Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Nice Place To Visit (but I'm glad I wasn't born there)

If you know me at all, you know I am a proud West Virginian. Some of my ancestors fought with the Union Army during the Civil War that created my home state. I’ve written before about my strong attachment to my native state, and how, despite its troubles, it will always be near and dear to my heart. From Hancock County in the north to McDowell County in the south, from Kenova at the western point to Harper's Ferry at the eastern point, I identify with the entire state.

However, my hometown is just across the river from the state of Ohio. I came close to being an Ohioan, and not just due to my proximity to the border. My father’s family spent time living in Ohio during the Depression and World War II (my grandmother served as a “Rosie the Riveter” building F-4 Corsair fighter planes in Akron), but thankfully they came home to West Virginia after the war. Had they stayed in Akron, my parents would have never met and I’d never have been born. Some other version of my father’s son would have likely been born in the Buckeye state.

Indeed, the industrial base of Akron was a prime destination for West Virginians looking for work for the first half of the 20th century. In my grandparent’s era, there was an old adage that the “Three R’s” taught in West Virginia schools were “readin’, ‘ritin’, and Route 21”--which was the road that led north to Akron and Cleveland. Once the northern part of I-77 was finished in the '70s, old two-lane U.S. Route 21 was demoted from being a U.S. Route, and became West Virginia Route 14 from Charleston to Parkersburg, as well as Route 821 in Ohio. [I saw a form of this same outward migration during my lifetime. After the completion of the southern part of Interstate 77 (and with air conditioning making the south more hospitable), Charlotte became a prime destination for West Virginians wanting better jobs.]

Ohio has some good things about it, and I certainly enjoy visiting and doing things there. Athens is a cool college town little more than half an hour away that reminds me of Morgantown (before the expansion WVU has experienced since I graduated). There are lots of interesting restaurants and stores, a top-notch film festival each spring, plus an ice rink and a hockey team. Halloween is a huge holiday there—we went once just to observe the creative costumes. I also wrote in my blog last fall about my first Ohio University football game and the talented Marching 110 band. As with any major college campus, there are always tons of interesting activities going on there.

Columbus has always been the closest major city to my hometown, and I can remember a few trips there back in the ‘60s. I also remember Dad listening to radio WTVN 610 AM (I think it was one of those 50,000 watt radio stations that could be heard in West Virginia) in the car sometimes. In my adult life, it has become a favorite weekend destination, with tons of interesting activities. Our favorite, of course, is the good folks at Shadowbox Live, which is hard to describe, but a bit like Saturday night live, except with more music between the skits ( Other favorite landmarks include COSI, the Columbus Zoo, the Santa Maria, the Art Museum, the Franklin Conservatory, etc. Ameriflora in 1992—a celebration of Columbus’s voyages 500 years earlier—was phenomenal.

Cincinnati and Cleveland are a longer drive, but each of these two metropolitan areas has their own unique attractions, such as the Underground Railroad Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (just to name one—of many—from both). Dayton (Air Force Museum), Akron (Inventors Museum), and Canton (Football Hall of Fame) are other interesting cities. Put-in-Bay gives a tropical island feel even though it has Lake Erie weather. Although not located in major cities, the outdoor dramas “Blue Jacket” and “Tecumseh,” as well as the Ohio Renaissance Festival, the Hocking Hills area, and “the Wilds,” have been very entertaining. Finally, the sports fan inside me has to mention that I’ve been to Browns, Reds, and Blue Jackets games, in addition to races at about a dozen oval tracks around Ohio as well as NHRA events at National Trail Dragstrip.

What I’m trying to say is that Ohio has a lot going for it. If nothing else, at least people know it really is a state (some folks are too dumb to understand that West Virginia is its own state). Despite Ohio’s current economic problems (that everyone seems to be facing), it is still a prosperous and progressive state. Ohio often figures prominently in national politics and was the home of several presidents. It has always been a powerful state, with major league sports teams, and a perennial NCAA championship contender with the Ohio State Buckeyes. It seems that OSU has hardly ever suffered a losing season, especially in football.

While all of these things are wonderful, and the list should be even longer, the fact remains that I am glad I am a West Virginian. I am so thankful that the strong bonds to family and to these hills called my father’s family back to West Virginia after the war. Plus, I’m thankful that my mom’s side of the family had long been entrenched here—and it is through her that I have the two ancestors who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War to help create the state of West Virginia. Had the Confederates been victorious, the fledgling state of West Virginia would no doubt have been given back to the politicos in Richmond.

Much of my personality—my inner psyche—is tied to my native state, and the lack of full respect I feel it deserves. How many times do we have to be the punchline for a TV comedian, or be lumped into Virginia by some clueless sportscaster? I don’t know what it would have been like to have been raised in a state like Ohio that was seen as an important state. I’m especially glad I didn’t grow up in the flat regions of Ohio—flat land still makes me a bit nervous. Give me some hills for security!

I’m glad I grew up in a rural state, with lots of scenic beauty. If I want metropolitan areas and the cultural diversions they provide, they can be driven to when needed. In the meantime, I’ll stick to the West Virginia hills and the comfort they provide. Our citizens may not be the most educated or the most affluent, but there is an innate goodness within the vast majority of them.

And I’ll keep cheering for the Mountaineers, whether they are winning or losing, because that WV logo represents me. Losing seasons just make you appreciate the winning ones even better. There are good life lessons that come from the pain of defeat (or of disrespect), and I feel I had the chance to learn a lot over the years. It is just part of that "chip on the shoulder" that most of us carry. West Virginians have always had to fight a little harder than everyone else to prove we belong, going all the way back to our birth as a state (see my previous essay at It is who we are—and I am glad I am one, instead of a Buckeye.

That's me standing next to some of West Virginia's majestic natural beauty.  This is just one of a series of waterfalls along Deckers Creek near Morgantown.  It is a wild, wonderful state!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sweet 16

I am a motorcyclist, and in my mind there is no better place for motorcycling than our two lane roads in West Virginia. Around every corner and over every peak is a new vista to enjoy. I can’t imagine that motorcycling across the flatlands could be near as fun (nor challenging) as the twists and turns of our backroads and highways.

One of my favorite rides is West Virginia Route 16 (although this trip also can be fun in the right car). This highway transverses the state, from the majestic Ohio River at St.Marys to the Virginia border beyond Coalwood (the company town made famous in the book “Rocket Boys” which became the movie “October Sky”) in McDowell County.

St. Marys in Pleasants County is just the first of many county seats that this highway connects. Following soon thereafter as one proceeds south is Harrisville in Ritchie County, Grantsville in Calhoun County, and Clay in—where else—Clay County.

In Clay County, Route 16 runs along the Elk River. If you have only seen the Elk River near its terminus in Charleston where it joins the Kanawha River, you can’t truly appreciate the Elk. It is a beautiful mountain river tumbling over the rocks as you run beside it, before crossing a bridge and heading up the hill to cross a ridge into another watershed.

Soon you enter the Gauley River drainage area, and eventually run alongside it until it meets the New River at Gauley Bridge. The Gauley is famous for its rafting, especially in the fall when water is released from the Summersville Dam. It is the most thrilling whitewater rafting in the eastern United States! [Indeed, I have rafted many rivers, but none compare to the mighty Gauley in the fall.]

At the end of the Gauley, Route 16 turns left and joins U.S. Route 60 (known as the Midland Trail highway) for an assault on Gauley Mountain. If you have the time, you may want to take a diversion to the right, past the little town of Gauley Bridge and through the adjoining hamlet of Glen Ferris (home of the historic Glen Ferris Inn, which has been in operation since 1839), and visit the park just below Kanawha Falls. The Kanawha is formed by the merger of the New and Gauley Rivers, and shortly thereafter tumbles over about a twenty foot cataract spanning the broad width of the river. The whole Kanawha Falls and Gauley Mountain area saw a lot of action in the Civil War, and future U.S. Presidents Hayes and McKinley served stints here.

If you skip Kanawha Falls and make the left turn, you still get a shot at a different type of waterfall—smaller, but taller rather than wide. Just a mile or so after Route 16 joins Route 60, the highway jerks left, crossing the railroad tracks, and directly ahead is a pull-off area on the left for Cathedral Falls, where a small stream tumbles down the rocky hillside heading towards the nearby New River. If there have been recent rains, this view can be spectacular.

Soon you are climbing away from the New River and up the legendary Gauley Mountain. The twists and turns over the next 15 miles or so are absolutely incredible, as are the views from several pull-off areas. Just after the tightest hairpin turn at Chimney Corner, Rt. 16 splits away from Rt. 60 and heads down to cross the New River over the low Cotton Hill bridge, before climbing up out of the gorge and into Fayetteville (the county seat of Fayette County). By the way, Fayette County has become quite the tourist destination in recent years, with lots of interesting shops and activities—too many to list here.

Another option is to veer left at Chimney Corner and follow Rt. 60 up the hill to Hawks Nest State Park, with its iconic overlook of the gorge (if you stop, be sure to read about the tragedy involved with the New River tunnel). Continuing on past Ansted, you can get on U.S. 19, and cross over the famous New River Gorge Bridge (as pictured on the back of the West Virginia quarter). Each year on the third Saturday in October, this four-lane highway is closed down for Bridge Day, as pedestrians flock to watch the parachutists jump off the bridge. Route 16 can be easily rejoined on the south side of the gorge at Fayetteville. Before leaving Fayette County, you pass through the town of Oak Hill—it was along Route 16 here that country singer Hank Williams died.

The next county is Raleigh County, and its county seat of Beckley, the only large town along this trip. After crossing under the West Virginia Turnpike, Rt. 16 continues south past Sophia, which was known as the hometown of former U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, and then through Mullins, the hometown of former NBA coach Mike D’Antoni.

The final two county seats are Pineville in Wyoming County and Welch in McDowell County. It is easy to see how populated and prosperous the southern West Virginia coalfields were in their glory years. Unfortunately, these areas are struggling to cope with the changing economic situation. Below Welch is the little town of Coalwood, the furthest south I’ve traveled on this trans-West Virginia jaunt.

By staying on just one highway and taking this cross-state road trip, traveling through eight county seats, it is easy to get a sense of rural West Virginia. The views are beautiful, and the driving is much more interesting than the typical interstate superslab. There are lots of intriguing roadside attractions along the way. We truly live in a wild, wonderful state!

Another Auld Lang Syne

It is nearing graduation time, and I have heard several students expressing anguish and sadness about leaving their college friends. As an old guy, I have little sympathy for their despondent complaints. They have no idea in today’s interconnected Facebook world of how difficult it was to say goodbye in the pre-Internet days. Graduation was truly bittersweet back then.

I can remember my college years (late ‘70s through early ‘80s), and the sadness that entailed with each graduation. In those days, the only way to keep in touch was by phone numbers (often through your parents’ number). Long distance phone calls were expensive—can you remember the excitement in the mid-‘80s when MCI first started advertising their lower cost long distance alternative? The days of watching the clock when calling a long distance friend (or the shock at a monthly bill when you made a few long distance calls without watching the clock) are pretty much a thing of the past. Heck, today lots of folks don’t even worry about long distance charges, because long distance calls are included in their billing format.

Another difference is that back then, even if you would decide to try making a long distance call to a friend, there were no answering machines or caller ID to let them know you had tried to reach them while they were out (at least the phone company—often referred to back then as Ma Bell—didn’t charge you for unanswered calls). Even if you had a current roommate in a shared apartment who took a message from a distant college friend who had tried to call you, there was disappointment that you missed the call that they had tried to make to you (knowing that now you would have to pay for the return call). Keeping in touch was hard to do in the old days, especially in the early stages of a career, when folks were often changing their address. Today, there is no need to worry about changing phone numbers if you move, because phone numbers are “portable” now.

Back then, we really were saying goodbye on graduation day. One had to be strong in those days. The incredible friendships we had built in the dorms, classrooms, and campuses were coming to an end, as we each took our separate and tentative steps into the wind that would carry us into adulthood and career. It didn’t take long to lose track of all but your very closest friends (your absolute “besties” or “BFFs” in today’s lingo).

On occasion during the decades following graduation, I would pass through the city of my alma mater, sometimes shopping at the mall or revisiting the campus, always looking for faces that might resemble an aged version of a college acquaintance. I can remember my excitement about ten years ago, when a brief stop at a large grocery store there resulted in a glimpse of someone who looked like a pretty girl I knew at least twenty years earlier at college. I discreetly maneuvered around the aisles of the store in the hopes of getting a better angle to determine if that face could actually be the woman I thought she was. I finally got up the courage to walk up and introduce myself, and even before I spoke, she recognized me as well, despite the decades that had passed. It was a moment similar to what Dan Fogleberg sang about in his 1980 ballad “Same Old Lang Syne,” as we stood there in the grocery store getting caught up on the past few decades. This was an example of the exceedingly rare reunions in the days before Facebook.

Fortunately, Facebook came along and now lots of folks from my generation are no longer dependent on chance meetings at a grocery store to find out how we are doing. Facebook may have been originally designed for undergrads to get to know each other, but it has evolved into a great way for those of us in older generations to reconnect. After departing as the annual graduating class diaspora which occurred on campuses everywhere each spring, we have finally found each other again, and it is wonderful. So don’t expect much pity from me about current graduates lamenting their departures—they have no idea what the older generations experienced.


I just returned from another alumni reunion weekend at the University of Charleston, and it was fantastic. Facebook has truly made a difference the past few years in getting folks from my era to attend. Those who make the effort to return to campus are rewarded with sore throats from all the talking, sore facial muscles from all the smiling, and aching sides from all the laughing. I love the way we love each other, whether or not we were “besties” or merely acquaintances; whether we dated or merely wanted to date.

It seems we all appreciate each other simply because we were contemporaries, and throughout life’s trials and tribulations, we have survived thus far. It isn’t important what we have accomplished—the important part is that we are together again. Age is catching up to us, but we can look at each other through our 18-22 year old eyes, and see us as we once were. Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth” turns out to be our own imprinted remembrances, and gathering us together in a group at our old campus brings a flood of good memories.

One of my nearest and dearest friends had a close coronary call this past year, but after a six-way bypass operation, he seems to be doing well. His experience made many of us realize how much we would have missed him, and why we need to take advantage of these alumni “get togethers” whenever we can—who knows how many more we have? I hope that those who have not joined us will attempt to do so in the future. Those who have done so will tell you it is a blast! A blast from the past! Just like Dan Fogelberg’s hit song:

“We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence
Another auld lang syne...”