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Autumn in Appalachia, Unexpected Splendor – Part 2

February 10, 2016


Hawks Nest State Park

Two months ago (Dec. 16, 2015), we began the story of our fall color expedition with our traveling buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp and, for two days, Ed and Jo Riffel. But it was Bob who was the mastermind; indeed, he’d been plotting our trajectory for months. For he was determined to show us Rocky Mountain show-offs that southeast states featured scenery second to none—especially in autumn.

In all our travels together there has been one constant: whenever possible, get off interstates and freeways, and escape to the back roads on which the real America can be found. The operative two words: slow down.

As our world has continued to shrink and we are able to move from place to place at an ever faster speed, in jets and bullet-trains, there has developed a new appreciation for slow travel. For only by moving slowly can we see anything better than blurs or stratospheric clouds below our wings.

We’d asked Bob for back roads—and he delivered just that.

On this trip, occasionally we were gifted with epiphanies: Life changing moments or realizations. One of them had to do with the pride rural people of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina evidence in their homes and grounds. Rarely did we see garbage or junk, such as is all too often the norm in cities. Even when driving through areas known for their poverty, rarely could you tell it by the condition of their homes and grounds.

Since we meandered for several thousand miles through Appalachia at peak color, it was impossible to capture more than snapshots—never the entire horizon almost burning our eyes with radiant color. We were forced to admit that the only real photographic record of our trip would reside in the archives of our brains. Amazingly, brain surgeons have discovered that nothing is ever lost: stop a needle at a specific point in our brains, and suddenly a day, an hour, a minute, a second will leap into life, and the individual being evaluated will remember every frame, every moment, every note of a concert. Thus, those autumn masterpieces are not lost; they remain part of us as long as we live. This is why those of us gifted with total recall, who cannot forget anything, are often, of all people, the most miserable: if you remember everything, how can you prioritize? You can see every last individual tree, but have a mighty tough time conceptualizing a forest.

I tried to sketch out our road routes so you could follow along easier, but since one rural road ran into another after another, I gave up. Instead, I’m going to play the greatest hits, so to speak. You’ll still be able to follow, once you round up maps for these states. Back in the December 16. 2015 blog, you’ll remember that we’ve already experienced Barkley Lake, Kentucky Lake, Mayfield, Cumberland Falls, and Berea College—all in Kentucky.

Now let’s move on: a natural wonder few Americans have ever heard about is Kentucky’s most impressive Natural Bridge, out of Slade. It takes quite a walk to climb up to it, but the exertion is well worth it. There is a most comfortable lodge at the trailhead, with its own restaurant, each room overlooking the river. The Natural Bridge is wide enough for automobiles to cross over the long expanse—which they don’t, as no roads get there.


Natural Bridge

Though we’d known there was much beauty in Kentucky and Tennessee, it is no hyperbole to admit that we were blind-sided by West Virginia, a state that would still be part of Virginia had there never been a Civil War. Because the state is known to be one of the poorest in America, and because its coal mines have produced so much pollution and scarred landscapes, it is all too easy to discount the state.

The reality for me was one grand rolling epiphany of autumn splendor.

But the real knock-out punch had to be the state’s high country—if you watched the recent movie, “Into the Woods,” those stunning vistas came from here. I had no idea that the New River Gorge National River, the Gauley River National Recreation Area, and the Bluestone National Scenic River offer some of the most breathtaking natural settings in the world—and they’re all intertwined in 63,000 pristine acres.

Our first real vista point had to do with our stay at Hawks Nest State Park. What a view! We took the steep tramway down over 400 feet to the lake below. And, oh my, what a view from the deck of our room in the Hawks Nest Lodge! In every direction, the hills aflame.