The history of West Virginia, the only state established as a result of the Civil War, is defined by its location and geology. Allegedly split in personality, it has simultaneously been called the most southern Northern state, the most northern Southern state, and the most eastern Midwestern state. Seceding from Virginia during the Great Rebellion, grounded in Appalachian ways, and covered end to end with treed, tumbling hills, maybe West Virginia does remind one a bit of all those other regions. But for many others, riders particularly, it stands alone beyond compare.
My friend Doug and I start and end our big-loop tour of West Virginia outside the city of Princeton, located just off Interstate 77 at the central, very southern tip of this Northern, Southern, Midwestern state. Each of us have lived in various places around the country and we now live a block apart in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, so mountain motorcycling is the norm for us. Doug is on his Honda VFR and I'm on a 2007 Harley-Davidson Night Rod.
Heading northeast on Route 20 from Princeton, we find ourselves immediately snaking along twisting ridges and winding gullies. The road soon drops down into a forest that then opens up to reveal Bluestone Lake on our right, created by the Bluestone Dam on the New River, the oldest river in North America.
Bluestone is a damn big lake created by a damn big dam. At the foot of the 165-foot-tall and 2,048-foot-wide wall of cement that holds back the third largest body of water in West Virginia is the village of Bellepoint. Maybe it's just me but, although I have no problem with stopping there for lunch, I could never spend a night sleeping in that town. Closing my eyes for the night with a lake towering above my head spooks me out; the slightest snore from travel-buddy Doug would have me out the window and on my bike in a race for high ground, pajamas flapping in the wind.
Motorcycle & Gear
2007 Night Rod
Jacket: NJK Leathers Mesh
Pants: Draggin' Jeans
Boots: Sha Sha Tribal
Turning right we cross the old New River in Bellepoint on Route 3, then hang it right again, south on Route 12 and back down towards the Virginia border. This route winds through narrow gulches and over ridge crests, where we can see before us the long up-lifted igneous wall of the western Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.
Mountains or Hills?
Though travelers' concepts of West Virginia's terrain often posit the state in that mountain range flowing from Alabama to New England, it's not. The Appalachians are igneous rock uplifted by the Atlantic Plate driving into the North American Continent, while most of West Virginia's morphology is one of deeply eroded sedimentary rock. The Appalachians are hard, West Virginia is soft. And if you visit Google maps for a satellite view, you'll see that the state is jumbled in every direction, in contrast to the ordered ridges and valleys of the Apps, with the minor exception of the state's panhandle where, of course, West Virginia's highest peak sits.
Adding to the confusion of foreigners like us, West Virginia claims to be a mountainous state. Why else would the state university name its adherents and teams The Mountaineers? But judging from those high peaks to the state's east, and from our days of riding here, it's more lumpy than mountainy. With its twisting gullies and tall trees we usually couldn't tell if we were near the top of a hill or the bottom of a deep valley. Sometimes, when riding along a stream in a narrow glen and rounding a curve, we find we've dropped down a grade a few hundred feet. Or while in the same sort of surroundings we might suddenly hit a steep climb for two miles - and guessing if we'd next go up or down was difficult. So from now on I can only think of West Virginia as Big Lumpy. And I say that with much affection.
Some Local Color
We stop in the village of Peterstown, within feet of the Virginia border, where we join up with Route 219 for a run up north through a rare wide valley. While we're enjoying beverages on the curb at a gas station there, a brand-new pickup truck parks next to us. Its side window is plastered with peculiar names: Gravedigger, Repo Man and Batista. Below that, running from the driver's door to the taillights, is a graphic of a giant dragon.