Several years ago, I, along with a small group of healthcare professionals, made a trip to West Virginia to visit a critical access hospital. “Critical access” is a special designation under federal law given to hospitals which serve remote areas, or that meet certain criteria. We flew by commercial airline into Charleston, W.V., where our plans included renting a car and driving 50 miles north to our destination.
In setting our schedule, we allowed one hour for making the 50-mile drive. It was not to be. We picked up our rental car outside the airport, and two hours and 15 minutes later we pulled into the hospital parking lot. And every minute of those 135 minutes were driving minutes! It was my first introduction to the mountains of West Virginia.
You have never seen such a road in your life. There were a couple of curves where we had to stop and back up in order to make the turn. There were a couple more where we met ourselves coming back around. Up and down, over hills and mountains we went. The road would plunge steeply down into a river gorge and then right back up a mountainside it would go. Up and over, down and around we went. Going 50 miles in two hours and 15 minutes. That road trip made a lasting impression.
There are two famous hotel resorts situated on each side of the Virginia-West Virginia border. The Homestead is located in Virginia. I have had the privilege of making speaking presentations there on a number of occasions. The Greenbrier is located in White Sulfur Springs, W.V. I had wanted to see the Greenbrier for a number of years. Not too long ago, one of my favorite speaker’s bureaus booked me at The Greenbrier.
My original plans called for flying Southwest Airlines into Richmond, renting a car and driving over to White Sulfur Springs. But plans do get changed from time to time. The day before the mid-morning speaking presentation found me making the 460-mile drive to The Greenbrier. Over the course of the day I traveled four different interstate highways.
I took I-40 East out of Middle Tennessee, merged onto I-81 east of Knoxville, then headed north on I-77 at Wytheville, Va. Just north of Wytheville, I was re-introduced to the Appalachian Mountains. Before I reached the West Virginia border, I-77 took me through (or under) two formidable mountains. I say through or under because I encountered and negotiated two long tunnels. One was the East River Mountain Tunnel, while the other was called the Big Walker Mountain Tunnel. Unlike the tunnels encountered in the Great Smokey Mountains, which have domed entrances and are rather short in length, these tunnels had rectangular entrances and were of considerable distance. Once you got inside those mountains you were in there for a while! The first seemed to be at least a mile long, although I’m sure it was much less. As I drove along in half-light, I prayed an earthquake would not cause that mountain to sit down on top of me. I would have been a pancake for sure. Each time I was relieved to see the rectangular window of light that signaled the tunnel’s end.
When I entered West Virginia I was deep into the mountains. And I do mean mountains! There is a vastness about the Appalachians that is hard to explain. As I drove over, and sometimes through, range after range, I was strangely reminded of the desert Southwest, where you can drive for miles and not see any signs of civilization. In these mountains, interstate exits seem few and far between. As darkness began to approach, the thought of having car trouble in the West Virginia Mountains was not a pleasant one.
Near Beckley, W.V., I turned east onto I-64. That stretch of interstate took me across Sandstone Mountain. Now that’s a mountain! I once considered Monteagle Mountain to be formidable. It’s not a drop in the bucket to Sandstone. It was a long, steep climb to the top and a longer trip down the east side. The speed limit for big trucks was 45 mph and runaway truck ramps (which appeared to be well used) were aplenty.
I made it into White Sulfur Springs just at dusk, checked into The Greenbrier and enjoyed a good night’s sleep. The next morning I entertained the Virginia Ready-Mix Concrete Association. By 11 a.m. I was back on the road.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of The Greenbrier. But I did get a good look at the West Virginia mountains!