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.