Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mountain Roads, Part One
Where would you go, adventurer?
    A daily commute in West Virginia on, you hope, a paved two lane road or, if necessary, a wide-ish dirt road? Or a trek to some hideaway in the Smokies from Maggie Valley, North Carolina, to Walland, Tennessee. Maybe a lovely Sunday drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Skyline Drive? If you have a mind for far-flung driving, how about attempting the Scottish Highlands?
    Those used to mountain driving know even familiar routes promise surprises, even catastrophe. All part of the fun, you say. Quite right, especially if your cell phone is charged and you can grab a tower to transmit your emergency call. So what can happen as you’re driving a road that twists up from Route 2 at the Ohio River to a mishmash of connecting roads that make their way around, over, and through the hills to Wheeling, WV?
    It’s night. You’re singing along to your favorite song. You round the sharp bend where the road was blasted through pure rock, not mere shale, mud, and gravel. And yikes! A massive boulder covers the entire left lane and half your right. From experience you know not to turn that bend at lawful speed limit. You hit the brakes.
    Around the formidable obstruction walk five men in coveralls, jackets, and various headgear, some looking official. Even in your headlights’ glare, it’s hard to tell if they are local law enforcement or WVDOT. Some wave flashlights while others, hands on hips, nod their heads and confirm, yes, by God, there is a huge chunk of rock—twice as tall as they are—making a mess of the road. It seems they got to the site minutes before you blundered on the scene. You wait for someone to wave you on . . . or tell you to (horrors) back up.
    Now this rock slide nowhere matches the 1997 or 2009 mountain come-downs on Interstate 40 near Ashville, NC, and the Tennessee border, closing the road for months, forcing long detours on other mountain roads. Drivers ground their teeth and paid the extra price in time and gas. No. This is just another adventure on a West Virginia country road like any John Denver celebrated in song. And, after all, you are only miles from home. In daylight this snag, one of many to be expected in this neck of the woods, will be no big deal to the locals and the DOT, but you would like to get home.
    As one of the men shuffles toward your VW, you roll down the window. “How’s the road ahead, sir?” It’s always good to show respect. 
He leans into your window, his face a mask of authority. “One of the men will lead you around. The road is stable in your lane until you get about twenty yards on where it gave way above the creek. You’ll have to go into the left for a spell. Go slow.”
    “Yes, sir,” you say. “Thanks.”
    Luckily, that mishmash allows for numerous connectors to anywhere you want to go—just in case. That’s the lesson of mountain roads. If you have the time, you have alternatives. A good lesson.

In a future Mountain Musings take a heart-in-your mouth trip on the Bealach-nam-Bo or Bealach na Ba’ (pass of the cattle), thought to be the highest public road in the British Isles on the west coast of the Highlands across from the Isle of Skye.

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