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Going to Extremes
To find the heart of Maryland and Virginia, you need to start by exploring the edges. In Va., Appalachia Springs Back

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page E01
   


Now, this is the real Virginia. So real, they ought to seriously consider calling it Kentucky.

For most people, the biggest part of travel is the simple process of discovery: life-affirming, calorie-burning, wide-eyed wandering through odd and absorbing places you've never been. And for this, the farthest southwestern corner of Virginia -- that stubby extension of the state that almost always winds up off the map and set inside a little box, because it was just went too far west for the cartographers to fit on the page -- is about perfect: endless green, mist-shrouded ridges and the waves of riches and hardship they alternately reveal and hide (not to mention the uncrowded, well-tended trails and campgrounds they harbor); countless one-story, many-voiced churches and the related, world-renowned tradition of flat-picked and inspirational musicmaking, plus some equally beloved traditions of Chevy truck ownership and NASCAR race attendance -- all of it conveniently located about, oh, nine hours from the Beltway.

For some people (not me, really, I swear), another big part of traveling involves amenities: Maybe a down quilt or a big homemade breakfast with your bed. Maybe a bathroom not molded from a single piece of plastic, or hotel windows that actually open, or some food and/or food servers not wrapped in neon logo-wear. Until very recently, most visitors to far southwestern Virginia in search of these amenities probably set their sights closer to the interstate -- Abingdon, for instance. Here we can sip a latte in town or a homemade lemonade on our B&B's wraparound porch, see a show at the historic Barter Theater, hike or bike the Virginia Creeper Trail and then hop back home via the 24-hour, 18-wheel version of "American Gladiators" called I-81. And tell everybody we've done Southwest Virginia.

Even if we haven't, exactly.

If, from Abingdon, you head away from the interstate, west and north for about an hour on U.S. 58, up to where the map reflects the green tint of Jefferson National Forest, then you will come to the most truly remote and lovely part of the Old Dominion. It's about as far as you can get, geographically or otherwise, from the USA Today building in Rosslyn and still be in Virginia (although many Virginia natives consider Rosslyn to be technically part of New Jersey). As you head even farther west, on to Cumberland Gap and the convergence of three southern states, Virginia narrows to an alternately steep and wide-open place, the scenery able to shift in a flash from breathtaking to heartbreaking and back again. Either way, you won't be running into the guy in the Mercedes sport-utility vehicle who snuck into your parking spot at Fresh Fields last weekend.

If the countryside and the country folk here look and sound more like Kentucky, it's because you're now in a country that transcends the state line, which winds along the tops of a series of Appalachian ridges, eventually meeting up with the surveyor-straight border separating both Virginia and Kentucky from Tennessee. The country is Appalachia.

So three-man pickup trucks pull out of side roads onto the two-lane highway you're cruising and do the speed limit for a while in front of you. But impatience is unnecessary: The mix of country, old-time and bluegrass on your radio is really good, and the pickup truck always turns off the main road again before reaching the edge of town.

No one here seems in a hurry to go far. Scanning the obituary pages of the local paper in a small storefront restaurant in Clinchport, I'm engrossed by some excellent home fries as well as the passing of an 89-year-old local matron. She'd outlasted her husband of 58 years and two of her nine children, and left 56 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, says the obituary, which also lists the names and home towns of her surviving grown children. Not one of them lives more than 20 miles away.

A caution: Don't be coming down here thinking, like, "Deliverance." This dates you, to begin with, and moreover marks you as some kind of smart-aleck citified foreign-car-owning Comedy-Channel-watching Yankee -- in which case you should probably watch your back after all.

What you should be thinking is: Delivery. It's what almost every pizza franchise in Wise County does nowadays. Even the local Virginia Extension Service not long ago started teaching local farmers and entrepreneurs how to open and run tourism-related businesses.

And, unlike the old feuding mountain farmers forced into new ways by the burgeoning coal and railroad industries in John Fry Jr.'s enduring turn-of-the-century melodrama about these parts, "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," most everyone I ran into on a recent long weekend at the far edge of Virginia seemed fully able to read and write -- though to do the latter, they use something called a pee-un.

In 1775, Daniel Boone and a small band of men hiked the Indian and game trails hereabouts and carefully marked their steps, so that others -- about 200,000 others by 1800 -- could find their way beyond the Appalachian "wall" and west into Kentucky and Ohio through the Cumberland Gap, on what came to be called the Wilderness Road.

More recently, the state of Virginia has been busy realigning and improving many of those same ancient trails (the longest of them being I-81 itself), over the last decade turning all those gasoline taxes and lottery ticket purchases into lots of four-lane bypass highways linking faded coalfield towns. This often has the effect of completely . . . well, bypassing the original towns, but it also prompts new towns (or at least shopping malls and chain restaurant clusters) to sprout at formerly nonexistent crossroads.

Which brings jobs, and is the first step toward raising the region's tourism profile, which, of course, brings even more jobs. Virginia's seven southernmost counties still mine a substantial amount of coal for power companies and others, but the price of coal being about the same today as it was in 1954, there is less and less of this going on -- and all of it is handled by big machines now, for small partnerships. The big coal companies and railroads left the region decades ago. Tobacco farming, long a staple of the local economy, is also now on the decline.

On U.S. 58/19 between Abingdon and Coeburn, I pass billboards advertising prefab homes for less than what a typical Bethesda homeowner spends on one of the family cars. Just down the road I pass one of those very homes, pretty much a mobile home minus wheels, set typically close to the highway with a clothesline full of clean but dirt-colored laundry out back and, in front, a old Rambler station wagon jacked up over a pair of jeans-covered legs. There's a girl sitting on the front stoop, and she is singing to her doll.

Drive up Route 603 from from Old 58/23 (since superseded by a fast four-lane bypass) between Norton and Appalachia and, after playing tag with the single-track rail line still carrying coal out of these heavily forested hills, you'll come to a bend in the road that the map calls Dunbar. Here is a small cluster of more such $25,000 houses, planted in rows in what's left of one of the coalfield area's "company towns" -- self-contained miners' communities, with stores, a movie theater and a disbursement office where you picked up your scrip, a salary spendable only in the company's town. The homes look newly painted and the yards are neat, full of flowers and shrubs, with vegetable gardens out back.

If you continue down 58/23 into Big Stone Gap and stop at the endearingly atticlike Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum, somebody there will show you lots of black-and-white pictures of what Dunbar looked like in the '20s -- gray, orderly, big and crowded with smiling, weathered faces. The more recent full-color picture in your head seems happier.

The city of Norton, incorporated smack in the middle of Wise County where U.S. 23 crosses Alt. 58, now has both a Super 8 Motel and a new Holiday Inn with a good restaurant and nightclub, and has become a bit of a shopping mecca. All the bigger regional chains are around, but down in the center of town there's a large no-frills place called Odd Lots, which sells truckload bargains bought fire-sale cheap, usually via the misfortune of others.

With the bright -- but roofless and empty -- Norton Video Store standing quietly across the street, Odd Lots is a nice reminder that, no matter what, there are always others less fortunate.

At suppertime Saturday in Norton, in fact, the noise coming from the near-capacity crowd of couples and extended families at the China Cafe -- it's all-you-can-eat seafood buffet night, with fried shrimp and king crab legs flying past me in every direction -- has a distinctively happy ring to it. Those one or two tables in any suburban Washington restaurant -- the ones where the people seem a little too cheerful, or sullen, or having a quiet, angry argument -- are missing. The only sharp words heard are directed by a nearby, no-nonsense young mom to her toddler, who is itching for an after-dinner sprint between tables. "See-it!" she says, pointing to a chair. "I mean it." He smiles. She rolls her eyes.

Basically, like the characters portrayed in "Lonesome Pine" -- including the 1936 film adaptation starring a fresh-faced young actor named Henry Fonda -- people here seem to work hard, smile fairly easily, and complain hardly ever.

"There are a lot of us who probably take what we have for granted, but there are also a lot of us who wake up every morning and can't believe we live in such a gorgeous part of the world," says Sheila Kuzcko, executive director of the four-year-old Virginia Coalfield Regional Tourism Development Authority, whose Big Stone Gap offices are quartered in space abandoned by the once-giant Westmoreland Coal Co. "I think it's those 'old mountain ways' you're seeing. We don't put on a show. The family unit is still very strong. People are brought up to respect their elders.

"A lot of people still put out gardens, and that connection to a common land fosters a sense of community," she says. "That sense of community seems to have broken down some in society across the nation. And we're seeing a lot of young people who grew up here and couldn't wait to go off to college and get a good job and live somewhere else, now coming back to the coal-producing counties to raise their families."

Let's be real. In the end, what will always bring people here, if not keep them here -- despite the steady creep of higher median incomes, wider macadam and more McEateries -- is nothing you'll find under a roof. In Big Stone Gap, there's the coal museum and the more formal and extensive Southwest Virginia Museum, plus continuing summertime performances of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"; there are two small but excellent halls in central Wise County where people come to exercise their banjos, fiddles, voices and feet on Saturday nights; and in the last couple of years, two or three small B&Bs have opened in the hills a good distance north of I-81, and others are in the works.

But what you'd come here for, any time, is to be in the woods -- or in a broad rolling valley under a big sky, or on the edge of a mountain squinting to make out Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains. In general, road conditions are excellent (though they change, dramatically on secondary routes, after you pass the invariably shot-up sign that says "Welcome to Kentucky"). But driving is still hazardous, because it's hard for the driver to keep his eyes on the road.

So I have to keep stopping and getting out, a terrible hardship.

A thousand feet above Norton's 2,350-foot elevation, for instance, is Flag Rock -- a large rock with an American flag stuck in it, originally by a patriotic local German immigrant who liked to camp up here, and nowadays looked after by the city of Norton. Besides sheltering about 20 primitive camping slots, several steep and agreeably lonesome hiking trails, lots of spread-out picnic tables and a bathhouse at the swimming lake, Flag Rock is on the same switchback road to an even loftier place maintained by the Jefferson National Forest.

It's early on a Sunday and there's just a single car in the parking lot at the High Knob Recreation Area observation tower; its two occupants seem to be bobbing at the edge of the field around the tower. Ah, they're picking dandelions. The only sounds up here are of distant birds; about 500 feet above me, purposeful and silent, a hawk slaloms along an invisible thermal. The view from the top deck of the simple wooden tower, at 4,160 feet, encompasses the blue-green undulations of countless lesser mountains stacked, one behind the other, off into the hazy reaches of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Not mentioned in the brochures but included in the view are approximately 4 million generally straightforward declarations of love carved into the tower's floors, walls, stairs and railings. At certain memorable altitudes, I guess, the sword is definitely mightier than the pee-un.

I'm trying to get to Natural Tunnel State Park down near Duffield, where there's a new Ramada Inn, by lunchtime, so I don't have time to check out the many trails -- including quite a few designated mountain bike routes -- which fan out from High Knob. I do walk a short way along a creekside path that leads to Benge's Rock -- named for the notorious red-haired Cherokee chief who, according to legend, used to sit on the boulder overlooking the valley, where he would either pray, meditate or watch for danger.

Before heading down the highly scenic and arable Powell Valley on the barely two-year-old U.S. 23 bypass, I go a few miles in the other direction to the town of Wise, which is full of out-of-towners attending the University of Virginia's Clinch Valley College graduation, to check out the Inn at Wise, a porticoed turn-of-the-century landmark I'd heard was under renovation and maybe renting rooms. It turns out only two rooms are renovated and neither is empty (although the inn rents rooms in the motel-like addition in back), but the oak-paneled lobby is impressive -- and, just for asking if the planned restaurant was open yet, the front desk clerk brings me a free cup of coffee. Next door to the inn is a clue to the prosperity once promised (and briefly delivered) to southwestern Virginia by all those coal and railroad magnates from Pittsburgh: the Wise County Courthouse, an imposing but felicitous Italianate castle with twin towers, built in 1896 according to plans of Washington architect Frank P. Milburn, dominates an otherwise nondescript small-town main street, and says to all: Hey. Something happened here.

Natural Tunnel is a hoot -- literally, since hollering and savoring the natural reverb is something tried by almost every kid who stands at the railing down at the bottom of the entrance to this 850-foot cave, cut through the mountain by an ancient river. The tunnel itself isn't open to hikers except for special programs -- the tracks of a working coal line run through it -- but the state park has a small museum, a new chair lift that takes you from the upper parking lot down into the 400-foot-high, amphitheater-like entrance to the tunnel, plus a couple of dozen full-hookup campsites and hiking trails.

It takes an hour, the best I've spent in the car, to get from Wise to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the largest and seemingly least-known federally run historical park, covering about 20,000 acres in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

After checking out what must be some of the most private, well-tended and serenely situated campsites in any national park, I park the car at one of the nearby picnic areas and set off with a camera and a bottle of water. Fifty miles of trails are in the park -- including the 21-mile Ridge Trail. I hike here for four hours, though the time passes without my notice. What I notice are the butterflies, the shade and the often steep grade, the cold water flowing mysteriously out of rock outcrops and -- when I get out the map and realize where I am -- the fact that I'm walking on the ridge defining the border between Kentucky and Virginia.

Park Service rangers say they often hear from those who visit the Wilderness Road (under restoration, though the same wagonwheel-rutted trail can be seen in Virginia's new Karlan State Park in nearby Ewing) that it unleashes inexplicable feelings of wonder, fear, pride -- more or less what the pioneering families who passed through 200-odd years ago must have been feeling.

Up on the ridge trail, the same free-floating feelings are definitely in the air, which is dry and sweet-scented, it being wildflower season. I cross paths with only two other living souls -- a middle-age couple from Illinois who've driven back here three times in the last five years -- during the entire walk.

As I finally approach the Pinnacle overlook, I can't decide whether the view of the broad Kentucky valley on my right, with hazy rows of ridges in the distance, is more or less inspiring than the view on my left -- of a broad valley likewise backed by hazy mountain ranges, except these peaks are in Virginia and Tennessee. I try to get decent pictures of both vistas.

Like I'm looking for land to settle down on and raise a family or something.

Details: Far Southwest Virginia

GETTING THERE: The far southwest corner of Virginia is an eight- to nine-hour drive from the Beltway. Routes to Norton, Va. include the scenic one (I-66 west to I-81 south to Exit 19 at Abingdon to U.S. Alt. 58 northwest into town) and a roundabout but faster way (stay on I-81 into Tennessee to I-181 north toward Kingsport, to U.S. 23 north). To reach Cumberland Gap, stay on I-81 all the way to White Pine/Morristown, Tenn. and then go northwest 50 miles on U.S. 25E. (Slower but easier on the eyes and nerves: exit I-81 at Bristol, Va. and take U.S. 58 west through Hiltons and Ewing).

WHAT TO DO: At Breaks Interstate Park (1-800-982-5122), on the Kentucky border north of Haysi, Va., the "Grand Canyon of the South" -- a snaking, 1,000-foot gorge carved by the Russell Fork of Big Sandy River -- is a big whitewater draw in October following the annual dam release, but is a year-round popular place for hiking, fishing, swimming, camping and dining. (The 4,500 acres harbor a lodge, cabins, campsites, lake, restaurant and convention center.)

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (606-248-2817) is a real find, a vast and well-tended -- but not yet well-attended -- spot for hiking, camping (about 160 sites, 50 with electricity) and outdoor history. Offers 50 miles of trails and an overlook called Pinnacle that you can also reach by car (but not by RV or with a trailer), and summer-season daily tours and programs that illlustrate the Gap's role in the westward movement of everything from buffalo to Native American tribes and warriors to hundreds of thousands of European settlers in the decades before and after the Revolution. Take the Park Service van tour to the Hensley Settlement, a semi-restored community of isolated farmsteads on a lovely plateau astride Brush Mountain, for a most vivid peek at what it once was like to be Mountain People. The park's Wilderness Road area, around the new mile-long U.S. 25E tunnel, is under renovation, but you can see a section of it nearby, however, at Virginia's new Karlan State Park (540-445-3065) in Ewing, where you can also rent mountain bikes, rafts or tubes (except in flood conditions, the Powell River is a peaceful, shallow float) from Cumberland Gap Outfitters (1-800-401-6523; livery service for hikers also available).

For details on High Knob and other recreation areas in Jefferson National Forest (including specific mountain biking maps, hiking routes and details on the little-known but transportingly isolated six-mile Guest River Gorge Trail, a former coal line railbed now open to hikers, bicycles, canoes and kayaks), call the Clinch Ranger District in Wise at 540-328-2931.

Big Stone Gap's concentration of sights includes the Southwest Virginia Museum (540-523-1322, closed January-February); the Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum (540-523-9209, open Wednesday-Sunday year-round); the June Tolliver House (540-523-4707), home of the Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama mid-June through Labor Day and a worthwhile mountain crafts center; and the former home of the "Lonesome Pine" novelist, the John Fox Jr. Museum (540-523-2747, open daily except Mondays, Memorial Day through Labor Day).

For a night's bracing immersion in bluegrass and old-time music and dancing here in the country of its birth, plan to spend at least one Saturday night at either the Country Cabin (call Bill Jones at 540-679-2632) on old U.S. 23 between Norton and Appalachia or at WAXM-FM's fetching 247-seat VA-KY Opry in Norton (540-679-1901). The Carter Family Fold in tiny Hiltons, Va. (540-386-6054 or http://www.scarlet.org/ carter/index.html) sponsors Saturday night dance concerts (and an annual festival) meant to preserve the music and legacy of country music's groundbreaking Carter Family.

Other nearby attractions include the Lonesome Pine International Raceway (540-395-3338), a short-track, fair-weather Saturday night NASCAR facility in Coeburn (the big racetrack nearby is in Bristol, Tenn.); the unique Appalshop Appalacian cultural-preservation theater, gallery and media center in Whitesburg, Ky. (606-633-0108); and the indoor/outdoor exhibits of frontier life (and eons earlier) at the Crab Orchard Museum and Pioneer Park (540-988-6755) in Tazewell.

WHERE TO STAY/EAT: For listings of area lodging, see below. Besides Norton's 120-room Holiday Inn (540-679-7000, with a decent and friendly full-service restaurant), Duffield's 98-room Ramada Inn (540-431-4300) and the Country Inn in Big Stone Gap (540-523-0374), which also has some RV sites, there are several distinctively non-motel-like options: Three comfortable rooms share two baths at the newly opened Our House Inn in Clinchco (540-835-9634, doubles $45 to $65, continental breakfast). Closer to Cumberland Gap, hearty breakfasts and four mountain-view bedrooms (one with a Jacuzzi) are to be found at the Monte Vista Bed and Breakfast (540-445-5151, doubles $125 to $150) in Ewing. Closer to I-81 -- but significantly more pastoral than some of the inns in nearby Abingdon -- Dunburn Farms B&B (540-475-5667, doubles $80, open Friday-Sunday only), is a modest bit of Scotland beside a brook (sorry, burn) on an 80-acre working farm. In Pounding Mill since 1979, Cuz's Uptown Barbecue and Cabins (540-964-9014) has been offering a menu of prime rib, barbecue and seafood distinguished and down-home enough to draw patrons from a long way off. To accommodate them, literally, Cuz's recently opened two cabins, one that sleeps four ($125), the other eight ($150), both with hot tubs, fireplaces and, of course, a big breakfast.

Also, there are campsites, cabins and a lodge up on the Kentucky border in Dickenson County's Breaks Interstate Park (1-800-982-5122) and campsites to the south at Natural Tunnel State Park (540-940-2674) and to the west at Cumberland Gap (606-248-2817).

INFORMATION: For information on the seven southwesternmost Virginia counties, contact the Virginia Coalfield Regional Tourism Development Authority in Big Stone Gap at 1-888-798-2386 or http://www.coalfield .com. You might ask also for information and a map of a 125-mile Heart of Appalachia bike route, which runs on back-country roads from Burke's Garden in Tazewell County to Guest River Gorge in Wise County. Nonprofit Southwest Blue Ridge Highlands Inc. (800-446-9670) publishes a useful map that includes listings of inns, hotels, restaurants and attractions. Virginia Tourism's searchable Web site is at http:// www.virginia.org.

-- Roger Piantadosi

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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