Thursday, September 09, 2010

Travelogue: West Virginia and Pittsburgh

Road geek time! To some extent.

View Larger Map

As I posted last week, this was the route we planned to take to Pittsburgh and back, except that I wasn't sure how long the northbound drive along mountainous West Virginia roads would take, and if we'd feel like doing the whole thing. Well, we did, and it didn't take that much longer at all! The drive to Pittsburgh should normally take 7½ to 8 hours, and the scenic route took 9½ hours. Given how curvy and slow these roads are - and believe me, they are - I was actually expecting a 11-12 hour drive. But I guess the fact that this scenic route is shorter, mileage-wise, makes up for it.

So, here's a question. Whose mountains are prettier: Virginia, or West Virginia? There is a distinct difference between the two. West Virginia definitely has more mountains, but that also means you don't get as many good, long views as you do in Virginia. Virginia's mountains also appear taller because they're often situated against wide valleys. For those reasons, I prefer Virginia.

But that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had in West Virginia. If you like long, curvy roads and rustic towns, then West Virginia is for you! We encountered plenty of both along our scenic route. There aren't many straight, flat stretches of road along WV-20, which we took all the way from Charmco (Jct US-60) to Clarksburg (Jct I-79), a distance of 135 miles. Of course, this also means there aren't many places to pass if you get stuck behind a slow local. I'd have thought that the local West Virginia drivers would zip around these curves as quickly as possible, but instead, they all just drive 35 to 45 mph the whole time. I guess they've learned that because the roads are so curvy, it's easier to just keep an overall slow pace. West Virginia's roads (interstates aside) are also not built for speed: everything in rural West Virginia is built right up next to the side of the road, with little to no shoulder.

VA-311, which we took from Roanoke to its junction with I-64 near the VA/WV border, had more spectacular views and switchbacks, though. Virginia's mountains are truly obstacles; West Virginia's mountains are just part of the terrain.

Speaking of those "rustic towns", we stopped by a local grocery store in a town that shall remain nameless, because I don't want to slander its residents or reputation on the internet. They may very well be nice people, but they were truly ugly. And scary. I won't be stopping there next time. (If you're curious what town this was, shoot me an email or other private message.) The towns themselves weren't that scary looking, though. They actually looked kind of vibrant, relatively speaking, in stark contrast with the extremely poor coal mining areas of Southwestern West Virginia along US-52, which are pretty much abandoned and/or dead.

I don't mean to be too hard on West Virginia. We love it there. Even if Virginia has more spectacular views, it is still a beautiful state. It's not their fault the economic deck is stacked against them. It's hard to develop a modernized economy when you have West Virginia's reputation. Companies would rather open new branches in places that already have an estabilished technological infrastructure, in terms of potential employee base, nearby universities, and other similar companies. There are plenty of smart people throughout rural West Virginia, but if they want a good job, they have to move on. Which means the only people left in [town name redacted] are the ugly, undereducated people. There are ugly and undereducated people everywhere, but in towns like [town name redacted], they just happen to make up a higher percentage of the population, because the educated people can't stay. It's sad, really, and it's not West Virginia's fault.

And I shouldn't be too hard on them, because someone has to mine that coal, and I'd much rather it not be me. Coal mining in West Virginia gets a lot of press and attention, but only 4% of West Virginia's labor force works in the "mining and logging" industry (source). What do the other 96% do? off topic again. I've been doing that a lot lately. Anyway, I have a few more road trip notes:

- I said we were going to take a portion of the not-yet-completed Mon-Fayette Expressway, between Morgantown, WV and Uniontown, PA. The southernmost stretch of the road has a $1 toll booth which is easily bypassed. Just get on or off at Big Six Road / Exit 8 and take PA-857 from there to the southern end of the existing freeway stretch. Does anyone actually pay that $1 toll? If so, why? That stretch of expressway saves one minute at the most. The toll will make more sense once the expressway is completed all the way to I-68 (next year sometime?), but for now, it's kind of silly. And no, we did not pay the toll.

- While in Pittsburgh, we took a brief side trip to previously unvisited Armstrong County, PA. Armstrong County was one of 10 new counties I visited over the weekend. I now have only 6 counties to go in Pennsylvania, two of which I plan to visit next month (Northampton and Delaware). Woo!

- We would have gone to Beaver County, too, but that would have meant more driving through Pittsburgh, which I got tired of after a while. I'm normally very good with directions, but I really had a hard time in Pittsburgh. Roads are tight, and I never know which lane I should be in. Then again, the deck is kind of stacked against Pittsburgh as well. The terrain in and around Pittsburgh is really challenging (albeit interesting), there's lots of traffic, and you can forget about widening any of these roads. There's no room.

- Speaking of Pittsburgh, it seems like every time I go here - and I've been several times - I end up going to downtown. I don't like big city downtowns in general, and I try to avoid them at all costs, so how is it that I always end up in downtown Pittsburgh?

Actually, I know what it is. Pittsburgh has more than one downtown! Pictured above is not the primary downtown, but is the Oakland neighborhood. This looks like a downtown to me, but it's not downtown Pittsburgh. Downtown Pittsburgh is over there somewhere. Oakland is only the city's "third-largest" downtown. Bah! I think the moral of the story is, if you go to Pittsburgh, chances are you'll end up in at least one of its who-knows-how-many "downtowns", whether you like it or not. Bah!


Jeff said...

That's "dahntahn" Pittsburgh.

Spartangoogle said...

2000 Census data reveals W. VA. has the lowest proportion of college graduates in the US (D.C. has the highest followed by Mass. so don't know if that is a good thing.) During his many years in politics Robert Byrd directed a lot of money to W VA. Now that he is no longer there, who knows what will happen to their economy.