Alistair Maclean's Web Site
Aviation Thrash

October 2004

I got the car back from the garage just after midday, flustered that it had broken down just as I tried to start what ended up being a 2000 mile thrash. I piled my travel gear into the trunk, kissed my wife and headed out onto I-78, westward.

This trip had been planned to allow me to get over the previous months' problems (bicycle crash, hospital time, horrible work situation, etc), involving a blast out to Dayton, OH to see the Air Force Museum and then down to North Carolina to see a friend in Charlotte. Then drone back. I was expecting to get off good and early, reach Dayton in the evening... but that didn't happen. Instead I managed an afternoon leg that saw me drive out I-78 West, I-81 South, the PA Turnpike West to I-70 West, and finally, at about 10pm fall into a hotel bed in Columbus, Ohio. This left about an hours drive to get to Dayton for the next day. Rising early from a good sleep, I found myself on US-40, a road I have driven a bit, closer to home. I drifted through the morning traffic headed west on this old, friendly road.

Soon enough it was a two lane road running through rich agricultural land. The sun struggled into the clear sky, but had trouble shifting the cool morning air and set off a mist. Ohio rolled by, fields gradually more and more misty, the sun a large orange ball above the white ground cover. I had to stop in small town to get a map, left home without an Ohio map, Doh! I realised that US-40 does not go through Dayton, so I eventually picked up the interstate again and headed down into town. I soon found the museum, but it was not yet open, so I stopped and stuffed a sticky bun into my face at an odd McDonalds; a McDonalds Express that did not have an inside room - not something we have in these parts.

The visit to the Museum is dealt with here. All I will say is that if you only see one aviation museum before you crook, make it this one!

Late in the day I headed out of Dayton, picked up US-35 and headed in a south easterly direction. US-35 is a quiet 4 lane highway that meanders through corn fields much as an Interstate might, except that every so often there are cars in the median crossovers doing turns into side streets. US-35 seems in no hurry to pass across Ohio, and neither was I. It was a lovely sunny and warm day, perfect top-down weather. At Jackson, Ohio, I made a turn south onto Ohio State Route 93. On the map this looked straight-ish, though I know better than to believe most maps, especially when the scale is 1" to half a continent! 93 was a quiet little road that headed into the Wayne National Forest, small villages dotted along the way. It's not a wealthy area, nor is it pretentious. The road, at first meandering, then sinuous, finally becomes tormented! On a motorcycle this could be a fun ride. In the car with the top down... It was most entertaining! Sorry locals!

I was really getting into the swing of things when I noticed that the road was ending, almost at the same time as my gas tank was getting seriously empty. I found myself in the small town of Fronton, on the banks of the Ohio River. A deep, wide chasm held the river, the banks on the opposite side in Kentucky. I found an old steel girder bridge that led across the gulf, and rolled into Ashland, Ky. The first thing I noticed was the rusty silhouette of two blast furnaces. At first I though these must have been relics from a bygone era, but one of them belched steam and that idea died. Here was a working steel mill. I found a motel in the town and stayed overnight. Taking a quiet promenade in the twilight I noticed a huge flame in the misty distance. As far as I could walk, I didn't seem to get any nearer to it, so I summised it might be a fair sized flame. Leaving the town in the morning, again in a heavy mist - we Brits have a tough time calling this minor atmospheric abberation a fog - I located the source ofthe flame. It was a coking plant. I haven't seen a working coking plant in 30 years! I suppose they have to do something wth all that coal gas, especially as they can't sell it as town gas anymore. They would do well to use the gas for communal heating.

I left Ashland on US Route 23, headed south. It's a quiet but substantial 4 lane highway as it leaves town. I wondered for a short time as to why such a big road was needed. Pondered. Ponder.. Voom! A pair of large trucks howled passed me, with larger trailers. I saw more heading downhill the otherside of the highway. I came across the site of a prior evenings accident, a crew were sweeping coal off the road. It was then I realised that this was a coal road. It was a road used to carry coal from the strip mines to the coking plants and power stations (Ashland has several Arc furnace steel producers, and the lights in the motel never seemed to dim, so I guess they generate a lot of electricity with all that coal.) I saw advertising hoardings that said things like "Insure your coal truck, and your car..." Coal truck comes before car! I quizzed.

US-23 heads south down the left hand side of the Appalachian mountains, weaving in and out of valleys. It's a very pleasant road to drive if you're not in a hurry. I was impressed by the civil engineering that had gone into the various cuttings needed to get this road across ridges, yet keep its inclines within reason for fully loaded coal trucks. Huge cuttings, many being hundreds of feet high, cradled the road as it wandered this way and that across the very pretty part of Kentucky. Along many of these engineered sections of road ran a thin seam of black rock, sometimes upwards of 24 inches deep. Coal by the road side. It must be plentiful, I saw no signs of people picking coal from the side of the road!

The old road was probably a real bear to travel along, and some of the valleys so narrow that the towns used the old road as Main Street. But a four lane highway doesn't make a good main street anymore. The valleys being too narrow for much else than the road, some essential rail lines and a narrow strip of houses, something had to go, and it was the houses. Many towns seemed only to have buildings on one side of the road anymore, and these tended to be strip malls. Some large towns had thankfully been by-passed, but many must have lost a lot of housing stock in the road widening.

One town that still had Rt-23 as a Main Street was Big Stone Gap in Virginia. The modern road went round the town, but I had seen a sign for a museum (not involving aircraft) and decided to take a look and get a breather. I learnt something I had long wondered about here. In this little town, quite a busy town I might add, John Fox Jr. had authored the book "On the Trail Of The Lonesome Pine." a title which a few years later was picked up as a song and sung by Stan Laurel in the movie "Way Out West." (1937) Till I came to the US, I had no understanding of the humour in the line "On a mountain in Virginia, stands a lonesome pine." Maybe in the 1920's there were lonesome pines up there, not anymore. The museum presented the history of Big Stone Gap and the events that brought it to the present day, all housed in a magnificent Victorian mansion.

The highway continued south, to Asheville, NC, where I picked up a short stretch of I-40 before exiting to travel south on NC-9 to get to US-74 and Charlotte. Route 9 was a shock after spending a day on wide ambling roads, its narrow lanes and switch back turns were a revelation! Thankfully there was not too much traffic on this first bit of the road as I was definitely in a mood to smoke some rubber round these corners. Joining US-74a, I noticed that I would have had a nasty time had I picked the correct exit in Asheville, as rains a few weeks earlier had washed out the road to the west of me. US-74 starts out following the course of the Broad River. It's a pretty river, broad, shallow and shoally, perfect for fly fishing and kayaking I would venture.

Soon enough though, US-74 changes from the humble 2 lane, to a four lane and then even a 6 lane highway, and as it does so the traffic mounts. I found an exit and made for a short stretch of interstate, then Tyvola Road and the south side of Charlotte.

The aimless part of the trip was now over. Just my friend and the Carolina's Aviation Museum to see!

© Copyright A. Maclean 2004
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