Arriving in the most northern of "southern" cities - Charleston, the capital of West Virginia - we feel right at home. It's just the right size (the population is only 58,000) with more than enough entertainments to satisfy the aimless weekend visitor: great bars and restaurants, striking nineteenth-century architecture, and impressive bridges to stroll over the Kanawha River downtown. Casting a benevolent sheen over the entire assemblage, the tall golden dome of the State Capitol (designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect behind the US Supreme Court and US Treasury buildings) shines in the last rays of sunlight.
But nice as Charleston is, there are better places to go motorcycling close by. That morning we took US119 north and turned in Queen Shoals onto SR4. From here on, the road follows the Elk River and its rattlesnake twists. Curves galore and all is green around us. It feels good to inhale the fresh, moist air. Stopping for a photo shoot near Ivydale, I listen, amazed by the variety of birdsong warbling from the trees. It's a beautiful yet somewhat spooky setting, and the sudden emergence of tobacco-drooling hunters or dueling banjo chords from its depths wouldn't seem at all out of place.
We continue on to Sutton. It's time for a lunch break and we stop at the A & W Glass Café located in downtown Sutton's Historical District. The bikes, a Honda VTR1000F and a Honda ST1300, and our appearance in full leathers draw the star-struck attentions of a young waitress who tells us she can hardly wait to purchase her first ride. But she admits she's not quite ready to commit to riding in leather regalia, most of all on warm, sticky days like today. Although I can see her point - I'm sweating like a lathered horse - I try to explain some safety issues to convince her of the necessity. Hopefully, when the time arrives to decide, comfort or making another skimpy fashion statement won't matter as much to her. Anyway, that doesn't really concern me: Our food is here, and I'm starving.
Before getting back on the bikes we take a short walk down the street. A simple tour of the historic district and reading the numerous commemorative plaques provide much insight into the town's story. Originally West(ern) Virginia was carved from the conflict of the Civil War. Due to its location along a major north/south turnpike down the center of West(ern) Virginia at the outbreak of hostilities, Sutton was embroiled. On September 5, 1861, the town was occupied by 5,000 troops. Later that year, General Rosencrans bivouacked his 10,000 troops there. On December 29, 1861, Confederate soldiers torched most of the downtown, leaving only six structures intact. Sutton slowly rebuilt and most of the banks, hotels, shops, and other buildings lining downtown Sutton rose between 1890 to 1920.
From Sutton we head northeast on US19 toward Weston. We arrive at Stonewall Jackson Lake and stop to take some pictures along the bridge. Christian directs me to the concrete wall. "A little bit farther out, a little bit more, more, more..." Of course we're friends, but I almost questioned his motives. The pose he wants is too high and close to the falloff into the water, and in sweaty leathers you just can't move all that gracefully. Besides you never know what's waiting below!
I feel much better back on the bike. The VTR sounds and handles great. We meld really well on twisty SR5 over Sand Fork, Stumptown, Millstone, Chloe and Nebo. At times, I even have the feeling I'm back home in Germany, the densely wooded landscape and patches of cattle country remind me of the area around my hometown in Siegerland.
Long, tight curves with barely any gravel or dirt on the road makes riding West Virginia an unforgettable experience. And to stretch out our riding fun a bit we take SR36 northwest towards Spencer, then US119 south, and from Clendenin go southwest to Charleston. Christian finds a shortcut on the map before we hit town, and there, in Big Chimney, we take a side road to ride over a mountain into the capital. But shortly before then we overlook the widespread roadside damage caused by a flood but a few weeks before. You can't help feeling sorry for all those people who had to clean out their homes and start all over. A sad sight!
The next day we head into the southern part of West Virginia. SR 94 south, then SR3 west and from Madison SR85 southeast. I'm a little bit spoiled by the roads from the day before but we still anticipate an enjoyable trip. The curves are a little bit wider and we have to watch our speed. Near Kopperston, we run into the first of many huge coalmines.
Coal, the economic mainstay of the Mountain State for generations, still is a major source of income. In 1870, the state's mines produced 600,000 tons of coal. Ten years later, that number had more than doubled. By 1900, the state produced more than 21 million tons of coal per year.
After World War II, coal production plunged to one-third of what it had been during the war because many people and industries switched to other sources of energy. Thousands of miners lost their jobs and moved to the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the state declined by seven percent. But over the past several decades, West Virginia has passed laws improving the working conditions and job safety for miners. Today, tourism is definitely the state's leading industry, though mining continues to be important.
The signs for Oceana, Jesse, and Rock View fly by and from Pineville we continue on SR97 northeast. The road becomes a mammoth coaster ride - up and down with lots of turns - and presents a perfect place for taking pictures of the VTR and the ST1300 in action. But traffic is a problem. Many trucks, RVs, and other cars seem to use this route as a shortcut, although a lot of them might be tourists because the Twin Resort State Park is nearby.