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Author Topic: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock  (Read 3102 times)

wphiii

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Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« on: June 20, 2014, 02:06:18 AM »

My brother recently got a job in Little Rock, so I was conscripted into helping him move there over Memorial Day weekend. This was to be my first road trip of any kind of serious magnitude since a 4,000 mile doozy of a Deep South loop in the fall of 2012, over 18 months ago. Here is a brief summary, along with photos of what passes for my roadgeek-y moments.

Friday night our goal was to get from Pittsburgh to Charleston, WV. Pretty straightforward, until I impetuously made a detour to the New River Gorge, because it is one of my favorite places in the country and I knew my conscience wouldn't rest if I was passing so relatively close to it without stopping by.



One of the most breathtaking physical features in the northeastern U.S. and one of its most remarkable achievements in engineering, all in one place. What's not to like? We had a nice picnic dinner from this vantage point, at the overlook below the visitor center there.

To get back on track towards Charleston, we took WV 16 up from Fayetteville and then jumped on U.S. 60, which was fun for a while but then it becomes a four-lane divided highway anyway so in the interest of time (not wanting to miss TOO much of the West Virginia Power baseball game) we hopped over to I-64/77. In a perfect world I'd have most preferred to jump onto WV 61 at Montgomery and ride that all the way in to Charleston...next time.

Saturday was to be the biggest driving day by far, the objective being to reach Nashville, though I began the day with an early-morning constitutional around downtown Charleston, which included a path underneath the I-64 bridge over the Kanawha.



I also made special notice of Capitol St, which is downtown Charleston's main business district and seems to be fairly well occupied with restaurants and bars and shops, etc. What caught my eye was its contrast with most of the rest of downtown, which feels very open in most places, suffering from the scourges of an overabundance of surface lots and the fortress-like architecture that was so in vogue for several decades last century. Capitol St, though, is narrow to begin with, and maintains a solid street-wall throughout the business district. Combined with an overhanging canopy of trees, I really appreciated the aesthetic and cozy ambiance.

Time to get on the road, beginning with a quick stop in South Charleston for one of Suzi's famous, outlandishly sized breakfast biscuits, which we munched on right across the street, atop the South Charleston Burial Mound.


Interesting vantage point of So. Charleston's D St from atop the mound.

Now to get to driving for real...in an effort to keep Interstate monotony to a minimum, I had executive-ordered our route to follow U.S. 119 in its entirety from Charleston to its western terminus at U.S. 25E near Pineville, KY. Though, as it turns out, 119 is a 4-lane highway, often divided, for pretty much the whole way from Charleston to the 119/23 split near Jenkins, KY. I still found it to be a pleasant enough drive, perhaps just placebo effect simply from the knowledge alone that it doesn't carry a red-and-blue shield. Shortly thereafter, the road winds its way up Pine Mountain, which is where it really gets fun.


Remains of a stone building along U.S. 119 near the summit of Pine Mountain.

After descending from Pine Mountain, I needed a break to actually get out and stretch my legs a bit, so we stopped by happenstance in Harlan, KY, where we stumbled upon some interesting finds. The first was this abandoned bridge:


which Google seems to think is not only still an active motor vehicle bridge but also carries the designation of state route 840. Even more unusual was continuing the drive into town along KY 72 and passing through a gate:



Clearly part of an extensive system of floodwalls built around the town, but I'd been in towns with floodwalls before, and never had I seen a solid, closeable gate across a roadway like that. It was kind of creepy, in a way. I could imagine it being used as a plot device in some sort of horror story/film.

The next stop, this one more premeditated, was at Cumberland Gap, a place that has long intrigued me as a place where physical geography truly has dictated history. The Gap is administered by the NPS as a National Historical Park, complete with wonderful little visitor center/museum (for all of its faults, the NPS does a fantastic job when it comes to on-site interpretive information).

In 1929, a winding, 4-mile-long road was constructed up the side of the mountain to what is known as the Pinnacle Overlook to help boost tourism. It is essentially this same road that today deposits visitors within a few hundred yards of the overlook, which sits directly atop the gap and offers a panoramic vista of the tri-state region.


U.S. 58 from the Pinnacle Overlook, roughly following the path of the Wilderness Road, which brought pioneers through the Great Appalachian Valley to Cumberland Gap.


The cleft below is the gap itself, which at the time of its (white) discovery was one of just three easily-navigable routes over the wall of the Appalachian Ridges, the other two being in Maryland and New York. So it was a pretty big deal for opening the inner plateaus of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley to European settlement.

After the overlook, we headed through the U.S. 25E tunnel into Tennessee to check out the Gap from ground level. The actual path through the Gap is accessed from the town bearing the name Cumberland Gap, a pleasant little no-stoplight village that serves as a base for those looking to explore the park beyond just the Gap Visitor Center, complete with a few old-timey-feeling tourist amenities, like this bed and breakfast inside an old mill. I know the Smokies get 10x the number of visitors annually that Cumberland Gap does, but I will still use the contrast of a place like the town of Cumberland Gap as an excuse to take a moment to weep yet again over the abomination that is Gatlinburg.

We hiked a trail to the "saddle" of the gap, much over the same route that the settlers would have taken two centuries ago. I believe the trail also roughly follows the old alignment of U.S. 25E, which was moved into the aforementioned tunnel in 1996, in part so the Gap could be restored to appear more as it would have during the pioneer era. (I'm actually curious to learn more about where exactly the previous alignment of U.S. 25E would have run, so if anyone has any info, I'd love it if you could share that).

As the day grew long, it was on to Nashville. In a rare moment in which Google's suggestions coincided with my own two-lane inclinations, just south of Harrogate we hopped onto TN 63, which turned out to be, understatedly, perhaps my favorite stretch of the trip.



Between Harrogate and La Follette, 63 follows the pronounced eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Mountains and delivers in its 30 miles everything I could want in a rural "Blue Highway:" rolling horse pastures, derelict-looking farmsteads, filling stations out of a previous generation, etc. The only thing missing were a few windmills dotting the landscape, but there was an impressive solar array at one point.

The road becomes TN 9 in La Follette, which I found jarring for feeling much more deep-Southern than Appalachian. Maybe it's just the width of the street through the business district. After a few miles on I-75, we cut over using TN 61/95/58 to connect with I-40, passing through Oak Ridge, which, similarly to Los Alamos, was effectively created out of practically nothing in the early 1940s when the government kicked all of the locals out to build a lab for the Manhattan Project. I'd have liked to go to the Museum of Science and Energy and take the bus tour of the lab sites, but not enough hours in the day.


We arrived in Nashville just about at the stroke of sunset, aided by the extra hour we'd gained at some point along I-40. I love coming into Nashville from the east on I-40 as we did, not just for the great views of the skyline, but because being able to visibly see Downtown really helps captures one of my favorite vagaries of highway signing, in context with the guide signs ahead of the Interstate-to-Interstate interchanges that only list far-off destinations and leave the unfamiliar motorist completely guessing as to where he or she should go to actually access, you know, NASHVILLE.

Fresh and bright on Sunday morning (yeah, right; we'd been hosted for the night by one of my best friends from college), we embarked on the final leg of the journey. This was a mercifully quick five hours on I-40, with only a stop in Memphis' Cooper-Young neighborhood to meet another friend for lunch. Then it was on to Little Rock, where we even made it in time to catch the late-afternoon Arkansas Travelers game (I'm a bit of a baseball junkie). It was here that I discovered that everything north of the Arkansas River is its own incorporated city, North Little Rock. It surprised me that Little Rock hadn't been able to annex it at some point along the way. North Little Rock has as its anchor a healthy little business district called Argenta.

Monday before my flight was devoted to sight-seeing around the city. We started a bit west up the Arkansas River at the Big Dam Bridge, which is supposedly the longest bridge in the U.S. that was built exclusively a pedestrian bridge and has never seen motor or rail traffic.



The bridge offers a nice view of the I-430 bridge and Pinnacle Mountain beyond, which unofficially marks the departure from the Mississippi Plain into the more rugged Ouachita country. Sadly, the topography and curve of the river meant Downtown Little Rock wasn't able to be seen from the bridge.

Next, we wandered around Downtown for a while. Highlights were the the Old State House, which is now a free museum of the state's history, the ornate Capitol Hotel, some delicious fried chicken , and the riverfront area, which had a number of interpretive panels that provide a pretty good synopsis of the history of the area.


The city has done a nice job converting two former railroad bridges into pedestrian crossings, one of which is the Junction Bridge pictured above. This particular bridge was built almost directly on top of and thus effectively obliterated the rocky outcropping from which the city originally drew its name from French explorers. Only a little slab of "Le Petit Roche" remains. As for the bridge itself, I was fascinated by its "split-level" style, presumptively in lieu of a drawbridge. It surely can't be that unusual, but I can't for the life of me think of where I'd have come across such a bridge design before.

Finally, I couldn't leave without checking out Little Rock Central High School, which, as you probably know, became ground zero for the nationwide integration controversy when, in 1957, the Governor of Arkansas at the time attempted to prevent nine African-American students from entering LRCHS, only to be thwarted by President Eisenhower's use of the military to ensure the students were able to attend the school safely. It is still an active high school today, but the NPS administers a little museum catercorner from the school wherein the story is told, brilliantly, of course. The most amazing thing that I hadn't previous been aware of was that the Governor was so bitter about not getting to keep the school segregated that he manipulated the city's residents into passing a referendum to literally shut down all of Little Rock's high schools the following school year. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.

Since it was Memorial Day, no school would be in session, so we were able to walk around the grounds a bit. I was struck by how stunningly beautiful the building is. And, in a pseudo-roadgeeky touch, an old filling station across the street from the school appears to have been intentionally kept up to look something like it would have in the late 1950s.



Anyway, that's that trip in the books. Anyone interested in seeing more pictures can follow this link.
« Last Edit: November 05, 2015, 12:00:38 PM by wphiii »
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formulanone

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #1 on: June 20, 2014, 07:16:56 AM »

Nice write up!

US81

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #2 on: June 20, 2014, 07:32:16 PM »

Great narrative, great pics - really enjoyed your story. Thanks.
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vtk

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #3 on: June 20, 2014, 11:30:37 PM »

Look for topo map downoads on USGS.gov.  I'm sure you'll find the old editions covering Cumberland Gap interesting.
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Road Hog

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2014, 09:07:42 PM »

That drive between Memphis and Little Rock will suck out your soul. Glad you survived it.

Last time I was through that way, I took US 64 west to Bald Knob and then south. Had to dodge a few combines, but the drive was a lot more interesting.
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kurumi

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #5 on: June 21, 2014, 09:48:47 PM »

Nice photos, nice narrative. I want to go check out those bridges.
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froggie

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #6 on: June 21, 2014, 11:10:35 PM »

Quote
We hiked a trail to the "saddle" of the gap, much over the same route that the settlers would have taken two centuries ago. I believe the trail also roughly follows the old alignment of U.S. 25E, which was moved into the aforementioned tunnel in 1996, in part so the Gap could be restored to appear more as it would have during the pioneer era. (I'm actually curious to learn more about where exactly the previous alignment of U.S. 25E would have run, so if anyone has any info, I'd love it if you could share that).

If you look at aerial imagery of the area, you'll see a swath of no trees running roughly WNW-ESE just north of the TN/VA line.  That's where old US 25E ran.  The hiking path touches it in a couple areas, and if you parked in the large parking lot up the hill a little from the town (not the one that's in town proper), the truck-parking area is right on top of the old 25E alignment.
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wphiii

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #7 on: June 23, 2014, 11:29:57 AM »

Quote
We hiked a trail to the "saddle" of the gap, much over the same route that the settlers would have taken two centuries ago. I believe the trail also roughly follows the old alignment of U.S. 25E, which was moved into the aforementioned tunnel in 1996, in part so the Gap could be restored to appear more as it would have during the pioneer era. (I'm actually curious to learn more about where exactly the previous alignment of U.S. 25E would have run, so if anyone has any info, I'd love it if you could share that).

If you look at aerial imagery of the area, you'll see a swath of no trees running roughly WNW-ESE just north of the TN/VA line.  That's where old US 25E ran.  The hiking path touches it in a couple areas, and if you parked in the large parking lot up the hill a little from the town (not the one that's in town proper), the truck-parking area is right on top of the old 25E alignment.

Awesome, thanks! I also followed vtk's advice and dug up this topo map, which appears to be just old enough for the tunnel to be marked a "und construction," to corroborate. Interesting stuff!

Gnutella

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Re: Road trip report: Pittsburgh to Little Rock
« Reply #8 on: February 28, 2015, 12:10:51 PM »

That drive between Memphis and Little Rock will suck out your soul. Glad you survived it.

Having lived all but the first 18 months of my life in western Pennsylvania and north Georgia, driving I-40 from Memphis to Little Rock was kind of cool because I seldom get to see a vast expanse of flatness like that. Arkansas has a unique vibe to it; it's like a blend of Missouri, Texas and Mississippi.
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