It's now late September, temperatures have moderated to the low 70s, and traffic is scarce on the Ohio River Scenic Byway. I'm back in Maysville, KY, on my Honda ST1300, with riding buddy Steve Mauk straddling his Suzuki V-Strom 650. We're both saddled up and rarin' to finish my expedition up the Ohio River to its headwaters in Pittsburgh.
Fog and Floodwall Frescoes
Down, down, down we descend from atop a high bluff, penetrating deep inside the turgid fogbank that clings so tightly to the river. In the gloomy half-light, we can see Maysville's historic district resting on a narrow plain of land adjacent to the confluence of Limestone Creek and the Ohio River. Many of the grand old buildings have been restored, including the prominent Russell Theater. Singer Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney's late aunt) hails from Maysville, and she launched an annual music festival in 1999 to raise money for the theater's renovation.
We stop near the water to gaze at the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge, fading into the murky vapor midway across the river. The bridge's struts thrust skyward, supporting an orderly collection of cables that allow the roadway to defy gravity high above the river. Floodwalls were erected near the water to protect this low-lying section of Maysville from the occasional vicissitudes of an otherwise tamed river. Exquisitely detailed murals adorn the floodwalls, depicting the town's early history. Standing close to one of the outsized panels, I feel enveloped into the scene of the Ohio River here in the 19th century.
We ride over the eerily shrouded bridge and rejoin the Byway in Ohio. The byway follows the river's course more closely in Ohio than it did in Illinois and Indiana. But the thick fog condenses on our face shields, obscuring most of the river from view. Tar snakes dominate this less-trafficked section of the byway, which looks to have been patched, but not resurfaced in recent memory.
A familiar pattern emerges for many of the small communities we pass through: a burned home not rebuilt, rusted machinery bearing mute witness to more prosperous days, and a weathered barn's Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco sign that's faded almost beyond recognition. These are the towns without a bridge spanning the river and, consequently, deprived of the higher level of commercial activity enjoyed by the "bridge towns." We encounter only a few large trucks traveling the byway here, but it seems as if even they are scurrying away frantically to the nearest bridge town, so not to be trapped in this economic obsolescence.
Motorcycles & Gear
The fog finally surrenders to the sun's warm embrace around 11:00 a.m., as we cruise into Portsmouth, OH, birthplace of the singing cowboy, Roy Rogers. The US Army Corps of Engineers erected massive, 20-foot high floodwalls here after the flood of 1937. In 1993, artist Robert Dafford began a 10-year project of painting exquisite murals on those walls, which extend for a half-mile along the river.
One of the most interesting murals, at least for Steve and me, pays tribute to the Portsmouth Motorcycle Club, established in 1893. Since the clubhouse is just down the street a few blocks, we drop in for a chat with some of the present-day members and peruse the club's display of historic memorabilia.
After spending more than an hour in Portsmouth, we get back on the byway. Next up is Gallipolis, OH, an attractive little village that has retained much of its original character. The town owes its name to the French aristocrats who settled it in 1790, after fleeing the guillotine during the French Revolution.
The Mothman Cometh
A few miles further down the byway, across the river is Point Pleasant, WV, the site of a major catastrophe and a mystery that remains unsolved. As the story goes, two young, married couples were traveling late at night on November 15, 1966. As they passed an abandoned World War II TNT factory, about seven miles north of Point Pleasant, they noticed what at first appeared to be two red lights near the old factory's gate. They reportedly stopped and discovered that, on closer inspection, the red lights were actually the glowing red eyes of a large animal, "… shaped like a man, but bigger, maybe six-and-a-half- or seven-foot tall, with big wings folded against its back …"
Numerous other sightings of the creature occurred nearby in the ensuing weeks and months. And one of those sightings occurred just prior to the catastrophic event on the Ohio River. The Silver Bridge had spanned the river between Point Pleasant, WV, and the Ohio shore since its construction in 1928. On the fateful evening of December 15, 1967, the suspension bridge, while choked with rush-hour traffic, suddenly collapsed into the river, killing 46 people and injuring many more. Some of the townspeople speculated that the creature, now dubbed the Mothman, came to warn of the impending catastrophe, while others believed that the creature, in fact, caused it.
A subsequent investigation revealed that the bridge collapse was caused by a structural defect; but nevertheless, the citizens of Point Pleasant knew an economic opportunity when they saw one. They erected a 12-foot tall Mothman steel sculpture, converted a former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant into a Mothman Visitors' Center, established a small souvenir shop selling Mothman memorabilia, and began holding an annual Mothman Festival. In 1975, The Mothman Prophecies hit bookstores, and the obligatory movie of the same name, came to a theater near you in 2002.