Notions of endless horizons came to mind as I prepared for an Appalachian Loop. We would cross mountaintops, dip into hollows and follow valley flatlands along tumbling rivers amid early signs of spring. This journey promised stunning scenery in a little-visited and often under-appreciated rural preserve. People who ventured into Appalachia as tourists usually came in summer. Nobody would be silly enough to come in March — nobody — unless they wanted a reasonable chance of miserable weather, or they had an ulterior motive like I did. Some of the places surely must see crowds later in the year. Not in March. That was just the way I liked it; 12MC zigs when everyone else zags.
West Virginia State Capitol
I’ve been to Charleston three times in as many years. The city offered an odd hybrid of small town feel with urban amenities, and fewer than a quarter-million residents in its larger metropolitan area. Yet, it was West Virginia’s capital and largest city. I mentioned our Charleston plans to acquaintances and they nodded heads approvingly. South Carolina should be so nice at that time of year, they said. Then I noted wryly that it was the other Charleston, the one in Appalachia, and waited for their confused expressions. I rather enjoyed that.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon at what should have been the height of Rush Hour and barely slowed down, a nice change from terrible traffic back home. Charleston sat along both sides of the Kanawha River, with tough rocky terrain hemming it in. Yet beside the river where the city sat, there was hardly a hill to be found (terrain). It was flat. This fascinated me during every one of my visits, driving hours through mountains and arriving at a city as flat as a tabletop.
The dome of the state capitol building (map) rose over the riverbank, this photo taken from the far side of the Kanawha River at dawn from the campus of the University of Charleston. We got an opportunity to tour the capitol complex and the state museum later in the day. I’d recommend the museum, by the way. It was extremely well done.
Scenic views filled our dashboard multiple times along the route, simply driving around. However I knew nothing about the overlook atop Bob Amos Park in Pikeville, Kentucky until 12MC reader "Andy" suggested it. The precipice perched high above what was officially called the Pikeville Cut-Through (map). Pikeville, like Charleston, hugged the relatively level lands along a river. The town followed a U-shaped bend on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. The river used to flood into Pikeville’s streets and homes occasionally because there wasn’t anywhere else for the water to go when it rose. That was simply a hazard of living within a narrow Appalachian valley. People in town simply endured it for the first hundred and fifty years.
Pikeville Still has it’s U-Shape while US Highway 23 Runs Straight
The mayor came up with an audacious plan. Why not simply cut through a mountain and remove the U-shaped bend, and straighten out the river? It sounded crazy although the Army Corps of Engineers picked it up in 1973 and finally finished it 1987. A marker at the site described an effort to remove 18 million cubic yards of earth, "the largest engineering feat in the US and second in the world only to the Panama Canal." Now a highway, a railroad and a river passed through the cut instead of downtown Pikeville. Meanwhile the town earned some nice parkland where the river once flowed, plus an artificial oxbow lake, and a River Drive (terrain) no longer crossing a river.
The overlook gave excellent views of Pikeview and the Cut-Through.
Them’s the Breaks
Reader Andy also suggested Breaks Interstate Park. The interstate portion of its name came from its location, crossing the border of Virginia and Kentucky. The two states offered a single highland experience, cooperatively. Breaks seemed a bit more confounding, providing a name both to a park and to a town just outside of its limits. Once again an on-site marker offered an explanation: "The name ‘Breaks’ was derived from a break in Pine Mt. created by the Russel Fork of the Big Sandy River as it carved a 1000 ft. deep gorge on its way to join the Ohio River." That actually made sense.
The park offered several distinct scenic vistas. The one in this photo was called Stateline Overlook (map). I’d actually like to return to Breaks Interstate Park someday when the weather is nicer. We barely scratched the surface of what would be available at warmer times of the year.
The View that Got Away
It rained as we approached Bluefield, a town bisected by the border of Virginia and West Virginia. It rained the only other time I visited Bluefield so I guessed the town had it in for me. Still, I’d heard good things about its East River Mountain Overlook and I felt optimistic as we drew closer. Then I noticed low clouds brushing against nearby mountains. We still drove to the top — one never knows when clouds might cooperate or not — and discovered a great white wall of icy fog. I’m sure it would have been a lovely experience. Not this time.
That was far from the only opportunity for impressive views so we pushed father along Virginia’s Appalachian spine the next morning. That’s when we entered the Alleghany Highlands north of Covington and I took the photograph above (map). It was a worthy consolation prize.
Falling Spring Falls
A little farther down the path, still within the Alleghany Highlands, crashed Falling Spring Falls (map). It certainly deserved an award for convenience, within easy eyesight of US Route 220 and adjacent to convenient parking. That was my kind of waterfall, a single 80 foot (25 metre) drop with no physical effort required. Even so I overcame my inherent laziness and scrambled down a path to get a photo from the bottom. I wasn’t quite sure if that was allowable. It felt ambiguous. A fence separated the parking area from the falls although visitors could circumvent the barrier easily enough with a short walk, and no signs prohibited it. The path seemed well-trodden. I figured it was an "at your own risk" activity so I went for it. No harm no foul, I supposed.
On the final day we pushed into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the way home, a rolling plain sandwiched between Appalachian Mountains and the Blue Ridge. It featured one of my favorite topographies: karst. Wherever one finds karst one also finds limestone, and water bubbling through limestone dissolving it. That meant caves. I’ve toured caverns in many different places and I’ve always thought that some of the best could be found along this strip of Virginia. However, I’d never been to Shenandoah Caverns before (map). We had a little extra time, It fell directly along our path, and even the kids loved caves, so why not?
Nobody said that a scenic vista couldn’t be subterranean.
There may not have been a sawtooth in Rhode Island, however there were plenty of others sawtooths (sawteeth?) elsewhere throughout the English-speaking world. That provided me with a wonderful opportunity to continue on a theme while also giving me the option to choose advantageous locations. By that I meant I decided to fill empty spots on the Complete Index map that would benefit from a few more push-pins.
I didn’t have much coverage in central Idaho, specifically in an area that coincided with — wait for it — the Sawtooth National Forest. That seemed amazingly appropriate. The government protected a massive space within the forest, more than two million acres. It was one of the older reserves in the Federal portfolio, designated by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago and later expanded.
The name derived from the Sawtooth Range, a part of the Rocky Mountains with many peaks jutting over 10,000 feet (3,048 metres). The range got its name, well just look at it, from its resemblance to the jagged teeth of a saw blade.
Near the mountains and within the forest stood the remains of an old town named Sawtooth City (map). It began like so many other settlements in this corner of Idaho as a mining camp in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Sawtooth City hugged Beaver Creek near a spot where it joined the Salmon River in a rugged and beautiful wilderness. The town flourished for awhile in the 1880’s and then miners moved on to the next big strike. Nature reclaimed much of Sawtooth City although what was left was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s, "the only visible remains are the mill foundations, one old log cabin and the crumbling remains of many other buildings." What an ignoble ending to a settlement that once housed nearly six hundred residents.
I noticed another town nearby, not named sawtooth although something a little less obvious. Why did Idaho have an Atlanta (map)? It was neither near the Atlantic Ocean nor near the city of the same name in Georgia.
Gold was discovered near Atlanta in 1863 and… there were Confederate sympathizers among the early miners. They eventually named Atlanta after the battle of Atlanta, which was fought in July of 1864 and, initially unbeknownst to the southern sympathizers, did not go well for the south… by the time they received clarification that the south had lost, they had already named the town and the name stayed the same.
I couldn’t tell if any of that was true or not although it sounded like a good story so I stuck with it.
This was a remote area. Even today the only way to reach Atlanta overland involved one of two unimproved US Forest Service roads. It was 40 miles (64 km) from the nearest paved road. Nonetheless it remained a populated settlement, now bringing in tourist dollars thanks to its superb location for numerous outdoor activities in the Sawtooth Range, aptly described as a sportsman’s paradise.
Another rugged Sawtooth Range existed elsewhere, in the far northern reaches of Canada. The range crossed through the central part of the world’s tenth-largest island, Ellesmere Island. The mountains were a portion of the larger Arctic Cordillera range. Nunavut’s Sawtooth was so remote that few people ever got a chance to experience it firsthand. Fewer than a hundred and fifty people inhabited the island, living in its sole community Grise Fiord or at one of its two tiny High Arctic Weather Stations.
One of those two stations was located in proximity to the Sawtooth Range (map). It came to be known as Eureka when established in 1947 by Canada and the United States working together.
Although much of the land was rough, rising to 2,000 or 3,000 feet, the most satisfactory location appeared to be in Slidre Fiord on Ellesmere Island, centrally located at latitude 80 00′ 00" N., longitude 85 56’25"W. Within the fiord, the ice was quite smooth. Protected by hills from the prevailing north westerly winds, it is surrounded by low rolling country and is in the vicinity of two rivers, which promise fresh water in summer.
Only about ten people staffed the station throughout the long winter, in the coldest place in Canada. While many other Canadian locations have recorded lower absolute temperatures, Eureka took the prize for the lowest average yearlong temperature, a bone-chilling -19.7C (-3.5F).
I thought I’d lump another set of somewhat related items together as I continued to cull the enormous backlog of possible Twelve Mile Circle topics. They didn’t have much in common except that they all involved continental Africa. Two were geographical observations and two were geological oddities. All of them piqued my interest although not enough to devote an entire article to them.
Most of us have probably seen the recent comparison-style maps on the Intertubes lately, some demonstrating Africa’s immense size. Brilliant Maps, for example, had a wonderful portrayal of the True Size of Africa in an article a few months ago. People tended to misconstrue Africa’s enormity, probably due to its under-representation in popular media combined with Mercator map projections that distorted its actual size. Twelve Mile Circle fell into some of those same traps as witnessed by the relatively few African article markers on the Complete Index page.
In that vein, I pondered Africa’s enormity in a slightly different manner using great-circle distances. And what better measure of great-circle distance could I generate than airline flights? One could take a direct nonstop flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya (currently 7 flights per week on Kenya Airlines) and ponder its width. That would carry a traveler from west to east across the continent, not even its widest part, and it would take 5 hours and 20 minutes. That compared pretty nicely with a flight from New York to San Francisco across the width of the United States; or from London, England to Ankara, Turkey.
Looking at length, one could then take a nonstop flight from O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt (4 flights per week on EgyptAir) in 8 hours, or alternately to Dakar, Senegal (3 flights per week on South African Airways) in 8.5 hours. That compared rather favorably with a flight between Chicago, Illinois and Paris, France. Of course, an entire ocean didn’t have to be crossed on any of those African flights. That, to me, demonstrated its vast expanse quite succinctly.
Plus, now I get to see all sorts of interesting advertisements on my website now that Big Data thinks I’m contemplating so many far-flung adventures.
Extreme Elevation (or Lack Thereof)
Gambie by Guillaume Colin & Pauline Penot on Flickr (cc)
Africa demonstrated many extremes, although not in every instance. Certainly a landmass of its size featured an array of elevations, from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 metres / 19,341 feet) down to Lake Assal in Djibouti (-153 m / -502 ft). I wondered though, which African nation had the smallest elevation extremes. I discounted the various offshore islands that were considered part of Africa and focused on the continent itself. The honor went to The Gambia. I featured Unusual Geography of the Republic of The Gambia in the very early days of 12MC and even commented on its elevation. What I didn’t note at the time was that its greatest "peak" (53 m / 174 f) was also the lowest national highpoint on the continent.
The website Peakbagger included this highpoint in its database, a place called Red Rock (map). Only one Peakbagger member claimed to have conquered its summit. I wasn’t surprised.
The continent also served as a home for what National Geographic dubbed the Strangest Volcano on Earth. The Ol Doinyo Lengai stratovolcano in the Gregory Rift of the larger East African Rift of Tanzania (map) was well known to vulcanologists for its unique properties. It was the only active volcano that was known to produce natrocarbonatite lava. The lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai wasn’t based on silica as was typical, rather it was composed of sodium and potassium carbonate minerals.
…the temperatures of these lavas are much lower, "only" about 600 deg. C., and Lengai’s lava does not emit enough light to glow during day,- only at night, a dull reddish glow that does not illuminate anything is visible. Also because of its peculiar chemical composition, the lava is extremely fluid and behaves very much like water, with the exception that it is black like oil. After it is cooled down it quickly alters and becomes a whitish powder.
Black water lava? I’d love to see some of that in person. I may have to settle for the YouTube video for now.
In the distant ancient history of the planet, something like two billion years ago, an asteroid slammed into the earth leaving an impact crater 300 kilometres (185 miles) across. The asteroid was much smaller than that, maybe 5-10 km in diameter, although it hit with such tremendous speed and force that it vaporized stone for great distances in all directions. This celestial divot was called the Vredefort crater — named for the South African settlement that grew there in modern times — the largest verified crater on the planet.
Very few signs remained because of its ancient pedigree, leaving it mostly eroded. A structure known as the Vredefort Dome sprouted at impact, an uplifting of rock that occurred at the very center of the strike. It was mostly weathered away too although it still appeared as a faint semi-circle on satellite images. A few roads also crossed its ridges, making it an interesting sight in Google Street View (image).
The thought of an impact that large seemed terrifying.