The Highway That Led My Grandfather Into the Mountains
Booming grown-up voices leaked through my Walkman’s flimsy foam headphones, cutting into my backseat cocoon of Madeleine L’Engle novels and Beatles cassettes. My mother and aunt had the map out and were debating our course to my grandparents’ house in the remote West Virginia panhandle.
It didn’t matter to me if we took the scenic route west out of Philadelphia and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, cutting through the fat bellies of mountains, or the direct route south and around the Baltimore Beltway, spinning by that city, I imagined, like a Gravitron. I only cared that we stop at Roy Rogers, the sole highlight of the seven-hour trip for a nine-year-old girl who would have much preferred a beach vacation.
We never took the Beltway, because my mom always drove. She prefers scenery and is remarkably indifferent to shortcuts. She is her father’s daughter.
At seventeen, Joseph Wright left his working-class neighborhood of redbrick row homes and Italian restaurants in South Philly to spend a crisp spring and boiling summer in the woods of western Virginia. It was 1939, and his father’s death had thrust him out in search of a trade. Strong and hardworking, Joe joined President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and was assigned to help finish a new scenic highway in the Appalachians.
CCC workers constructed graded slopes, guardrails, and stone walls, and planted thousands of new trees. They also helped to build the seventy-five scenic overlooks that provide tourists and hikers with unobscured panoramas of mountain valleys and give the highway its name. When it was completed, the Skyline Drive wound through more than a hundred miles of the Virginia Blue Ridge along the Shenandoah Valley, from the town of Front Royal down to Rockfish Gap west of Charlottesville—hardly a shortcut at the posted speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour. It is recognized as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Scenic Byway. I like to think this means it will always exist.
My grandfather never told us where his CCC company had its camp, but judging by the dates on his discharge papers—April 5 to September 30, 1939—he probably worked on the southernmost section of the route. The construction crews lived in rustic wooden barracks warmed by potbellied stoves, and each day they toiled to push the unforgiving wilderness away from the new road using rudimentary equipment. “Pickup trucks and pickaxes,” he said.
In his old age, he would make grumpy claims that people didn’t know how good they had it; that his living and working conditions in Virginia had been so rustic they would be unbearable to most. But we could tell that the satisfaction of hard labor filled him with pride, and we knew his bright-blue city-kid eyes had drunk up the miles of sky. It was Joseph Wright’s first experience in the mountains, and it never left him.
If we wondered, Why West Virginia?, we never asked. It is a funny thing about family—the better you know someone, the more about them you take for granted. Twice a year, we would fish out my grandfather’s handwritten directions from the glove compartment of the car. In the absence of another adult, my mother would bestow upon me the title of Navigator, and I would carefully compare his neat, square penmanship to the slithering snakes of rivers and roads on the map.
At home there was smooth concrete for Rollerblading and a 7-Eleven on the corner. In West Virginia we had lightning storms and swooping bats. My grandparents lived in a place so hot that my cousins and I would lie still under the coffee table through the afternoon while the adults sat on the screened-in porch. A place with weather so unpredictable that we could get stuck there at Easter under four feet of blinding white snow. It felt wild and terrible, thrilling and unbearably dull. My friends wrote me postcards from their vacations in Florida and the Wildwoods. I accepted that the Wrights of Philadelphia were people who go to West Virginia.
After being honorably released from the CCC, Joseph Wright returned to Philadelphia, joined the Merchant Marine in World War II, and wed Mary Lavinia. Together they raised five children, and he made a successful career as an ironworker, walking across the city skyline on beams of steel and dreaming of the Shenandoah Valley all the while.
Over the years, they found reason to return to the mountains. Joe’s war buddy Carl Mace lived on a brambly piece of land at the top of the Monongahela National Forest, just across the Appalachians from the Skyline Drive. Old family photos from visits to the Maces’ show my mother as a child, half naked, feeding chickens, with the smile of a kid who has never seen anything quite this far-fetched. It was one of the happiest times in my grandparents’ lives when Carl wrote to tell them about the eleven acres available in Maysville, West Virginia, and they retired there in 1983. I was born that winter, just before they finished building their new house.
When my memories begin, Joe and Mary are still filled with the giddiness of homesteading—my grandmother setting up her easel to paint watercolors of the trees and ponds, laughing as she sprays water at the bumblebees she is terribly allergic to; my strong, restless grandfather outfitting the house with a better porch and a swing set we will be too terrified to use because its hollow metal frame is a mud wasp’s dream home. They got hound dogs and learned to identify animals by their nighttime sounds, and they laughed at our squeamishness. My mother’s warnings that a large black snake was hitching rides in our car were dismissed until the fateful day it showed itself and my grandfather heaved it into the woods with a rake. My grandmother would grab idly at a giant spider on the sofa, tossing it aside to my horror, and say, “Wonder what that was?” before returning to her reverie.
Hours into the drive, just when the Pennsylvania Turnpike seemed endless, we would cheer as the Blue Mountain Tunnel came into view and I held my breath until we shot out the other end, back into the fast-moving air. The final turn onto my grandparents’ mile-long gravel driveway almost always came as the sun was setting over the lavender-colored valley below. Our whale of a Dodge would veer right onto Hot Hill Road (unmarked) past the row of plastic mailboxes, triggering another round of cheers from us and Coco, our cooped-up poodle.
Later, when I grew old enough to drive, my mom let me handle the long stretches of easy turnpike—after eighteen years of taking the long way for the scenery she could finally enjoy it. But by then my grandmother had passed away and the trip had changed. It was still an obligation, but I had begun to appreciate the unique family ritual.
At twenty-one, I trekked up my grandfather’s hill with a group of friends from Europe I had met while working at a summer camp. We were on a cross-country road trip, and I insisted that West Virginia be our first stop. We missed the turn onto Hot Hill Road three times because it had acquired an actual street sign and I didn’t recognize it. My friends chopped wood and darted around the property on ATVs, thrilled to be doing something so American. We picked wild ramps and marveled at the nine-foot satellite dish, and I was proud to be their guide through this reckless place. My grandfather insisted that my friends call him Joe, and they asked him questions—about the war, about his life. He was in his mid-eighties then. Listening to his stories, I realized that I did not know many of them.
In his CCC identification photo Joseph Wright is grinning—a smile of sly joy I saw on his face many times in my childhood. He was a mysterious scamp who loved to collude and tease. When, as a little girl, my eyes were stung shut by a swarm of bees, he lured me back and forth across the living room, saying my name as I blindly chased him. As an adult, I would call him from my office in New York City, and he would let slip some fragment of a story about hitting the town there during his war days, then quickly change the subject with a joke about not wanting to waste my dime.
The Maysville property remains in the family, but since my grandfather passed we don’t drive there anymore. I am sure there are more new neighbors now, with paved driveways and mailboxes of their own. They may even pave his road. They will extend the highway, and big trucks will fly through. But the Skyline Drive remains a work of roadway art, built out of respect for the shape of the mountains, designed for driving slow and appreciating the scenery.
After our few days with my grandfather those years ago, my European friends and I reluctantly departed, clutching a paper containing a new route, written out in the familiar square scrawl. We were young and on our own, and I was eager to carve a different course. It was the first time I left West Virginia not headed toward home. As directed, we took the pristine, newly built four-lane Robert C. Byrd Highway, shooting south at seventy miles per hour.
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