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FACSS 2010: Raleigh, Beckley and the New River Gorge in West Virginia

On the morning of October 16th we left for Raleigh first thing in the morning. It's a long drive from Ann Arbor, and even longer when needing to pick up other passengers beforehand. Fortunately, we were travelling with Jessica and Arindam, so it was a pleasure rather than a hindrance. It's a seven-hundred and twenty mile drive, with a whole lot of flat Ohio highway, followed by pretty and majestic hills through West Virginia and finally the typically american urbanized landscape of Raleigh. It was a mostly uneventful drive, once we past Toledo. For no obvious reason the main highway (475) was completely stopped on a Saturday morning. After a couple of small detours through thick traffic we continued south, a repeat of the trip Karen and I had taken when picking up her motorcycle in Columbus. But that was three hours away- not twelve!
Tired of the slow pace of Ohio traffic, Karen decided that the main highways were a better bet than the smaller roads, so we took 70 & 77 rather than the 33 through Athens. Flat and long. I think that just crossing Ohio took five hours. The scenery changes dramatically once you cross into West Virginia. There is no mistaking for any other place the transition from rolling hills to sharp deep folds in the earth. Midway through West Virginia we stopped for gas at a town that's no more than a dot on the map, Pax. The signs declared it the "home of the Pax reunion", with beautiful countryside and a hospitable atmosphere. That was a memorable stop, but not for the reasons that anyone would want to be remembered.

I pumped the gas, groggy from hours of sitting idly as a passenger while Karen drove. A jeep drove up to the pump behind me, and even with my back turned I could tell that something wasn't quite right. Over my shoulder I noticed the jeep had pulled into the pump at a thirty degree angle and turned off. A half minute later, the driver still hadn't opened the door, and the jeep turned back on to try to straighten it out. About two minutes later, having pulled forward and backward a dozen times, the jeep finally switched back off. Out hopped a woman who then noticed the yellow hood over the pump handle- it was out of service. Again the entertainment began, as the jeep drove around to the opposite side of the island of pumps and out of view.

When I finished pumping and walked towards the gas station store to pay, the jeep driver shambled down the store stairs. Wearing spongebob squarepants pyjama bottoms and no shoes,  she was not a graceful ambassador for West Virginia. Karen remarked that she smelled like a refinery. It was noon. After rushing to get back on the highway we continued on our way to Raleigh.

West Virginia highways have two particularly memorable features: emergency turnoffs for vehicles whose brakes have failed and immense tunnels through the mountains. The steep rises and falls over the mountains necessitate turnoffs every few miles so that runaway vehicles can turn onto paths that go up the hills into a dead-end where they can be stopped safely. Like reverse ski-runs they were deceptively attractive, and from the side looked like a mogul run where the moguls will catch the errant vehicle. The highway tunnels were quite impressive, particularly after driving up and down so many mountains. The east river mountain tunnel seems to drop into the bowels of the mountain, but only last a minute or two. It was reminiscent of the tunnels in Yosemite and Hoover dam, having the combined historical look of the art-deco federal work projects of the mid 1900's.

We had a great time at the FACSS 2010 conference. Particularly high notes included the Society for Applied Spectroscopy members event on the Sunday afternoon. The event was go-karting, and it was great fun.

On our way home, we drove through Beckley, West Virginia. The photo on the left is at the courthouse there, where they actually have fallout shelter symbols around the main door.
 Several buildings in town had them. The Exhibition Coal Mine museum there is extraordinary. We arrived late, and they allowed us to take the last mine tour of the evening and come back the following day to see the remainder of the site. The conditions in which coal was mined, and the social situations around mining were both completely foreign concepts to me. The early mining methods (circa nineteenth century) involved an eight foot pick axe which was swung at floor level to gouge a several inch tall hole out of the coal seem that spanned the width of the passage and went eight feet back. Next they would drill a series of holes through the coal above, so that black powder explosives could be pushed into the top of the coal seam. By detonating the coal along the top of the seam, they would break the coal away from the face and it could be collected into train cars and pushed to the surface. Their tools and technology were also fascinating; I particularly appreciated seeing the carbide miners lamps. They used long pins to secure the rock overhead, to prevent the rock caving in by drilling into the ceiling and bolting the pins in place through multiple layers of rock. The mine tour itself showed all the main elements of the mining process from over a hundred years ago. 

From there we visited the New River Gorge bridge and the accompanying national park. The park has a scenic overlook that offers a spectacular view of the bridge and the river below. Before the bridge was constructed, crossing the river was a several hour process, passing through switchbacks down to the bottom of the river valley to cross, then back up to the brim of the canyon. After construction of the bridge, crossing the river became a thirty second long drive. The slight detour we made in getting to the New River Gorge Bridge was particularly worthwhile on the way back to  highway 77. We took route 16 northward from just south of the New River Bridge, up to route 60 and followed the river all the way west-northwest to 77. 

Just south of Gauley, north of where 16 & 60 meet, there is a lovely canyon and waterfall on the north side of the river (it might be called the Gauley or falls). If you ever visit the New River Bridge, the drive along 16 more than pays for itself with a visit to that small waterfall alone. That stretch of road was magnificent, with the verdant hills and water punctuated by massive coal works of an unimaginable scale. Along the way were a variety of industrial works, including a plant at Alloy in West Virginia that apparently makes silicon. Shrewsbury and Chelyan have piles of coal sitting between the road and the river well over fifty feet tall and several hundred yards long. The new river winds along the valley floor, seeming oblivious to the human intrusion.

Our final stop before home was a cracker barrel in Mineral Wells. Of particular note was the immense signpost in the restaurant parking lot, and was right beside a major adult 'superstore'. All along the West Virginia highways there are immense signs advertising adult stores, boasting specials like 'half-off on Tuesdays'. We assumed they meant price. Our cracker barrel waitress was particularly bad (not letting Karen know that her dish wasn't available until everyone else had been served their main course), but the helpful clerks at the cash registers more than made up for the wait-staff snafu's. We sympathized with them about a particularly loud and obnoxious Christmas ornament (it might have been this?) they were constantly subjected to, while purchasing a ridiculously oversized lollipop as a gift. I'm always awed by the fantastic assortment of candy at Cracker Barrel.

FACSS 2010