[I invite you all to listen to the song “Appalachian Spring” while you read this post, available from Youtube here. It is a most appropriate soundtrack for this piece, and one of my favorite songs.]
On our way down to visit my brother in Tennessee last weekend, we’d passed a twenty-five mile tailback going the other way. The mountain had slipped onto the road, as mountains do when they are built of shale and limestone, you see. As only one lane was open, so before heading back on Monday we asked my brother for a detour recommendation. He’d suggested the old US 25 West, a two-lane country highway through the maintains. In our zippy little car, he said, we’d have fun.
From that description, I guessed I wouldn’t be editing on that road. Not that I suffer from car-sickness, but more because winding up-and-downs have never mixed well with technology in any way. They seem to short it out—out of power, out of concentration, out of interest.
But it beat twenty miles of crawl, so a few miles before the hill slip Husband turned us off the interstate. Our GPS didn’t like the Appalachian Highway, keeping up a steady litany of “please turn left, then turn left again” until, four lanes turned to two and it realized that we were serious and re-routed us towards the historic Cumberland Gap.
Historic, you ask? Never heard of it.
Well, me either until the other day. Though I grew up in Appalachia, Ohio likes to pretend I didn’t. In school the hills were treated almost as a dirty secret; we learned precious little about either their history or geography. Only in adulthood have I become interested, and had bits of it filtered to me through sources as diverse as prime-source documents to internet comics.
One of the biggest features of the Appalachians is that they march in lines from north to south. You can follow the ridge-tops for scores of miles at a time, a river on either side a thousand feet down, and this is possible because of our modern roads, modern materials. Two hundred years ago, these mountains represented impenetrable barriers between one town and the next, which neither wagons nor horses could cross. Only in certain small places could one breach these hurdles; from the South to the North, the Cumberland Gap was one of these places. And that’s where we were driving on the old US 25 West.
It started out as most Appalachian roads do, littered with trailers that could pass for abandoned but probably weren’t, interspersed with one or two homes that had the pride the owner feels for them nearly emblazoned on their pristine vinyl siding. For a few miles, it could’ve been anywhere between Atlanta and Pittsburg.
And then we began to climb.
And the cliffs rose
And the river changed.
At first, it was no more than a mildly green run that wound next to the road like a faithful dog, here and there, but always coming back to check on us, shallow and sweet.
Then came a boulder, and another. A deep bend, and suddenly the railway tracks were on the other side of the river and there was a kayaker paddling through the emerald green as the trees leaned overhead. Not leafy green creatures draped in kudzu, no; it’s early April still, and the branches were bare but for the occasional blaze of the inaccurately-named redbud glowing purple against dusty trunks.
Onward we drove, not deeper into the trees, for we were already well in their domain, but higher into the mountains where whole rock faces had shed their soil to tower above us. The car bumped over one patch where the road had slipped not long ago, then another, and below us the river began to churn up white foam. Not the stinking, dirty stuff of coal run-off and PH gone wrong, but what happens when two forces collide and we humans will not see which one wins within our lifetime.
Emerald green, jade green, can I describe the color of the river? Can I dwell on its beauty among tree trunks that varied from the gray of ash to the brown of a floor in need of refinishing? My father always says that winter is when you can see the bones of the hills, and if that is true then we were walking the graveyard at high noon.
Appalachia was at its best Monday morning.
Too soon we rolled into the remains of what was once a town. The road split into four lanes as a ramp welcomed us back to the interstate, restored in the wake of the hill slip. Our view was reduced to the wide skies of hills blown open on our quick interstate journey.
Except for the aforementioned redbuds, silly little things, the shade of pink-purple wildly popular circa 1992. For it is spring in Appalachia, and whether we were amongst her bones or walking her spine, we were following the season of beginnings north once again.
Do you think a beautiful detour is worth the extra time and inconvenience, or do you find getting there quicker to be more valuable? Have you ever taken a backroute only to have it turn out very different than you expected? Please share your thoughts with us below!
Thanks for reading.