Ever since I first heard John Denver sing about West Virginia I always wanted to go there and see those beautiful mountains and green valleys he sang about. While I always enjoyed the man’s music, apparently the part of West Virginia that John Denver was familiar with wasn’t along US Highway 52. We’ve covered a lot of miles in a lot of places over the years, and I think this was the worst 175 miles we ever traveled.
We crossed the Ohio River at Ashland, Kentucky on a nice steel girder bridge and I didn’t even snivel. I’m not sure if that is because we were driving the Chrysler Pacifica, which sits down much lower than our motorhome did, or maybe Jumping Joe’s ghost from my blog a couple of days ago was sitting in the backseat telling me not to be such a wimp.
Ashland is a beautiful town but we didn’t see much of it since we were just passing through. Before long we crossed into West Virginia and turned south on US Highway 52. Looking at the map, I knew the route had some twists and turns in it, but I figured being a US Highway, it should be suitable for eighteen wheelers and things like that. Maybe it is, but anybody driving a big rig down that road is a better man or woman than I’ll ever be. I strongly urge all of our RVing readers to avoid this route at all costs. It’s the trip from hell.
The odometer on the Pacifica hit 10,000 miles just after we entered West Virginia, almost 13 months to the day from the time we bought it. Except for our rush trip out to Arizona after my daughter Tiffany’s medical issues last year, and a couple of short trips, we don’t drive it all that much. We bought it to be our traveling vehicle, and around town we drive the Explorer or the pickup.
Known locally as the “The King Coal Highway,” US 52 weaves its way along the West Virginia/Kentucky border through what was once a thriving coal mining region. The coal industry has declined dramatically over the years, leaving a lot of depressing small towns with their empty business buildings and neglected homes. In some places it seemed like even the trees don’t want to be there, and in the middle of summer the leaves and hillsides looked bare.
We quickly learned that the highway was in very poor shape. In several places the pavement had collapsed and we had to swing into the other lane to avoid sunken holes that looked like they could swallow half of our minivan. I thought a time or two that we should look for another route, but I kept telling myself things had to get better. They didn’t. And after a certain point, there wasn’t an easy way to get off and pick up an alternate route that would have been any better, so we just kept on going.
There were sharp curves to keep me on my toes and I seldom got above 45 miles per hour. And even then, it was in short stretches before I had to slow down again for more hairpin curves.
Yes, that sign says an 11% downhill grade. And there were several more of them along the way!
This was the land where the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s had their terrible feud that started right after the Civil War and went on for almost 30 years, with hostilities flaring up every so often. I told Terry there a lot of theories about how the feud started, but my own is that they were arguing over who would take the land, because neither side wanted to live there.
Even before the feuding mountaineers came along, this region saw a lot of violence as settlers and Indians battled for dominance. We stopped to read a historical marker telling us that at nearby Horsepen Mountain, Boiling Baker, a white leader of the Shawnee tribe who was married to Aracoma, the daughter of the great Chief Cornstalk, held a bunch of horses stolen from white settlements. When their owners raised a large posse to come after them, the resulting battle decimated the tribe.
Much of the route follows the Tug Fork, a meandering river where we saw quite a few fishermen and kayakers at different places along the way.
Railroad tracks paralleled the highway miles at a time. Once busy during the days of King Coal, I’m not sure how much use they get these days.
ATVs seem to be as popular as cars and pickups through this area, and we saw a lot of people riding them both on and off the road.
In several places the highway bypassed the towns, as it did in Welch, which looked like it was more prosperous than many of the communities we passed through. Or maybe that was just because we were seeing it at a distance.
Eventually, almost five hours after we started out, we left Highway 52 with no regrets except for the fact that we ever got on it in the first place, and picked up Interstate 77, which took us south about 25 miles to Whytheville, Virginia, where we checked into the Hampton Inn, worn out from a long day on a bad road.
Thought For The Day – Look, all I’m saying is if we’re both going to hell anyway, we might as well carpool.