Wafts of cool, mountain air swirl over the Victory Cross Country's short windshield in a near perfect dose. It's not enough to be buffeting, yet just enough to be invigorating. For Kathy, this is our journey's last leg. But for me, well, I'm already home.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia. John Denver immortalized that phrase in his 1971 hit and we couldn't agree more. The spaghetti-like line of Route 50 stretching across the map of West Virginia looks almost as tasty as our coffee and fresh pepperoni rolls from Marty's Bakery. Once freed from Clarksburg's morning traffic the Victory settles perfectly into the rhythm of the highway. We sway to and fro, dancing with the deliciously crooked tarmac. Many of the sights along this stretch of road are familiar. The distinctive old barns are still there. And while the Mail Pouch chewing tobacco paint jobs are peeling to near oblivion, their crooked, weathered boards have managed to withstand the test of time.
These are the roads of my childhood. Dad's folks lived in Clarksburg, Mom's in Keyser. Countless steep and rugged ranges separate these Appalachian cities, but somehow the road builders managed to connect the two. The asphalt hugs the hollows, dodges massive boulders, crosses all sizes of rivers and streams, and is very often carved directly into the mountainsides. On the hills not shrouded in deep green canopy, small pastures terraced by well-worn trails give rise to the old fable that West Virginia cows can only walk around the mountain in one direction. It's said that their legs are shorter on one side to make up for the slope.
As a youngster it was always a challenge to not get carsick through here. Dad wasn't afraid to bend the Plymouth Fury III into the corners, and the boat-like feel of the big sedan's back seat inspired countless bouts of queasiness. Still, I loved those trips; it felt like an adventure waited around every hillside. On the Victory these blacktop knots are hard on the floorboards. It's probably a good thing that we're playing catch up to yet another rain system. The sheer volume of sparks tumbling across the asphalt would surely be a fire hazard in drier conditions.
Then, just as it seems that the hairpin curves are becoming too overwhelming, an oasis appears. Cool Springs Park, a surviving relic of the Mountain State's pre-interstate days, practically demands that all passers-by stop and sit a spell. This restaurant, general store, and all-around top-notch tourist trap has been a favorite wayside for travelers since 1929. Inside a diner shares floor space with rows of shelves that stock everything from hunting and fishing supplies to outhouse-themed salt and pepper shakers. Outside, all sorts of ancient tractors, farm implements, and railroad cars dot the shaded grounds. All are there for exploration and, of course, photo-ops.
Well, it was bound to happen. Our last few days of rain-free riding come to an end as droplets begin plinking off the visors. As the drizzle increases we experience one of the highway's odder studies in geography. A sign welcomes us into Maryland, then, less than 10 miles away, another sign welcomes us back into West Virginia.
As we approach the crest of the Allegheny Front, markedly lower temperatures join the fog and light rain. On a clear day the views are absolutely stunning, especially the appropriately named and shaped Saddle Mountain along the New Creek range to the east. Unfortunately that's one we'll be missing today as a blanket of fog and mist has descended, obscuring everything beyond a few hundred feet. Route 50's plunge from the Front is a truly inspiring two-wheeled experience, except for this afternoon.
Near the bottom of the mountain the pea soup begins transitioning into a lighter haze. Instead of bearing east on Route 50 we continue north toward Keyser. Mom's youngest sister Vicki still lives in town. The rain we just punched through overtakes us again just as we sit down for a visit in Aunt Vicki's living room.
As much as we'd like to stay the road beckons and any break in the clouds is certainly welcome. Before we leave I have to show Kathy where it all began. We stop in the parking lot of a vacant building on the outskirts of Keyser. It's the old location of Skip's Honda. Back in 1978 I wheeled my first motorcycle, a brand new XR75, out of the front door. The rest, as they say, is history.
We head out of town and wind our way up Knobley Mountain, where I used to go deer hunting. As Route 50 descends the eastern side of the hill the curves become more sweeping and the valleys broaden. On through Burlington and Romney, we close in on our day's destination. A few miles east of Capon Bridge we cross into Virginia, and not long after that the road splits into four lanes. As the sun drops behind the Appalachian Range to our west we bid adieu to the serious twists. The historic city of Winchester and our stop for the evening are just ahead.
A Home Away From Home
The Perkins Restaurant at the Best Western Lee Jackson Inn dished out a darn decent dinner last night, so we decide to go local for our morning nosh. Winchester is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley and boasts a beautiful center city. The downtown area offers excellent strolling along quiet, shaded sidewalks and past all sorts of cafes, shops and boutiques. After caffeine and scones at The Daily Grind we're back on the road. The morning is cool for now, but rapidly climbing temperatures and a hazy sky indicate that a midsummer day is in store despite the calendar's insistence that May is still springtime.
East of Winchester, Route 50's four lanes bound across broad, open fields. Just outside the hamlet of Paris the road reverts to two lanes. Signs indicate that the road is called the John Mosby Highway. During the Civil War, Colonel Mosby and his Confederate Rangers used local familiarity and horses to wreak havoc on Union troops in Northern Virginia. Riding through today it's obvious that the route's name is not the only connection to that bygone era. Stately antebellum homes, many with long, tree-lined drives are surrounded by sprawling meadows. Neatly stacked rock walls alternate with perfectly manicured split-rail fences to divide properties. In and around Middleburg signs for polo grounds, foxhunts and dressage lessons hint at an age-old gentility that is as charming as it is mysterious.
For quite a few years the wealthy residents of southern Loudon County have managed to keep the suburban sprawl of Washington, DC, at bay. Still, it seems the city draws closer. Just east of Middleburg the highway goes back to four lanes and plunges us into the heart of suburbia, but we keep plugging away, slowly eating the miles. Soon we'll be in the labyrinth of streets that comprise the District's downtown.
As we cross the Potomac River and sidle up to the National Mall along Constitution Avenue we take a brief detour to check out the sights. Even though I grew up nearby, the sight of the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol building, and the Smithsonian Institution are still awe-inspiring. This is, after all, a city where history is made on a daily basis. Despite the unappealing mélange of heat, humidity and diesel-belching tour buses, the lure of lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl soon has us hustling.
With the specter of rush hour rapidly closing in we merge back on to Route 50, known locally as New York Avenue. The big, air-cooled V-twin chugs and wheezes from stoplight to stoplight. The heat from the road and the engine conspire to make this urban crawl a thoroughly sweat-soaked affair. It's not often that we wish for four lanes, but it is nice when New York Avenue becomes John Hanson Highway and finally opens up east of the Beltway. Tonight we'll be staying at mom's house near my hometown of Annapolis. There's no doubt that crabs and plenty of cold beer will be waiting.