Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Me & Hockey

I find the news from Vancouver today to be very depressing. No, not the news about the final score of the last NHL hockey game this year—while I probably would have preferred to see the Canucks win, I really didn't have a strong affinity to either team (even a non-Bruins fan has to admit that the Boston goalie played a great series).

The news I hate to hear is about the rioting and looting in downtown Vancouver after the loss. What does it say about how civilization is evolving (or de-volving, which was the basis for the name of that '80s rock band Devo)? My previous travels to Windsor and Toronto left me very impressed with the people and cities of Canada. I would have been less surprised if Boston had lost the Stanley Cup and rioting broke out there than I am to find out it happened in Vancouver. What a sad statement about how societal norms are breaking down! At least some good citizens are volunteering to clean up the mess.

Rather than ruminate on the decline and fall of mankind, I'll instead talk about hockey. All this talk about the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since the Bobby Orr era has brought back a good memory for me. The very first hockey game I ever attended was in the '72-'73 season, when Boston played a game at the igloo in Pittsburgh. I actually got to see Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, and other stars of that famous team play that day. After last night's big win, the sports experts are all talking like that was a long time ago, but it doesn't seem to be ancient history to me.

I got this rare chance because a friend of mine at Hamilton Junior High was Warren Montgomery. His dad worked at BorgWarner with my dad, and Warren's dad was originally from Boston and a big hockey fan. He wanted to take his son to see that game against the Penguins (who were a very weak team during those days) and allowed him to bring a friend. I was fortunate to be asked to go along.

This was my first trip to Pittsburgh, and my first time in a pro sports city (Columbus, OH and Norfolk, VA were probably the only big towns I had visited at that age). I'll never forget my amazement when we came out of the tunnel and unexpectedly the whole city of Pittsburgh filled the windshield. What a sight! It was just the start of a wonderful day. The Pittsburgh Civic Arena, also known as the Igloo, was a fascinating building whose roof could be opened up. Even if you weren't a hockey fan, the experience was very interesting.

Just getting to see a real hockey game was quite a treat for me, because I was one of the only kids in Parkersburg who really knew anything about hockey. NBC had begun televising some NHL games and they caught my interest. Also, in the days before FM radio, I was big on listening to AM radio stations from around the country, including some that carried hockey games or sports talk shows. [One reason why I'd listen to radio stations from St. Louis, Richmond, Chicago, Charlotte, Boston, Ft. Wayne, Cleveland, etc., was that they actually came in better than the three Parkersburg stations, whose broadcast powers were reduced after sundown.] Finally, I think I had a teenager's sense of wanting to be unique by specializing in a sport others did not follow. I read a lot of library books to learn about hockey.

When I started following hockey, I decided that the Chicago Blackhawks were my favorite team. I liked their jersey insignia (I learned all the jerseys from the Sears catalog), plus they had one of the biggest stars of the day—Bobby Hull. I can still recite most of their players names (Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Pit Martin, Jim Pappin, Denis Hull, Lou Angotti, Keith Magnuson, Pat Stapleton, etc.). I'll never forget when Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens beat Chicago for the Stanley Cup.

Another memorable hockey game for me was also a Penguins game at the Igloo. While attending law school at WVU in the early '80s, there was a student activities trip to see Pittsburgh take on the Edmonton Oilers, with their young star Wayne Gretzky. I remember being very impressed with #99, as he was quite easy to pick out from the rest of the players because of his skating talents. Fortunately, Anna and I got to see one Penguins game together a year or two ago before they tore down the Igloo (it has been replaced with the new Consol Energy Center).

While working for NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, I was able to do a semi-season ticket package for the Washington Capitals with my friend from the University of Charleston, Chuck Crum. More recently, I got to attend a Caps game at their new arena downtown with Tim Truman during a business trip to DC. I have also attended two NHL games at the Sharktank in San Jose while attending a business conference, as well as a Columbus Blue Jackets game during their inaugural season. The only other NHL team I've watched was after WVU won the Music City Bowl in 2000, the guys I went with walked across the Cumberland River from the football stadium into downtown where we were able to get tickets to watch the Nashville Predators play that evening.

I've also attended a few minor league games in Wheeling, and many more collegiate hockey games in Morgantown (WVU Mountaineers) and Athens (Ohio University Bobcats). It seems I don't get to follow hockey as much as I would like (maybe I should pay for more than basic cable TV), but it is still a sport that I enjoy. I don't really have a favorite team that I follow anymore (although I enjoyed seeing Chicago win the Cup last year for old times sake). I just like to see good competitive games (preferrably without the fighting), and admire the incredible of skating skills these professionals possess. I plan on enjoying hockey for years to come (assuming that civilization doesn't "devo" too far!).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jimmy & me

While in Atlanta recently, I got the chance to visit the Carter Presidential Center. Many of you probably have a low assessment of Jimmy Carter, and wonder why I would even take the time to visit there? However, I would visit any presidential library if I got the chance, because we should all honor the office, even if we might not totally agree with the man holding the office. Also, Jimmy Carter played an important role in my formative adult years.

As I was coming of age, I looked forward to casting my first ever vote in the 1976 election, and began my research early. By the summer of 1975, I had already been following the early candidates (anybody remember Terry Sanford? Fred Harris? Frank Church?). I was going to be a good citizen and ensure that I cast an informed vote, as is important in a democracy. The previous election had not gone well for me, as a Nixon supporter who defended the president in the early Watergate days, only to realize later I had been hoodwinked.

One candidate caught my eye early on. I was impressed with Jimmy Carter's unusual background—farmer, nuclear submarine officer, and progressive governor of a southern state. He had proven his leadership abilities by changing Georgia's segregationist policies, and best of all, he was not tainted by Washington—which I had already determined to be a problem for many others. I liked that he was not a typical Democrat (since I was not sure that I was typical of either party). I had grown up in a semi-Republican family, and even had done extensive volunteer work as a 9th grader in 1972 for Nixon's re-election (I was young—what else can I say?).

When my senior year began in the fall of 1975, my social studies teacher Mrs. Phipps gave us a sheet of possible topics for a major paper we were to write, or we could pick any of the potential presidential candidates. As I recall, she went around the room asking students to pick their topics. I chose Jimmy Carter, and most of my classmates had no idea who I was talking about (at that time, one could not imagine a president being referred to as “Jimmy” and someone asked if I knew him personally).

My early pick of Jimmy Carter began looking prescient as he came out of nowhere to win Iowa and New Hampshire, and suddenly went from being a nobody to becoming the frontrunner. It made me feel like picking a winning candidate was a piece of cake—all you had to do was spend time researching the possibilities and deciding on the best. [I have since learned it is not all that easy.]

As I began my college career in the fall of 1976, I was a big Carter supporter. I remember being in the dormitory watching the debate, which was really big because there had not been a televised debate since the JFK-Nixon debate in 1960. That debate ended up being key to Carter's victory a few weeks later. Another college memory was rushing over to the student union after a late morning class, to watch the inauguration on a big color TV. The fact that Carter eschewed the limo and walked the entire distance between the Capitol and the White House was impressive. We needed a man of the people to help us get away from the Watergate days. I also remember writing a paper about Carter's cabinet choices in an “American Presidency” class I took in the spring of 1977. Early on, I felt good about our new president.

I appreciated his emphasis on the energy problem, and his promotion of human rights—a phrase heard all the time now but which was not well known until his presidency. With the exception of economic concerns, the first part of his term went OK, and once the Camp David Accords were signed, he seemed assured of a second term. Indeed, it was his effective personal leadership that brought Sadat and Begin to reach that historic agreement. The Nobel peach prize that year went jointly to Sadat and Begin, but it was Carter who made it happen. [I'm glad he was eventually honored with the Nobel Prize later for all his humanitarian efforts.]

However, the latter stages of his term seemed to go downhill. The economy never seemed to get better. One of his appointees, Burt Lance, came under investigation for banking problems back in Georgia. Although Lance resigned, Carter stood by his side still supporting him, which seemed different from Carter's pledge to clean up Washington and get away from any hints of improprieties. I feared he was too loyal to his “Georgia Mafia” friends, and thus was like too many other politicians. [I should point out in hindsight that Lance was never charged with wrongdoing after the investigation was finished.]

Another peculiar thing that bothered me was that Carter changed the side of his head where he parted his hair. In the beginning, his part was on the same side as I part mine, but later in his term, he went for a new look and changed sides. I found this ridiculous; indeed, a sign of a potential personality disorder. My hair only wants to naturally part on one side, so this made him seem artificial to me.

Things got worse after the malaise speech (where he never used the word “malaise”). Americans didn't want a President to tell them what was probably the truth—they just wanted someone to make things sound like they were better. [Reagan understood this, and always pushed positive themes (“It's morning in America”).] Soon we were dealing with killer rabbits swimming towards his fishing boat (Google it if you don't believe me), and Carter became the butt of many jokes.

With the seizure of the Iranian embassy, the last year in office was the worst for him. ABC's Nightline got its start as a special news show at 11:30 each night called “America Held Hostage—Day .” The hostage crisis was terrible, and there was very little that we could do about it. By the spring of 1980, with Ted Kennedy challenging the incumbent for the nomination, Carter finally decided to take action with a rescue plan. Unfortunately, an unexpected dust storm caused a crash at the Desert One rendezvous point, scuttling the mission. West Virginia native Cyrus Vance, who had served as Carter's Secretary of State, resigned in protest because he had opposed the attempted rescue mission. To many of us, it seemed like Carter was going for a grandstand play before the Wisconsin primary election to ensure Kennedy wouldn't win.

By this time, I had already given up on Carter. During the fall semester of 1979, which I spent in Washington as an intern for Congressman Rahall, I became intrigued by a liberal Republican named John Anderson who had decided to run for the Republican nomination. I felt like he had little chance, but I liked his thinking. However, Anderson ended up doing much better than anyone had predicted, placing high in early primaries even if he didn't win them. I jumped on board and eventually got my first job with his independent presidential campaign after graduating with my Political Science degree. Although Anderson didn't win, it was a great experience for me to travel around the country and participate in a national campaign. [It also solidified my identity as an independent.]

So in the span of five years, I went from an early supporter of Jimmy Carter to a paid employee of someone running against him. I've always had this complicated relationship with Carter and his legacy. I still think I was right to support him in the beginning, and yet also right to not support him for a second term. I also think he gets way more criticism than he deserves, and not enough credit. I admire the work he has done since leaving the presidency, be it with Habitat for Humanity, or his prodigious work as an author, or his efforts at promoting democracy through election monitoring and other diplomatic efforts. Also, many people don't realize how much work the Carters have put into improving health conditions and eradicating diseases in third world countries.

I'm glad I got to visit the Carter Presidential Center. I doubt that it will ever happen, but Jimmy Carter is certainly someone I would enjoy getting a chance to meet and talk to, and perhaps come to resolution about my complicated history with him. I hope that history in the future will judge him more kindly than his contemporaries have judged him. It's easy to “pile on” and decide that someone like Carter is a bad person, but in reality, all of us have some good and some bad in us. It takes an intelligent person to be able to see the virtues in everyone.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hotlanta Trip

Anna had to go to Atlanta for her Ph.D. program, so I tagged along. While she would be getting educated, I'd be free to sightsee. It had been 16 years since I had last visited “Hotlanta” (90+ degrees each day this trip) and 34 years since the UC Crew team rowed in the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association's regatta at Stone Mountain lake (my first visit to the greater Atlanta area). Anna drove to my place before we ventured south together. During her first leg of the trip, she got to pass the “Miracle on the Hudson” fuselage on I-79. Even though I didn't get to see it, I was able to enjoy it vicariously through her description. It was a good start to this trip.

Before heading off the next morning, we happened to turn on the last part of the Today show just as they were saying goodbye to Meredith Viera. I can remember when she first appeared on the national media as a young reporter on Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News. Before we left, we saw the “lip dub” (one camera, one shot music video production) that included Jimmy Fallon and Abe Vigoda and a cast of hundreds rocking Meredith through “Don't Stop Believing” by Journey. I'm glad I got to see it! [Note to Bunk: the lip dub produced by Grand Valley State University, featuring your crew team, is still my favorite.]

We drove south on I-77 to I-85, listening to the audiobook "Always Looking Up" by Michael J. Fox, and made a quick lunch stop at Sonny's BBQ near Charlotte. Yes, I know that it is a “chain BBQ” and not one of those great local independent BBQ joints, but when you are in a hurry and need something with quick access near the Interstate, Sonny's BBQ works out well. The only other stop we made along the way was after we saw billboards for the TigerDirect Outlet Store in rural Georgia. TigerDirect is a computer and electronics supplier that has been around since early in the PC revolution, and most computer geeks are familiar with the company. It was fun roaming the aisles seeing all things “techie.”

After checking into the hotel on Wednesday evening, we walked down Peachtree Street to eat dinner at a relatively new restaurant called “Sweet Georgia's Juke Joint.” They offer live music every night (we got to hear a three-piece blues combo) as well as southern comfort food. I had the fried green tomato sandwich—it was OK, but the ones served up at the WV Turnpike's Tamarack Center are still the best!

Anna's colloquium didn't start until 5:00 on Thursday, so our early arrival allowed her to do some sightseeing before it started. We wanted to see the new Georgia Aquarium, which supposedly is the largest in the world. Previously, we had visited the aquariums in Chattanooga, TN, and the Newport, KY, plus I had toured the aquarium at Virginia Beach and the National Aquarium in Baltimore years ago. All of these were probably the biggest and the best when they first opened, but the bar keeps getting higher with each new one built.

There were several aspects that made this one memorable. The biggest is the 6 million gallon main aquarium, with acrylic walls that are about two feet thick. The pictures we took do not do this place justice. It has to be seen to be believed, especially the beluga whales, the huge manta rays, and the gigantic whale sharks.

We also enjoyed seeing a simple exhibit that other aquariums should have been doing long ago—a touch tank area full of live shrimp. It was interesting to watch these tasty morsels living their lives before they end up in cocktail sauce. Another innovative concept was the tunnel in the penguin area, complete with “pop-up” clear acrylic viewing areas, allowing close-up views of these birds, as well as lots of underwater viewing as they “fly” around. Finally, I had never seen Garden Eels, which look like something out of a science fiction movie.

Across from the aquarium is the new “World of Coca-Cola” building. Anna and I had both taken the Coke tour separately back in the '90s when it was located near Underground Atlanta. Now it has a new and much larger home, complete with a 3-D theater that also sprays water on you, plus has chairs that shakes and pokes you to “enhance” your viewing experience. This museum was fun, but not nearly as impressive as the aquarium. We did enjoy all the free samples of Coke products from around the world. Plus, since Coke just celebrated its 125th birthday, we got a free commemorative bottle.

Later that night, we had dinner at Ted's Montana Grill. Atlanta tycoon Ted Turner created these restaurants that feature bison meat grown on his ranches out west. Supposedly there are a lot of health benefits to bison meat. The bison steak I had was excellent! The ambiance of the restaurant was enjoyable as well. I will definitely eat at a Ted's franchise again.

On Friday morning, I caught a Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA) bus to the Carter Presidential Center. It is always interesting to me to ride public transportation in other areas. I thoroughly enjoyed the Carter Center, and reliving the events of the late '70s. I hope to write an upcoming essay about my Jimmy Carter recollections.

After spending most of Friday at the Carter Center, I caught the bus back to Underground Atlanta. The visitor center there offers a guided tour on Atlanta history from the civil war to civil rights (plus I had a coupon for a dollar off the ticket!). The tour guide was a 75 year old retired scientist from the nearby Center for Disease Control who shared his love of history with myself and some young female college students from Chicago.

Friday evening, guests were allowed to attend one function of this colloquium weekend, so I got to tag along with Anna. Newark, New Jersey mayor Corey Bookman gave a very inspirational speech. He is certainly a young leader on the rise. At one time I wanted to be a successful politician like he has become, and for awhile, everything was going as planned (activist school board member, known for visiting schools, re-elected with over 10,000 votes in 1996, elected president of the state school boards association, writing for the National School Boards Association, etc.). But for whatever reason, it ultimately didn't work out. You can try to do everything right, but sometimes things just don't turn out the way you planned. One positive result was that I got to try my hand at teaching on the college level when my part-time school board job went away. Plus, Anna and I would never have become a couple if I were still a politician. So at least I got the chance to try politics and get it out of my hair.

After the Mayor Bookman speech, we decided to try the nearby Benihana restaurant. This chain was a leader in the field of Japanese restaurants with chefs who put on a show cooking at your table. It was good, but not really over and above other such places.

On Saturday morning, I decided to participate in a 5K that began at the Georgia state capitol building. It was fun doing a 5K in a new city, and I got to see some Atlanta neighborhoods I would never otherwise have seen. I finished a bit slower than my previous best time, but it was very hot! I want to give a shout out to the folks who organize running events back home in West Virginia, because this one did not impress me. For example, when you reached the finish line, they expected you to fill out a card with your name and bib number along with the time you saw on the clock as you entered the finish chute. What's up with that? Plus, the starting line was set up about twenty feet from the end of the block, where you had to make an immediate left turn—not a good course design! However, it gave me a reason to get up early and get some good exercise, and my registration fee went towards helping a good cause (a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta).

During the day, I hiked over to visit CNN and take their studio tour. I had done this 16 years ago, but couldn't remember a whole lot about it, so I decided to do it again. It is interesting how they have gone away from the green-screen chroma-key technology and are now using what amounts to a big iPad, where the anchor can select an item on the big screen, move it around, expand or collapse it, or whatever, just like one can do with touch screen devices.

I checked out the Phillips Arena (home of their NBA and soon-to-be-moved NHL franchises) as well as the Georgia Dome, home of the Falcons and where WVU beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl a few years back. As I was walking back towards to hotel, all of the sudden I heard my name called out from a car on the street (Anna is often amazed at how we can go places and I run into someone I know). It pulled over and the two young Chicago women from the history tour the day before were in it. We talked for awhile there along the street, comparing notes on Atlanta sightseeing, before heading off in our separate directions. It turns out that one of them was actually a model, who had flown to Atlanta for a photoshoot and brought her best friend along. It certainly made my day to have two pretty girls remember my name and make an effort to stop and to talk with me in a strange city. As you get older, you savor the little things!

On our last full day, Anna unexpectedly got done with classes a bit early, so we had just enough time to catch a two-hour Segway tour. These self-balancing two-wheeled people movers are a lot of fun, and we've done them in a number of places (e.g., Bahamas, Grenada, Pittsburgh, Wisp). Anna is particularly skillful in maneuvering these machines. The tour guide took our group through some interesting sections of downtown Atlanta, including a lap around the state capitol (allowing me to show Anna where the 5K was based). The guide also took us by the Ted's Montana Grill where we had eaten. Apparently it is the flagship restaurant for this chain, and includes the Ted's Montana Grill University to train employees. It turns out that Ted Turner not only owns that historic building, but he actually lives in the penthouse. He also had solar panel roofs installed on the building as well as the adjoining parking lot to provide green power. The guide mentioned that he owns the most bison of any rancher in America.

After the tour, we ate dinner at nearby Legal Seafood (they give a coupon for a free bowl of chowder to all Segway riders). We sat on their outside porch overlooking the Olympic Park area and had a delicious meal (second only to the bison steaks at Ted's). It was a nice ending to our last evening together in Atlanta.

On Sunday morning, while Anna wrapped up her classes, I packed up and retrieved the car, so as to avoid the rush when all her fellow students tried to check out all at once. I drove to famous drive-in restaurant called “The Varsity” for an early lunch. This restaurant, established in 1928, is renowned in Georgia. The Varsity serves more Coca-Cola than any other restaurant, and an urban legend claims that they have a direct underground pipeline from the nearby Coke headquarters (not true). The atmosphere was wonderful, but I felt the food was over-rated. However, I'm glad I got to experience The Varsity, and it was a nice way to finish off a long weekend in Hotlanta.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Thanks, Stew + Hooray for Holgorsen!

My beloved Mountaineers have a new football coach. It might have been nice if things had worked out for this fall as Oliver Luck (who I admire) envisioned, but unfortunately it did not work out that way. Forced marriages don't usually work, and this setup was similar to an unhappy couple not divorcing in an effort to protect the kids. Inevitably, the split occurred sooner than later.

I welcome our new coach, and wish him the best. I was never a Stew hater like some folks were, but neither was I an unabashed Stew supporter. I appreciated him for stepping into the vacuum when Rodriguez abruptly left. [Note: Now that he has been fired from Michigan, I'm not going to call him Fraudriguez or the Product or any other such name—I'm still not thrilled with him, but at least I'm ready to move on.] I am forever grateful for Stew's leadership in that fantastic Fiesta Bowl win.

However, the next season displayed some reasons why his new coaching staff was not up to snuff. I went to the East Carolina game where we lost, followed by the devastating defeat by Colorado on ESPN. At least when we drove to Charlotte for the bowl game we got to see them beat UNC at the end of that season. The next two bowl games we attended (Jacksonville's Gator Bowl versus Florida State and the Champs Sports Bowl at Orlando against N.C. State) were not as much fun to watch.

Stew was a good guy, but was from a different era. Big time college football is changing rapidly. The old days of a father figure leader who keeps his job even during mediocre seasons are no more. It is a big business, and those who win (and especially in an innovative fashion) are going to thrive, and those who don't won't last long. Just having a winning season is not enough to keep your job. Coaches are measured against expectations, and WVU fans have high expectations. Losing to Syracuse and Connecticut as we did this year is simply not good enough.

To make matters worse, sometimes Stew looked confused on the sidelines during games. Some people didn't like his comments that they thought seemed crazy, like “Match the Mountains” or the Field Marshal Foch's quote ("Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.") or a story about West Virginia from early in this century (http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/blog/dr_saturday/post/Bill-Stewart-calls-on-Harriet-Beecher-Stowe-Ol?urn=ncaaf-128745). Some thought he was dumb, but he was a smarter guy than most of those who criticized him. He definitely loved West Virginia!

To me, Stew's biggest problem was his loyalty to those he hired. His biggest mistake was probably hiring Jeff Mullen to be his offensive coordinator. This happened only because his first choice—an old friend with whom he had coached in the Canadian Football League—was not allowed to get out of his contract. When that hiring fell through, Stewart talked with another old friend from West Virginia, Jim Grobe (the Wake Forest head coach), who recommended his young quarterback coach from his WF staff. Mullen had never served as an offensive coordinator, and while we probably needed to incorporate more passing than had been done in the Rodriguez era, the new offense never seemed to fully click. But Stew stuck by his hire, and it probably cost him his job.

Now we have a new head coach with no West Virginia connections. I hope he likes it here and stays a long time if he is as good as promised. I also hope that his little drinking problem in Cross Vegas (a smashup of Cross Lanes and Las Vegas) served as an adequate wake-up call to "police" his own behavior. We expect more from our coaches whose jobs include molding these young student athletes into top notch adults, as well as being someone who all West Virginians (even the non-drinkers and non-gamblers) can feel good about. The head coach at WVU is a huge job in this state. I hope that Holgorsen's new offensive staff meshes well with Casteel's defensive staff (most of whom have West Virginia connections), so that they become a cooperative cohesive coaching staff.

Most of all, I'm eager to put this chapter behind us and move on towards summer camp and then the opening game of the Holgorsen era. Let's Bring On The Mountaineers!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greenbrier River Trail (GRT): A GReaT Trip

In the past, I've enjoyed long bicycle rides. I like the physical exertion as well as the mental solitude. It also takes some some bicycling skills to avoid any wrecks (especially when gawking at the scenery). I especially like the sense of exploration, not knowing exactly what lies ahead.

I've ridden the entire North Bend Rail Trail in one day (in fact, it was the day in 2007 when Anna was going to her job interview in Morgantown, and she dropped me near Clarksburg that morning to pedal my way home). I've previously written in my Facebook Notes section about my three day trek down the C&O Canal Path along the Potomac River to attend a conference in Washington. I've also explored all the bike trails (along the rivers from Shinnstown to Pt. Marion, the entire Deckers Creek trail, the Youghigheny bike path from Ohiopyle to Confluence, etc.) in the region near Morgantown.

I still had one major bike ride that I wanted to cross off my bucket list—the Greenbrier River Trail (GRT). This nearly 80 mile ride starts at Cass (home of the Cass Scenic Railroad) and finishes near Lewisburg. It is a wild and beautiful section of the state, with mile after mile of nature and little sign of civilization. The length is similar to the North Bend Rail Trail, but my one day North Bend blitz ride was downhill to Parkersburg, over a route that I already had experienced in segments (with lots of experience on the western half). I was not sure that trying a one day trip by myself on a trail I had never experienced was the prudent thing to do.

Fortunately, my Significant Other's Brother (but he's not an S.O.B.!)—who now lives in Columbus, Ohio—expressed an interest in riding the GRT with me. [By the way, I am his Sister's Significant Other, pronounced with an incredulous “Sso?”] Although somewhat new to long distance bicycling, he had met me recently in Athens, Ohio, to ride 36 miles together on the Adena Bikeway to Nelsonville and back. That practice day went well, and it seemed that we would be able to break the GRT into two segments of about 40 miles. Best of all, he is an accomplished outdoorsman, experienced camper, and first aid expert—valuable talents to have on such an epic adventure.

He picked me up after work last Thursday, and we drove to Cass, where we spent the night at the Route 66 Outpost. This general store has some “motel rooms” on the second floor which served our purpose well. We were able to leave his truck there over the weekend and get an early start on Friday morning.

The Route 66 Outpost is directly across the Greenbrier River (which is more like a stream at this northerly point) from the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park depot. I've done the Cass steam engine ride to the top of the mountain in my youth, and hope to do it again sometime. I highly recommend the historic train trip to anyone. Like rafting on the New River or hiking to Blackwater Falls, it is one of those iconic experiences in West Virginia.

The GRT actually begins about a half-mile south of the town of Cass, so we had to pedal on Rt. 66 for a short distance through town. The State Park has fixed up many of the old company houses for visitors to rent, and the town is very quaint. Soon we left the blacktop for the two-track hard-packed dirt and crushed stone bike trail. The first mile marker one sees is “80”, instantly reminding you of just how far you need to pedal!

Bicycle touring is a unique experience. You are always pressing onward, never sure what lies around the next bend, with plenty of nature and wildlife surrounding you at all times. Even when traveling with a partner, it is still a good way to get inside your head and contemplate the universe. The solitude is a wonderful escape from workweeks in my hectic cubicle. Since you are not motorized, things are a lot quieter than motorcycle or car touring. Often we had majestic views of the clear flowing river. Sometimes the sun is blocked by the canopy of trees, while on occasion you may be crossing a cleared pasture field.

It was during one of the few open areas that I heard an unusual noise. I turned around and saw a military C-130 four-engined cargo plane coming down the valley. When I first saw it, the wings were tilted as it had banked through the turn behind us between the ridge tops. It was just leveling out as it bore down on us. Initially I thought maybe it was in trouble, but it was under full power with no smoke, and was just making an exceptionally low pass through the valley. A few seconds later, it was gone. Later that afternoon, we heard another approaching plane, only this time it was a screaming jet fighter. Our vision of this one was obscured by the tree leaves, but it was obviously in a hurry. You might wonder why the military was buzzing us with aircraft? I've heard that the Greenbrier River valley is so sparsely populated that it is used as a training area for pilots to get used to flying low in mountainous terrain. Those two pilots certainly added some spice to our wilderness journey!

Speaking of wilderness, we didn't see any bears—although they likely saw us, hidden away from the trail itself. If the numerous berries along the path had been ripe, we likely would have encountered them. In fact, Beartown State Park is near where we camped Friday night. We did see lots of deer and other wildlife, including two snakes (neither of them dangerous—a garter snake and a black snake) and a couple of feral Collie dogs.

About mid-way the first day, we rolled into Marlinton, the county seat of Pocahontas County. We ventured off the trail to explore the town. After talking with the receptionist at the visitor center, we went to the Greenbrier Grill to eat lunch while sitting on their balcony deck overlooking the river. The view was nice, the food was good, and the neighbor's stereo—playing blues music loud enough for us to enjoy across the street—made it even better.

We covered 40 miles the first day before stopping to camp at one of the nice sites along the trail, complete with raised tent pad and fire ring. At dinner, I had my first M.R.E. (Meals Ready to Eat)--the military's method of providing a warm meal in the field. It uses a chemical reaction with water to heat the food. The chicken tetrazzini I ate wasn't bad, but I'm sure a steady diet of MREs would quickly grow tiresome.

A good fire is a must when camping, and we were able to get one going. There is something mesmerizing about watching the flames while alone in the wilderness. I remember reading an explanation a father made to his son when asked about “Where do flames come from?” The answer (which was far more eloquent than I can recreate) was that a tree spends day after day, year after year, decade after decade soaking up the solar energy of the sun. What one sees when burning a log on the campfire is all that power from the sun being released again. While I cannot tell that story as articulately as I remember reading it, I still enjoy that explanation.

Another great thing about camping is seeing the stars at night. Although the tree canopy precluded much of our view, the segment of the sky we could see was literally polluted with stars. In a city, one would only see a fraction of those stars, but in the wilderness, they are countless. It is no wonder why our ancestors (before the invention of the electric light, television, etc.) were fascinated with the night sky. It is truly amazing!

We packed up and took off the next morning. The weather had been perfect for this trip, with no rain and warm—but not overly hot—daytime temperatures. Again, we thoroughly enjoyed the scenery along the way. The southern half of the trail, as the river grows bigger, resulted in more kayaks and canoes. During one of our stops overlooking the river, the water was so clear I could watch a fisherman's every cast and follow his lure through the water back to him. At another stop, I watched a huge snapping turtle come up to the surface for air, before swimming off again under the surface. Yet another time, I watched a guy in a canoe reel in a nice trout (I assume—or maybe it was a bass). It was a relief to see that the water was crystal clear the entire length of the river. I love being around water of all types, but a flowing river with rocks and rapids can be as mesmerizing as watching a campfire.

We finally counted down the last few miles until arriving at the southern terminus. Anna came to pick us up and take us back to the hotel for the night. It had been a long, hard ride, and the shower sure felt great! Anna's nephew drove over to join us just for the night, and the four of us had a great meal at an authentic Irish pub before exploring Lewisburg, WV. It is a lovely old downtown with lots of history. Lewisburg recently won a contest proclaiming it as the “coolest small town in America.” Fayetteville won this same award several years ago, so West Virginia is fortunate to have two of the recent winners of this national award.

The next day, the three of us drove back north in Anna's car to pick up the truck back where we started at Cass. Along the way home, we passed the Greenbrier Resort as well as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This major science operation was located at Greenbank (near Cass) because the population was so sparse there would be little domestic electrical interference for these giant dishes to explore black holes, pulsars, and other interesting parts of our universe. Finally, another scientific aspect of our trip was the huge windmill farm on the ridgeline just west of Elkins, WV. I find these power generators to be very interesting, and don't consider them to be visual pollution. I think you can still appreciate nature while appreciating technology as well.

I think the “technology” of a good bicycle is the best way to see the countryside. You can cover more ground than walking, without the environmental impact (noise or pollution) that other forms of transportation entail. Bicycling is an excellent form of locomotion. This trip covered a wide expanse of technology, from the shrill sound of the steam locomotive's whistle at Cass to the quiet whoosh of the modern hi-tech wind turbines at Elkins. The bottom line is the Greenbrier River Trail was a GReaT trip!