Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My friend North Bend

When I was a youngster, if we wanted to do something special (such as if there was someone visiting), a popular thing to do was to picnic at North Bend State Park. It is only about 30 miles from where I grew up, and was the only state park in the vicinity (although now Blennerhassett Island is a state park). To me, North Bend has always been a wonderful place.

My earliest memories involve piling into our 1960 Oldsmobile and heading out two-lane (not four-lane) Route 50. During those picnics in the old days, pop only came in bottles with metal caps (requiring a bottle opener—no twist offs—and don't forget to put them back in the six-pack when empty to return to the store) or cans (don't throw your pop top pull ring on the ground!). There were no styrofoam plates or plastic cups, just paper versions. The ice chest and drink jug were not heavy duty plastic, they were metal.

In the late '60s during these day trips, we also played “Jarts”--a game described best described as horseshoes using lawn darts (with big fins and a heavy point on the end). Because a poorly aimed Jart could penetrate a skull, they have since been banned from the marketplace.

Unlike today's kids, while the adults set up the picnic, we (usually my cousins) were encouraged to head over to the nearest playground, to do all sorts of “dangerous” activities like monkey bars without the benefit of a rubberized landing area. We also were set free to hike the many trails (with names like the River Trail, the Nature Trail, the Giant Trees trail) within the park, without worrying about deer ticks, timber rattlers, or child predators. One of the best trails involved crossing the low water bridge to Castle Rock. When you could reach the pinnacle of Castle Rock and peer around the countryside above the treetops, you were someone special—and you knew this state park was someplace special, too.

If we were really lucky, we brought our swim suits and trudged up the steps to the pool on top of the hill. There was even natural rock formations bordering the pool area, and it was nice to climb up, spread your towel on the hot rocks, and sit during the mandatory breaks. By the way, I earned my lifesaving certificate my senior year in high school, because my plan was to work for Geraldine (?) as a lifeguard at North Bend before college. She ran the pool, and promised me a job there if I wanted it. However, I had to pass it up when the chemical plant where my dad worked selected me for summer work at a much higher wage.

When my sister and I got older, my parents bought a camping trailer. We visited lots of West Virginia State Parks, but North Bend was our home base. We would often set up camp there for the weekend. In addition to hiking and swimming, we also frequented the miniature golf (no windmills or clowns, just green carpet, brown 4 x 4s, and difficult angles). We always enjoyed the “ranger programs” and got to know the people who worked there pretty well (such as Geraldine, mentioned above).

In particular, Dave Meador was a local teacher who worked as a ranger during the summer. Mr. Meador eventually became Ritchie County School Superintendent, and I was glad that our paths crossed again when I was elected to the Wood County Board of Education. I learned lots of history and science from him. Sometimes there would be nature hikes, or even night hikes (where I learned to hold a flashlight vertically above a tombstone at night to make weather-worn engravings easy to read). He took us to see the Cairo Marble Factory while it was still in business. I remember being fascinated watching those red-hot glass blobs roll down the twin screws, eventually cooling into finished marbles.

We learned all about the oil and gas industry, even visiting a working oil well. The history of the nearby railroads and tunnels and crashes were explained. The sport of orienteering (using a map and compass to find the quickest path to the finish) was tried. We visited the Smithville hermit's cave, which had been hewn from solid rock by a guy who preferred living a simple life away from society. We explored the remnants of the old town of Cornwallis, including a visit to an old store there that was still full of antiques. I learned lots of Ritchie County lore during time spent with Mr. Meador or the other rangers (Dean Six and Chrissie Somerville? were two others).

Some major memories took place at North Bend. When I “graduated” from Murphytown Elementary (it only went to 5th grade, before they bussed us into town for 6th grade at Park Elementary), our class trip was to North Bend State Park. Before junior high school, I was picked (along with Ginny Peck and Jeff Sandy) to participate in a regional science camp. We stayed at the Harrisville 4-H camp, but many of the activities took place at North Bend. As a high schooler, I even got to stay there alone a time or two when we would leave the trailer there between two weekends (one time I hopped in a small rubber raft and floated down the rain-swollen river, through the park and past Bonds Creek before landing on a big rock, deflating the raft, packing it up into a Hefty garbage bag—I didn't have a backpack until I went to WVU), and hiking back over the hill past the lodge on my way back to the campground).

Those who weren't around in 1976 don't realize what a big deal our nation's Bicentennial was. Those who do can remember all the hype. Among other things, the TV networks running “Bicentennial Minutes”--short announcements related to what was going on 200 years ago that day. Many families planned where they wanted to be to celebrate that special Fourth of July. For our family, the place to be was North Bend—Dad and I went to the big “Spirit of '76” race at nearby Pennsboro Speedway on July 4, 1976. Finally, although it brings up a topic better left untouched, my ill-fated marriage began with a honeymoon in a cabin at North Bend.

Although I have not spent much time there in recent decades, at one time I knew North Bend like the back of my hand. That's why I didn't mind holding down a campsite there this week and commuting to work like other Ritchie Countians coworkers do. I was glad when Anna and her brothers realized that North Bend would be an equidistant point for the three of them to gather for a family reunion weekend. It let me spend time this week with an old friend.

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