left Greenville and headed north into the vast mountainous expanse that covers some 737,000 square miles of the eastern interior of the United States. My first goal was to access western North Carolina. Ultimately, however, I had planned to make it as far as Bluefield, West Virginia before sundown. On paper, it seemed like a reasonable goal. What I hadn't counted on was the slowness of travel in those mountainous areas. Drivers beware: the road systems, aside from the interstates, are often serpentine, narrow with no shoulders, and filled with hairpin turns, treacherous curves, and frequently shared by big rigs and RVs. A look at the map shows a network of twisting and meandering roads that resemble an anatomy chart of the human vascular system. Traffic slows way down on these byways which thumb their noses at quick and efficient movement. Further caveat: These roads are not recommended for those who get carsick easily. One such highway in western North Carolina has been appropriately dubbed the Tail of the Dragon and boasts 318 curves in just 11 short miles.
On the flip side, if you are not in a rush and your aim is to simply wander the mountain roads at leisure, taking in nature's spectacular and bountiful scenery along the way, these roads may be a godsend. Their very design -- the way they hug the hillsides and mountain faces, plunge into valleys and ascend to ridges, and penetrate the forests in a cool, lulling canopy of green -- forces you to slow down and breathe.
With my competing interests of visiting as many counties as possible and enjoying the drive along the way, I found myself torn in moments of utter frustration at the lack of progress I was making, and in moments of reveling in the sublime beauty of the spectacular roadside scenery. I sometimes set daily travel goals for myself that chafed at the reality of the obstacles presented by the highways themselves, and quickly learned how to adjust those goals to make travel a bit more enjoyable.
This first day driving through Appalachia was one of those lessons learned the hard way. Travel through western North Carolina took much longer than I anticipated, partially because I misread my GPS system which warned of a backup on US 64 westbound toward Murphy, and partially because I got lost in the winding backroads as I was attempting to detour to an alternate route. The upside of the experience was that I found myself in some of the loveliest country I had ever seen.
Eventually, I reconnected with US 64 westbound for Murphy, then switched to US 74 headed to the extreme western tip of North Carolina, and the Tennessee state line. My goal was to capture those corner-of-the-state counties where North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia come together. By the time I crossed into Tennessee, it was already noon. I had lost so much time. I drove the few miles to Ducktown, TN, then headed south on SR 68 toward the Georgia state line, just a few miles away. At the border, there are two towns from two different states that appear to blend into one: Copper Hill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. The street grid system of both towns is askew of the traditional north-south and east-west orientation. As a result, the state line skewers the community at an apparent angle, cutting through houses and businesses alike. Where TN 68 intersects with GA 5 right smack downtown (Ocoee Street and Blue Ridge Drive), the state line slices through the intersection at a 45° angle. There isn't even an official "Welcome" sign when you drive through it. The only evidence that you've crossed the state line is the sudden change in the highway signage symbols.
The Copperhill Brewery is one of those main street businesses bisected by the state line. They have laid down a blue stripe on the floor to mark the state boundary inside their building.
Outside, you can find this marker for a photo op:
This was as much of Georgia as I would see on this road trip. I turned around and headed back up through Tennessee, re-crossing back into North Carolina in a sweep to capture the remaining counties in the western extreme of the state. When I got to Waynesville, I turned north onto Interstate 40 and headed back into eastern Tennessee. Soon, I connected with I-81 and headed northeast, barreling at 80 mph toward Bristol (another city bifurcated by a state line).
The stretch of I-81 from Morristown to Bristol is one of the loveliest drives along any U.S. interstate I have experienced. It was so pleasing and relaxing that I finally let go of the anxiety that had been building all day about losing so much time. Before long, I crossed the border into Virginia at Bristol and continued the northeast momentum all the way to Wytheville (pron. WITH vil) where I switched to I-77 due north into West Virginia. On the way to the state line, you pass through two tunnels. This was the first of the two:
Just as the sun was about to set, I rolled into Princeton, West Virginia and checked into my reserved room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites. I heartily recommend a stay at this hotel if you ever find yourself in Princeton.
The following day, I set out to capture a set of counties bordering the line with Virginia and West Virginia, which meant I was passing back and forth from one state to the next constantly. It turned out to be one of the prettiest drives in recent memory. It started out mostly on US 219 as far as Union, WV, then, with a right turn, I was on WV 3. At the town of Sweet Springs, WV, I spotted this amazing older building. It seemed completely out of place in the middle of the country, miles and miles away from the nearest urban center. It wasn't until later that I discovered it is a resort, first built in 1830 in the Jeffersonian architectural style. It closed around 1930 due to a lack of rail service to the town, but was repurchased by the state in 1945 and operated as a home for the aged until 1991 when it once again closed it doors. It was purchased by a private concern in 2015 and is now currently under renovation with the goal of reopening the site as a hotel/resort.
The road north out of town meets the Virginia state line fairly quickly. Here are a few photos taken along that drive, including an amazing waterfall I happened to see at one of the hairpin turns.
Now on VA 311, I connected with I-64 at Callaghan, then headed west on the interstate toward Beckley, West Virginia. I can't quite put my finger on it, but when I arrived, I felt a sense of disappointment. For an Appalachian city with a long history, I was expecting it to offer lots of slow-aged character, uniquely crafted historic buildings, flower baskets hanging from lampposts, fountains, parks, tasteful displays of civic pride, and a general feeling of welcome. All of that was in short supply. When I got out of my car downtown to get a few photos, people on the street didn't even look me in the eye. There seemed to be a lot of drug activity just at the south end of the downtown area where the only "park" existed. It felt like a mid-century coal mining center that was stuck in a time warp and that had flouted progression long ago in favor of embracing the banal, spiritless and perhaps familiar ethos customary of most industrial towns of the mid-20th century. This is a photo I took of Main Street facing north which I considered to be the best view of downtown.
I left Beckley on WV 97 on a quest to cross off the remaining counties at the southern tip of the state. This is the part of my driving journey where I encountered the highest concentration of serpentine, narrow roads. The extraordinarily winding nature of these highways created a sort of time/space illusion that made me feel as if West Virginia would never end. I felt as if I had entered a bizarre, Twilight Zone vortex where the laws of physics no longer applied. I was heading for the state line with Virginia but it just wouldn't arrive. As a consolation, I passed through some truly amazing countryside along the way. The topography forces towns to develop only at the bottoms of ravines, where they spread linearly along rivers because of the steep mountain slopes on all sides. Downtown streets are typically one way and narrow, often crowded with turn-of-the-century brick-and-mortar buildings. One of the prettiest of those valley towns was Welch, West Virginia.
Eventually, after a few hours of white-knuckle driving through the endlessly winding roads of southern West Virginia, I crossed into Tazewell County, Virginia. I had lost a considerable amount of time as a result of underestimating the slowness and sundry challenges of the roads. Once in Virginia, I hopped on US 19 heading west, then turned onto US 460 heading northwest, crossing into Kentucky an hour or so later.
This gave me an opportunity to pick up some of the more remote counties in the southeastern corner of the state. I drove up as far as Pikeville, Kentucky, then put myself on US 119 heading back into West Virginia.
I stayed on US 119 until I arrived at the state capital of Charleston. I had a room waiting for me at the Fairfield Inn & Suites. The hotel was very comfortable and the staff was friendly -- another recommended stay if you wind up in Charleston.
I had been to Charleston a few times before on other road trips. I felt right at home in this full-service, progressive city on the Kanawha (pron. kuh NAW) River. With a population of just 47,000, Charleston is the largest city in the state. Just one look at the mountainous terrain of West Virginia and you'll quickly understand why cities here remain small. There is a conspicuous lack of open, relatively flat, buildable land. The slightly more open topography around Charleston, where the dominant ridges and spines of the Appalachian Range briefly stretch away from one another, undoubtedly encouraged the city to grow. West Virginia's nickname as the Mountain State is no hyperbole. Unlike other states known for their mountains majesty, West Virginia truly lives up to its moniker as virtually the entire state is enveloped within the Appalachians. The mountains are the heart and soul of the state. It's one of the reasons why I think West Virginia is one of the most beautiful places in the country to visit and drive through.
October 2, 2020
Today's goal was to complete the counties in the northern and eastern panhandles of West Virginia, and ultimately, tuck in for the night in Charlottesville, Virginia. I left Charleston in the wee hours of the morning, anticipating a long day of driving. I finally got a little smarter about travel along Appalachia's sinuous highways and therefore baked in a few more hours to accommodate them.
After a few hours of weaving around the northern half of the state, I had collected the lion's share of the remaining counties. At New Martinsville, West Virginia, I had an opportunity to cross the bridge and claim Monroe County, Ohio.
That was the furthest point of travel away from my launch pad in Raleigh that I would achieve on this road trip. After re-crossing the Ohio River back into West Virginia, I migrated eastward across the top of the state toward Virginia, claiming a few more counties along the way. I was treated to some absolutely spectacular scenery.
On my way out to the eastern panhandle, sizing up my options to capture the remaining counties in the most efficient manner, I had to make a choice, particularly if I wanted to pick up Tucker County without having to double-back. My choices were: (a) take a longer route over US 48 to Parsons, then do a U-turn and come back to US 33, or (b) shave about 21 miles off my trip by taking a chance on SR 72 which appeared to cut conveniently across the county, connecting me again, eventually with US 33 further up the line. I chose Option B. I had no idea what I was in for.
West Virginia State Route 72
This state highway is no ordinary one, and certainly not for the faint of heart. If you start your drive along SR 72 from the western end, in the town of Hendricks, you'll see warning signage just outside of town that prepares you for 15 miles of winding, twisting, narrow, poorly maintained road that is categorically designated as closed to truck traffic.
A blogger once penned a short piece on his experience driving this section of road in this article, in which he wrote in a summary description: "A short, very twisty, narrow, poorly paved backway in North-central West Virginia. That this is designated as a major state highway is a little surprising." After leaving Hendricks, the road quickly narrows down to about a lane and a half. There is a marked absence of painted lane divisions in the center, virtually no guard rails, and there is absolutely no shoulder. The road becomes mostly shadowed under a thick canopy of trees in the summer, and then undergoes an abrupt transformation into an inexorable series of sharp, hairpin turns, blind corners with no roadside reflectors, stretches barely wide enough for a single vehicle to pass and no turnouts, all the while ascending and descending the tangled and steep hillsides on a bed of crumbling asphalt. I encountered maybe five or six vehicles on the entire 15-mile stretch. At each approach to a blind corner, I slowed way down and crept around the bend at 5 mph to make sure there was room for passage, but mostly to avoid colliding head-on with someone taking the turn too fast and too recklessly. In order to make the experience more palatable psychologically, I compartmentalized the journey into one-mile segments, watching the odometer and rejoicing at my progress, one milestone at a time. Although only fifteen miles in length, it felt like four times that amount under the stresses of elevated vigilance and pounding adrenaline. Once safely on the other side at Dryfork, I allowed myself to breathe. Was all of that worth saving the extra 21 miles of Option A? For me, I would have to say yes, it was. It was a unique, moderately hazardous thrill-ride of an experience that is now permanently associated with that road trip. But please don't interpret this is a blanket endorsement. If you prefer the safety of wide roads, guard rails, painted center lines, and more or less open stretches of straight road, you may want to avoid West Virginia State Route 72. If you're an adventure seeker, however, this is one state highway that will satisfy your need to live a little more on the razor's edge.
The rest of the drive through the eastern panhandle of West Virginia was simply relaxing and replete with stunning natural beauty. This was the view at Seneca Rocks.
Sections of the drive along US 220 were postcard-perfect views that absolutely demanded photos. Here's one I got from behind the wheel.
I continued traveling in a northeast direction along US 220 until it intersected with US 50. At the junction, I made a right turn heading east toward the Virginia state line and the City of Winchester. The last few dozen miles in West Virginia were spectacular with steep, rocky sentinels of towering palisades cradling a fertile and broad green valley. This was clearly the summer resort area of West Virginia, undoubtedly frequented by vacationers from nearby Washington, DC. There were lots of charming and quaint resorts, inns, campgrounds, motels and hotels offering a variety of lodging experiences. The one that caught my attention was a sprawling roadside resort of handsome-looking tepees converted into guest rooms.
In short order, I was back in Virginia and pulling into Winchester which sits at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. I was delighted again by the charming and ubiquitous Colonial-style architecture, the narrow, one-way, one-lane streets of downtown and the vibrant pedestrian mall. Had I planned the day better, I would have spent more time exploring this early-American city.
By the time I had sampled a bit of Winchester, daylight was showing signs of imminent retirement. I still had to get to Charlottesville that night where I had a hotel reservation waiting for me. I hopped on I-81 south to the interchange with I-66 where I headed eastbound until I got to the exit for US 17. From there it was a quick drive, connecting with US 29 south. I rolled into Charlottesville just after dusk and checked into the Fairfield Inn & Suites -- another fantastic hotel that I highly recommend.
This seems like a great place to pause for now. In the next installment, I will share travels through the D.C. suburbs of Virginia, the popular tourist attractions of Boone and Blowing Rock in North Carolina, as well as a few other fun tidbits from the road.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!