Wild, wonderful, impassible West Virginia

There’s a reason why people avoid West Virginia. It’s not the hillbillies playing Dueling Banjos, although I am sure there are some of them left in the state. It’s obviously not the scenery, which is spectacular. It’s not that the state isn’t wild and wonderful, as signs proudly proclaim when you enter the state by car, at least on its major roads. It probably has something to do with the indisputable fact that, with some exceptions on the less mountainous western portions of the state and some edges that touch the outer Washington D.C. region, it feels impassible.

Mother Nature created a natural labyrinth in West Virginia, with nothing quite like it elsewhere in the country, at least on this scale. You can bet engineers spent a long time puzzling through the topographic and geological maps of the state before deciding on where to place the interstates, such as they are. I-64 goes sort of east to west, but does so only by going way out of its way. In fact, I-64 joins the primary north-south interstate I-77 for a stretch between Beckley and Charleston, presumably because making the interstate go due west of Beckley was too insurmountable. This section of interstate is also a toll road, which probably attests to the cost of building it. I ought to know because I took this stretch twice in the last week going to and from Louisville, Kentucky. They managed to cut two lanes in each direction through these mountains, but there wasn’t room for more, except at the two toll plazas. For part of it the gorgeous Kanawha River flows next to it. It’s an oddly named river because if there is any place in North America that resembles Fangorn Forest, it’s this part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its mountains may be green topped unlike its jagged younger cousins across the Mississippi River, but they must have been impressive in its youth, and probably wholly impassible back then.

I-64 and I-77 are two of West Virginia’s few interstates. There is also I-79 from Charleston to Morgantown and a snippet of I-68 that takes you from Morgantown into the Maryland panhandle. But that’s it. Even on the interstates you won’t get across the state quickly, just a whole lot more quickly than drives on its other roads.

The best small business to own in West Virginia is a brake shop. You simply cannot avoid steep and crazy mountains and hills. The interstate with its grading makes you feel like they are no big deal, but get off the interstate on a U.S. or state road and you quickly discover the state is rife with sinewy roads where brakes are not just a good idea, but you will be quickly deceased if your brakes are not in prime working order. It is a state overrun by vertically challenging roads and hairpin turns. It’s the sort of state where it pays to have a frequent buyer card at the local Meineke. Except on portions of the interstate, it’s a state where you really don’t need cruise control. Instead invest in power brakes. If you drive a truck, invest in air brakes. You will need them and your braking foot will acquire amazing muscular strength.

In a normal state if you want to go fifty miles it might take you forty minutes or so to get there. In West Virginia, getting between two points fifty miles apart can involve a hundred highway miles. Since you will be doing huge numbers of hairpin turns not to mention putting your foot to the brake pedal, it could take you two hours or more to go that distance. There is almost certainly no direct route to where you want to go. Be prepared to take multiple roads to get to your destination. Rapid traversing of West Virginia, such as it is, is usually on roads that parallel rivers and streams. Rapid traversing in West Virginia, of course is relative compared to the other 49 states. Maybe you make that 50 miles in an hour and a half. In West Virginia, this means you’re cruising.

So chances are if you live in West Virginia you will find plenty of reasons to stay close to home. Perhaps that’s why the state has an incestuous feeling to it. It’s simply too much of a hassle to go anywhere. It’s a state known for its loose standards, particularly when it comes to owner car maintenance in rural areas. The front yard makes an ideal place to disassemble your transmission. At some point rather than hauling it away to a junkyard, you just leave it there to rust. The neighbors won’t mind. They are doing the same thing.

The natural parts of the state are wild and wonderful, but there are some not so wonderful parts of the state. These are most easily viewed by airplane. Mountain after mountain has had its top blown off to expose seams of coal. Ugly pits of wastewater, which frequently leak, attempt to contain the toxic damage. Sadly, West Virginia is used to being raped. It provides a lot of dirty fuel for other states. The mining companies seem indifferent to their environmental damage or the fouled waterways that many of the locals depend on for water. West Virginia literally powers the Washington D.C. region where I live. Huge amounts of dirty coal have for decades kept our computers and air conditioners running. The result is Code Red days during the summer when it is best to stay indoors and mercury in the air and water. It’s cheap energy and West Virginians seem happy enough to provide it. Mining may be a dirty business, but it’s considered good wages in West Virginia, providing something resembling a middle class existence, albeit on the lower end of the scale compared to that of its wealthier neighbors to the east. The work though can be ephemeral. Fracking is all the rage now, and West Virginians are suffering from it, as cheap, plentiful and somewhat cleaner natural gas increasingly gets burned in local power plants.

For the casual driver going through the state, none of this is visible, just enormous green mountains, charming twisty roads and plenty of babbling brooks. There are also lovely vistas, such as the New River Gorge that will take your breath away. For once in the state, it is hard not to tarry. You begin to wonder why you have been avoiding West Virginia all these years, for it is a breathtakingly beautiful state, still wild, still wonderful and likely always to be so. It would cost too much money to make it into something else.

One response to “Wild, wonderful, impassible West Virginia”

  1. Jesse Cornwell Avatar
    Jesse Cornwell

    Just wanted to comment on this story, being a West Virginia transplant from the Chantilly area. People here don’t measure travel in distance but instead as time. Nothing is ever “a couple miles away” it’s instead, “about 20-30 minutes or go the back way around the mountain and that’s an hour.” Loved the article, love the blog.


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