The scene changes . .
Jun 28, 2009
|. . 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!