SAM BLACK CHURCH, W.VA. -- On a wind-swept autumn day, the big trucks are rambling along U.S. 60, a winding road coiling over mountains and down through pastoral valleys like a meandering snake of asphalt.
Not far off the beaten path, short-order cooks are toiling over fry pans, preparing meals for the denizens behind the wheel.
For many drivers, the taste of home-cooked food could become only a memory, lodged somewhere in the grease of a cookie-cutter hamburger dished out near an interstate exit.
When Interstate 64 is done, so is U.S. 60 as a major truck route. No more 18-wheelers barreling through. They will be restricted to the four-lane road, leaving only small trucks, those that peddle soft drinks, potato chips and the like, to travel U.S. 60.
To truckers such as Tom Floyd of Staunton, Va., that means an endless stretch of lonely highway, uninspired meals served in unfriendly settings and no more friends crowded at his table in the Cedar Top Restaurant. To Doris Coleman, who owns the Cedar Top in Cedar Grove, it suggests a personal calamity.
"If you take the trucks off the road, what will you have left?" she asks. "Don't close it."
Floyd, who has been traveling U.S. 60 for 23 years, said, "All you see on an interstate are guard rails.
"If you break down on an interstate, you've got trouble. Out here, you know people and they'll come to help you out."
Coleman wonders if the business she has run for six years can survive when Floyd and other truckers find that U.S. 60 is off-limits to their monstrous rigs.
"I'd hate to see this area go to a ghost town, but that's just how it will be," she says. "Then what? Where are we going to go for a job?
"We like this place. It's like home and everyone is like family. We're all real close."
In Charleston, the Department of Highways' public relations official, John Gallagher, leaves little doubt about U.S. 60's future.
In February, state Highways Commissioner William Ritchie issued an order allowing the big trucks to travel U.S. 60 as it runs from Charleston eastward.
"Once I-64 is completed, another order will be done to stop these trucks from going on U.S. 60," Gallagher said.
Time is running out. Rain-free days last summer gave crews more work time on the I-64 linkup to Sam Black Church. The last major obstacle is the Glade Creek bridge in Raleigh County.
"We're looking at opening '64 in July and August," Gallagher said.
He said the change will mean that smaller, commercial vehicles can service stores along U.S. 60, with an occasional gas tanker going directly to a station.
"The through-truckers, the interstate-type trucks, will go to the other route," he said.
Interstates, Gallagher said, were intended for "through-travelers, not locals."
"You can get on in California and drive all the way to West Virginia without stopping," he said.
The 90-mile route from Charleston to Sam Black Church wends its way to the Glen Ferris Inn. Owner Stanley (Buster) Farha states bluntly what he thinks of the I-64 linkup. "Politics, that's all it was," he said.
"You could have spent $100 million and knocked out 32 miles of mountain from Hico to Sam Black Church and improved U.S. 60. You would have saved about $500 million, I'd say.
"And look what it would have done. It would have helped out an existing highway. It would have helped every business person, community after community."
At The Country Store in Chimney Corner, where U.S. 60 dips in a roller-coaster tease, clerk Pat Rogers shares a common apprehension among the shopkeepers along the road: that I-64's final installment will mean less jingling of coins in the cash register.
"It has to make a difference," she said.
"If they make this a scenic highway, what good will it do if they don't clean it up? Tourists will drive by and look over the hillsides at all the trash."
Farther along, on a hairpin curve that taxes a driver's dexterity, is The Mystery Hole, where owner Donald Wilson charges sightseers $1 to experience what he calls a "distortion of gravity."
Wilson, who also owns a souvenir stand, likewise fears extinction.
"It's going to put me out of business," he said of I-64. "If you had a couple to $3 million to relocate, with a shiny new glass front, you could go on.
"But I can't. It's too late for me. It's just a matter of time before I'm out of business. Tourists won't be driving on this road. They want to go the shortest distance when traveling. I'm the same way."
Less than a mile from where the Methodists honored 19th-century circuit rider Sam Black by naming the 59-member church after him is the Alpine Glass store, featuring coal figurines and West Virginia glass.
"Unless we can come up with another kind of business," said manager Norma Stevens, "it's going to close us."
Stevens foresees the day when the lure of quicker trips on I-64 will turn U.S. 60 into just another backroad for locals. "When you take the trucks off the road, you will have only the local residents. If we had to depend on them, we'd starve to death."