2009 Spring 2 Fall travel blog

they took a lot of rock out of this cut

here they have a fence to keep the falling rock off the...

Crooked Road signs are everywhere

this landscape has a very different feel to it than the Blue...

typical of the signs seen along the music trails

the Coal Museum in Big Stone Gap

while we were standing there this dog came trotting down the street...

the dog was soaking wet too

he avoided us and took the stick over and laid it down...

his work done - he went on his way without a backward...

sign in front of the museum

this fossil had the following explanation

you can almost read it

and there was this picture

this machine converted 2,300 volts AC to 275 volts DC to run...

another machine out front

in the window you can see some of the old stuff they...

and sometimes the ghost of an old geezer miner

this machine is called a 'continuous miner'

these toothed wheels dig into the coal face

the two arms below rake the coal onto a conveyor belt

that takes it back to where it is loaded on train cars

not much happenin' in Big Stone Gap on a Sunday

no business at the local funeral parlor

just the silent mountains that surround the town

heading out - the road department must figure this wall is real...

lilies at a turnout

pretty at a distance

and beautiful close up

tiger lilies grow wild along the road here

and Queen Anne's lace

there was color on the overlook too

from here you can look back at the highway we've just traveled

and the valley below it

the buildings below give it scale

but the immensity is still hard to capture in pictures

view back at the turnout

there is heavy traffic on the highway

but out here there is only clover

and sumac

and some pretty interesting 'weeds'

with insects hiding in 'em

ants seem to have found a new home

this huge looking pipe is not a pipe at all but a...

these utility poles are all knotty and gnarly which gives them an...

Lays Hardware is one of the music venues believe it or not

formations along the road are changing too

in this one the top layers appear a lot more stable than...

stately old courthouse

and next door to it the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain...

with a picture of Ralph on the rock out front

the front desk is made to look like a banjo

murals on the stair well

the exhibits are beautifully presented

Ralph is in his eighties now but still current and still going...

winning a Grammy at 73

the museum is full of instruments, photographs and memoribilia

the tour includes audio stops where you can plug in and hear...

old banjo ad - not an easy instrument to tune, much less...

Ralph's career spans so many decades he was once heard on these...

one of the beautiful old banjos on display

suits worn by the Stanley Brothers

an old photo of Ralph (left) and Carter (right)

stained glass window on the upper floor

museums used to be stuffy places

now even a 'traditional' venue like this uses audio, video and interactive...

Ralph's had an interesting life

someone even wanted to run him for president - and he might...

places like this are just a whole hell of a lot of...

Ralph played with some of the best over the years and Ricky...

but the man has stayed simple and humble and down to earth

a group of fans commissioned craftsman Ralph Neat to make this banjo...

It still stands as one of Neat's finest pieces

too pretty to play

mandolin and spoons played by Ralph's grandson Nathan

back on the road we plunged deeper into coal country

piles of coal along the road

if you stand still very long here you'll be covered in vines

towns are small and the Virginia 'swans' probably don't come here much

because this is coal country in case you forgot

finally the entrance to our campground

. . to the towering mountains of Coal Country - Sunday, June 28

Leaving Kingsport, Tennessee we returned to Virginia and got back on The Crooked Road north. This time The Crooked Road coincides with another heritage route called the Country Music Highway, and it’s not long before the two music routes join forces with the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail to give the visitor a triple dose of heritage that’s guaranteed to impress.

Our plan for the day was to check out a few museums along the way, and then end up somewhere near a place called Breaks Interstate Park. This is a bi-state park that straddles the Virginia-Kentucky border and they do not take reservations. With Independence Day weekend coming up the reservable campgrounds are all booked solid, so we figure if we get to this one early in the week we should be able to beat the rush and find a place to hang out over the 4th. This turned out to be a very good decision.

We crossed the Virginia border about noon and for the first ten miles the scenery looked pretty much as it has for the past two weeks. But as we continued north the mountains started getting higher and farther apart, and before long it was starting to look like Pennsylvania. It was clear we were entering Virginia’s coal country, and if we’d had any doubt we started seeing signs telling us we were now following the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail.

We are still in the Appalachians, but the local range is no longer the Blue Ridge but the Cumberland Mountains. As the range continues north and east into West Virginia the Cumberland Mountains turn into the Allegheny Mountains and the Alleghenies continue all the way into Pennsylvania. Since I was born in Allegheny County near Pittsburgh this landscape is starting to look like home to me.

Our first stop was in the town of Big Stone Gap where they have a Coal Museum. We found the museum but it was closed on Sunday, as was almost everything else in Big Stone Gap except the churches. This reality was to continue and be true for most of the rest of the towns we visited. We took some pictures of the mining equipment outside the museum, and then got back on the highway north.

The highway followed a valley between the mountains for a ways, then finally chose sides and started climbing to higher elevations. At one point there was an overlook with a view back down the valley that was incredible. Houses and farms in the valley gave scale to the mountains and you could start to appreciate their true size and majesty. But from the pass the highway drops into the valleys again, and here the road gets narrow and winding. Valley walls are steep, and the trees that cover them are covered themselves in vines. The forest becomes a lush green jungle and the farthest you can see is only to the next curve in the road.

Along the way there are breaks in the jungle, places where the highway climbs out of the valleys and into the light for a while, and here and there, there are towns. One of these towns is Clintwood, Virginia, and in Clintwood we found a museum that was actually open. It was the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, one of the Crooked Road venues we really wanted to see.

We parked and went in, only to discover that we had less than an hour to see it before they closed, but a nice woman assured us that she and her husband live on the premises and they were more than willing to let us take as long as we wanted to see the museum. So we took them up on it.

Starting in the lobby where the main desk is cleverly constructed to look like a banjo, the place is beautifully designed to present aging banjoist Dr. Ralph Stanley and his music in the most colorful and interesting way possible. Ralph Stanley has had a career of over 60 years, beginning in 1946 when he and his brother Carter started their own band. When Carter died in the late ‘60’s Ralph went on as a soloist and today he is the recipient of a National Heritage Award, and at 73 he received his first Grammy for his song O Death which was featured in the hit movie O Brother Where Art Thou?

Coming from rural mountain people and a Primitive Baptist background, Ralph Stanley’s music is drawn from his roots. As pure today as it ever was, his music has won him the affection and respect of generations of musicians and music lovers. He is said to be a shy man, but much of his singing is a cappella and anyone brave enough to do that can't be too shy! We kept the managers there for a little overtime, but they didn’t seem to mind and we sweetened the deal by buying a two CD set of Ralph Stanley’s music.

The rest of the afternoon was spent driving to the Breaks Interstate Park and getting a campsite. The park is centered around a unique geological feature known as the Grand Canyon of the South, a feature we haven’t seen as yet but are sure to see in the coming week. The park is busy and with Independence Day still a week off the campground is nearly full, so it appears our strategy was a sound one. More about the park and the canyon soon!

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