Folks who live in western North Carolina or East Tennessee will understand instantly what I am talking about when I say “Pigeon River Gorge.” They know—I’m not talking about the river, I’m talking about the highway. The portion of I-40 that runs through it is one of the most dangerous sections of interstate in the country—it has been documented.
God did not intend for an interstate to go through there. He gave His blessing to, for instance, I-80 in western Nebraska. But His wrath was stirred when highway builders decided to connect Asheville and Knoxville with an interstate. From the moment the road was opened, He started flinging rocks down on vehicles. The rockslides have been incessant. The one last month only closed the highway for a week. The one before that closed it from November 2009 to April 2010.
Geologists say the problem is a particularly crumbly type of metamorphic rock. I don’t think geologists generally make value judgments about rock—they don’t say one kind of rock is “better” than another kind of rock—but in what I’ve read about the rock along the gorge, they seem to be saying, “This rock is just basically crappy.”
Besides wondering if a giant boulder is going to bounce onto the top of your car, the other thing about driving the Pigeon River Gorge is the weird setup of the road itself. It has a big concrete divider in the middle, and trucks are prohibited from the left lane through the whole stretch that twists and turns through the gorge. You are constantly going around a corner and passing long caravans of trucks in the right lane that have gotten stacked up behind a slow one. When you are going around a tight curve with that concrete barrier only a few feet away on your left and a giant truck on your right, you might get to feeling claustrophobic.
For a YouTube video of driving through the gorge, go here. You’ll notice how the car in the left lane was hesitant to pass the truck in the tunnel.
A few weeks ago I was driving through there to meet up with some people for a hike in the Smokies. I’d gotten into the stretch with the really tight curves, and what did I see in the right lane but one of those vehicles with a big yellow sign on the back that said “WIDE LOAD.” And then I spotted the problem vehicle ahead—a trailer carrying one of those modular homes that is divided in half for transport to its final destination. Haha!
Several large passenger vehicles, such as Lincoln Navigators or Ford F-350 trucks, had decided not to even try to get by, and they were fuming behind the convoy, crawling along at the embarrassingly slow speed of 50 mph. I drive a tiny Toyota Echo, so I figured I could get by. Onward! As I neared the modular home, I saw that it actually projected into the left lane. But my car could fit under it! With that concrete barrier on one side, and the huge trailer on the other, I crept past it. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
And then I just started laughing. Hard to explain. Something about the basic physics of it: the highway, the wide load, the barrier. Just say “wide load in the Pigeon River Gorge” to anyone who lives around there, and I’m sure they’ll laugh too.