Friday, December 11, 2009

On The Road In Appalachis - Part 3 - Getting There Is Half The Fun

It's one thing to say you'll be at the elementary school in McRoberts, Kentucky at 8am on Monday, November 9, 2009. Its quite another to actually get there. My first instinct was to just get in the car on November 8 and drive. But I was told that it would be better for us to fly and rent a car. Just this once, I turned out to be right (and I will be the first to admit how rare an event that is).

McRoberts is one of those places to which you cannot get from here. We had to fly on US Airways, which us northeasterners know as the successor to such stellar enterprises as Mohawk and Allegheny. The nearest serious airport to McRoberts is in Charleston, West Virginia, to which one flies from Newark by changing planes in Charlotte, North Carolina (where Naomi, Liz and I were to meet up with Ranya). From Charleston we planned to drive a rented car two hours to Whitesburg, Kentucky, the Letcher County seat, leaving us about 30 minutes southwest of McRoberts.

Why bypass McRoberts to go on to Whitesburg? Whitesburg has the only motels close to McRoberts. The crown jewel of these is the Super 8 next to the truck stop. In addition to checking into our home away from home we would be joined by Vinny Green and Debby Singer, Jewish educators from California who, in all their spare time, work on Ranya's distributions. At least, that was the plan.

There's a reason US Airways is more remembered for emergency landings in the Hudson River than on-time performance. Our flight from Newark to Charlotte went well enough given the rough weather. We even met up with Ranya as planned. But when we got to the gate for the Charleston flight we were told that it had been canceled. No reason. No warning. Just canceled. But, not to worry, US Airways has programmed its computer to automatically find alternative flights for passengers they have just stranded. I guess they got tired of doing this by hand. Our new boarding passes were printed and ready when we arrived at the gate. One small problem. We were booked on a flight the next day.

Now, while I'm sure that Charlotte is a real happening place on a Sunday night, we could not fail to reach McRoberts as scheduled. Naomi explained to a Customer Service Representative that we were on a humanitarian mission. The CSR offered us a late flight the same day that would, with only one stop, get us to Charleston around 10 pm (after the car rental counter closes). Even if we could get a car we'd get to Whitesburg after midnight. This would leave us with enough time to get four hours' sleep before driving the last leg into McRoberts. No thanks. When we were 19 or 20 road trips could be done with little to no sleep. But that was 40 years ago. Today, my traveling companions and I need things like sleep and showers to function. So, Naomi decided to rent a car and drive to Whitesburg, cutting our travel time down from over 12 hours to about 4.

Appalachia is among the poorest parts of the country but it is also among the most beautiful. Our drive from Charlotte skirted the southwestern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains and took us into the Cumberland Mountains with their closely spaced ridge lines. The narrow, wooded valleys between the mountain tops are known as hollows, pronounced "hahllers", which is a really accurate description of the topography. There are those who think that replacing coal with tourism would both preserve Appalachia's natural beauty and provide a serious number of long-term jobs for the locals (something coal long-ago ceased doing).

If you've never driven through this area, do yourself a favor and get it on your itinerary. You'll need to lower your expectations about cuisine and hotels, for now, but the scenery alone is worth the trip. Except for the strip mines opened by blowing off mountain tops, which we'll get to in Part 4. You can drive into the hahllers but be careful. Our hosts warned us that we might be met by a resident with a shotgun. Moonshine and meth labs are material to the local economy and the proprietors do not take kindly to strangers. And there are some folks who just don't care for tourists gawking at them. If they liked crowds, they'd move down out of the hahller into the valley.

After a pleasant ride in good company (I'm leaving out the gossip, to protect the guilty), we finally arrived at the Super 8 where we were joined by Vinnie and Debby. The next morning we would make our way to McRoberts.

[To Be Continued]

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