Monday, July 12, 2010

Driving to West Virginia

As some of you know, I just got back from West Virginia, where my kids had been spending part of their summer vacation with my parents. In this post I have notes for myself about the trip up there, which I made alone. But my parents and kids aren't in this bit, since they were already in West Virginia; so you may want to wait for the next post, where my parents and kids show up and things get, I imagine, much more interesting.


I packed pretty carefully for this trip to West Virginia, at least by my standards. In particular...well, I was taking the laptop with all my tunes on it and saving space by not taking all those CD’s. And I needed to be sure family and friends could get through to my BlackBerry. So I checked twice to make sure I had the adapter that takes DC power from the cigarette lighter and turns into AC power that will run a phone charger or a laptop -- check; and also the connector that runs from the laptop output into the auxiliary input on the car’s sound system -- check; and also the charger for the BlackBerry -- check. Never been so careful about a checklist in my life, I suppose. And then, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I struck out for Clarksburg.

So naturally at Beaumont or so the tunes went dead...because it hadn’t occurred to me to check and make sure the cigarette lighter in the car actually worked. And since my BlackBerry has gotten persnickety about whether or not it actually charges at night and had decided not to charge itself the night before, by the time I made Mississippi the BlackBerry was dead too.

This left me tuneless -- or, more precisely, Chinese-less, as I had planned to spend pretty much the entire trip working through my Chinese language CD. I had expected the trip to be educational, if nothing else. Ah, well, the best-laid plans gang aft agley...although I have been told that I am never allowed to resort to that particular Bobbie Burns quote because never in my life has any plan of mine been properly described as “best-laid.”

I slept for a few hours at a rest stop just inside Alabama, before the long north-east diagonal trek across the state on I-59, and by 11:00 the next morning was in Chattanooga, making good solid time, as Chattanooga is well past the halfway mark for the trip. Furthermore, I was feeling more than usually cheerful because once you get into Tennessee and North Caroline and Virginia and West Virginia, there’s a BP gas station on every corner. In Texas we don’t have them, which had heretofore made it impossible for me to boycott them. But now I was getting to boycott BP every time I turned around, much to my delight and the improvement of my mood.

So as I sat contentedly in a little café in Chattanooga looking at Google maps on my laptop, which was temporarily plugged into the café wall, I decided I could take a brief detour through the Smoky Mountains, which happen to be one of my favorite parts of America. I figured I could just follow U.S. 74 down to the foothills (as recommended by Google), then head up to Tellico Plains, then across a tiny little skyway across the backbone of the Smokies down to Lake Santeetlah, and then go back north back across the Smokies again, on U.S. 129, to get back to I-75 and my main route.

I thought that would probably cost me an hour or maybe two, but I had that much time to spare.

So I headed for Cleveland, got off the interstate where U.S. 74 diverged from it, and then followed all the signs I saw for U.S. 74 East, right up until I found myself completely lost on some little road headed north out of Cleveland. How did I miss the turn?? I couldn’t use the GPS on my BlackBerry, since its battery was dead…I turned around and headed back into town. I got back to the loop I had been on: okay, this is U.S. 74. I started back around the loop…okay, I can see where U.S. 64 diverges, but I’m looking for U.S. 74…well, @#$@#@, I’m back in north Cleveland. I ask for directions at a gas station. “How do I get to U.S. 74?”

She looks completely confused. “Where are you heading?”

I make a wild guess at the pronunciation: “Ocoee, and then Tellico Plains.”

“Oh, you want U.S. 64…” And she gives me directions.

I follow the directions back to where the sign on the loop tells me that U.S. 64 East requires a right-hand turn…U.S. 74 is not mentioned. So it turns out that while the United States and the mapmakers of Google consider that U.S. 74 goes through Cleveland, neither the State of Tennessee nor the inhabitants of Cleveland are buying it.

Well, that took an hour, but eventually I got back onto U.S. 74 despite Tennessee’s best efforts at obfuscation. And once I was safely on TN 165 heading up into the heart of the Smokies, my mood improved dramatically. Highway 165 isn’t one of the most scenic ways to cross the Smokies, as relatively little money has been invested in scenic overlooks. But mountains are mountains, and to be winding my way up a tiny little road under an unbroken canopy of forest…you know how in the woods even the very light is green by the time it makes it all the way down to the ground? I could feel my soul being restored on the spot. I even had to stop at one point to let a black bear decide which was the best route for him to follow in vacating my lane of the highway, a point to which he gave careful and unhurried consideration. In due course I reached the highest pass, crossed over into North Carolina, wound back down the other side of the mountain range, and reached the intersection with U.S. 129, my route back across the Smokies to I-75…

…and saw a big “Detour” sign. U.S. 129 headed north across the Smokies was shut down. If you had been planning to head north on U.S. 129, North Carolina recommended that you proceed south on U.S. 129 instead. So for a while I followed their recommendation, but when I got to the intersection of U.S. 129 and my old friend U.S. 74 (which had crossed the Smokies further south than I had and was on its way up to Asheville), the North Carolina Department of Transportation had lost pretty much all their sanity:

I have no idea why NCDOT thought that people who wanted to head north on U.S. 129 would be served by continuing to head south on U.S. 129, but I stopped taking their advice and turned north toward Asheville on U.S. 74.

Now this section of U.S. 74 dives down on a steep grade following the edge of the Nantahala River, which was wall-to-wall with people in big whitewater rafts even though I drove eight miles along the side of it without seeing any stretch of water that seemed to require such a craft. (I am given to understand that there is a Class V rapid on that river…right below where everybody gets out of the rafts. And the point of getting out of the raft right before there’s finally a good reason to ride one would be…??????) Kayaking would have been fun, but since most of what I saw I would have been willing to try in my old open canoe, the rafts looked like overkill. I imagine the water level was just abnormally low or something. Anyway, I was thinking, “This might be a good place to bring Helen [who doesn’t yet know how to swim] to break her into whitewater rafting easy…” and then I saw a bunch of people all gathered by the side of the river – at a spot where I swear I didn’t see any white water even vaguely challenging – and an ambulance parked there with its lights on, and I met another ambulance and a fire truck haulin’ it up there after I passed on by. So it would appear that somebody managed to hurt themselves after all. Maybe it’s just been so long since I had the chance to run a river that I’m no longer able to guage them properly? Or maybe it was just that some hopeless amateur wasn’t wearing a helmet and fell out of the boat while horsing around with his drinking buddies and hit his head? I have no idea.

At any rate, I wound up going through Asheville and never got back to I-75 at all, instead rejoining my originally intended route way farther north on I-81; and by the time all was said and done I think my “short detour” into the Smokies cost me closer to four hours’ delay than to two. I rolled up to my parents’ door at about 1:00 a.m., said howdy, and fell into bed.


At 9:21 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

Lawd a-mercy! Had you just stopped off at our house in Chattanooga, instead of some little ol' cafe, we could have saved you a lot of trial and error, man!

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

[facepalms repeatedly] I completely forgot that Chattanooga was where you guys had moved to...I suppose I just think of you as living in cyberspace these days.


OK, next time I come through I'll swing by and say howdy.

What a maroon.


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