Even though it has been upgraded to Interstate highway standards over the years, it still follows the same basic path, from the upper Kanawha Valley to the Cabin Creek hollow first, and then crossing over (formerly through the Memorial Tunnel) into the Paint Creek watershed to get up to Beckley (check out my story about Paint Creek). From there, it goes past Flat Top Mountain and on to Princeton. [Did you know you can see Pipestem Resort (if you know where to look) in the distance from along that section of the Turnpike?]
This hilly, twisty highway goes through some of the most impressive surroundings in the state. I’ve always enjoyed the rugged scenery of this mostly undeveloped area. However, in recent years, I’ve been noticing more encroachment by nearby surface mining. If you look closely along the ridgelines adjacent to the turnpike, you can often tell that they are actually the edge of an active surface mine on the other side. For example, just north of the Pax exit (on the western side) one can see the edge of the mining operation that I stumbled onto when driving to Whitesville (read that story here). Thankfully, there seems to be an effort on the part of the mining companies to avoid infringing too much on the “viewshed” of the turnpike, but these obvious man-made activities along the ridge tops still take away from the “wild and wonderful” aspects of this amazing territory.
This juxtaposition of scenic beauty/surface mining was hammered home to me yesterday during a brief stop at the Morton travel plaza on the northbound side of the Turnpike, in the southeastern part of Kanawha County. On that warm November afternoon, I decided to hop the fence bordering the parking lot (there is an obvious low spot in the fence that people use to get over it) and follow the path to explore nearby Paint Creek.
After crossing the fence, I noticed one of the travel plaza employees enjoying his “smoke break” looking at the creek. He told me about the turtles that are often sunning themselves on the downed tree along the opposite bank, and about the big trout that he often sees there (he also cautioned me about the copperhead he claimed to have killed there recently).
I carefully roamed around the water’s edge and took a few pictures, while marveling at nature’s splendor that is so close to a busy roadside rest area. Most travelers are totally unaware of this paradise beside the parking lot. In addition to offering all those slick travel brochures inside the travel plaza touting West Virginia’s scenic beauty, perhaps the Turnpike Commission should develop a simple walking trail out back along Paint Creek to let visitors see the real thing!
As I got back to the car, I was startled by a huge explosion that reverberated across the hillsides, followed closely by a second similar explosion. This was definitely not a hunter’s rifle, or merely a backfiring truck!
At first I was unsure what had occurred, but then I saw the smoke rising from the top of the ridgeline. I had not previously noticed it, but apparently there is yet another surface mine just across the Turnpike from this travel plaza. A major chunk of the mountain had just been destroyed. The black smoke from the explosive charges and the white rock dust (at least that's my best explanation for the two colors) mingled together as they slowly rose into the air. Soon the wind picked up the smoke plus the ensuing dust, draping it across the narrow valley used by the Turnpike (I was already in the car and getting ready to leave, so I didn’t take a third picture showing the maximum coverage of the smoke and dust). I’m sure many drivers wondered what had caused this unexpected blanket of smoke to temporarily darken the area.
Thus, just a few minutes removed from enjoying West Virginia’s autumn splendor along the edge of Paint Creek, listening to the melody of the water flowing over the rocks, I had been starkly confronted with the ongoing destruction of the nearby mountain.
At some point, will the mining interests start removing the majestic mountainsides that border the Turnpike? It also makes me worry about the unseen countryside just beyond the edges of the Turnpike. Plus, if strip mining is so prevalent along the edge of the busy Turnpike, how bad might the destruction be getting in the less visible areas of our state?
Friends from Ohio who traveled the Turnpike recently posted on Facebook on how much they enjoyed their drive back through West Virginia’s fall colors. Others have shared similar comments about their love of the Turnpike terrain over the years (and not just in the fall). I can only hope that all of us will continue to be able to enjoy the Turnpike viewshed for many years to come, and that our temporary need for coal today does not leave West Virginia with a devastated lunar landscape in the future.
I’d like to think that most folks feel this way, and that such a simple desire for West Virginia's future does not automatically label a person as a “tree hugger” or some other pejorative political term.