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Travel

Mountain twists, turns and surprises

Nothing against the interstates, those marvels of transportation efficiency where we can insert cars at Point A and shortly come blasting out at Point B, as if we had been propelled there inside a pneumatic tube. And certainly nothing against I-68, whose path through Western Maryland and West Virginia features, unlike other many interstates, actual scenery.

But even I-68 tends to keep the scenery at arm's length. So, why not try another route west? And see life before the interstates.

My one-tank destination was a relatively new resort center in Weston, W.Va., but as it turned out, getting there on back roads was more than half the fun.

My wife and I left I-68 at Cumberland and turned south onto U.S. 220. Though the speed limit was lower, traffic was sparse. And the air smelled like air - not exhaust fumes. If I wanted to take a picture, I just pulled over and walked across the road, without having to worry that an 18-wheeler would turn me into a hood ornament.

In McCoole, Md., I took my first break. The Chat 'n Chew Restaurant's tomatoey chili resembled the chili from my high school lunch room, satisfying my hunger and my sense of nostalgia.

Across the Potomac River, near Keyser, W.Va., I picked up U.S. 50 and headed west into the hills. Ducks flapping up from a roadside stream gave way to an oncoming car. Then a long series of switchbacks had me downshifting and sawing my steering wheel back and forth, and I could feel the increasing altitude in my ears. I paused at the top for a vista of a long, notched hilltop, its wooded ridge looking like green crushed velvet.

Driving challenge

I continued west, catching Maryland's southwest corner near Backbone Mountain, then re-entering West Virginia and Cathedral State Park - the trees arching over the road created a series of natural drive-through chapels.

Reverence gave way to anxiety. U.S. 50 down Cheat Mountain resembled a bobsled run, with banked turns keeping me focused on the road. I'm sure there's scenery there, but I was too preoccupied to notice. When I finally could relax, at Erwin, I imagined myself as a kid in the back seat, exclaiming: "Cool, Dad! Let's go back up and do it again!"

I stopped near Rowlesburg and discovered an authentic, Fifties-style roadside attraction. Cool Springs Park is a mixture of lunch counter, general store and the attic of your crazy old uncle who never threw anything away.

Lanterns, figurines carved from coal, groceries, straw sombreros and kitschy souvenirs filled the interior. Outside, the theme continued: an old mill wheel, steam tractors sunk partly into the ground, a diminutive locomotive and abandoned threshing machines. Two friendly donkeys nuzzled me, jarring me as I tried to take photos of the collection and the stream running through it.

I returned to the highway, driving through Grafton and Clarksburg, and then turned onto U.S. 19 toward Weston, a town bracketed by Stonewalls. North of town, at Jackson's Mill, is the boyhood home of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate general born in Clarksburg in 1824, back when this area was just "Virginia."

While Jackson's actual cabin is gone, other buildings of the period have been moved to these shady acres along Hacker's Creek to represent early frontier homes and businesses.

Lakeside lodge

South of Weston is the Stonewall Resort, a hotel and conference center built in 2002 on Stonewall Jackson Lake, itself created in 1988 by a flood control dam on the West Fork River.

The resort, whose slogan is "close to nature, but far from ordinary," features a big Adirondacks-style lodge whose high lobby ceilings were constructed without nails.

It wasn't fireplace weather, but the room's large hearth must be welcoming in winter. My recollection of lodges in parklands was one of gritty accommodations and long walks to the bathroom. Given the clean, modern rooms and the contemporary amenities, "roughing it" is no longer the only option.

The resort also features an Arnold Palmer golf course whose greens overlook the lake. I relaxed by the marina, filled mainly with houseboats, and eavesdropped on the chatter of fishermen returning from a day on the lake.

At points the lake is postcard perfect, with coves and inlets snuggling against the evergreens. In other places, dead treetops poke out of the lake and a sign warns, "Road ends in water."

Weston itself was quiet, its most interesting place being the abandoned Trans-Allegheny Asylum for the Insane, a National Historic Landmark that is sufficiently spooky-looking to inspire a Gothic movie.

I enjoyed some old-fashioned meatloaf at Kathy's Riverside Restaurant, and a big serving of satisfying blackberry cobbler. Comfort food on a comfort trip that didn't break the bank.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: From Baltimore, follow I-70 to Hancock, and exit onto I-68. Just beyond downtown Cumberland, take Exit 42 and follow U.S. 220 south to U.S. 50 near New Creek, W.Va. U.S. 50 takes you west to Clarksburg, W.Va., where you will turn onto U.S. 19. Then it's about 32 miles south, past Jackson's Mill and Weston, to Stonewall Resort.

  • Distance from Baltimore: 280 miles Stonewall Resort, 940 Resort Drive, Roanoke, WV 26447 888-278-8150 www.stonewallresort.com
  • Rates from $119 per night, double occupancy. Check the Web site for discounts and packages. Lakeside cottages are also available. Attractions Cool Springs Park, U.S. 50, near Rowlesburg, W.Va. 304-454-9511
  • A quiet place to take a break from driving. Lunch counter and eclectic store inside; animals and antique machinery outside. Jackson's Mill Historic Area, about two miles west of U.S. 19 between Weston and the town of Jane Lew. 800-287-8206
  • Boyhood home of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate general. Open daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission: $4 adults, $2 children. Information
  • Maryland Office of Tourism Development: 800-634-7386, www.mdisfun.org/destinations/western.asp
  • West Virginia Division of Tourism: 800-225-5982; www.callwva.com
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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