Photography Story: Powell Valley Drama


November 01, 2014

landscape, limited edition, mountains, night, stars By: Jason Barnette

The Powell Valley Overlook in Norton, Virginia has always been one of my favorite overlooks in Southwest Virginia. I've been here at sunrise, sunset, clear starry nights, and heavy thunderstorms. But never had I seen such drama as the day I wasn't even supposed to be there, but took advantage of the situation anyway.

I had spent the day driving along Highway 58 Alternate looking for any early fall foliage. I was striking out big time, but kept pressing forward anyway. I had started near my home at the time in Abingdon and made it as far as Norton when I decided to call it a day. It was getting late, the fall colors just hadn't started yet, and I was a bit tired.

Now at this point I had two ways to get home: the shortest route happened to take the most time, which was to go right back the way I had come. But that is boring, and I don't make U-turns if I can help it. The longest route was ironically the fastest because it included interstate travel, so I decided to opt for this idea. I hoped on Highway 23 heading toward Big Stone Gap, looking forward to using my cruise control for the first time all day (first world problem right there).

The Powell Valley Overlook is located on Highway 23 near the top of the mountain between Norton and Big Stone Gap. It is actually a little bit irritating because you can only access the overlook while driving north-bound on Highway 23, and I was heading south-bound. As soon as I drove across the peak of the mountain through the gap cut by the highway department all those years ago, I knew I had to get to the overlook as fast as possible.

Right before my eyes was one of the most stunning mountain vistas I'd ever seen. Heavy clouds with the sun just breaking through, casting spots of brilliant sunlight on the fertile valley below. I have been doing this long enough by now to know lighting can change in a matter of minutes, so I had to hurry. But I was in the wrong, wrong wrong place at the time.

Let me preface this next part by saying I obey the law. I'm not one of those "shoot first, ask forgiveness later" kind of photographers because I don't want to screw over the person who comes after me. I won't trespass to get a great photo, and I won't break a law on purpose because I think I have some kind of inalienable right. Well, this time I broke a law.

Heading south-bound on Highway 23 I would have needed to drive about five miles to the Big Stone Gap exit, turn around, and drive five miles back up the mountain to access the overlook. The problem was that even if I goosed the gas pedal just a little beyond the speed limit it still would have taken me almost fifteen minutes to make the round trip. I just didn't know if this amazingly dramatic light would last that long. So, I found one of those "Authorized Vehicles Only" turn-arounds between the two sides of Highway 23, and I used it. At least one other person caught me using the short cut and decided to beep their horn at me, but this was one time I just had to risk it. If I had gotten a ticket I would have gladly paid for it.

But I didn't, and instead of fifteen minutes I pulled up to the overlook just five minutes later. I grabbed my gear and literally ran like the wind up the overlook to capture the photo above. I then hung out for a few more hours and captured the photo below, Powell Valley Stars. It was a great, unexpected evening that provided my only decent photos of the entire day and made it entirely worth it. Even the part about breaking the law.



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