Jim and I took a road trip last weekend to visit our boy in Lexington, Kentucky.
We love Lexington but don’t love the journey there from our home in SW Virginia. It’s a long haul up I-77 in West Virginia. Don’t get me wrong, the highway is a smooth conduit that connects Rt. 460 in Giles County, VA, to Charleston, WV, where we catch I-64 west out to the Lex. The problem is, all the trucks love it, too. So this time we thought we’d mix it up.
Google Maps option #2 took us deeper into the western tip of Virginia to the (beautiful) town of Abingdon, at which point we turned hard right and headed straight into southeastern Kentucky, with no venture into West Virginia at all. We were looking for mountain vistas, smaller roads, and fewer 18-wheelers.
Southeastern Kentucky is famous for its coal mines; I read that coal has been mined there since 1790. But on Thursday, July 28, the day of our trip, it became famous for flooding. Days of unprecedented, powerful rainfall brought devastating floods that wiped out houses, roads, bridges, and at the time of this writing, has killed 28 people. We didn’t see that news early Thursday morning as we set out. We hauled down I-81, stopped for coffee in Abingdon, turned right, and headed up over the mountains.
The views over Clinch Mountain were stunning. As we crossed into Kentucky, we could see waterfalls on the towering stone walls that border northbound route 23. But as we turned west onto 119, we started noticing the water in the creek next to the highway was very, very active. Churning and brown. Then we went through a town and saw folks in camo who were clearly National Guard, and not hunters.
Not long after that, the traffic stopped. The bridge on 119 had washed out. Like our fellow drivers, we turned around.
I was navigating, and at this point, I didn’t want to completely retrace our steps, but instead tried to find an alternate route north, along those picturesque mountain roads. This was the wrong choice.
We muddled north; every road seemed to follow an overflowing creek and we started seeing houses and bridges in ruins. Mud and water filled yards. At one house a car was wedged up against the front porch like it had been thrown there by a huge, angry toddler. We drove through the town of Fleming-Neon, whose Main Street was under water; we followed a side street with a stream of pick-up trucks and ATVs (y’all, so many ATVs) to get to the road on the other end of town. That road was blocked by a mudslide.
For two hours we drove back and forth like a rat in a maze, trying multiple routes that turned out to be blocked, before we finally worked our way back to a clean highway. We drove through the branches of trees that had fallen across roads, and skirted blacktop that was cracking because the dirt underneath it was washing away. We drove through water that was deep enough that we could see that other cars had been swept out of their path (by the time we got there, it had receded: “If that Subaru can do it, we can, too”).
It was a disaster. We had no business being there.
We should have backtracked immediately at the first closed road. We easily could have been stuck in Pike County. And you know what? We would have been stupid tourists draining the resources of an area that already has plenty of stress of its own. We found ourselves in a natural disaster and I thought I could be clever and find a work-around on mountain roads that I do not know. Jim’s driving got us out of that mess. And I hope I’ve learned my lesson that I need to respect bad situations a lot better.
Now I sit here safe and dry at home, fully knowing that our experience is nothing compared to what these folks will be dealing with for the next few years, at least. If you are able to donate to help, Kentucky’s Governor Beshear’s office has set up a site where you can do so. It only takes a minute. I’ve never seen any situation like what we saw on Thursday and hope you never do, either.