Friday, April 25, 2014

A memorable detour to visit a memorial

Earlier this month, the fifth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster was solemnly noted. West Virginia lost 29 coal miners that day, adding to a long list of workers who gave their lives underground. Yet another monument (I’ve visited a few others) was erected as a tribute to the sacrifice of West Virginia miners.

Around that anniversary, I was traveling north on the West Virginia Turnpike. It dawned on me that I had some extra time, and so perhaps I should divert over to Whitesville to see this beautiful monument and pay my respects. I had never explored that particular area of West Virginia, and so I thought it was high time to do so.

I got off at the Pax exit, and used my smart phone to consult Google Maps. It seemed I could backtrack to the Beckley exit and pick up Route 3, or drive south below Pax and pick up Clear Fork Road as it heads northwest, or I could just turn left here at the Pax exit and take a small county road over the ridge to more directly hook up with Clear Fork Road. I could tell the small road was rather twisty as it went over the mountain out of the Paint Creek watershed, but it seemed like the most direct route which didn’t require backtracking from this exit, and even if it was slower, I had extra time on my hands. As I gazed to my left at the interchange, the road appeared to be very well maintained. I decided to be adventurous and take the shortcut.

Well, what started off as a wide, well maintained, two-lane road with stripes that I had viewed from the Pax exit ramp didn’t stay that way very long. Soon the stripes disappeared, and then the two-lane width was narrowed to a single lane with broad shoulders for oncoming cars to easily pass each other. As the road followed the little creek up the mountainside, it became just a single lane and soon thereafter the pavement ended as it became a dirt road.

Now it was gaining altitude quickly as it climbed the mountainside. Did I mention that I was driving a Toyota Prius? Since I wasn’t in a high-clearance vehicle, I was carefully choosing the route for my four tires on this hardscrabble road. I had not seen any other vehicles, until I rounded a turn and caught a glimpse in the distance of a white 4-wheel drive crew cab pickup whose long wheelbase had required it to back up in order to negotiate a tight switchback turn. He soon disappeared from my view.

In some places, the road had been cut into the hillside, so that on one side was a wall of dirt and rocks, while on the other side was a steep drop off. I had to hope that the ground was strong enough not to give way when I ventured close to the edge to avoid rocks or holes. The last thing I needed was to go over a cliff on a seldom used road. I don’t know which would have been worse—the injuries or the embarrassment that would occur when the authorities asked why in the world was I trying to drive a Prius over this road!

Finally, I reached the peak of the mountain, and started down the other side. I saw the entrance gates for the mining operations that had likely been the destination for the white pickup. Beyond those gates as the mountain road descended, the conditions seemed to become worse. What if this road was only maintained semi-decently as far as the mining gates because of their need for it? Would the rest of the downhill side be passable? Might it degenerate into merely an ATV trail or a deer path if I keep going? Should I put it in reverse (because there was no room to turn around), back up the hill to the mining gates, turn around there, and retreat to the Turnpike?

I decided to take my chances and forge ahead, carefully crawling my Prius over the rocks and through the water seeps. It was almost like a chess game as I carefully picked my path, knowing that I had to “play several moves ahead” so that what worked to get around one obstacle didn’t leave me without a good option for the next one. Although it was “slow-going” through beautiful, uninhabited mountain woods, I was very happy when I caught my first glimpse of civilization—a house and the beginning of the single lane pavement again. The further I went, the better this road (apparently known on this side of the mountain as Toney’s Fork Road) became.

Eventually it emptied out onto a larger county road known as Clear Fork Road. This curvy road (with stripes!) follows the even curvier Clear Fork Creek, a beautiful mountain stream full of rapids.

Finally, at the same point where Clear Fork Creek empties into the Coal River, Clear Fork Road ends at the junction with West Virginia Route 3, just south of Whitesville. I turned right onto Route 3 and drove through the downtown before stopping at the monument on the north side of Whitesville.

It is a large granite monument situated between Route 3 and the Coal River. The front side displays the life-size silhouettes of 29 miners. The back side has a lengthy history of coal mining in West Virginia. I thought the monument was very well done, even before I found out that the person who came up with the design was related to some friends of mine. [That’s one of the things I like about West Virginia—we are small enough to have all sorts of personal connections.]

I then followed the Coal River downstream via Route 3, taking me past Sherman High School (now when I hear Sherman mentioned during high school sports reports, I will be able to visualize it) before making a right turn onto West Virginia Route 94. This highway climbs out of the Coal River watershed, crosses the ridge, and then descends all the way down to the Kanawha River at Marmet. From there I was able to rejoin I-77 and head for home.

I’m glad I was able to visit the monument that honors the 29 miners. I’m also glad that I got to see a section of West Virginia that I had not previously visited. However most of all, I am especially glad that I was able to use all my West Virginia backroad driving skills to get my Prius across the mountain on a primitive dirt road—without ever scraping the bottom, spinning in the mud, or experiencing any other problems. It was a memorable trip!

However, I will note that the next time, I may not be so quick to trust Google Maps!

Front side of the memorial with 29 silhouettes. The quote is from Matthew 11:28.

Just one of the historical panels on the back of the UBB memorial.

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