This article appeared in the July 2005 issue of American Motorcyclist.
By Grant Parsons
This far off the beaten path in eastern Kentucky, you better be ready for anything.
That’s because this tour is all about riding the road less traveled. And back here on state Route 7, the road less traveled tends to be worked pretty hard.
This is a rugged landscape that resisted settlement until companies imported workers to collect its riches of coal, timber, natural gas and oil.
To supply such operations, those companies first built railroads. The roads that followed were constructed strictly for utility. That means they tend to twist around every feature of the complex topography.
For a motorcyclist, it adds up to a curvy-road playground that never gets boring. And if paying extra attention to what could be around the next corner is the price to pay for that kind of fun, well, it’s a bargain.
I round yet another of the endless curves on state Route 7, somewhere between Topmost and Isom and what had been an empty stretch of twisty tarmac suddenly becomes a full-on coal-mining operation, crowded into the comically narrow strip of land between a tree-covered hill and a stream.
A pair of conveyors crosses over my head, rumbling under a load of freshly dug coal. Massive dump trucks wait in line for another fill. A construction trailer serves as the office for the operation, and it, like everything from the road to the trucks to the leaves on the trees, is dusted in fine black powder.
It looks like a scene straight out of the 1950s, an impression that’s heightened by the layer of coal dust that turns all the colors into grainy black-and-white.
My map confirms that Route 7 is a state highway, but right here, it has the raw, “proceed at your own risk” look of a temporary construction access road.
Far from being put-off by the jarring change of pace, I just downshift and thread my way through the narrow openings between massive machinery. After all, this is exactly the kind of back-country contrast I’d been seeking.
This country was home to the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud that has, over the years, become legendary. But all those stories have their root in a very real interfamily war that raged for decades.
Local history suggests that the bad blood between the families may have begun with a dispute over a hog, divided Civil War loyalties or just the families’ hot-tempered Scottish-Irish roots.
Whatever the original cause, it’s generally believed that at least 15 Hatfields and McCoys, and perhaps as many as 27, died in various altercations starting about the 1850s.
On state Route 7, coal dust covers everything. To keep it under control, the company has watered the road. The result is that in about 100 yards, my once-shiny bike acquires a uniform black coating from about knee-level down. Now it, too, looks like it fits in this working-man’s country.
I roll on through the town of Hazard (named after founder Oliver Hazard Perry, not the dangers of working in the mines), then pick up state Route 80 for the run to Middlesboro.
It’s here that I’m treated to a dramatic display of what local knowledge of a road can do for you. First, I find myself behind an empty coal truck going up a mountain. It’s clear that the driver knows how to use every inch of pavement, and he manages to keep his truck rolling right at the 55-mph limit. Even though I’m on a nimble bike, I’d be hard pressed to pass him.
Then he pulls off, and I find myself behind a semi whose driver clearly has no business being on a road as twisty as this. Over 10 miles, he never exceeds about 15 mph, finally wedging his trailer against a telephone pole at a bridge crossing. Impressive.
My next stop? Tennessee.