Southwest Virginia: The Heart of Appalachia

Southwest Virginia: The Heart of Appalachia
What do two Canadians, a German, and an Austro-American have in common? They have all made the journey to the westernmost corner of Virginia in the middle of July to experience the Heart of Appalachia—a corner so tightly wedged between Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and with so much kudzu, that the German needed a rest day to recuperate from seeing so much green.

It’s not all banjos and coal here anymore, but the remnants are clearly visible. A region with so much natural beauty, sinuous asphalt, and tourism still largely in its infancy, it’s the perfect area to explore on two wheels.

The northerly start of the Back of the Dragon makes a quick ascent before the real fun begins.

From Team Canada, Ted and Lyndon rode all the way from Edmonton, Alberta. That’s about 2,300 miles on a Super Ténéré and R 1200 GS Adventure. I’ve traveled with them around the world for Blue Rim Tours. With so many shared memories, friendship is easy. Uwe is riding my 1190 Adventure. I’m astride the ’97 Tiger that’s close to flipping the odometer a second time. It’s a good mix of travel enduros. While I’m fairly confident in my route selections, there’s no guarantee that one might not be unpaved. With the right equipment we’re prepared to venture down any path.

Tight Curves and Mountain Roads

As a new means of income, St. Paul, VA, is very actively working toward becoming a destination for motorcyclists and off-roaders. And it’s nice to see the whole community taking part. Just on the outskirts of town, a network of trails welcomes ATV, UTV, and side-by-side enthusiasts.

We find water near Little Stony Creek Falls and Uwe is the first to take a dip.

U.S. Route 58 takes us west. A new coal plant catches our attention as we round a corner on the divided highway. The black stuff has been the town’s main economic contributor for a long time, but changing winds are on the horizon. In Tacoma we turn onto our first three-digit county road. Narrow, not especially well marked, but usually a great choice in this part of the country. Immediately we start climbing a mountain and even encounter a few switchbacks. The thick roadside vegetation mostly blocks what would otherwise be a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It’s green and it’s tight.

Motorcycles & Gear

1997 Triumph Tiger
2014 KTM 1190 Adventure

Helmets: Shoei Neotec, Touratech Aventuro
Jackets: KLIM Badlands with Leatt STX Road Neck Brace, Rukka Armas
Pants: KLIM Badlands, Rukka Armas
Gloves: REV’IT! Sand Pro, Rukka Him
Boots: Sidi Canyon GORE-TEX

Devil’s Bathtub, a natural pool perfect for a mid-ride dip, is off State Route 619. It requires some hiking, so prepare accordingly. My wife Sarah kept telling me about nearby Big Stone Gap, which we ride through after lunch. Adriana Trigiani wrote the Big Stone Gap book series and directed the movie. I look around for clues of a Hollywood production, but no luck. Instead, we get our kicks along State Route 160 soaring toward Black Mountain. At the top, we break and stand at the border of Virginia and Kentucky. An unpaved path leads to Black Mountain’s summit, at 4,145 feet, but it looks more challenging than what we’re willing to do on a hot afternoon.

The Ralph Stanley Museum's front porch offered us the perfect place to sit and relax after a later than expected arrival.

When the curves of 160 end, we follow a valley out. Many boarded-up homes, an abandoned school, and businesses line the road. Every once in a while a meticulously maintained house stands out from the crowd. In the midst of all the rough homes, the impeccable yard and blooming flowers almost seem to be from another universe.

I promised the Canadians plenty of twisties, and we’re all glad that they keep on coming! Highway 119 snakes its way along Poor Fork Cumberland River. Open-pit mines surround us. We don’t see them often on our ride, but the coal trucks and dust on the road are evidence enough. A jackknifed semi blocks our way just 20 minutes later, but thanks to my GPS we’re able to backtrack and take an alternate route. For once, “recalculating” is appreciated.

Tight roads and no shoulder. All four of us agree that we could be somewhere in Southeast Asia right now.

We roll into Clintwood, our home for the night, only a little later than expected. The humid air has turned into a drizzle, but it’s time to enjoy some frosty beverages on the porch of the Ralph Stanley Museum. The bluegrass musician was a famous Southwest Virginian.