Easy In, Easy Out

30 houses on hill fLinda Burton posting from Charleston, West Virginia – Remember the story I told you last July about the three ways to get to Juneau? The joke was “by boat, by plane, or by birth canal.” I’m reminded of Juneau as I gaze at hilltops from my window in Charleston; no wide-stretched valleys here; the hills are close, with houses perched on top and stair-stepped down the sides. Driveways are steep, unless you live riverside; roads are curved to follow the cut of the river, or the contour of the hills. So how many ways are there to get to Charleston, I asked myself, thinking of the freeway signs that give the choice of I-64, I-77, and I-79. I’ve seen a sign to Yeager Airport, another to the Amtrak station. I’ve heard freight trains, faintly, in the night, and seen barges loaded with coal floating down the river. My GPS has monotoned instructions directing me over three of the five bridges I believe are here; I’m not quite sure. It’s time to go exploring, I decided, and asked the bossy GPS to lead me to that airport. I’m curious to see – an airport on top of a mountain, how can that be? 28 airport signAnd why is it named “Yeager”? Is that Chuck Yeager, and was he born here? I drove down MacCorkle Avenue, crossed the 36th Street Bridge, ramped onto an I-64/77 combo, risked my life to move three lanes right so I could Exit 99; turned right to Highway 114 and up the hill. A sign warned “Yield Ahead;” cut left (but yield, of course) for an ever steepening climb; I made it to the Quick Stop parking lot and pulled into a slot. By the end of the day, I’d have my answers, for sure.

28 glamorous glennisOne way to get to Charleston is by plane. Apparently one had landed just as I arrived; people scurried out the door rolling wheelie bags; I walked inside for a look around. The nice lady at TSA (I’m not flying, I’m just looking, I explained) directed me to the observation tower; on the way I passed a bright-orange painting of Glamorous Glennis. Did you know? Glamorous Glennis was the nickname Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager gave to the plane he flew on October 14, 1947 for that history-making first manned supersonic flight. Chuck 28 chuckYeager (b 1923) wasn’t born in Charleston, but he was born in West Virginia and graduated from high school in Hamlin. His wife was named Glennis (hence the nickname); together they had four children. His career is legendary; from Air Force mechanic to test pilot; from fighter pilot to brigadier and then major general. He has been honored in countless ways, including book and movie fame. And having an airport named for him (so is the Interstate 64/77 Bridge in Charleston).

It was 1938 when Charleston city officials decided that there was no site in the valley suitable for expanding their small airport. “We must build on the hilltops” was the conclusion. It was 1940 before “Coonskin Ridge” was selected. City engineers prepared plans for construction; it was 1944 before the first contract was awarded. Ground was broken October 18, 1944 and grading was completed in May 1947; 360 acres of mountainous land were cleared and grubbed before the excavation was started. Kanawha Airport was formally dedicated on November 3 and on December 1, 1947 began operations with 10 daily scheduled flights. Today it is serviced by American, Delta, Spirit, United and US Airways. For the 12-month period ending December 31, 2010, the airport had 102,223 aircraft operations, an average of 280 per day. Airport acreage is 767 (280 usable); elevation is 982 feet. And oh yes, in 1985 Kanawha Airport’s name was changed to honor then Brigadier General Chuck Yeager.

30 cardinalOne way to get to Charleston is by train. I twisted my way back down the mountain roads from the airport, through downtown, and across the river to the station that is perched between Bridge Road and MacCorkle Avenue; the track is framed by a high rock wall. Laury’s Restaurant occupies the front part of the building; it’s an elegant fine dining spot, dinner only. Past that I found the door to the small waiting room for Amtrak; the gentleman at the desk asked if he could help. We chatted for a while. “This is the only train that runs just three days a week,” he offered. The Cardinal runs between New York and Chicago; the line once had different names for its different directions till finally the name was simplified to “Cardinal” – all the states it travels through have the cardinal as their state bird. Now, there’s a bit of trivia for you! Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays are the days the Cardinal comes through; “You can take a day trip, even,” I was told. “You can go to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, have a nice lunch and afternoon, and return in the evening.” I perked up at that news. “Can I get a ticket for Sunday?” That will be a 30 amtrak mapperfect Easter trip, I thought to myself. Apparently I wasn’t the first to come up with that idea. “We’ve been sold out for months,” was the reply. A freight train rumbled through just then. It was the CSX, pulling empty coal cars.

One way to get to Charleston is by highway. I came 317 miles from Richmond, Virginia on I-64; I will continue 197 miles to Capital City #28 – Frankfort, Kentucky – on the same; it goes all the 30 signs roadway to St Louis (505 miles). I-77 and I-64 share the route between Beckley and Charleston; in fact, that section is part of the West Virginia Turnpike tollway; the 88-mile tollway extends from Beckley to Princeton, near the Virginia line. I-77 goes north from Charleston (no longer a tollway) to Parkersburg, West Virginia and into Ohio, through Akron to Cleveland (252 miles); its southward path will take you through North Carolina to Columbia, South Carolina (356 miles). (I was just there!) I-79 originates in Charleston; go north to Morgantown, West Virginia and keep going through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; you’ll wind up at Lake Erie (356 miles).

And if you’ve got a boat, or a job on a barge, and you’re in no hurry at all, you can head downstream on the Kanawha River, to the Ohio, to the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico. Easy in, easy out; it all depends on where you’ve been, and where you want to go.