ROANOKE, Va. - Debbie Johnson clenched the steering wheel with what she calls her "white-knuckle grip," the kind where you can't pry the fingers loose.

This was bad: Three o'clock in the afternoon, and the fog on Afton Mountain was so thick she couldn't see 5 feet in front of her.

The options raced through her mind: Do I go in the fast lane? Do I go in the slow lane? Do I do 65? Do I do 55? There seemed no good answer.

She could slow down, except that cars kept whizzing past her, oblivious to the murk. She was afraid if she slowed too much, some lead-footed maniac would rear-end her.

She finally made it down the mountain, but the date - Sunday, Dec. 15, 1996 - remains seared into her memory. "I have never been so scared in my life," she said.

They are twin peaks, two imposing landmarks that define what it means to live in southwestern Virginia.

Many hesitate to plot a trip east or south because they are not sure what the weather is going to be like when it comes time to cross Afton Mountain on Interstate 64 or Fancy Gap Mountain on Interstate 77.

Pioneers tramped dirt roads over Afton Mountain's Rockfish Gap in the 1700s, but it took a veteran of Napoleon's army, engineer Claudius Crozet, to defeat Afton. He tunneled through it in the years before the Civil War to make way for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.

Fancy Gap was more remote, more rugged and, ultimately, more resistant to roadwork. Not even U.S. 52, the pre-interstate highway over the mountain, scaled its heights until 1952, and truckers who attempted to follow its winding curves immediately dubbed it "killer mountain," and for good reason. It sometimes averaged almost one car crash per week.

During the winter of 1972, nine people died on what was branded "the most dangerous mountain passage in the state."

Finally, in 1977, Interstate 77 topped Fancy Gap. But they hadn't been able to scoop up even a spoonful of the most troublesome obstacle of all atop the mountain - the fog.

John Lane, a retired Veterans Affairs office worker from Roanoke County, recalls crossing Fancy Gap when the fog was so thick he could barely see the line on the road. "It's almost like driving at night without any headlights. It's a miserable feeling," he said.

Contrary to popular belief, Afton Mountain and Fancy Gap are not especially fog-prone. The foggiest parts of the state are Richmond and Hampton Roads, which log about 140 days a year with fog.

Afton is closer to 100 days, according to the state climatologist's office, and Fancy Gap is practically clear with 60 to 80 fogs per year.

But the mountains boast a particular species of fog - "upslope fog," caused by winds blowing moist air to the mountaintops. When the air cools, you have fog. That's why mountaintop fogs sometimes seem so random and unpredictable.

Of the two mountains, Fancy Gap - despite fewer fog days than Afton - seems to suffer from the worse reputation. Truckers hate it because it's got such a steep grade. There's also a freakish problem with the wind.

"That wind concentrates at a point where, if it hits right, it'll tip over the tractor-trailers that aren't loaded," says Junior Goad, a state transportation department engineer.

"It's when you're running southbound," Goad said. "You're running wide open, and then all of a sudden, you run into this thing."

When I-77 opened in 1977, engineers pondered whether to install a system of fog lights. They decided against it, because the problem didn't seem bad enough. Now, after a winter pileup, they are thinking about installing flashing warning lights and a message board.

At Afton, meanwhile, highway engineers are about to embark on a $5.3 million upgrade of the foglight system.

"I know they can't get it totally safe when it's foggy," said David Smith, a Fancy Gap tow truck driver.

But he's convinced of one thing. "You could better well believe if the governor lived at Exit 8 and had his office at Exit 1, they'd damn sure be something done about the road, I guarantee you."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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