raffic was light on I-66 that morning as we cruised toward the mountains, the sun coming out, green trees flanking the road. My friend Kate popped in an upbeat CD, keeping the volume low enough for conversation. Things were looking good.
Our destination? The middle of nowhere -- a place we could only dimly imagine, but we'd know it when we saw it. Our desperation? The byproduct of living in the middle of everything, the sirens, the crowds and the wearying go-go-go of the city. Which is how two twenty-somethings found themselves blazing a trail to West Virginia in a rented black Chevy Cobalt in search of a little peace and lots of beautiful scenery.
Still, I was mindful of what travel writer Jane Ockershausen had told me: "I think for too many people, getting there is not an enjoyable part of the trip." This was a mistake, I vowed, that Kate and I would not make. I'd leafed through numerous guidebooks and talked to several local travel writers. We were well prepared to enjoy every minute of this two-day getaway and return with valuable lessons to share with you, dear readers.
Lesson one: Bring towels.
Our first stop was Front Royal, Va., and a used bookstore Kate had spotted a sign for on the highway. We headed south onto U.S. 340 (aka South Royal Avenue) to check it out. The Royal Oak Bookshop was a nice surprise: a labyrinth of rooms filled with new and used tomes, audio books, children's lit, guides to nearby Shenandoah National Park and volumes on local Civil War history (207 S. Royal Ave., Front Royal; 540-635-7070. www.royaloakbookshop.com). Lounging on the counter was the resident feline, all fur and purrs, named Willa Catter, after the great frontier novelist Willa Cather, who, I later discovered, was born about 25 miles north near Winchester. Meeting Willa felt like a good omen for these two westward travelers.
And west we headed, along Route 55, whereupon the landscape dissolved into rolling green hills edged with wildflowers: cornflowers, cosmos, blue lupines and daisies. With the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding us and the Alleghenies in the distance, we drove into West Virginia under a brilliant blue sky.
Just after crossing the South Branch of the Potomac River, near Petersburg, we happened upon our next stop: Welton Park. Picnic pavilions, a ball field and a playground spread out beside the road, and a rocky beach led to a swimming hole filled with splashing bathers.
Kate and I couldn't resist. We pulled on our swimsuits and waded into the sun-warmed water, carefully balancing ourselves on the slippery rock river bottom while tiny fish poked at our legs. Next to the river loomed a sheer, red rock wall hundreds of feet high, its summit sprouting wispy trees and its base ringed with lush greenery.
It was then that I realized we'd forgotten towels, so we tossed a Frisbee and rode the swings while waiting for our swimsuits to dry. Suddenly, dark clouds filled the sky; we hurried into dry clothes and the car just before the skies opened.
Lesson two: Expect rain.
After a harrowing drive in the pouring rain, Kate and I pulled into Seneca Rocks, a popular climbing spot, where sandstone walls rise nearly 1,000 feet, resembling ragged hatchet blades driven into the forest below. We were hoping to watch climbers scale the rock walls; unfortunately, the rain kept them grounded.
Several guidebooks recommended having lunch at the Front Porch, a spare but cozy restaurant above the jampacked Harper's Old Country Store (at Route 55 and U.S. Highway 33, Seneca Rocks; 304-567-2555. mountainhighlands.com/listings/harpers.html). After a couple of very satisfying sandwiches, sodas and an apple dumpling, we looked around the store, then hit the road. U.S. 33 led us to Elkins, home of Davis and Elkins College, whose campus boasts Victorian buildings as well as the Augusta Heritage Center, where the focus is on studying and preserving Appalachian folkways (Davis and Elkins College, 100 Campus Dr., Elkins; 304-637-1209. www.augustaheritage.com). Every summer, musicians flock to the college's annual Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops -- a kind of band camp for grown-ups -- followed by the Augusta Festival, a celebration of highlands music and arts.
Too early for the music, though -- we headed for doughnuts. I'd read about Ye Olde Donut Shoppe in one guide book, and I was eager to try a few. Per the authors' instructions, we found the shop where U.S. 33 meets U.S. 219, but alas -- it was shut up tight. We peeked through the grimy front window and saw empty display cases and chairs stacked on tables. It's a shame when mom-and-pop shops like this one close, but it also provided a road-tripping lesson: Call before you go.
Turning south on U.S. 219, we skirted the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. The 909,000-acre wilderness area features Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Canaan Valley Resort State Park and many other sites, including our next destination: the Highlands Scenic Highway (Route 150).
The drive was rejuvenating, even without doughnuts. For 22 miles, we ogled red spruces towering on mountaintops more than 4,000 feet high, wildflower-filled meadows sloping steeply toward forested valleys and overlooks with signs detailing the highway's flora and fauna. The only other car we saw was a forest ranger's.
And that's when we finally found it, after half a day's drive: the middle of nowhere. What does the middle of nowhere look like? "Incredibly gorgeous," was all Kate could say.
We left the scenic highway at the junction of Route 55, stopping at the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center (Route 150 and Route 39/55, 15 miles west of Marlinton; 304-653-4826. www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/sp/naturecenter.html). Signs posted outside noted the dangers of the wooded trails next to the parking lot, including rattlesnakes and bears. There was no one around, and, suddenly skittish, we decided to drive instead to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. We were relieved to see cars parked there. We strolled on the boardwalk above the bog and marveled at its uniqueness. The bog is an acidic wetland formed by glacial melting thousands of years ago, and it is the southernmost home to plants usually found in Canada and parts of the northern United States. We stopped to look at otherworldly flowers sticking out of the bog, which was covered in moss and the fringed, reddish cranberry runners, with a few trees and tall shrubs here and there.
After the bog, we had planned to visit the Pearl S. Buck Museum (home of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author) and Beartown State Park (home of unusual rock formations) along U.S. 219 south. But -- oops -- I made a wrong turn, and we wound up driving west on Route 39/55.
Lesson three: You can't always control your own ineptitude.
Ockershausen had advised me: "Take a map and study it, so when you run into a problem on a major highway, you'll know an alternate route." The problem was my lack of direction, but I knew from studying the map that we could hit Route 20 south, which leads to the park.
The sun dropped quickly, briefly illuminating the sheer rock walls and steep ravines framing the road. The hairpin turns made things menacing as I inched along in the dark. When the rain started again, I worried we'd never make it to the park.
Lesson four: It always takes longer than you think it will.
At 11:30, we arrived at McKeever Lodge at Pipestem Resort State Park (12 miles south of Hinton on Route 20; 304-466-1800. www.pipestemresort.com), exhausted and hungry. We checked in and snacked on provisions we'd packed, and I fell asleep the minute I closed my eyes. In the morning, I was rewarded with a heavenly view: row after row of mountains in the distance, with white clouds filling the Bluestone Gorge right outside my window. It was spectacular. Two trips to the lodge's buffet and four cups of coffee later, I was ready to pursue our plan: riding the tram.
The aerial tramway was the main reason I wanted to visit Pipestem. I do love a good canyon hike, but mostly the downhill part. So I was intrigued when I discovered that visitors can hike to the bottom of the gorge, then ride to the top -- 3,600 feet in six minutes -- in an enclosed gondola. I had to try it.
Because the tram was closed that day from 1 to 4 and the hike would take at least two hours, and since we also wanted to go horseback riding, we compromised. We would take the tram down, hike along the River Trail, then ride back up the mountain. It felt like cheating, but there were too many fun activities for only one day: horseback riding, canoeing, golfing, swimming in the pool, eating, hiking, archaeological exhibits, nature walks, concerts in the amphitheater . . .
So at 9 a.m., we climbed into a swaying gondola at the Canyon Rim Center. Gliding down the hill, we heard rushing water before seeing a stream appear to burst through the tree canopy, hurtling down the mountain in waterfalls and over rocky beds. A deer grazed next to a waterfall while Kate snapped pictures.
We hopped out at the Mountain Creek Lodge and set out on the River Trail. We hiked about an hour, then rode the tram to the top. Midway up, I spotted a roly-poly wild turkey ambling along the tree line. I was relieved to see wildlife that was, well, alive, because we'd seen so much roadkill the day before. I needn't have worried. There were plenty more animals at the nature center, and a bearded park ranger patiently answered our slightly anxious questions: What kind of bears live in the woods? (Black bears, mostly harmless.) Had he ever seen a bobcat? (Not at Pipestem.) What about big spiders? At that, he pointed to the counter behind him, where a gallon-size jar had a wolf spider clinging to the side. Kate backed away slowly.
Our afternoon horseback ride included wooded trails and a hayfield that was right out of a Monet -- the golden grasses waving under robin's-egg-blue skies, wispy clouds overhead.
There was one more stop we had to make, though, before we made tracks. A few days earlier, when I was looking at a West Virginia map with my parents, my dad found a town near Pipestem called Talcott, our family name. "You've got to check it out!" he said.
About a half-hour from Pipestem, on winding Route 3, stood a statue of a burly man, hammer in hand, with a sign beneath that read, "Tradition makes this the scene of the steel driver's ballad, 'John Henry.' "
The statue was erected by the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club in 1972, the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Big Bend Tunnel for the C&O Railroad -- a one-mile tunnel beneath the West Virginia mountains -- that some believe to be the site of John Henry's fabled contest with a steam drill. An American myth, enacted in a town with my name! But why was this place called Talcott?
This detour called to mind something Ockershausen had emphasized: "We have so much history in our region, and it's not boring! It's really fun! History is the stories of people." Yes, and it's even more fun when those people have your name. In a brochure for the upcoming John Henry Days festival (July 8-10, Route 3, Talcott; 304-466-3255. www.hintonwva.com/JohnHenry.html) was the answer to my question: Colonel R.H. Talcott was the engineer in charge of building Big Bend. We drove down the gravel road next to the train tracks to see the entrance to the tunnel. Some say it's haunted by John Henry's ghost, and it's easy to see why. An eerie mist wafted out of Big Bend. Its entrance was blocked by heavy stones, the dark cavity filled with water and coated in green slime. Thoroughly spooked, we dove back into the car and drove back down the gravel road, out of Talcott and toward home.
I wasn't worried about missing sites on the way back. Travel writer John Fitzpatrick had advised me: "Sightsee on the way out, then race back." So we did.
Cruising east on Interstate 64, then I-81 and back on I-66, I dozed a little in the passenger seat, thinking about the next time I'd go to West Virginia. I had so much reading to do before then! I'd need more guidebooks (what are those plants in the Cranberry Glades?), a family tree (who was R.H. Talcott?) and a geology textbook explaining the spectacular landscape. In an ideal world, one road trip begets another. Kate and I have to coordinate our schedules, rent another car, map out another route. We need to get back on the road.
Final lesson learned: You can't do everything in one trip, but with a little planning, you can arrange a fine little adventure.
A regular Weekend contributor, Christina Talcott is busy planning her next road trip, a drive up the California coast. She will bring towels.