It was that time again—getting back on the road. This trip would bring me to my final 4 states in the 50 states by the age of 30 challenge that I have been undertaking with my girlfriend since our first big trip 4 ½ years ago. We needed to cover West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas and had 9 nights to do it. We decided to fly into Pittsburgh and drive south from there, since it was the cheapest option for both flight and 1-way car rental (which doubles the price of any standard rental and requires manic price-stalking).
We flew into Pittsburgh around dinnertime and went to pick up our pickup truck with feverish excitement. The first time we rented a truck was in Alaska. We named it Dakota, cried when it had to go back home (to the rental office), and it’s been difficult to drive an average size car ever since. We intended to rent a manageably sized Nissan Frontier, but we walked out of Dollar rent-a-car with a Chevy Silverado that seated 6 and felt as long as a bus. But it only took about 15 minutes on the highway to settle in and feel like a king.We stayed the night 30 minutes south of the Pittsburgh airport in a town called Washington, PA in order to shorten our drive the following morning into West Virginia. After back-up parking into a spot in the parking lot LIKE A BOSS (thanks to our nifty truck reverse camera), we grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant specializing in bacon dishes and strong beer, and rolled through the hilly suburb on the way back to the hotel to test out the truck’s moves. The next day, we began our journey south towards Buckhannon, WV—pronounced “Buck-in-un”, as we were later told by a park ranger. We made a pit-stop at a Walmart Supercenter for some road snacks and cheap flip-flops since I managed to break 2 Old Navy pairs in the few weeks prior. Manhattan girls wandering a suburban Walmart is not safe. I felt like a lost kindergartner. At every turn I found a budget home furnishing or bulk-sized box of cereal bars that was absolutely critical to have. We left with sour candy straws, Hot Fries, $4 flip-flops, and a new suitcase (sue me, I have no willpower). Into West Virgina we went, state #47.Hills dominate this state. The roads seemed to instantaneously narrow and roll over and around the curves of the landscape. Katie’s GPS took us on a funky backroad route that was only partially paved and lined with old houses and thick forest—each road narrower and hillier than the one before. We stopped in the 500-person town of Thomas for some lunch at the recommendation of my coworker, a WV native. A “there and then it’s gone” main street lined with little shops, galleries and food spots greeted us on a quiet afternoon. We had some unique grilled cheese sandwiches topped with balsamic vinegar at the Purple Fiddle. There happened to be live country music playing at 1pm that day, which echoed off the restaurant’s worn wooden walls as patrons sipped sweet tea. Bliss.We planned to head towards Dolly Sods, a hairy drive up to the top of a mountainy range that boasted spectacular views. But we worried about the time and our lack of clear directions, so we opted for Seneca Rock—a pretty, jagged rock formation—for a pic and to regroup. The park ranger there (who laughed as we mispronounced Buckhannon) recommended his personal favorite spot for a good (alternative) view—Bickle Knob Observation Deck.
We found very little online about Bickle Knob, so we followed the ranger’s directions to take Forest Road 91 off of Route 33 for about 4 miles until the end. We nearly missed the turn onto Forest Road 91 twice. There is no clear sign from Route 33 other than a tiny “91” on a wooden post next to a small opening in the trees that I only saw after I drove by it. The forest road was super narrow, rugged, and winding. I had never been happier to have our truck—we plowed up and over bumps, steep grades and gravel with power and speed. We only met 2 other cars coming back down the other direction, which required me pulling over into the ditch to allow them to pass.After 20 minutes of lumbering and just when I thought we couldn’t possibly be on the right “road”, we came to a sign for Bickle Knob. Parking in the small clearing at the top, we walked about 500 feet down a skinny gravel pathway to a tall, old metal structure that had been plopped down in between the trees. It looked like the base for an old water tower with a flat top. Holding onto the creaking railing with trepidation, we slowly made the climb towards the flat platform at the summit. Once we got there, it felt like we were sitting on top of a mountain. It was silent except for the sound of the warm breeze as it whirled through trees and clipped the hilltops. Birds chirped alongside the faded sound of a train far out into the distance. It was crisp. Along the horizon was a white glow from the sun, masked by light fog and a faded view of windmills. I could have stood there forever.Choosing to drive down the other side of 91 was a bit of a mistake. The road was more gravely and less maintained than the route upward, but we carved through it until we could hear the beautiful sound of smooth pavement under our tires. We rolled into Buckhannon by dinnertime, greeted by the friendliest motel attendant ever. I wanted her to be my grandmother and bake me pie. Buckhannon is classic small-town America, with unusually trusting locals and a Main Street lined with aging 2-story buildings boasting faded facades. We inhaled some icy local drafts and oversized but tasty pasta dinners at C.J. Maggie’s (the only open place in town) before crashing in bed.