Beckley, WV (July 8, 2011) - I set out on a five day swing through West Virginia and Virginia this morning at 6:30 AM. The goal for this leg is to finish the remaining counties of West Virginia outbound and grab the western tier of counties of Virgina on the return to Gold Hill. The run will be over 1,300 miles and a good indication if my decision to turn to the 'Darkside' was right or not.
The first segment from Gold Hill to Marion, VA, was a 170 mile stretch over rural roads to US-21 and then NC-16 and VA-16. Early morning traffic seems to be expanding further and further out from Charlotte, even in the Mooresville area at 7:30 AM it was busy. I'm making a mental note that from now on if I want to travel US-21 north I'll just go through Salisbury to pick up US-601 to Mocksville and jog over to Harmony. It's much more pleasant with less traffic and most of the road has recently been resurfaced.
The original plan of Ride Around America was to complete the project in really large loops around the USA, being out for up to 10 weeks at a time. Obviously my health issues have interferred with than scenario and I've had to be content with shorter, close in loops, from the Piedmont of North Carolina. The result is that I've now forced to travel some roads many times over in order to get to new areas. That's the case for much of this day, but I'm content to accept it and try to find the silver lining.
Passing through Sparta, NC, I noticed a pair of riders from Ontario just ahead of me. When they stopped to reorient themselves to the map I pulled in behind them for a short chat and a photo. The couple were heading for the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of hills, twists, and vistas not available to them at home. I was able to give a few suggestions and they happily went rode south as I turned north. Folks, I'm sorry, but I neglected to write down your names and have forgotten the details - send me an email and I'll correct that here.
NC-16 and VA-16 into Marion and Tazewell are probably not on the list of most known routes for riders, but I found the segment reasonable; decent roadway condition, very little traffic, and some nice views of the Blue Ridge mountains. At Tazewell the route continues as WV-16 just outside of Bishop, VA, but somehow I missed the turn (What's new about that) and ended up running US-460 into Bluefield. It's good road, but four lanes with a median doesn't keep my heart pumping like a good two lane mountain road. And it certainly wasn't any challenge to the Hankook tire that now had just about 200 miles on it.
Before heading out from Gold Hill I'd had a nice coversation with Gene Holler, another ST1300 owner, about mounting and running the Hankook on the rear. I'd started out with 38 pounds of pressure and he thought that was a big high for a brand new tire. He hinted I might find the sidewall a bit sensitive. He was right, for the first 500 miles I was getting lots of feedback from the tread and sidewall. It wasn't a big negative, but it was certainly different from what I'd been feeling with the Dunlop RoadSmart on the rear.
As I got further and further into the mountains it was obvious the wide tread had advantages and disadvantges. The tire demands an aggresive use of throttle to keep the bike from 'standing up' at slow speeds. I found it easy to move around in tight spaces only if I used generous amounts of lean before the bike even moved. On gravel surfaces, which we find a lot here in the mountains, I was fearful of dropping the heavy ST. As I got more comfortable with the proceedure I actually found that I was turning into a more effective rider in parking lots - that's a bonus!
At Bluefield I turned westbound on US-52, one of my favorite routes through West Virgina. It's always busy with coal trucks, but the road is just a hoot to ride. It winds up and down through villages and small towns that are the epitome of coal country. It has a gritty look and feel. The locals are friendly but it's obvious that any joy they find in life is what they make for themselves. These are self reliant people that naturally look upon themselves as their most important resource.
If you happen to be riding through this area and you are a flatlander, or even if you have experience with lots of hills, don't go off the main road to the infrequent side streets unless you know you can handle very sharp, slow speed, turns with slope rates that can easily meet 45 degrees. These hillside streets are little more than one lane pathways terraced one over the other, sometimes 150 feet or more above US-52. There's nothing up there but homes, so unless you are off to meet somebody - stay down on the floor of the gap.
Enroute to Welch the road passes through the tiny town of Kimball. It's the home of the World War One Memorial Building, which is dedicated to the history of the African American soldier. Erected shortly after the first World War it had fallen into disrepair, likely destined to be torn down if a champion were not found to protect it. That champion seems to be Jessee McPeake, who is Executive Director of the McDowell County Visitor & Veterans Center. Yes, it's an odd combination, but it works very well thanks to a group of dedicated veterans and willing volunteers.
McPeake is the most decorated West Virginia soldier of the VietNam era. He served four full tours, a total of nearly six years 'in country.' Several years ago he teamed up with the family of the late Manuel Horeluck, Sr., a soldier in the Korean Conflict. Together they established the VFW Lodge 8413 into a flooded out building they refurbished with lots of hard work and community support. The result has been an outreach center that provides daily DAV transport van service to the Veterans Affairs hospital, a veterans food bank, and a community hall and park.
Events held here promote the heritage and value of military service to this coal community. Many veterans here came home, put up their uniforms, put on their dungarees and helmets, and went back into the mines. As a result it's difficult to separate the military pride from that of the miner's pride. On every wall, in every corner of the building you find a remembrance of those who served the nation and lived here amidst the grit and dust that is coal country. I wish all American towns had this fervor to honor and serve our veterans.
I continued to Welch under threatening skies, rain drops frequently splattering upon my visor and the windscreen. Once in the county seat I found the courthouse but didn't immediately see a memorial area. I asked a few people but got the usual blank stares and "I don't know" responses. Obviously there's not Jesse McPeake living here in Welch - although a couple of the volunteer DAV drivers do. When the rain showers turned to a downpour I decided that the War Memorial Building at Kimball would have to serve as my one documented monument for McDowell County and I turned back toward Mercer County and Princeton.
Another note to the flatlanders reading this. NEVER assume it's safe to ride ANY mountain road when it begins to rain in any volume. Rocks begin to shed from the hillsides almost immediately. Even on US Routes you can encounter large rocks and even boulders as the fall. It's an exciting experience, but not a pleasant one.
The trip to Princeton was a do over. I had visited the memorial and museum there in 2008 but for some reason I can't find the images. Unfortunately for me the second trip didn't get me as many images as the first...the building is being refurbished and the museum won't be open till this fall. After a quick couple of exterior shots and a short chat with one of the museum staff I quickly headed north, away from the line of thunderstorms that would surely overwhelm me if I dawdled at all.
Between Princeton and Beckley, around Ghent, it started pouring again. Temperatures all day had been in the 90's and this was a typical line of summer cool down showers with embedded lightning. I found shelter at a convience store for nearly 45 minutes and started back out as soon as it slacked to light rain.
At this point it's well beyond 7 PM and the prospect of finding a safe place to tent this evening is gone. I'm again pushed into finding a cheap motel room for safety reason, and in Beckley there just aren't any. I was able to talk the Days Inn down to something less than completly unreasonable, but the unexpected motel just cut another two days of fuel from the budget of this leg of the tour.
After talking with a foursome of riders from Pennsylvania, I got my assorted baggage carried up to the second floor and checked my email, then flopped onto the really firm mattress ... next thing I knew it was 7:30 AM Saturday morning and time to start another day of my Ride Around America.