Remember when John Denver strummed his guitar and the world fell in love with West Virginia, even if they couldn’t find it on a map? The ubiquitous “Take Me Home, Country Roads” makes its way into every karaoke bar and Instagram post shared from a rural stretch of pavement. Thanks to Denver, a country road is both a romantic notion and a simple comfort. West Virginians love our country roads—and John Denver—more than anything. It’s an official state song; it put West Virginia on the pop culture map. But no matter how romantic you think a winding, bucolic drive through the Mountain State might be, country roads here are no joke.
As you’ll see, there’s no easy way to get anywhere. Interstates touch the major cities, but to reach the good stuff, like ramp festivals and mystery holes and giant teapots, you’ll travel on lesser roads, some of which will be paved and some of which will not. Certainly, none of them will be straight. And they’re going to test you. So to prepare for this kind of travel, to drive on our country roads made famous in John Denver’s beloved ballad, you’re going to need a few things.
There should be an option for cars in this state that changes the warning light—which generally blinks on at 20 miles until empty, accompanied by a polite little ding—to something more attention-grabbing. Like an electric shock on the driver’s buttocks. And a foghorn. And it needs to flash when you’ve got 70 miles until empty, because beyond the city limits, fueling opportunities fade. If you’re on country roads and miss your opportunity to fill that tank, there’s a decent chance you’ll be well and truly screwed. Look at a cell coverage map of West Virginia—the kind of help you’ll get will have to come from a passerby.
Despite the scarcity of rural gas stations, it’s easy to push the limits. Recently, we were driving from Pendleton County to Greenbrier County on a COVID-aware vacation. This meant no souvenirs or groceries and only pay-at-the-pump gas stations. Easy enough. West Virginia’s sparsely populated; we keep to ourselves here.
On day four, we were down to one-third of a tank and, based on the planned 100-mile drive down the Allegheny Front, it was time to fuel. We pulled into a gas station with 120 miles left until empty, a level high enough to get us somewhere, but low enough to grab my attention, because while it reads 120 when you’re coasting down a mountain, it drops to 63 when you’re climbing up one. The numbers aren’t reliable.
At the pump, however, there was a sign: Pay Inside. My husband crinkled his nose and fiddled with his mask. We’d been wearing them for months, but people inside might not be.
“Let’s find a gas station where you just swipe your card,” Shawn said.
“Good call,” I said.
It was a terrible call. But we headed south, confident we would find a gas station within the next thirty miles. That’s a generous assumption in the mountains. Plus, we’ve got a phenomenon I call Gas Mirage. It happens when the fuel needle is hovering uncomfortably low on the dash. You’re keeping your speed constant to maximize fuel efficiency and coasting down hills in neutral. The car has 38 miles to empty, but there’s a town ahead on the map where there must be fuel.
As you roll into town, you see the high roof of a gas station and its familiar hulking pumps. You rub the sweat from your brow—because things were getting pretty hairy—and thank the travel gods you’ve found salvation in this wild, green land where the roads wind and your phone searches endlessly for a signal it won’t capture until the Virginia border. But the closer you come to the gas station, the emptier it and the entire town appear to be. Where is the hum of activity? Where are the people filling up, buying moon pies, and purchasing live bait? This glorious miracle that appeared in the nick of time sits motionless in the afternoon light. The garage is closed, the windows dusty and barren, and your relief flashes to horror as you realize this service station is abandoned, the disabled pumps empty of life-giving petrol. In fact, there’s nothing in this town but seven cows and a rusting Sunoco, long bereft of fuel. You’ve been suckered in by the West Virginia Gas Mirage. Now, you’ve no choice but to continue to the next town, so distant on the map, and hope the gods will get you there. It’ll be a terrifying leg of your journey. You’ll fart nervously into your seat, snap at the kids, and kill the air conditioner to save energy. If you’re lucky, you’ll find salvation before the tank runs dry.
As I searched for a gas station, our boys, Ben and Andy, slept. Shawn dozed in the passenger seat. I sat, rigid, observing the inversely proportional relationship between the number on the fuel gauge and the intensity of my anxious stomach cramps. I didn’t know which would come first: the car hiccupping to a stop or my running off into the Monongahela National Forest to lighten the load on my digestive system from whichever end screamed loudest.
Sixty-seven minutes, three mountains coasted down in neutral, and two gas mirages later, with 17 miles until empty, we spotted a gas station/mechanic/bait store/VFW/all-you-can-eat buffet/bakery/candle shop. I’d been on the verge of an emotional and intestinal breakdown. The pumps did not accept credit cards but, COVID be damned, we covered our faces and paid with gratitude at the counter, used the restroom, and bought a strawberry-rhubarb pie.
* * *
A paper map.
My dad taught me to use paper maps—a complement to my innate sense of direction. My husband, however, gets lost in the basement. It’s not his fault; Shawn is just directionally challenged. That’s why he bought a Garmin, and God, I hate that thing. He named her Beulah, and that bitch loves to run roughshod over me. The stink of her smug superiority wafts all over the car.
Before we travel, I study a map and my trusty gazetteer and store them in the glove box—I’m a planner. Shawn lets Beulah do the thinking. He tells her where he wants to go, and she’s happy to navigate. But occasionally, Beulah fucks up. Sometimes, construction has altered the roads. Sometimes, her software needs an update. And sometimes, that travel trollop is just plain wrong, like the time she swore a decommissioned forest service road would get us over Laurel Mountain. Our Subaru ended up in a trench, nose-first, high on a ridge in Barbour County. After her abject failure, she seemed to know she’d screwed us and conveniently lost her signal for several hours.
That’s another West Virginia quirk: GPS can lose signal. Notes on business websites often say, “Use our directions. Your GPS is wrong.”
It happens. And even when they work, GPS units are not always trustworthy. In January of 2014, a 58-foot Dollar General delivery truck went astray in the mountains of Pocahontas County. The driver, a Mr. Jaime King of North Carolina, was hornswoggled by his own navigation system, which took him on the shortest route to his destination in the town of Marlinton. It did not, however, warn him about the narrowness, icy conditions, and hairpin turn his truck would skid off.
“This is my third time in West Virginia,” King told the Pocahontas Times. “When it told me to take the back road, I said, ‘Lord, Jesus. Lord, have mercy.’” Driver and truck were okay, thanks to his skill and level-headedness, but with no cell service, he had to rely on the kindness of strangers, one of whom took him in for the night and fed him breakfast in the morning.
It’s no wonder I don’t trust Beulah. She’s gotten us into similar trouble, and that hag has never once made me breakfast. What’s more, I detect subtle attitude when we pick a route she has not endorsed.
“Recalculating,” she grumbles. The way she says it reminds me of the way my mother used to sigh when she was mad at us. Instead of saying, “Hey, you deadbeats, get back here and do the dishes!” she simply exhaled a long gust of rage. And we knew we were in trouble. Likewise, Beulah gets fed up with us. She sounds like she’s holding her nose when she says “recalculating.”
When it’s me versus her, I go the way my internal compass directs, because I trust it. But when I’m wrong, it really sucks.
“Beulah says go right,” Shawn will say.
“I disagree,” I say back.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“I just don’t trust her.” He’s silent for a few moments as the paved road crumbles to gravel and the gravel dissolves into dirt.
“I think this is a game trail,” Shawn says.
“It’s not a game trail,” I snap and keep driving. He bites his tongue for a few more minutes as rhododendrons scrape paint off the side of the car, and the dirt softens into peat.
“Laura, we’re in a bog.”
“We’re not in a bog. It’s just a puddle.”
“Honey, there’s a beaver swimming past my window.”
When water starts coming up through the floor, I’m forced to concede that I might have made a wrong turn somewhere. Shawn sits in the passenger seat, looking satisfied. He has unwavering faith in Beulah. He likes to have her on, in the background, because she orients him; I want to throw her in a creek. In the end, we compromised: she can stay on if he mutes her.
Recently, he bought a new Garmin. It speaks with a British accent and came with the name James. James doesn’t have Beulah’s attitude. He recalculates like a gentleman, with no audible irritation. I don’t love him, but I’m pretty sure he’d hate that uppity Beulah if they met on the dashboard.
* * *
West Virginia loves to build roads where roads should never be. We do a good job, but we seem to have trouble with the notion of two cars passing each other comfortably on the mountainside. I don’t know if the original engineers simply miscalculated the width of a car—measure twice, cut once, fellas—but the wickedest roads are the ones with three components: dirt, a drop-off, and room for only one-and-a-half vehicles. The problem is that most people drive a whole vehicle. And while downhill-facing drivers must yield by law, more likely, the person going up drives into the ditch and hopes they can climb out, while the person going down creeps toward the edge of the cliff in a white-knuckle, I-just-threw-up-in-the-footwell display of testicular fortitude.
One-lane roads are even worse. When you see another car coming, you both look for the nearest wide place. Etiquette dictates whoever is closest to the wide place pulls into it, and the car on the edge gets preference. Whenever we travel, I worry we’ll encounter someone in an impossible, impassable space, and one of us has to back up the mountain until we find some extra square footage. Backing up at length sucks to begin with, but when there’s an axle-breaking ditch on one side and a sheer drop on the other, a fair amount of skill goes a long way toward keeping your tires on the ground.
Unfortunately, as with any sort of driving, the only way to gain skill is to practice, and the only way to practice not driving off a cliff is to drive on a cliff.
It’s a flawed system.
* * *
No matter how confident you are, your faith will eventually be tested on country roads. The deep forest, scarcity of other humans (or presence of sketchy ones), and lack of cell service will converge in your mind. You’ll realize you made a mistake choosing this terrible, frightening road that leads only further into God’s country, except even God wouldn’t come this far because there’s nothing out here except cows and trees and dust. You’ll wonder who the dumb idiot was that said, “Hey, let’s see where this road goes.” And you’ll realize that dumb idiot was you, but you were so much happier and so very naïve then, when you had signs and pavement and other cars around to remind you that you weren’t alone in this wilderness.
But then you saw this road, and the mountain serpent offered you an apple that smelled like a shortcut through some pretty scenery, and you took it and ate it and now your eyes are open and you’re in the middle of fucking nowhere and is this even a road any longer because it looks like a tractor path through a field and somebody feed my cat if I never make it back. Country roads are a test of faith, and you’re going to lose it before the journey is over. And that’s okay. You have to lose your faith in order to find it.
Even on my most exuberant days, when I know where I’m headed because I’ve plotted my route and checked it on two paper maps, a gazetteer, and Google, after 27 dusty miles, my faith falters. Doubt creeps in. On the map, the distance doesn’t look too bad. But time, like the roads, bends and warps—it’s physics. A country-road minute isn’t sixty seconds—it’s actually 413 seconds. So, when your parents promise “Ten more minutes,” they’re using West Virginia math and not the other kind of math that applies everywhere else in the universe.
A few years ago, we visited Spruce Knob, the tallest point in the state. We noted a sign before the summit road: Spruce Knob, right, Spruce Knob Lake, left. We’d heard about Spruce Knob Lake: There’s trout fishing, and it’s popular with astral photographers because it’s the darkest place in the eastern half of the US.
“It’s only 8.5 miles down the road,” I said. “GPS says 20 minutes. Let’s check it out!”
On a good, packed-dirt road, you can go 25-30 miles per hour if the travel gods are with you. And for the first two miles, they were. Then, we hit a pothole.
Now, there are several distinct species of West Virginia pothole. The common species lives on paved roads in populated areas. Born in winter, it’s about a foot in diameter. This is the pothole you hit unexpectedly, the one that ruins tires and breaks axles. It’s the one you make passive-aggressive comments about to your husband, because even the kids could have spotted that crater, but he hit it dead-on in your car because he was pointing at a groundhog eating a daisy and not watching the road.
That’s a hypothetical scenario, by the way. It in no way reflects an actual event that occurred near the town of Resnick, West Virginia, at 4:17pm on Sunday, July 5, 2020.
The potholes lurking on the road to Spruce Knob Lake that summer were a wilder species. Endemic to country roads and far larger than their pavement-borne cousins, these holes are often wide and deep enough to serve as a practice run for the America’s Cup trial should a sudden cloudburst strike. The holes’ clustered nature—like pox, they gathered in groups for pothole solidarity—meant the posted 25 miles per hour was impossible. The speedometer dropped to 18 miles per hour, then 12, and finally, when the road took on the texture of an aged Swiss cheese, five miles per hour. The car bounced unevenly. Ben hit his head on a fishing pole. Andy uttered a dramatic ugh every time the car lurched. Shawn, who was driving, grew increasingly irritated.
“This was a terrible idea,” he growled. It was happening—he was losing faith, and the road was too narrow to turn around. This is why you need that paper map. You need to see, with your own eyes, that you’ll find a town, eventually.
On a side note, it's important to remember this is a rural state. A town’s name may be printed on the map in bold letters, but the intensity of the font is not indicative of its size or what might dwell there. The day Beulah led Shawn and me into the trench in Barbour County, I pulled out my paper map and navigated us off the mountain. The roads were lonely and wild, but the map said we were headed toward a town called Pleasure Valley. I envisioned a mom-n-pop gas station, a diner with a faded sign advertising a plate of mashed potatoes and meatloaf for $3.99, and a quaint post office with red and blue trim staffed by a lovely woman named Helen.
In reality, the unincorporated community of Pleasure Valley, tucked into a hollow so tight you could barely see the sky, consisted of three cabins. And a fish farm.
We almost lost faith that day, just as we did on the way to Spruce Knob Lake. We said, “Shit, this is it, we’re going to die out here.” But we didn’t. We made it. We were battered and cranky, and at least two of us had chewed on discarded French fries for sustenance, but we made it.
You must mentally and emotionally prepare for these journeys. There won’t be cell service. You’ll worry about your fuel level, your tires, your transmission, and your food supply. You might even pick a family member to eat first, should it come to that. (We did, and it’s Andy.) But eventually, you’ll find your way to that waterfall or fish farm. Remain faithful on country roads and gird yourself against despair. You’ll get there.
COUNTRY ROADS: A BRIEF PRIMER
Laura Jackson Roberts
Author Bio: Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer, essayist, and humorist. Her work has appeared in places like Terrain, Brevity, Hippocampus, and Still. She is a regular contributor to Wonderful West Virginia magazine and West Virginia Living. A lifelong West Virginian, Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and sons.