It’s a long road to Wise

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Bernie Niemeier photo by Tim Cox

This magazine takes me all across Virginia, figuratively as a reader and literally as its publisher.  I’m a participant in a multitude of business and economic development events.  During a two-week period last month, I found myself in Norfolk, Chantilly, Charlottesville, Richmond, Lexington, Irvington and Wise — in that order! That’s a lot of time crisscrossing the commonwealth.

The road to Wise started on a foggy morning in Richmond.  For those who don’t know Wise County, it’s in far Southwest Virginia.  As the crow flies, it’s closer to state capitals in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and West Virginia than it is to Richmond.

Driving west on I-64, a light rain started in Louisa County.  I hit my usual pit stops, the Fifth Street exit in Charlottesville for gas at the Sunoco, and the Starbucks in Waynesboro for coffee.  Traffic slowed in a shroud of fog atop Afton Mountain.  On the other side of the pass, the rain was gone, and a bit of blue began to peek out from behind the clouds.

Pushing on westward to Staunton and the I-81 merge, I then headed south.  I stopped at the Pink Cadillac off the Natural Bridge exit for a quick lunch.  Not the best taco salad I’ve ever eaten, but it beats most of what else is quickly available without leaving the interstate to drive into Roanoke.

Lots of folks complain about the number of trucks on I-81. I don’t mind them.  It’s good to see business on the move.  This section of the interstate follows the ridgeline of the Appalachians and includes some of the best scenery Virginia has to offer.

I-81 rolls on, passing Lexington, Roanoke, Christiansburg and the exits for Blacksburg and Floyd.  If it’s possible for a road to have a rhythm, this one is made up of the small towns ticking by — Dublin, Pulaski, Draper and Wytheville (home of my all-time favorite name for a newspaper, The Bland County Messenger).  Keep going past Rural Retreat (how idyllic!), Marion and Chilhowie (another favorite name, everyone should be able to say, “I’ve been to Chilhowie!”)

The long ride south ended at the Abingdon exit, turning west on Route 58.  This is the same highway that begins in Virginia Beach and crosses the entirety of Southern Virginia to its westernmost tip.

For much of that distance, U.S. 58 features two lanes, lots of curves, lots of trucks and a long-standing reputation for highway danger.  But that’s not so much the case by the time the road gets west of Abingdon. 

In this part of the state, one sees the benefit of an industrial heritage, the need to move coal trucks eastward from the mines.  The need to haul coal has intersected with Virginia’s complex and arcane highway funding formulas to produce in Route 58 a road that is the equivalent of an interstate. It is a divided highway with two lanes each way and cloverleaf  exits.

Thanks to coal, Southwest Virginia has solid transportation infrastructure. Furthermore traffic congestion is non-existent, especially when compared with much of the rest of the commonwealth.

But still, the Southwest is rugged mountain country.  Following my car’s GPS I headed west, distracting myself from the long ride with phone calls.  When I got off the phone, the GPS kicked back in exhorting me to “Please make a U-turn.”  Obviously, I’d gone a bit off route.  Paying attention to directions and getting off the four-lane highway, the road began to narrow.

After taking a right turn, the road narrowed even more, winding up and down.  This was fun road for a lone driver, but it would have made a passenger with even the strongest stomach queasy.  Pulling hard uphill around a curve, a big yellow school bus suddenly appeared in the opposite lane.  The car barely shot between the passing bus and a steep roadside ditch. Whew!

Deep into beautiful farm country, the road finally began to widen, eventually to the point of having room for a yellow line again. Another short stretch of U.S. 58 took me past the Dominion Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, then through a big cut in the rock (you know it when you see it) to St. Paul, and onward into the town of Coeburn. 
Next, it was up over Tacoma Mountain Road.  After another tire burning climb and brake-beating descent, I finally pulled up in front of the Inn at Wise, six-and-a-half hours after leaving Richmond.

Wise County is also the home of University of Virginia’s College at Wise.  I was there to attend the 2016 Southwest Virginia Economic Forum.  This part of Virginia is ground zero for the much-maligned coal industry.  The people are hard working and they are also working hard to reinvent the local economy.

More than 300 attended the forum; that’s bigger than some economic events I’ve been to in Richmond.  Much credit is due to U.Va.-Wise for serving as a place-making convener.

If you haven’t been to Southwest Virginia, you should visit.  It’s a beautiful place, full of friendly people and opportunity.  The drive may be long, but it’s well worth it.  You might even find yourself wanting to locate a business there.

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