Not far beyond the comforts of old Lexington and the lush fields of Kentucky's horse country lies another world -- one of mountains and hollows and fishing streams and hamlets. Of aging frame cottages where live mostly poor or impoverished families of Anglo-Saxon stock: Appalachia. Home to the Hatfields and the McCoys, and a very different kind of travel adventure.
Appalachia itself is a region of contrast. While the predictable images of strip-mine devastation and poverty are certainly a part, this is also a land of pristine forests, endless mountain vistas and exhilarating beauty. Appalachia is the past trying to meet the present, a long-isolated area slowly moving into America's mainstream. It can make a memorable -- and economical -- getaway to another land that is just a day's drive from Washington.
With Appalachian Kentucky as a focal point, you can do a three-to-five-day loop that will take you through fascinating country. The first hints lie in the hollows of western Virginia, and then Appalachia unfolds before you in the hills of eastern Kentucky. The terrain changes continually from mountains to rolling fields to forests to mining towns.
The first leg of the tour is a familiar one. Out I-66, through hunt country, into the Shenandoahs, past the Skyline Drive and onto I-81 -- that very long and very scenic interstate. Past New Market Battlefield and on to Roanoke -- about five hours from Washington.
Roanoke, Big Apple of the Shenandoah Valley, is a homely city in a lovely setting, surrounded by the gentle mountains of southwest Virginia. It is also home of one of the last remaining grand hotels. The Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke was built for the comfort of Norfolk and Western Railroad executives in the late 1800s, the heyday of rail travel. It provides today's traveler with handsomely appointed, multi-windowed rooms and elegant dining. And it is an anomaly to the Appalachia that is beyond it.
Roanoke is nearly 250 miles from Washington, but there is still a lot of Virginia after this railroad town: a number of beautiful state parks, including Hungry Mother and Claytor Lake; Marion, an attractive old tobacco town that has spread over several hills and valleys; Abington, home of the acclaimed Barter Theater. And the ever-unfolding Shenandoah Valley.
After Abingdon the mountains seem to get a bit higher and the highway a bit curvier, with long segments through blasted mountain rock. Finally there is Bristol, and then you are in Tennessee, heading west on 11W. Fifties' vintage cars and trucks start to mix with traffic, and frame replaces brick in the buildings. This is Appalachia.
Kingsport, Tenn., is an early (1917) planned city that offers a number of golf and water recreation opportunities nearby. On the northern outskirts of Kingsport, turn north on Rte. 23. This takes you on a seven-mile stretch to Gate City, back in Virginia. (If you pass a shopping center sign that says "Income Tax. Fireworks" you're on the right road.) At Gate City continue west on Rte. 23/421 toward Harlan.
The next 50 miles -- all in Virginia -- are vintage Appalachia, a preview of the Kentucky hills that lie ahead. The road is ruggedly beautiful, twisty as a pretzel, and is dotted with hamlets and hole-in-the-wall cafe's and antiquated general stores and mist-shrouded hollows. Fishing streams ripple along the road. In the evening, front porches on the road-hugging houses are crowded with after-dinner socializers and highway watchers.
A rusting sign featuring -- what else? -- a horse and jockey, six miles west of Pennington Gap, welcomes you to Kentucky and Harlan County. The genteel poverty of Scott County, Va., gives way to the near destitution of Harlan.
Shortly after crossing the Kentucky line is a unique photo stop, particularly for rail buffs and chroniclers of the Appalachia that was. Buckling and seldom-used railroad tracks cross Rte. 421 at a wide angle at what once was the heart of Columbus, Ky. To the left is a rambling wood structure -- long abandoned -- that ages ago served as general store, social center and railroad station for the surrounding area. The flag signal that the "station master" (probably the druggist) would lower to alert the engineer to a passenger still stands. "Columbus" is yet faintly visible on the side of the edifice, which invites vandals as much as photographers. Down the tracks to the right about 200 yards is an abandoned coal-handling facility. With its sinister black steel arms reaching over the track, it is an Edward Hopper setting waiting to be painted.
Harlan County is a land of hidden hamlets and coal miners and coal mines. Of old cottages and families sitting on porches and front stoops, waving to passing cars and jawing with neighbors. Of faces of those who have worked hard, earned little and suffered. To old-timers, it is still "Bloody Harlan," where mine strikes have led to violence and tragedy.
Harlan is home to younger men -- and a few women -- who earn their living by crawling on hands and knees all day, mining "low" coal deep beneath the ground. It is also home to older -- and sometimes not much older -- former miners whose soot-lined lungs no longer give them enough air to work down below.
Harlan County is poor but it is also pretty. The 34 miles of Rte. 421 between Harlan (the county seat) and Hyden wind through the striking Daniel Boone National Forest. The hamlets along the way -- Bledsoe, Helton, Mozelle, Asher -- have changed little since they were founded. Only the incongruous satellite dishes, fanning out from crumbling chimneys or stone walls and linking this part of the world with the rest, are reminders that this is the last quarter of the 20th century.
Rte. 421 turns west at Hyden, but just a few miles north of town is the Daniel Boone Parkway. The parkway is an Appalachian superhighway -- a two-lane road that sweeps through more of Kentucky's little mountains in the Daniel Boone Forest, heading west to London. London is 40 miles distant and is a gas, restaurant and motel stop; it is 70 miles south of Lexington on I-75.
Just a few miles up the road from London (on Rte. 25) lies Livingston, a natural destination for an Appalachian getaway. Livingston is the home of the Rockcastle Resource Center, an attractive, simple life-style community run by Albert Fritsch, a chemist, Jesuit and former Ralph Nader "raider." A Kentucky native, Fritsch has returned to the Bluegrass State after years in Washington to develop a living and working center that preserves traditional Appalachian values of self-sufficiency and living close to nature.
The center is perched on a hill above the green Rockcastle River. It includes a solar house, a cordwood house, a yurt and an organic garden. For a small fee visitors may use the nature trail, riverside picnic grounds and boat ramp. If advance arrangements are made -- and if you can help out with some of the chores -- you can stay at Rockcastle. (There is no set charge, but donations are accepted.) The accommodations are communal and the odorless composting toilet does not flush, but Rockcastle can provide you with a genuine Appalachian living experience.
Rockcastle is 585 miles from Washington. You can return on an equally scenic route of about the same distance as the trip down without repeating any of the road. Start by heading north on I-75 to Lexington, a comfortable urban center whose legendary horse farms seem to start at the edge of the downtown. Its old central square, flanked by the stately main library and historic houses, invites serious strolling. And for trivia fans: The oldest college west of the Alleghenies -- Transylvania -- is in Lexington; its administration building is a superior example of Greek Revival architecture.
Charleston, W.Va., lies three hours toward Washington on I-64. The capital of West Virginia and unofficial capital of Appalachia, Charleston has a distinct provincial charm. Its downtown has remained a viable one, with attractive old shops, restaurants and saloons. The Federal Bakery on Fife Street, a city landmark, offers some of the best tarts and cream puffs anywhere. But, regrettably, downtown Charleston is being "malled" and Fife Street and the Federal Bakery may go the way of other parts of the old center. Progress has even hit the venerable Daniel Boone Hotel -- until 1982 a classic full-service hotel but now an office building. The Appalachian crafts outlet on the capitol grounds offers authentic handiwork and is a worthwhile stop.
Heading northeast on I-79 out of Charleston, the Country Cookin' Diner is a recommended food stop. The next 100 miles is among the most mountainous of any interstate highway in the East. Exit at Rte. 50 East at Clarksburg to drive the old road back to Washington. Rte. 50 is a very visual highway -- not for the timid driver or one in a hurry, but it cuts through some of the prettiest parts of the Mountain State. Its picturesque towns are reminders of what America looked like when most of its citizens lived in small towns. The Glass Barn, on the north side of the road near Bridgeport, is an eclectic West Virginia store, offering some of the very worst and very best in native glassware.
Rte. 50 goes up and down and around as it winds eastward, passing countless fishing streams and campgrounds. Wolfe's Motel, sitting beside the Cheat River near Macomber, is the picture of a budget hideaway for the fisherman. Cool Springs Park, a little further west, is a relic of the pre-superhighway days and something out of a scrapbook; it is an old-fashioned private fishing and picnic area, complete with general store, snack bar and cabins.
Rte. 50 slices through a nook of Maryland on its way from West Virginia to Virginia. At the junction of Maryland Rte. 219 and Rte. 50 sits the Chimney Corner Restaurant. An old log structure loaded with charm, the Chimney Corner offers excellent home cooking and has a meat counter selling bacon, sausage and sugar-cured hams. Rocking chairs adorn its front porch, where you can sit and view western Maryland's rich farm terrain and watch the world go by. Blackwater Falls State Park (West Virginia) is just 17 miles south of the Chimney Corner. The park has cabin and motel-style accommodations, riding and hiking trails, and the impressive set of falls that give it its name.
The Chimney Corner is roughly halfway on the 100-mile stretch of this West Virginia portion of Rte. 50. In Romney, 35 miles east, the old Rexall Drugstore offers small-town ambiance at its Formica-tabled coffee shop. Then, after Saddleback Mountain's spectacular overlook, you are treated to a rather thrilling 10-minute descent into the valley at Augusta. Capon Bridge follows, where the local general store provides a shuttle service for canoeists on the picturesque stream running through town.
Another 20 miles, this time of more gradual descent, brings you to Winchester, Va. Winchester's historic district is an oft-overlooked area of handsome brick houses and shops. Then on to lush Middleburg, the roar of jets touching down at Dulles Airport, the Beltway and home. Appalachia seems as far away as ever.