By Molly Moore
Two-lane country highways snaking around bends, and gravel lanes winding through valleys, are part of the national image of Appalachia. The twists of these roads shape a sense of home, and draw visitors to explore what’s around the next curve.
That appeal is epitomized by the Blue Ridge Parkway, a National Park Service scenic roadway in North Carolina and Virginia. More than 15 million visitors each year come to absorb sweeping mountain vistas and hike roadside trails. In southwest Virginia, the aptly named Crooked Road designates a 330-mile heritage music trail that directs travelers to cultural and outdoor destinations in small towns along the route.
Yet while the steep climbs and hairpin turns characteristic of Appalachia have helped protect the rural character of many areas, some argue that the region’s roads have also hindered the spread of goods and people.
Harsh winters can drive up the cost of road maintenance, particularly in rural areas, and keep school buses sitting idle. And in parts of the region with extractive industry, heavy truck traffic from coal mining, natural gas drilling and logging operations has wreaked havoc on roadways by accelerating wear and tear. In some areas, locals describe frequent reckless driving and routes blocked by industrial traffic.
No matter what the road conditions are, some of the region’s most vulnerable residents — in both rural and urban areas — are left stranded by lack of a vehicle and insufficient public and private transportation options.
But despite these challenges, there are people in every corner of the region working to pave a smoother path forward, whether by providing rides for neighbors in need, participating in local highway planning, or building the electric vehicle network that might be commonplace for the next generation of Appalachian drivers.
This issue of The Appalachian Voice takes a look at where we’re going, and how we’re getting there.