Thursday, December 27, 2012

12’s Eleven Best

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I (like many other people) enjoy reflecting back on my fondest memories from this year. Last year I wrote an essay entitled “11's Twelve Best” ( about my top activities of that year, so this year I’ve written “12's Eleven Best.” These are not in any particular order, except for the first one, which wins the prize as my top experience of the year. [Yes, I’m very grateful that I have had the resources to enjoy these experiences.]

1.) The “Via Ferrata” at Nelson Rocks in Pendleton County, West Virginia was the most incredible thing I did this year. With metal rungs and a safety cable, anyone can become a rock climber. It feels so good to have taken this challenge, and to have conquered it. You can read the story and see more pictures at

The views were tremendous, and the weather that day was fantastic—unlike the first time I wanted to try the Via Ferrata. However, despite the poor weather for my first attempt, I still had a great time in Pendleton County during that earlier trip. I visited Seneca Rocks, Seneca Caverns, and the new Stratosphere wild cave nearby. You can read about that adventure at I’d also like to mention that I enjoyed exploring Elkins, where I stayed the night before my Via Ferrata trip. I would encourage everyone to check out this beautiful area of West Virginia, and consider challenging yourself on the Via Ferrata.

2.) The Key West/Orange Bowl trip we made in January barely lost out to the Via Ferrata for the top pick. The bowl victory was fantastic,

exploring South Beach on Segways was fun, but driving all the way to the end of the road at Key West was something I’ve wanted to do since grade school.
We had a great time at Key West watching the sun go down and exploring lots of the tourist spots. I especially enjoyed bicycling around the island and our trip on a glass bottom boat to a coral reef. I hope to someday return to this enchanting string of islands.

3.) I had a great long weekend in Fayette County planned around July 4th. What I hadn’t planned for was the lingering after effects of the derecho that caused major power outages in the area. Luckily, I was still able to do nearly everything I had planned. It began with a whitewater rafting trip down the lower New River, which finishes with a great view as the rafts go underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. Then, we went back to the lake at the outfitters, and participated in the blob competition. This involved a huge but not fully inflated “pillow” floating below a tower. Anna’s lightweight nieces would jump into the pillow, scurry to the end, then I would jump on it and “eject” them high into the air.

We didn’t win, but we had a great time. The next day, we walked across the “catwalk” below the New River Gorge Bridge. It was fantastic to look down on the river after having looked up at the bridge the day before. In addition to the BridgeWalk, we also hiked to “Long Point,” an outcropping of rocks with a great view of the New River Gorge Bridge.
The last two days were spent kayaking on Summersville Lake (known for its clear waters and rocky cliffs) and on the New, Gauley, and Kanawha Rivers near Gauley Bridge (including around the famous bus turned into a house on the rock in the middle of the river, as pictured here). Read more of the details at

4.) My daughter graduated from WVU in May on a Saturday, and she had a full-time job on Monday. To celebrate her achievements, we took her (and her boyfriend) for a long weekend trip to New York City. Everyone had a great time in the Big Apple, which included seeing Cirque du Soliel at the iconic Radio City Music Hall.

You can read all about it at

5.) WVU is an important part of my life. We enjoyed a number of events on campus this year. I wrote about the “stripe the stadium” football game at Anna, Halley, and I did a roadtrip to see WVU play at the Redskins Stadium (which was a bit like a bowl trip).

I will also long remember the WVU-Texas volleyball game (the very first Big XII event on campus) which included the Pride of West Virginia Marching Band performing inside the Coliseum. In addition to athletic events, I also enjoyed hearing another lecture from Prof. Bowman, while I was sitting between my daughter and West Virginia Secretary of State (and former Mountaineer) Natalie Tennant during a Mountain honorary dinner. Plus, I went to my first show in the new planetarium.

6.) My other alma mater, the University of Charleston, is also an important part of my life. This year, we attended several UC events. You can read about the alumni gathering at the Governor’s Cup Regatta at During Festivall Weekend, I got to live in a dorm again, and had a great time ( The "Blues, Brews, and BBQ" event on the riverbank is shown below.

For Homecoming Weekend (which included my fourth Blue Man Group show), I discovered a hidden gem I had never explored in Charleston ( By the way, that was the second football game I attended that year, having ventured down for a Thursday night game early in the season. Finally, I made a sad trip to Charleston this past year, for the funeral of my favorite professor of all time (

7.) Another interest of mine is motorsports.

My biggest memory will be going to Columbus Motor Speedway and driving one of their Legends cars ($50 for twenty laps).

This year I thoroughly enjoyed spending a day with historic sports cars at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grandprix (which also included a few sessions of racing go-karts).

Continuing the vintage theme, I traveled to Terra Alta to see lots of motorcycles I knew from youth at the vintage motocross meet.

I also went to High Point raceway (just above the stateline from Morgantown) for a taste of the AMA Motocross weekend. Although there was no racing that day, I enjoyed stopping at Bristol Raceway as we were passing through the area. Finally, I got to see old-fashioned drag racing at the Waynesburg Airport on a Sunday afternoon.

8.) Kayaking is a lot of fun, and this year I got to explore some new areas.

I wrote four essays about some of these trips (,,, and, but there are a couple of others that I must mention as well. I paddled to the uppermost part of the Cheat Lake, where the first rapids from the river begin. I wanted to get to the bend with the island that can be viewed from high above at Coopers Rocks. It was fantastic to get the opposite vantage point of looking up towards Coopers Rocks. Whenever I see pictures taken from Coopers Rocks, I will always remember that day (pictured here).
Finally, I will long remember the day Anna and I set out from Point Marion and ventured up the Cheat River towards the Cheat Lake Dam. Unfortunately, a summer thunderstorm surprised us, requiring us to hunker down on the riverbank until it passed.

9.) I also enjoy biking and got to log a few miles this year. In particular, I finally went all the way uphill into Preston County to the end of the Deckers Creek Rail Trail, exploring the beautiful waterfalls along the way. It is a lot easier on the way back downhill to Morgantown! I also went north from Morgantown to Point Marion, PA, and then biked up the road to the Cheat Lake Dam. On another day, I went south from Morgantown to Pricketts Fort in Fairmont (as mentioned above in the essay). I also spent some time on the North Bend Rail Trail as well this year.

10.) Sometimes I like hiking, competitive walking, or running. I ran about a half-dozen 5Ks this year, plus a five miler at UC. I also walked some 5Ks and finished first in my age group (and eighth overall) in the Parkersburg Two-Miler (part of their big Half-Marathon). I also got to do some fun hiking this year. In addition to the hike to Long Point at New River Gorge mentioned above (and pictured below),

we also enjoyed hiking to Raven Rock at Coopers Rock State Forest, as well as thoroughly exploring Cathedral State Park (

11.) Finally, I’m using this item to lump together several small but fun trips I made over the year. My work required me to make several trips to the DC area this year, and I used Megabus for some of them ( I was also fortunate enough to be in DC when the space shuttle did its final flyover, providing a nice connection between my first federal job and my last one (I assume). On another DC trip, I was able to join an old friend to see a presentation by Colin Powell. Anna and I also enjoyed a trip over there to see the wedding of a high school/college friend of hers. We made several trips to Columbus, Ohio, and always enjoyed visiting with our friends at Shadowbox Live ( A Tennessee trip over the Veterans Day weekend was also a highlight ( We also made a few interesting trips into southwest Pennsylvania. I recently wrote about our trip to see two different houses designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright (

We made our first trip to California—as in California, Pennsylvania—the home of California State University. It was a bigger school than we had thought. We went there because they had a really nice traveling exhibit featuring recreations of Leonard DaVinci inventions. Last but not least, we went to Pittsburgh a few times, most notably for a special trip with Anna’s niece.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Of Waterfalls and Wright

Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania is a favorite of ours. We’ve gone whitewater rafting on the lower section of the Youghiogheny River and enjoyed kayaking on the milder middle section of the “Yock.” Separating these two sections of this mountain river is a broad waterfall adjacent to the quaint small town of Ohiopyle. The rail trail that runs through town allows one to bicycle all the way (if you so desire) to Pittsburgh or to Washington, DC—although I’ve only biked from there as far as Confluence, PA. Whether it is hiking, biking, or whitewater, Ohiopyle is a great place. Best of all, it is less than an hour away from Morgantown now that the four-lane from Cheat Lake to Uniontown is open.

Another reason to visit this area is that famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright built two homes in this area. Probably his most famous project was “Fallingwater,” a house built over a waterfall for the Kaufmann Department Store family. Lesser known but still interesting is the house he built for the Hagan ice cream family at Kentuck Knob, which also includes an interesting sculpture garden on the grounds. Both of these design gems are open for touring, and we made a daytrip to see them recently.

We started the day at Kentuck Knob, which is built into the peak of a mountain. As with most Frank Lloyd Wright houses, there is a strong effort to appreciate nature in the design. Our tour guide took us through the house and explained many of the highlights. Upon conclusion, we decided to walk back to the visitor center to check out the sculpture garden in the meadow below. There were a variety of items there, ranging from rock cairns to London phone booths to a section of the Berlin Wall. Although not as famous as Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob is interesting in its own right, and visiting both on the same trip gives one a good appreciation for Wright’s genius.

After leaving Kentuck Knob, the road winds down the hill into the Youghiogheny gorge. As we entered the state park area, a designated parking area on our left beckoned us to check out what might be there. To our surprise, there was a beautiful 30 foot waterfall as Cucumber Creek made its final rush to join the Yock. A pathway down the hill makes it easy to get to the lower end of this natural wonder. We will definitely return to visit this waterfall again and play in the creek.

There is another designated parking area on the main road just outside the town of Ohiopyle where another creek, Meadow Run, joins the river. This creek cuts a sluice through a long section of rock, creating a natural waterslide that I had heard about but had never seen. Needless to say, the water was cold and running high this December day, but I found it hard to envision "body surfing" through this rock-lined water chute. We need to come back in the summer to see how this is done without getting scraped up.
We then stopped at the overlook for the major cataract across the Yock River. This is the focal point for the state park and for the town of Ohiopyle. We had visited here several years ago during the one day of the summer when they let kayakers go over these 20 foot falls (the picture below is from that day). It was entertaining enough just watching kayakers go over this major waterfall, but one guy was successfully doing it with a stand-up paddleboard!
We had a snack at the historic general store and roamed around the little town (they’ve added a new ropes adventure course in the wooded park above the town!) before heading a couple of miles up the road to Fallingwater. Upon arrival, there is a nice area near the parking lot with a snack bar and gift shop. The tours leave from here and walk down to the house itself. We were on the final tour of the day, and it was just us and the tour guide. As with Kentuck Knob, there is no photography allowed inside, but of course photos of the outside of house, especially showing the falls, are legendary. You really have to take the tour to appreciate the cantilevered design and all the subtle features that went into this iconic house.
It made for a fun December daytrip to visit these outstanding examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. Combining these man-made landmarks with the natural landmarks of Ohiopyle State Park is a great way to appreciate this mountainous area.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Support the teams!

I AM A WEST VIRGINIA FAN! My home state, and its namesake institution of higher learning, means a lot to me. I attended the WVU men’s basketball game on Saturday, December 8, and was treated to a thrilling victory over undefeated Virginia Tech. Then I watched the WVU women’s basketball team trounce St. Bonaventure. After the women’s game, WVU Coach Mike Carey (a West Virginia native) had a message for WVU fans.

"I want to thank the people that stayed after the men’s game, and shame on the people that didn’t. It’s a funny thing; you say you’re a West Virginia fan – man, I kind of question some of that. If you’re a West Virginia fan, you like all sports. If you’re a West Virginia fan, you cheer for everybody. If you’re a West Virginia fan and you’re here, you don’t freaking leave. Shame on the people who left, ran out of here. Shame on them,” he said.

I just want to point out that in the eyes of Mike Carey, I’m proud to say I AM A WEST VIRGINIA FAN. I have attended not just football and basketball games, but also men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, hockey, rifle, track, swimming, wrestling, gymnastics, and baseball games. The only sports I’ve never watched are cross country, tennis, and women’s crew—which I hope to rectify someday.

Football and men’s basketball get most of the attention, but the other sports are entertaining as well. Whenever a student athlete puts on a gold and blue uniform with that flying WV, they are representing our state and its people, and we should be behind them. Athletes in these minor sports put in lots of hard work to represent us, so I try to back them when I can.

Many of our new Big 12 schools support their minor teams more than we have in the past. West Virginians like to think that we have a strong fanbase, but we need to step it up in this new league. I would encourage others to check out some of these minor sports—you might be surprised at how much fun a night at the Dlesk Soccer Stadium can be, or how exciting a volleyball game at the Coliseum can be, or how crazy things can get at the Morgantown Ice Rink for a Mountaineers hockey game. Get out there and cheer them on! Go Mountaineers!!!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tennessee Trip

I had a nice trip over the long weekend to visit Anna’s relatives in Tennessee (good folks ranging in age from one to ninety-one). Here are a few thoughts from the weekend…

• On the way down, we stopped at the Tamarack Center just off the West Virginia Turnpike near Beckley. Tamarack was created nearly twenty years ago to showcase the creative talents of West Virginia artisans. It is a beautiful circular building that sells all sorts of West Virginia items. They have a great “cafeteria” featuring West Virginia foods, as cooked by recipes from the Greenbrier—I like their fried green tomato sandwiches.

On the way back, we stopped at the new Heartwood Center along I-81 at Abingdon, Virginia. Heartwood is “western” Virginia’s version of Tamarack which was built a few years ago. It is smaller than Tamarack, and doesn’t have studios to watch craftsmen at work or large meeting spaces. We ate at their restaurant, but it doesn’t compare to Tamarack. They also showcase local foods, but because it is not cafeteria style, it takes longer to get in and get out. I’m glad we stopped and gave it a try, but I think it was a “one and done” experience for me.

• Whenever I am near the southern end of the West Virginia Turnpike, I like to listen to “Little Buddy Radio” on 93.1. This FM station broadcasts from Princeton, and is run by Bob Denver’s widow (Denver is best known as his famous character “Gilligan”). His wife was from West Virginia, so he moved to southern West Virginia with her and they set up this radio station before he died. As an independent station, they play an eclectic mix of music, including some of the more obscure oldies that don’t seem to get played much on oldies radio station.

• While in Tennessee, we stopped at a Food City grocery store so I could stock up on Cheerwine, a black cherry soda bottled and sold in southeastern states. I first became familiar with Cheerwine when they sponsored Morgan Shepherd’s race car years ago. I like the taste and always enjoy getting unusual “pop”—when teaching I usually had something to drink at my desk in case my throat got dry, so when traveling I would always look for pop that wasn’t available in Parkersburg. On this particular trip, not only did I find Cheerwine on sale, but I also purchased some Junior Johnson Root Beer.

• I enjoyed seeing all the tributes on Facebook for Veterans Day, but one in particular caught my eye. A high school classmate of mine (Glenn D., who is a veteran himself, and who survived the attack on the American barracks in Beirut in 1983) posted a picture of his great-great-great grandfather in his Civil War uniform. His grandfather had the same last name as my great-great-great grandfather who also fought (although in a different West Virginia infantry regiment). After some discussion, we have determined that our thrice great-grandfathers were cousins (meaning we have the same great-great-great-great-great grandfather). It was nice to figure out we are distantly related!

• We also made a slight detour on the way back so I could see Bristol Speedway. Bristol is a nice town whose main street straddles the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. It is known as the birthplace of country music, in addition to its famous half-mile race track. I attended my first NASCAR race in 1965 (the Daytona 500, won by Fred Lorenzen), but my last race was in 1989 for the Bristol night race (won by Darrell Waltrip). Since my previous visit, Bristol has expanded dramatically. There were no seats between turns one and two when I watched on that August night 23 years ago, but this attached picture gives you an idea how many seats have been built just in turn two since then. It is humongous!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Presidential Campaign

On election night 32 years ago, I was eagerly watching the presidential returns, primarily because my final paycheck depended on it. After graduating in the spring of 1980, I landed a paid position as a field coordinator with the presidential campaign of John B. Anderson. He was a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, ten-term Republican congressman from Illinois, who initially ran in the GOP primaries. Once Reagan had secured the GOP nomination, Anderson ran as an independent to offer a third choice for president (yes, he was “mavericky” long before that term was coined).

As an idealistic 22 year old, right out of college, it was a whirlwind campaign year. Initially, I worked in the Charleston office, getting Anderson on the West Virginia ballot. I’ve previously shared the story of how I got to meet singer/songwriter James Taylor, an Anderson fan who came to perform a benefit concert at the Municipal Auditorium (I “saved” the concert that night because he broke his guitar string in the hotel room, and I had to run to Gorby’s Music Store and get him a replacement).

Later, I worked petition drives to secure ballot access in Oklahoma during June, Missouri during July, and Alabama during August. It was hard work but lots of fun seeing parts of the country I had never seen before. I fondly recall my trip inside the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the flat interstate between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and the high-tech town of Huntsville compared to the old South feel of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.

For the fall months, I was the coordinator for the southern half (also known as “downstate”) of Anderson’s home state of Illinois. Our main office was in downtown Springfield, Illinois, across from the historic old State Capitol, and less than a block from Lincoln’s law office (I learned a lot about Lincoln during this time). We also had offices in Champaign/Urbana (home of the University of Illinois), Alton (suburban St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river), Carbondale (home of Southern Illinois University), and Charleston (home of Eastern Illinois University). I should point out that this was in the era before personal computers—telephones and 3x5 index cards were the preferred methods in those days.

I got to travel all around this area, and coordinated a few visits with Anderson’s wife Kiki and his daughter Eleanora Anderson Kettler. Kiki traveled with Secret Service protection, and it was interesting to work with her officers, who did all the driving around the state with Kiki and me in the back seat. I got to talk with her a good bit, and this paid off at the end of the campaign.

The last day of campaigning before election day, Anderson came back to his alma mater and spoke that evening at the University of Illinois. As I greeted him on the steps of the auditorium, he asked me if I would come to Washington, DC, and work the remainder of his term in his Congressional office. Holy cow! I was amazed and thrilled at this unexpected job offer.

It turns out that Kiki had learned from several days of traveling with me that rather than staying in hotels, I was saving the campaign money by living on a cot in the back of our office (along with the other staffer in the office) in what had been dressing rooms when the building was used as a clothing store. We purchased cheap memberships at the local YMCA and walked down the street each morning—not to work out, but simply to take our showers. Kiki also was aware that I had worked on Capitol Hill during the fall of 1979, and thus knew my way around the House Office Buildings and the Capitol itself. Finally, she knew that I had won a fellowship to grad school at WVU, and could take a job that would only last from early November to early January. It was apparently at her urging that I was rewarded with a new job.

So after an exciting campaign season, I got to continue working for John Anderson by joining his Congressional staff his final few months. It was a great experience! [It also dawned on me that if Anderson had actually won the presidency, I would likely have landed a job in the White House!]

But my stint on Capitol Hill came after spending a tense election night at our campaign office near the University of Illinois, on folding metal chairs filled with many “Fighting Illini” students who had supported our cause. Even though Anderson had earlier been pulling strong double-digit polling numbers, they had dropped from being in the twenties down through the teens and below as the election day approached (the race was seen as going down to the wire and folks didn’t want to waste their vote on an independent candidate who couldn’t win). However, he was still popular with college students and intellectuals. Thus, on election night 32 years ago, I was just hoping we would get at least 5%, because my final paycheck was dependent on qualifying for Federal Election Commission matching funding, and 5% was their threshold number. Luckily, we got over 7%, and I got paid.

I’m sure the paycheck was important at the time, but it was really the experience itself that was most valuable. On nights like this, it is nice to reminisce about my personal presidential campaign, and the close camaraderie that comes with such quixotic efforts. Oh to be young again!

Congressman John B. Anderson

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My CIA File

As a career employee with the government, I must get periodic background checks, including interviews with government security investigators. It isn’t as if I deal with a lot of government secrets—this is just standard protocol for many civil servants to have their security clearance renewed. Whenever I am interviewed, I always convey one of my darkest secrets to the investigators—because my name probably appears in a CIA file somewhere. You see, I have had dealings in the past with a hostile foreign government.

I realize that many of you who know me find this news to be a surprise. I am hardly the James Bond type, and especially not a Benedict Arnold traitor. Yet it is important that I “fess up” to this experience whenever my investigation is due again. Not admitting to it is what supposedly gets you into trouble.

It all started so innocently. In the late ‘70s, as a young college student, I got involved with the student government on our campus. I was elected vice-president for my sophomore year and then president my junior year (I then did an internship in Washington during the fall semester of my senior year).

During this same time period, Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba published a weekly English newspaper entitled “Granma”—indeed, it is still the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. This newspaper arrived each week in the student government mailbox even though we had not subscribed to it. Apparently the Cubans assumed that student government offices on college campuses were a hotbed for radical Marxism, and thus provided free subscriptions because they wanted to spread their “gospel according to Fidel.”

Our copy generally ended up in the trash without being looked at. However, when I became president, I decided that was wasteful. Perhaps some student doing research on Cuba—or on propaganda—could benefit from looking at this publication. It seemed to me that if they insisted on sending it to us, it was better for it to go to the library than to take up room in our mailbox. I must admit that I didn’t coordinate my idea with the library staff—I had already learned from other student government activities that it is often easier to ask forgiveness afterwards than to ask for permission beforehand.

So I took it upon myself to write a letter to the publisher at the address shown inside, explaining the desire for it to be re-routed to the library. I took it to the local post office and mailed it to Havana, Cuba. Soon the newspaper was no longer clogging our mailbox. It seemed as if I had done a good thing.

Later that year, our college hosted a special speaker*—I don’t remember his name but he had written a book about his experiences with the CIA, and was now working the campus lecture circuit. His talk made me think of my letter to Cuba, so I went up and asked him about it after his speech. He explained to me that all mail bound for Cuba gets routed through the Miami CIA office for “review.” While there was nothing sinister with what I had done, my interaction with the Cuban government would likely be recorded, in case I started getting more involved with them in the future.

He warned me that if I ever was interviewed by government or military officials for a job or whatever, a standard question is whether or not one has ever traveled to or had dealings with a hostile foreign government. He advised I must always remember to answer yes to this question, because if I am under oath and say that I have never done so, they have that information in my file to show that I am lying. One of the primary purposes for government investigations is to determine someone’s trustworthiness, and thus I would fail that test. What I did was not all that bad, but neglecting to acknowledge it would be bad. Such a failure could jeopardize my ability to get a government job, or a secret clearance, or whatever.

Thus, ever since my first civil service background check back in the ‘80s, I have always told investigators the story of my letter to Cuba. I don’t want to find out whether this college lecturer really knew what he was talking about—I just routinely trot out my story as soon as they ask the question. Honesty truly is the best policy. In conclusion, I trust that there is nothing else about my boring life that would be worthy of inclusion in my CIA file. I hope it is a very narrow binder!
*During my undergraduate years, I enjoyed attending a number of special speakers on the UC campus. These included then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, actor Jack Palance, former Nixon aide John Dean, theologian William Sloane Coffin, author Jeremy Rifkin, numerous state political figures, and others (such as the CIA guy) whom I have probably forgotten over the years.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Junior High Blues

I’ve been reminiscing a lot because a Facebook friend has recently been posting pictures from our days in junior high—except I didn’t go to her junior high (but I wish I had). Because of a quirk in how our county’s attendance districts were set up in the early ‘70s, I was part of a small group of students who were sent to Hamilton for 7th through 9th grades rather than staying with my 6th grade cohorts who went on to attend Washington Junior High.

I had attended Murphytown Elementary, located on a dirt road along Stillwell Creek in the rural eastern part of the county. It was a 1950s era single-story concrete block building painted battleship gray. It didn’t have a gymnasium—just an “all-purpose room” that served as the cafeteria when the tables were folded down. The library was simply the bookshelves lining the hallway walls. Every student arrived on one of the yellow school buses. It was an ideal setting for youngsters, with a huge playground surrounded by woods with no other houses in view. I loved that place!

However, Murphytown only went up to 5th grade. For our 6th grade year, we were bused to Park School, along a busy thoroughfare in the city. As I recall, there was no grass on the playground—just gravel and dirt. It was a big change for those of us from the country!

I can remember that the first time an ambulance or fire engine went by with its siren blaring, those of us from Murphytown jerked our heads and rose up from our desks to gawk out the second-story windows. We had never experienced an emergency vehicle passing by our school, so this was a major event! However, the more sophisticated city students acted like we were crazy, and the teacher admonished us to turn around in our seats and pay attention. It took many more sirens going by over the months before I could avoid the “sirens’ song” and resist the temptation to see what emergency might be happening outside.

Park School didn’t have just one classroom for each grade as Murphytown did—there were three different classrooms full of 6th graders. There was a big library in the center of the top floor. Unlike Murphytown’s all-purpose room, Park had a gymnasium where one could actually play basketball indoors! That same year, I also enjoyed playing football with many of the Park School boys, and earned a starting position for the City Park Falcons. Although it was a big adjustment, I thoroughly enjoyed my year at Park School, and made many new friends. All was going well for me.

My transition to 7th grade did not go as smoothly. Football preseason practice began before school started, and in junior high at that time, the 7th and 8th grades were combined into one team. I was the only City Park Falcon on a team made up of mostly former Hamilton Green Dragons. It seemed like all the other kids knew each other before I got there. I felt out of place from the very start, and had a hard time getting used to it. Plus, I never earned a starting position during my three years of junior high football (leading me to join the crew team in high school, which turned out pretty well for me). Junior high is a difficult time for most adolescents, and it certainly was for me. High school wasn’t all that much better. Actually, I didn’t really find my “place” until I went away to college.

When things don’t always go as we had hoped, we frequently dream about what might have been. I often thought that my life might have been so different if I had only gone to Washington Junior High School. I could have built on the personal friendships I had established at Park School. I might have had a more successful football career with my former Falcon teammates, which surely would have led to a higher rung on the student societal ladder. I also would have been exposed to more “diversity” which I have found to be a good thing in life.

Most people would rate Hamilton over Washington as the more desirable school during that time period. The general socio-economic status of Washington’s student body was lower than Hamilton’s, so the test scores were likely lower overall as well. However, in my mind, Washington would have been a better option for me. I tried to make the best of my situation at Hamilton, even if I never felt totally comfortable there. None of this is meant to belittle any of my fellow Hamilton Wildcat alums—it is indeed a decent school where one could get a good education.

That is probably still true today in its current rendition as Hamilton Middle School (9th graders now attend the high schools). Unfortunately, Washington Junior High no longer exists as a junior high or middle school. Just before my election to the county school board in 1992, Washington was closed and then remodeled as Jefferson Elementary Center. A connecting corridor was built to the adjacent Jefferson School, and this new larger elementary center became the consolidated home for a few former small rural elementary schools which were closed (including my dear Murphytown Elementary) as well as a couple of urban elementary schools (including Park School, which was quickly leveled and whose prime location on a busy street is now the site of a Wendy’s restaurant and a CVS drugstore). Since the number of students in the county had diminished since the baby-boom era, it simply wasn’t possible to efficiently keep all these schools operating.

One never really knows how an alternate reality might actually have turned out. Who knows how I might have fared as a Washington Panther? For all I know, it could have turned out far worse than it did at Hamilton. Thus, in subsequent years, I hadn’t thought much about it—until these Facebook pictures my friend posted recently made me think back to my junior high blues, and what might have been.

More importantly, looking at this friend’s periodic postings of her early ‘70s photographs of life at Washington Junior High makes me yearn for my calf-length striped tube socks and other fashion necessities from that era. They make this gray haired guy want to be young again!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A game to forget

Earlier this month, I put up a blog posting entitled "A game to remember." Well, this past Saturday was a different situation.

I’ve been a Mountaineer fan all my life, and thus I have been through many disappointments. I always start off a season with the slimmest of hopes that we might actually go undefeated and win the national championship. This season was no different, but the hopes got higher with every victory and with all the media attention we seemed to be getting. Wow—maybe we can run the table! Alas, it was not to be!

However, the loss at Lubbock is not the end of the world. True Mountaineer fans know that these things happen, and that rather than jumping off the bandwagon, you cheer on the team that represents you through thick or thin. The flying WV represents our state. Montani Semper Liberi!

I can remember my final fall semester as a WVU student in 1984, we were having a great year, First, we beat Pitt—which by itself made for a good year. Then, we beat Boston College with their Heisman winning quarterback and media darling Doug Flutie for the fourth straight year (I love it that in a recent interview he said his biggest regret was never beating WVU). Best of all, we beat our long-time nemesis Penn State one week later (albeit at a great cost as our injury problems mounted). All this good news came to an end as our walking wounded players lost to Rutgers, Temple, and Virginia to finish the season. A victory over TCU in the Astrodome bowl game (after injured players had time to heal) helped to assuage the pain of this lofty fall from grace.

In 1988, Major Harris led us through a dream-come-true undefeated regular season, only to see him injured in the first series of what would have been the National Championship Game (I think of that Fiesta Bowl whenever I see Lou Holtz). In 1993, Jake (the Snake) Kelchner and Darren Studstill led a two-headed offense through another undefeated regular season, and on to play the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. After a quick march down the field for the first score, a freak series of plays where Studstill was hit hard and his helmet damaged led to an interception for a touchdown and then the game was over.

Finally, in 2007 an early loss at USF was quickly forgotten as everyone else had at least one loss as well, and WVU had climbed to #2 in the polls. All we had to do was beat a mediocre Pitt team at home to head to the National Championship game, only to find out that “Fraudriguez” had his mind on his new Michigan contract money instead of his mind on the game.

Someday it might happen, but going undefeated never happens very often—even for the best of teams. Look at the list of national champions and there are many who have since suffered mediocre seasons (e.g., Texas, Auburn, Miami). I’m just glad we aren’t Penn State, Ohio State, USC, or others who have faced NCAA sanctions for serious improprieties. It is all a game, and just like real life, there are ups and downs along the way. Rarely is everything wonderful all the time. The negative moments, such as the aftermath of the Texas Tech game, help to make the positive moments better. Coming out the other side from disappointment breeds character. Hang in there Mountaineers!

Here is a nice picture from the "game to remember."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Historical Hilltop

Old cemeteries have a strong appeal to me. There is something about the ultimate finality of tombstones that I find fascinating. I especially like the older ones with interesting epitaphs where departed ancestors attempt to speak to future generations.

I went to college in Charleston and have spent a lot of time there for various other reasons over the years. I don’t claim to be a native Charlestonian but I feel like I know our capital city pretty well. However, I had never ventured up to the Spring Hill cemetery. It is partially visible from the Interstate because it sits on a hill overlooking the town, but that was all I knew about it. When Anna and I found ourselves with some time to kill on Sunday morning during the UC Homecoming weekend, we thought we’d finally check out that cemetery on the hill.

It turns out that what one can see from the highway is just a small fraction of this huge cemetery (at about 175 acres, it is the largest in West Virginia). The topography of the area is quite hilly, resulting in the narrow roadways (obviously designed for the horse and wagon era of the 1800s) twisting and circling around in asymmetrical patterns—Spring Hill has no easy-to-follow grid designs like in some large cemeteries on flatter ground. The land is so hilly that many of the grave areas are surrounded by concrete or stone walls, probably in an effort to stabilize the hillsides against sliding down (and possibly exposing the caskets). In fact, upon my return home that night, I went to Google Maps to see overhead shots of the property. All those retaining walls around hillside family plots make a network of small squares throughout the cemetery.

The views from various high points in the cemetery are beautiful, whether one is looking towards the golden Capitol Dome, or the downtown area, or even at the quarry on the backside. The mausoleum has a Moorish architectural style that is rare in West Virginia—at first we thought perhaps it was a mosque. There are lots of interesting tombstones and monuments, engraved with a variety of typefaces. Apparently there was a monument maker in Charleston who was gifted at representing trees—some are horizontal logs on top of tombstones, but others are vertical as stumps or even as taller trunks. There are special areas within the cemetery complex, including a Jewish section and a Confederate soldier section. I recognized some of the family names as being influential in the Charleston area.

Because of the challenging terrain, as well as all the retaining walls, it must require a lot of labor to keep the cemetery in shape. It isn’t conducive to a riding lawn mower—it must demand a lot of hand trimming. I was surprised to learn that the cemetery belongs to the City of Charleston, so tax dollars apparently help cover the high cost of maintenance. I think the people of my hometown need to be glad that our city doesn’t have this expense to contend with!

It is a very beautiful and very reverential place. Although in some spots you overlook the tall buildings of the downtown, there are other spots where the woods and the wildlife make you feel like you must be far out in the country. If you’ve ever been curious about the cemetery on the hill that you may have noticed while whizzing by Charleston, I recommend that you take some time to go up and explore this National Historic District. I hope to get back there someday and explore it further. It is an impressive final resting place.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A game to remember

Saturday, September 29, was a special day that will long be treasured by Mountaineer fans. Indeed, it needs to be added to my list of the "Dozen Best" WVU games ( It started as a beautiful morning in Morgantown, with just a bit of chill in the autumn air. In addition to being our very first Big XII football game, it was Homecoming weekend. As such, we had the opportunity to enjoy some free tailgating at two separate receptions before the game—one at the Law School and the other in “tent city” courtesy of the WVU Foundation.

After enjoying our free food with old friends, we entered the stadium to the amazing sight of the clearly articulated gold and blue sections of the stands. It was immediately apparent that the fanbase had understood the importance of “striping the stadium” and it looked much better than many had predicted it would.

We arrived just in time to see the WVU marching band’s traditional pre-game performance. This pre-game ritual has seen few changes over the years, and gets everyone in the mood for Mountaineer football. It gives true fans a thrill to see the “Pride of West Virginia” all condensing into a small group in the center of the field to the tune of “Simple Gifts,” and then turning around and marching outward in concentric expanding circles.

As another sign that this was not just any old game, a guest performer sang the National Anthem. Just like Landau Eugene Murphy did last year for the LSU game, country music star Trace Adkins (thanks in part to his manager, a West Virginia native) belted out an a capella version of the Star-Spangled Banner prior to kickoff. Plus, the Big XII Commissioner was on hand to perform the coin toss and to welcome us into the conference.

What an incredible game it was! Much has been written already about the offensive fireworks both teams produced—it was tied at 35 at halftime before finishing with a 70-63 WVU victory. Quarterback Geno Smith was masterful in his passing all day, but the Baylor quarterback was very good in his own right. Even when WVU moved out to a 21 point lead in the second half, we knew we couldn’t relax or feel good just yet—there was too much time left and Baylor had demonstrated that they could score quickly, too. It was a wild and memorable game!

Of all the fantastic plays—and there were many on this day—the one that I would deem the best was the one-handed grab by wide receiver J.D. Woods which kept our final drive alive and let us run out the clock. It was one of the only bad throws Geno made on this day, but J.D. was able to reach back and catch it with just one hand. Had he not, it likely would have been intercepted and the outcome could have been much different—and not nearly as glorious.

Because the game was such a barn-burner, the vast majority of the crowd stayed until the very end. We always stay after each game and sing along with John Denver’s “Country Roads” but sometimes those fans with long distances to travel have already left. This game was different, as there were virtually no empty seats to be seen. Instead, the Mountaineer Nation stood as one, arm in arm, swaying back in forth to our state anthem, while the jumbo screen showed live shots of the crowd and the players, interspersed with pictures of various state landmarks. It was a great day to be a Mountaineer!

Indeed, it’s been a great week, as we have continued to see the attention and accolades given to our undefeated team and Heisman-leading quarterback. Let’s savor how this feels, and hope to continue the dream with a victory against Texas on national TV in prime time. Let’s go, Mountaineers!!!

I'm sitting in a gold section mid-way across the upper deck.

Monday, September 24, 2012

I came, I climbed, I conquered

A few years back, I had picked up a brochure somewhere while traveling West Virginia for the Nelson Rock’s Via Ferrata. I realized that “via ferrata” is Italian for “by way of iron.” The Italians had installed iron rungs in the steep sections of the Alps to better move their armies across the mountains. In Europe, many other via ferratas were built, and have become a popular form of recreation, but only a handful exist in North America. Fortunately, one of them is in my home state.

Nelson Rocks ( is an unusual geological feature a few miles south of West Virginia’s better known Seneca Rocks. They were both formed by the same vein of rock, but unlike the huge single vertical cliff at Seneca Rocks, Nelson Rocks has split into two thin sections which look like a tall dorsal fin of a fish or dinosaur. The owners installed a series of metal rungs and safety cable allowing inexperienced rock climbers to traverse the sheer cliffs. Just to add to the fun, they built a 250 foot long swinging bridge, complete with 2x4 wooden slats spaced 18 inches apart, allowing a person to see the ground that is 150 feet below with every step (plus fewer boards mean less weight and wind resistance).

I’ve always enjoyed trying different forms of recreation, and have frequently regaled my blog readers with stories of my hiking, biking, motorcycling, rafting, kayaking, etc. However, when the rock climbing craze began to gain steam a decade (or more) ago, I thought I was probably too old, too heavy, too weak in the arms, and too afraid of heights to get into it. I’d tried a few of those fancy climbing walls, but didn’t feel very confident about my capabilities. Plus, the glass flooring at the Sears Tower in Chicago and the CN Tower in Toronto had really messed with my head (although I eventually walked on them).

However, I was intrigued by the Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata brochure and website (especially after surviving the BridgeWalk over the New River Gorge earlier this summer). They emphasized their safety precautions, beginning with the fact that you are always clipped onto the safety cable. They mentioned that leg strength was more important than arm strength. Their guides are highly experienced. They even provide several safe escape routes in case you get up there and find it too intimidating to continue. I decided to give it a try, but my first attempt was rained out (however I still had fun that day—see my story at I was able to reschedule for September 21, the last full day of summer—it would be a grand adventure as a capstone for my summer season. It turned out to be a beautiful blue sky day, with a few of the trees in the upper elevations beginning to show the first signs of autumn colors. Gatan Waddell would be my guide, and he got me set up with the safety harness and a helmet. Soon we were hiking up to the base of the rocks.

We began our journey in the shade of the western side of the formation. Gatan was very helpful in coaching me through the process. I knew I had to focus on my handholds and footholds, and especially the double clipping process so that I would always be connected to the safety cable. By concentrating so much on the task at hand, I was able to avoid looking down as we scaled the vertical wall. Soon we were out of the shade and into the sunlight as we arrived at the notch that allowed us to begin moving laterally across the inside of the western wall. The view at the first notch was amazing! I realized that we had begun the day on an ordinary hiking path that had come to a dead stop at the base of a sheer rock cliff. Mother Nature had placed a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the path, but mankind had found a way to climb over it, and for that accomplishment we were rewarded with an absolutely incredible view. However, this was just the first of many phenomenal views that day. [Look at my feet on the rung in this picture, with nothing but a sheer vertical wall below me.]

Soon we were at the bridge, where we took a brief lunch break. I don’t really consider myself a daredevil, and I knew that this entire via ferrata experience would be a significant personal challenge for me. However, I also knew that confronting one’s fears and then coming out the victor on the other side provides a strong feeling of euphoria—a personal accomplishment that will stay with you the rest of your life. In thinking about the trip prior to arriving (and believe me, I did a lot of “mental visioning” about this adventure), I knew the bridge would be challenging, but I had to try it. As I got started, I tried to focus on each individual board, and on my shoe landing on each board. By focusing one’s vision so hard on that particular point, it was easier to ignore the rocks and treetops below. I was a bit nervous, but very glad when I made it to the eastern wall!

We were quickly climbing vertically again, ever higher up the wall, before crossing another notch to the outer side of the eastern wall. Eventually we came to the optional climb to a stunning view from one of the highest points. Before I had arrived, I had studied the website and read some other accounts so I knew about this option. It is the most challenging part of the adventure, but the view is breathtaking. Since Gatan had expressed how well I was doing, I decided to go for it. I had to climb straight up for quite a distance, sit for awhile on a narrow perch atop the “fin,” and then—for the first time—contend with climbing down a sheer cliff (which requires mostly looking down rather than looking up). I am very glad I took the challenge—it was incredible! [Notice how far down the bridge is in the picture below.]

After that, the rest of the trip was comparatively tame, although you still have an awesome view of the surrounding countryside. One of the things I realized about this climb was how much I enjoyed the mental challenge, beyond just confronting a healthy fear of heights. Rock climbing turns out to be a very mental sport, as you play a “chess game” of sorts, trying to figure out where best to place your hands and feet as you scale the mountain. The metal rungs are not all conveniently placed and numbered for you to follow—sometimes you must use cracks or small ledges on the rock, or reposition yourself to take whatever path works best for your personal dimensions. Plus, there is the incessant need to carefully move your carabiners to the next section of safety cable. By concentrating so hard on what you are doing, it is easy to forget how high up you are.

Eventually, the fins merge with the mountaintop, where you get back on solid ground. A short hike further takes one to the very pinnacle of the mountain, where you can stand on a rock and get a 360 degree view of the North Fork valley as well as nearby Spruce Knob (the highest point in West Virginia). It is easy to discern the spine of rock that forms Seneca Rocks and Nelson Rocks as it stretches for miles up and down the valley. Standing at the peak—literally on top of the world—was a great place to end a great day.

I am so glad that I gave this one-of-a-kind West Virginia experience a try—indeed, I guess in some respects, I am truly a mountaineer now. It is easy stay on the couch, but the rewards of getting out there and trying something new are immense. I will never forget the unique perspective on the world that one gets from this experience. The memories of this personal achievement will live in my mind forever. I conquered the Via Ferrata! [And if a novice, overweight, old guy like me can overcome his “concern” about heights and do this, then many others can, too!]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bikin' and Boatin'

[The story below was written about twenty years ago and submitted to a motorcycle magazine that had a regular column entitled “My Favorite Ride” chosen from reader entries. Unfortunately, my story was not selected for publication—but since I now have my own blog, I can publish it here. I think one can find it to be an interesting story even if you are not a motorcyclist. By the way, if you have time for a longer ride (via car or motorcycle), consider taking Route 26 all the way to where it terminates at Route 800 near Woodsfield, Ohio. Turning right onto Route 800 will take you directly to the Sistersville Ferry (but if you have time, turn left first and explore the quaint town of Woodsfield before turning around and heading towards the Ohio River).]

Our forefathers were frequently forced to rely on ferryboats to cross large rivers. However, today’s modern bridges have made ferryboats nearly extinct. One of the last remaining public ferryboats on the Ohio River is based in Sistersville, West Virginia, and it makes for a unique motorcycle destination. There is something magical about seeing a street that disappears into the dark waters of the river, with only a small floating piece of "street" that connects to the opposite bank. Our motorcycles should get the opportunity at least once to go on a boat ride, and I can tell you an excellent way to get there. My suggested 80 mile loop also includes Ohio Route 26—designated by Car and Driver magazine in January 1990 as one of the Top 10 highways in America—as well as a brief side trip onto an Ohio River island.

My favorite ride begins and ends in Marietta, Ohio. This historic river city was the first incorporated town in the Northwest Territory, and has lots of interesting places to explore in its own right. If you arrive via Interstate 77, take Ohio Exit 1 and head south on Route 7. At the first major stoplight just south of the Interstate, turn right onto Acme Street, and follow it about half a mile until it terminates at Route 26.

Turn right onto Route 26 North and the fun will soon begin. Route 26 has lots of hills and curves, and a few of the turns are banked higher than some NASCAR tracks! Route 26 transverses part of the Wayne National Forest, and has been designated as the Covered Bridge Scenic Byway. The road includes several pull-offs with historical markers that are easy to read from a motorcycle (e.g., Mail Pouch barn paintings near mile marker 11, the Myers General Store near mile marker 20, etc.). At about mile marker 18, you can even ride across the Hune Covered Bridge, built in 1877.

About three miles after passing the Rinard Covered Bridge, be on the lookout for Ohio Route 260. Turn right and follow 260 about ten miles until it ends at Ohio Route 7 in New Matamoras. Turn left and take Route 7 north about four miles to catch the Sistersville Ferry (behind the BP station). The ferry operates from April through December, and costs $2 per motorcycle. It is a great time to take off your helmet for a few minutes and enjoy the unique view from the water.

Exiting the ferry, go up two blocks and turn left onto Main Street for just one block. Turn right onto Charles Street, which will take you past the historic Wells Inn Hotel and Restaurant (circa 1894), a good place for local information if you want to explore Sistersville. If you want to stretch the ride into two days, the rooms at the hotel are very nice and surprisingly affordable.

At the corner of the hotel, take a right onto WV Route 2 south. The next 18 miles will give you several panoramic vistas of the Ohio River before you enter St. Marys. For an interesting diversion, I suggest visiting Middle Island, a part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Middle Island is unique because it is the only one with a bridge. Take a right at the second stoplight in St. Marys and go one block on Washington Street, before making a left onto Second Street. You will notice that St. Marys is one of the few remaining towns where the railroad tracks go down the center of the town. After just one block on Second Street, turn right onto George Street, and you will see the bridge ahead of you. The island has a well-maintained (but unpaved) road that goes nearly two miles up the west bank of the island, with several informative markers along the way.

Returning back across the Middle Island bridge, stay straight on George Street for two blocks (watch out for trains--and notice the county court house on the hill ahead) and turn right on Route 2 south. Stay in the right lane to cross the Ohio River bridge and take Ohio Route 7 south. On the left, one mile south of the bridge, is the Newport Jug Dairy Bar, where you can get some food, or just rest at the benches and picnic tables under a majestic old maple tree on the riverbank.

Six miles further down Route 7 is the Willow Island Locks and Dam. There is a picnic and observation area where you can watch the big towboats move through the locks on their river journey. The large Willow Island power plant across the river was the lead story on the national newscasts back in April 1978. One of the large cooling towers collapsed during construction, killing 51 men.

The remaining ten miles brings you back into Marietta, through its northern suburb of Reno. You will pass several different motorcycle dealerships (Victory, Suzuki/Kawasaki/Yamaha, and Honda) in Reno, just in case you need to do some shopping (the Harley dealership recently moved just across the river off the first I-77 exit in West Virginia). As you return to the starting point, you can turn right onto Acme Street once again, and then take another right into the shopping center parking lot, in order to visit the Marietta Tourist Information Trolley. Inside this former trolley car that has been converted into a tourism office, you can find more suggestions of things to do while in this area.

Where the road meets the water

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

R.I.P. Dr. Harris

UC Professor Emeritus Evelyn Harris died today—she was one of the most important figures in my life. Aside from my parents, she deserves most of the credit for where I am today. Although I knew this day would be coming (she was 90), it still hurts to know she is gone.

I came to UC as a raw freshman, uncertain as to what college would be like. During my first week on campus, I took a seat in her classroom (Room 306 Riggleman Hall) for the “State and Local Government” class. I still remember one of her assignments for that class during the election year of 1976. She required students to subscribe to a major out-of-state newspaper, and write a report on the election in that state. This was a very creative assignment! I chose the Charlotte Observer from her list of newspapers (in part because I knew I could get good coverage of auto racing in their sports section). It was fun to always be getting a daily newspaper in my little mailbox at the lobby of the dorm. I learned a lot about North Carolina that semester from the newspaper assignment, but I learned even more about West Virginia government from her lectures.

I quickly realized this woman was a phenomenal teacher. She was so passionate about political science (which I had chosen as my major), and her zeal for the topics we covered helped to make her lectures interesting. I realized that I was learning from a true intellectual. She had come to UC in the 1940s from New York with her husband, a scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and who had taken a job with a chemical plant near Charleston after WWII. Many of her former students went on to positions of responsibility in the government, including one of her all-time favorite students: Robert C. Byrd.

For me, she became my Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all rolled into one. I had her for class for probably every semester over the next four years. That includes one semester when she taught “History of Russia” (one of the most eye-opening classes I ever had) as a TV course at 6:00 AM on Saturday mornings on WCHS-TV8 (I used to stumble out to the dorm lobby, put a cassette recorder next to the television, and tried to stay awake on the couch after a typical Friday night of college “activities”).

She was instrumental in convincing me to spend a semester as an intern in Washington, DC. It was a huge step for this country boy to move to the big city, and go to work every day on Capitol Hill as an intern for Congressman Nick Rahall. I’m so glad I took her advice! That experience is still paying dividends today. I often visit DC in my current job, and enjoy remembering the city as I knew it in 1979.

I tried to stay in touch with her over the years, and was delighted to be a guest speaker in her classes a few times. Whenever I pass through Charleston and have the time, I often stop by the UC campus to reminisce, and her classroom was always a place I had to visit. Even when it is empty, I can still sit in those seats and imagine her presence. She was quite inspiring to me! During my career, I have often had leadership training classes where they ask you to envision a mentor you have had in life—Evelyn Harris is who I always think of.

Because she spent her entire career at UC, she was often a “touchstone” whose name could spark conversations with alumni from different eras. My uncle, who spent a year at UC in the late ‘40s after coming home from WWII, had taken one of her classes and remembered her fondly. However, not everyone liked her in the same manner I did. She had a reputation as a tough but fair professor, and if you weren’t a serious student, then you didn’t want to take her class. There were no easy “A”s in her class.

In fact, here is a story related to her tough grading philosophy from the late ‘70s. A small bulletin board near her classroom doorway was used by the Political Science Club which she sponsored. Across the top of the bulletin board were cardboard letters about four inches high which spelled out the title. However, the letter “A” had come up missing, so that it read “POLITIC L SCIENCE CLUB.” As some of us were talking with her after class (probably about an upcoming Political Science Club function), she suggested someone ought to replace that missing letter. A fellow student jokingly replied to her that it hadn’t been fixed because “…no one could make an A in political science!” [I think the rest of us laughed at the joke more than she did, but she still cracked a smile.]

When I started teaching American Government and Constitutional Law classes about ten years ago, I knew that I would be emulating the best political science professor I had ever had. She was my role model for how my classes were to be structured. I wanted to push students to learn but also be fair. I also wanted to make them think, to encourage classroom debate, and to always be excited about the topic, just as she had been. There was no way that I could ever pay her back for what a good teacher she had been to me—all I could do was to “pay it forward” by inspiring a new generation of students. I don’t think I could ever come close to reaching the high bar she set, but at least I tried to give my students a taste of what it was like to be in her classroom.

I sometimes called her to keep in touch and let her know what I was doing. During one of these infrequent calls, she gave me a good idea to use in my classes. I had told her that I made a practice of giving my American Government students a test based on sample questions from the U.S. Citizenship test (to make them realize how little they knew about their government and how lucky they were to be born American). She loved that concept, and then suggested that I should also give them a test based on questions that blacks in the south were often asked when registering to vote. I was able to find a listing of such questions on the Internet, and this became a regular feature in my Constitutional Law class.

About 15 years ago, I became aware of a book called “Tuesdays with Morrie” about a former student visiting with his former professor before his death. I went to the library and got this book on tape prior to a trip when I was driving across the state of Ohio. It turned out to be a very emotional book; to the point that I am not ashamed to admit crying to myself as I drove alone through the flat cornfields on the western side of Ohio. I didn’t know Morrie, but I knew an intellectual professor who had touched my life in the same way. I treasured my interactions with her. Now she is gone too, and she will be missed by many of us.

That's me sitting in her classroom during my most recent visit to campus.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Taking the fort by land and by sea

Well, okay, the title is a bit over-dramatic. I visited Prickett’s Fort State Park (near Fairmont, West Virginia) twice this weekend, once via bicycle and once with my kayak. Prickett’s Fort is a recreation of the original fort which was built in 1774 to protect early settlers in the area from Indian attacks. It features re-enactors who help to tell the story of life on the frontier in this area.

On Saturday morning in Morgantown, I left on my bicycle and worked my way over to the trail at the end of Collins Ferry Road. This narrow trail down the hill is where Collins Ferry Road gets its name—even though the current road dead ends, in the old days it led horses and wagons down the hill to a ferry crossing. As I coasted down the remaining dirt path, I obliterated an unseen spider’s web that had spanned the pathway between trees on each side. [I bet that spider thought “If only the web would have held, I could have eaten on that for years!”]

Soon I was headed up the Monongahela River on the rail trail from Morgantown. About 26 miles later, I arrived at Prickett’s Fort. It was fun riding alongside the river, passing three massive locks and dams that allow boats to travel to Fairmont. I also passed a long row of abandoned brick coke ovens—evidence of the coal industry that had once dominated the area. [A simply analogy is that coke is to coal what charcoal is to wood.] Arriving at Prickett’s Fort, there is a high railroad bridge that spans the Mon River, but it has clearly been abandoned. What once was an engineering marvel that helped move tons and tons of coal north to Pittsburgh steel furnaces is now a rusting hulk.

I had made this ride from Morgantown to Prickett’s Fort about four years ago, and at that time had continued on a small connector trail that leads a couple of miles from the fort into downtown Fairmont. Yesterday I just wanted to do some scouting for a potential kayak outing on Prickett’s Creek, before turning around and pedaling back to Morgantown.

Today, Anna and I loaded up our kayaks and headed to the boat ramp at Prickett’s Fort. It was a beautiful day as we paddled up Prickett’s Creek. It was soon obvious that the wildlife was abundant here. We had large blue herons squawking at us, smaller greenback herons watching us intently, and even a white heron stalking fish along the banks. Kingfishers and killdeer also flitted about, as well as the numerous ducks and geese. We paddled through literal swarms of minnows—hundreds of them swimming in circles but in unison. We also saw several larger fish as well. A variety of colorful wildflowers decorated the banks—cardinal flowers, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, etc. Most of our creek trek was in a wilderness area shielded from the park, but soon we saw the roadway that led to the park entrance. We were able to paddle under the first car bridge and continue going upstream until the second car bridge before turning around.

After following a different channel back downstream, we headed out onto the Mon River. We crossed under the old train bridge and continued upstream for a good distance before turning around and heading back to the boat ramp. The river is nice, but the smaller creeks are always more interesting for kayaking. Soon we were back on shore and loading up. We didn’t visit the actual fort on this trip, because we have visited it several times in the past. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend checking it out. It is especially great to take children there for a “living history” lesson about our forefathers. Plus, Prickett’s Fort makes for a great bicycling or kayaking destination!

My ten foot orange kayak stowed inside my Prius, with Prickett’s Fort in the background.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Walk in the Woods (but not just any woods)

A killer is stalking them—okay, granted, it is just a tiny bug, but still it kills them. With their existence threatened, I didn’t want to wait very long to go see them again. When I found out that Anna had never been to Cathedral State Park, I wanted her to see this majestic old-growth hemlock tree forest before it was too late. Anna was a Knight of the Golden Horseshoe (a West Virginia state history award for 8th graders), so she knew all about Cathedral State Park, but had never had the chance to visit there.

We left Morgantown and headed for Preston County. We stopped for lunch at Monroe’s Restaurant in Kingwood. It is an interesting old place that is on the list of 101 best restaurants in West Virginia ( We parked on the courthouse square and walked around a bit exploring the town.

Back in the car, we left Kingwood and headed downhill to the Cheat River, where we turned right onto Route 72. We paralleled this beautiful river for most of this trip, including views of the Cheat Narrows where we recently had kayaked. Beyond where our whitewater trip had started, we came to the town of Rowlesburg. This is a bigger town that I had imagined. I remember reading about the damages there in the big flood back in 1985—it must have been devastating.

Further upstream from Rowlesburg, Route 72 meets U.S. Route 50. Taking a left onto Route 50, we continued running alongside the rippling rocks and waters of the Cheat. Finally, the road veers left, leaving the river for an assault on the mountain. Up and up you go, through many a curve until you finally reach the top. In the era before Interstate highway travel was common, highways like U.S. 50 were major thoroughfares, carrying a lot more traffic than they do today. I’m glad on this particular day we didn’t have to follow any 18 wheelers up the hill.

We soon arrived at Cathedral State Park, parked the car, and headed for the trails. Cathedral is one of the last stands of virgin hemlock forest left in the state. Much of eastern America was covered in hemlock forests when the white man arrived and cut most of them down. Hemlock trees had become the dominant species over time, because they grow so high and block the sunlight, plus their bark and needles that they shed helps to make the soil more acidic, which they enjoy but others don’t. There are a number of trees in the park that are more than a hundred feet high. Some of the tree trunks are 20 feet in circumference. A babbling brook meanders along its way. It seems like a magical forest!

We hiked around most of the trails in this small state park (133 acres). One that I had never been on before near the park boundary had a long straight downhill section that was “sunken.” We wondered if it had been an old trail or road at one time, but I saw on-line where it had been a “log slide” from when the neighboring property had been timbered.

Fortunately, the trees in Cathedral were never cut down. The last private owner, Mr. Brandon Haas, sold it to the state in 1942 with the provision that it never be cut down. We all owe Mr. Haas our gratitude for sharing his trees with us! It should be noted that there are other small pockets of virgin hemlock on private lands around the state. Another place where one can see them is on the TreeTops Canopy Tour near the New River Gorge Bridge. I’ve “zipped” on their zip line tour a few times through their hemlock trees and they are also a sight to behold. Unfortunately, a little bug from Asia called an adelgid sucks the sap of hemlock trees until they die. Let’s hope that scientists are able to preserve the hemlocks from this invasive pest.

Rather than re-trace our route back to Morgantown, we continued heading east on Route 50, and soon crossed into the bottom corner of western Maryland. We turned left onto U.S. Route 219 and ventured north (alongside a mountain ridge topped with wind turbines) to Oakland, the county seat of Garrett County, Maryland. It is a quaint old railroad town. We continued north to the Deep Creek Lake/Wisp ski resort area, which is a big vacation destination for some eastern city dwellers who want to get out of the Baltimore/Washington heat and head for the mountains. Our original plan was to eat at one of our favorite restaurants there called “Canoe on the Run” but then we remembered it is only open for breakfast and lunch. If you are ever in that area during those times, it is a great place to eat.

We drove into Friendsville and checked out the rafting companies and the public whitewater access for the Youghiogheny River (for future reference). Then we jumped onto I-68 for the short drive back to Morgantown.

Finally, perhaps I should mention that Cathedral State Park is located adjacent to the community of Aurora, West Virginia. With the recent tragedy at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado, we reflected on this terrible loss of innocent lives. Aurora is such a neat name for a community, but it is a shame that a mad man can give one another angle to think about when you hear the word. I hope the victims rest in peace.

Hugging a hemlock tree in Cathedral State Park.

Monday, July 23, 2012

West Fork Kayaking

Yesterday we took our kayaks to Worthington, West Virginia (along U.S. Route 19 between Fairmont and Shinnston), for a trip on the West Fork River. In the 1800s, there had been a mill at Worthington, and the mill dam still restricts the waterflow there, creating a pool of water about five feet higher than it would have been. There is a small park in Worthington that provides access to the West Fork River, as well as a scenic view of the old cut stone dam.

A year or two ago, I had bicycled the entire West Fork Rail Trail, which parallels the river between Shinnston and Fairmont for nearly 17 miles. Based on what I saw that day, I had thought that the riverside park at Worthington would be a good place to park a vehicle and try some kayaking. Unfortunately, access to the upper pool is limited to a few muddy paths down the bank, some lined with poison ivy. [It would be nice if some elected officials were to put just a little effort to develop this park to attract flat water kayakers.] There is a boat ramp of sorts for launching fishing boats below the dam, but I felt the extra depth gained by the dam would make the upper pool a better bet for us. Plus, I wanted to paddle upstream at the start, and then we could get assistance from the current on the way back. That is much better than starting downstream and then fighting the current to get back to where you parked your vehicle.

Not long after putting in at the dam, we saw riffles in the water as we paddled upstream. The pool above the dam doesn’t last long before you are digging your paddles hard to make progress upstream. We were able to get by this first test, but fought against a detectable current most of the way. I didn’t expect the West Fork challenge us like it did, but the recent rainfalls probably increased its strength. The extra depth may have helped us go further, though, because there were several places with riffles that were just deep enough to work our way through. Part of the fun of kayaking is trying to read the river to choose the best path to take.

We passed about half a dozen bridges (or remnants of bridges)—some for cars and some for the trains that formerly serviced the coal mines in this area. Usually there was one pier that seemed to collect the most flotsam, as if it had magnetic powers over the driftwood that floodwaters bring to it. One bridge, with fading white paint indicating it was part of the old Western Maryland Railway, had a huge tree trunk about six feet wide that turned out to be hollow.

We stopped a few times to rest and enjoy the scenery. Occasionally we would see a fish jump, but the recent rains had made the water too cloudy to really see anything in it. There was one tributary creek that we were able to go up for a short distance. We enjoyed “chasing” a large blue heron up the river. This bird stood more than three feet tall, and probably had a six foot wingspan. Whenever we would get close to his waterside perch, he would spread his wide wings and majestically fly low up the river a short distance, only to need to move again as we continued our upstream trek.

We made it about three miles upstream to Enterprise, West Virginia, before deciding to turn around. The trip back was much more relaxed than the trip up, and probably took less than half the time. It made for an enjoyable day, directing our kayaks up and down the river, while soaking in the sunshine as well as West Virginia’s natural beauty.

[By the way, I should also mention that we made a stop on this trip at the Poky Dot restaurant in Fairmont, which has been featured on the Food Network and is on the list of the state’s 101 best restaurants. I didn't take any pictures on the river, but I did take the shot below of a couple of "patrons" who reign over a couple of chairs at the bar of the Poky Dot. It gives you an indication of the light-hearted atmosphere in this long-time local landmark.]

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Heights and Depths Named Seneca

A view of Seneca Rocks

I prepared myself all week for an adventure that would really test my abilities. I had read about the “Via Ferrata” (Italian for “iron road”) at Nelson Rocks in Pendleton County, West Virginia, and had wondered if I should give it a try. Nelson Rocks is a privately owned rock cliff area south of the famous Seneca Rocks. Besides traditional rock-climbing opportunities, the owners have installed a long series of metal rungs with adjacent safety cables so that even novice rock climbers can easily get the experience of transversing a rock face.

I have what I consider to be a normal fear of heights, but after successfully completing the New River Gorge Bridgewalk a few weeks ago, I was ready to try a new challenge. The Bridgewalk takes tourists on the narrow “catwalk” underneath the bridge surface that was originally intended for maintenance workers. It was easier to look down on the rapids of the New River nearly 900 feet underneath you when you know you are wearing a harness and are clipped into a safety cable. Perhaps that same reassurance would allow me to scale the sheer cliffs at Nelson Rocks.

I drove to Nelson Rocks yesterday for my “Via Ferrata” adventure, but unfortunately, the intermittent rain caused it to be cancelled. [Although it messed up my plans, I know the farmers needed the rain.] I did get to check out their operation, and I was impressed with their professionalism. We talked for a good while and I got to drive up to the base of the rocks.

So after leaving Nelson Rocks, I went to my backup plan—caving. A few miles up the road is Seneca Caverns. Going underground was a good thing to do on a rainy day. Seneca Caverns is a typical tourist cave, complete with colored lights in some areas. They have done a good job making it interesting. When we got to the end at the back exit for the caverns, it was still raining, so their policy is rather than make folks walk outside in the rain, we got to reverse course and make our way back to the main building via the cave. As we neared the entrance, we ran into the “Traveling West Virginia” television crew from channel 8 and 11 in Charleston, who were videotaping a segment on Seneca Caverns.

My tour inside Seneca Caverns

My tour of Seneca Caverns was nice, but I wanted something more. Fortunately, they have opened up a new cave adventure further down the hill called “Stratosphere,” which is operated as a wild cave. I had to try it, too! The only lights are attached to your helmet. There are a number of tricky inclines to traverse, aided only by a rope. I got back to the log cabin main office just in time to purchase my ticket for the next tour that was getting ready to leave.

My trip through Seneca Caverns had been with a group of about 15. However, for the “Stratosphere” wild cave tour, there was only one other couple (they live and work in DC, but have bought a small cabin in West Virginia for weekend getaways) besides myself and our guide. It is very different experience to be in a large cave with only a light on your helmet. The guide did an excellent job answering our questions and pointing out amazing features—such as the couple of delicate mushrooms growing in total darkness inside the cave.

The hike itself was moderately challenging, but I recommend good hiking boots, because unlike Seneca Caverns, there is no designated footpath that has been conveniently covered in gravel or has nice steps built to make climbing easy. Much of the floor of the Stratosphere cave is moist, slippery clay—with a few rope “bannisters” to provide something to hold onto. It is primarily downhill to the lowest point of the cave (and the feature that gives this cave its name), and then a return trip uphill to the entrance.

It was an interesting adventure—and best of all, the rain had stopped upon emerging from the second cave. After cleaning the mud off my shoes, I got in the car and headed north to Seneca Rocks. This iconic West Virginia landmark (which some had mentioned for the back of the West Virginia state quarter) is a huge rock cliff that juts skyward from the valley floor. I hiked the 1.5 mile path to the top (a vertical gain of 1000 feet) in just half an hour. The view from the top of Seneca Rocks is absolutely incredible! It is as if you have hiked into the sky. I have visited here numerous times over my lifetime, but its scenic vista never fails to amaze.

So I got to experience the lowest point below the earth’s surface within Seneca Caverns as well as the highest point on Seneca Rocks. Both of these destinations owe their names to the Seneca Indians, who primarily are associated with living in upstate New York. However, like other Native American tribes, they frequently came south to hunt and visit in West Virginia, thus lending their name to some of our locations.

I finished my day trip by driving north to Morgantown via two-lane roads through Harmon, Parsons, Rowlesburg, Kingwood, and Masontown. I even got to view the section of the Cheat River that we kayaked last weekend. It was a beautiful trip through the West Virginia countryside, and was much better than backtracking westward across Rt. 33 through Elkins to Weston, and then taking I-79 northeast to Morgantown. Even though I had to change my plans, I had a very memorable day in wild, wonderful West Virginia!

That last step is doozey!