Monday, December 30, 2013

R.I.P. Mr. 500

Another icon from my youth passed away yesterday. Andy Granatelli was the CEO of the STP Corporation. He used auto racing as a vehicle to promote his “Scientifically Treated Petroleum” oil additive. He had a colorful personality that came across in print interviews, as well as later when television began to cover auto racing. Under his leadership, the spheroid STP logo became ubiquitous as a decal on race cars everywhere.

Although he had been around as a car owner earlier in the ‘60s, I first became aware of him in 1967 when he brought a turbine powered car to Indy, driven by Hall of Famer Parnelli Jones. I was fascinated with the concept of using a jet engine to power a race car. The mid-‘60s had brought a lot of changes to the venerable Brickyard—most notably the rear engine revolution, beginning with Jim Clark’s 1965 victory. The “times they were a-changing” as new technology was making the front engine roadsters obsolete. A turbine powerplant was, to use a modern phrase, “way cool” in my young mind.

My dad had been a racer, and then served as manager of a local speedway. I had grown up listening to “the greatest spectacle in racing” on the radio every Memorial Day (same day television coverage didn’t come along until the ‘70s, and live coverage only arrived in 1986). Often our Memorial Day was spent washing the car in the driveway and then waxing it under the apple tree in the side yard, with the race coverage blaring from a radio. To this day, there is only one other state song I know besides “The West Virginia Hills”—and that is “Back Home Again in Indiana.” This song is part of the pre-race ceremony and was often sung over the years by Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle). [“…When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, then I long for my Indiana home.”]

Because of my fascination with the “Whooshmobile” (one of the various nicknames given to Parnelli’s turbine, because it sounded so different from the traditional engines), I was very excited for the 1967 broadcast. However, rain interrupted the race before half-way that year, and it was to be resumed the next day—which unfortunately was a school day for me.

Since I was a die-hard race fan, and thoroughly consumed with Mr. Granatelli’s turbine car, I snuck a transistor radio and earphone (only one earphone back then) to my elementary school that day so I could listen. I snaked the wire under my shirt and hoped the teacher wouldn’t notice.

Parnelli Jones led most of the race, and appeared to be heading to an historic victory. Incredibly, with only four laps to go, a $6 transmission bearing failed, allowing A.J. Foyt to win the race for his third time. The next year, Mr. Granatelli brought three turbine cars to the Brickyard. The new wedge-shaped turbine racers were fast—Joe Leonard qualified his on the pole and dominated the race, but another minor problem caused him to drop out while leading with only ten laps left, allowing Bobby Unser to win. In 1969, Granatelli finally made it to Victory Lane at Indy with Mario Andretti in a traditionally powered car.

In the early ‘70s, Granatelli branched out to NASCAR and entered into a long-time sponsorship with my favorite driver, Richard Petty. Lots of folks today probably don’t realize that NASCAR was not as famous as the Indy car racing back then, but Granatelli recognized the beginnings of a surge in popularity for stock car racing.

I never got to meet Andy Granatelli, but he was a larger-than-life character in my formative years. Granatelli later wrote an autobiography entitled “They Call Me Mr. 500.” Rest in peace, Mr. 500, and thanks for the great memories!

[Pictured is Parnelli's 1967 turbine with the side cover removed (to see the turbine) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. I highly recommend this great museum that I visited years ago.]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Canaan’s Magic Carpet

Last winter, Canaan Valley State Park opened a new snow tubing park near their ski slopes. I’m not a skier, thus I haven’t frequented Canaan Valley or any of our ski resorts during the winter, but I thought it would be fun to try snow tubing at one of our prettiest state parks. This new snow tubing park is located on a hill on the left side of the entrance road between where you turn off Route 32 and the ski lodge. They built a small lodge there, complete with a nice fireplace. You stop in there first to pay for your two hour session, and then head out where you are provided with an innertube.

Perhaps the best part of this new attraction is the “magic carpet” conveyor belt to transport you to the top of their hill. At the top, besides the beautiful view of the valley, they have about eight groomed parallel paths down the hill, about a quarter of a mile long, each with a small wall of snow to separate these lanes. You get on top of your tube and ride down the slope. Once you have come to a stop at the bottom, simply walk over to the conveyor belt for an effortless trip back to the top. The magic carpet ride makes tubing easy and convenient, and allows you to look around and enjoy the winter wonderland while being transported.

By the way, I didn’t invest in any special clothing—I just dressed in plenty of layers and then wore a waterproof rain suit on top to prevent getting wet from any melting snow. It may not look as good as those fancy snow suits or ski outfits, but it worked for me.

I fondly remember sledding down our neighbor’s steep hill during my childhood days. As I recall (perhaps exaggerated over time), their yard seemed like a 60 degree slope for the main part of the hill. Unless you bailed out, you then entered a rough former pasture field with small saplings and broom sage. If you had a really good run (as in not hitting anything), then you could make it to the forest where the deep brown leaves and lack of snow due to the tall trees would finally stop you. It was quite an exhilarating ride—followed by the long trudge back up the steep hill for the next run (there was no such thing as a “magic carpet” back in the old days!). We were probably lucky we never got injured given the speed and all the obstacles.

I had a great time snow tubing at Canaan, but I must admit it wasn’t quite the adrenaline rush I had expected (in other words, not a bit like hurtling down my neighbor’s hill). It is perfect for young families—and for keeping the state from getting sued—but I guess that even with my fifty-some-year-old body, I’d like to have a bit more of a challenge. Perhaps I need to try it again at night, since they have spotlights for tubing after dark. All in all, I still had a good time and I encourage others to give it a try.

Riding the magic carpet to the top.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 in the rearview mirror

As each year winds to a close, I like to look back on some of the highlights (click the hotlinks to read stories I wrote about these topics). The year of 2013 started off by running barefoot through the snow in Fayette County to jump into a shallow creek on New Year’s Day (I always wanted to see what that would be like!). Speaking of snow, I also tried cross-country skiing at Canaan Valley for the first time and enjoyed it.

We like kayaking, and had some memorable trips this past summer. The Tour de Coal was a great way to help celebrate the state’s 150th birthday weekend. We also had an excellent trip from Parsons to St. George on the Cheat River, and visited Alpine Lake for the first time. Speaking of Parsons, I had a good time riding my bike on the rail trail (Appalachian Highlands Trail) from there to Elkins and back. Other outdoor adventures included ziplines at the WVU Research Forest, at Burning Rock near Sophia, and at The Wilds in Ohio. I also participated in a few 5K events and got to ride the jet-boat in the New River Gorge.

I spent a lot of time this year in Washington, DC. Much of it was for work, but I still was able to see a few sights, such as the Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport, Great Falls National Park, and the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. We also went to Baltimore for the WVU game at Ravens Stadium. Although the game wasn’t great, revisiting the Inner Harbor area and the Maryland Renaissance Festival was fun.

Other travels this year included a jaunt through the eastern panhandle, including my first visit to Keyser and Moorefield, as well as a long awaited second visit to Green Bank. We also made a similar road trip to Twin Falls State Park and stopped at Thurmond on the way back. We took an interesting day long excursion train from Elkins to Spruce and back, along the beautiful Cheat River (the same train that was later hit by a logging truck). I arranged a fun whirlwind tour of Fayette County for some college friends this spring. This year we finally tried out Cafe Cimino in Sutton, and loved it. Other day trips included the Albert Gallatin National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, a visit to Wheeling for a hockey game and the toy museum, and a stop in Grafton for the annual Mothers’ Day Observance.

I got to see some great entertainment this year. Before it debuted on Broadway, we caught the new show about Janis Joplin while it was in DC, as well as “The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center. We took some of Anna’s relatives to Columbus to see the outdoor version of “Back to the Garden”—a recreation of the Woodstock festival put on by our friends at Shadowbox (we enjoyed several of their regular shows as well—as we do every year). We saw “Rocket Boys,” the musical version of the book by Homer Hickam. Finally, we watched live performances by comics Whoopi Goldberg and Ron White, and concerts by Kathy Mattea and the Plain White T’s (plus I got to see a fun show at Ohio University by Rain, a Beatles tribute band).

I attended a lot of events related to my alma maters, the University of Charleston and WVU, both of which I dearly love. I even got to participate in WVU’s traditional PRT Cram this year! While in Charleston for an alumni weekend last spring, I got to check out a replica of the C.S.S. Hunley submarine that had always fascinated me.

This year proved to be a memorable one for my interest in motorsports. Perhaps my biggest thrill of the year was driving a race car in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience. I also finally made it to Mid-Ohio raceway for their vintage race weekend. But that was not my only road course this year, because our eastern panhandle trip allowed me to revisit Summit Point raceway for the first time since I lived in DC during the ‘80s. I also was able to catch big races on a dirt oval at Mineral Wells and a paved oval at Columbus, as well as old-fashioned drag races at the Waynesburg airstrip.

All these activities were fun (and there were many others that didn’t make this review), but perhaps my most significant moment this year was when my story about Nelson Rocks was selected for publication in “Wonderful West Virginia” magazine. I had grown up reading that magazine and it was great to see my name in it as an author. Hopefully it won’t be the only time I appear in that venerable publication. I must note, however, that I think this essay on West Virginia history was the best one I wrote this year. It was indeed a very good year!

This story looks back on 2013, just like when I was looking out the back of the excursion train along the beautiful Shavers Fork of the Cheat River earlier this year.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tour de Coal and the 150th

With winter upon us, I’m thinking back to this past summer. One of my favorite weekends was in June during the 150th birthday celebration for West Virginia. Besides the special activities in Charleston for the sesquicentennial, we were able to participate in the annual “Tour de Coal,” an 11 mile kayak trip from Tornado to St. Albans on the Coal River held each year in June.
This is the shirt that is given to participants.

We arrived on Friday in time for the free concert at the Levee. The headliner was Nitro’s own Kathy Mattea, who gave a heartfelt concert for the 150th! Then we headed to the Capitol grounds for the amazing fireworks show, complete with holographic displays on the front of the Capitol. It was indescribable!

On Saturday morning, we drove to the Kanawha County Park and Recreation Commission’s Meadowood Park in Tornado, WV. After parking and registering, we joined hundreds of other kayakers and canoeists who funneled from the field into the path leading to the put-in spot along the river. Thanks to the volunteers who helped, the wait was not bad—soon we were on the river, looking briefly upstream at the waterfall that requires this float trip to start just below it.

The Tour de Coal may have started as a race, but now it is more of a social event. With over six hundred participants in more than four hundred watercraft, it ends up being just a fun-filled day on a small river with lots of fellow paddlers. There are a couple of nice small rapids along the way, but the organizers have plenty of support there to assist anyone who gets into trouble.

Before long, we started to see more signs of civilization. Many folks along the way were watching the spectacle of hundreds of different colored watercraft paddling down the river. Finally, we arrived at the finish—just upstream from the Route 60 Bridge in St. Albans. More volunteers helped carry our kayaks up to the parking lot, where most participants had parked their vehicles that morning before taking the free shuttle busses to Meadowood Park. However, I had a long-time friend with a pick-up truck who lived nearby, who met us there to shuttle us back to our vehicle at Tornado.

We were so impressed with the previous night’s fireworks that we decided to watch them again on Saturday night, but from a different vantage point. We went to the University of Charleston (my alma mater) on the opposite riverbank from the Capitol, and enjoyed that view as well.

Kayaking the lower Coal River was a nice way to celebrate the sesquicentennial, but you don’t have to wait until the annual Tour de Coal to check it out. The non-profit Coal River Group has worked hard to develop much of the Coal River watershed into a “water trail” for kayakers and canoeists at any time. Check out their website at for information about this great resource.

I don’t know that I will still be around when West Virginia celebrates its bicentennial, but if I am, I’ll do my best to enjoy the celebration! If I can’t make it, I hope some of you will cover for me, and honor our state’s 200th year of independence.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibusters and the nuclear option

I am saddened by the decision of the Democratic majority (but credit West Virginia’s Senator Manchin as one of the few Democrats to vote against this) to invoke the “nuclear option” reducing the votes needed to stop a filibuster from 60 to 50 (if the Vice-President breaks the tie vote). I think this will join the Citizens United v. FEC case as one of the major contributors to the loss of our American democracy.

I don’t deny that the minority party has been more obstructionist than ever before. However, it seems to me that there was a better solution than invoking the nuclear option that, only a few years ago, the Democrats were crying foul about when the Republicans suggested this option.

To me, the solution would be to go back to the true meaning of a filibuster—as was demonstrated in the classic Jimmy Stewart movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (hopefully some of my former students will remember this movie). Back in 1975, a Senate rule change meant that a Senator only needed to announce his or her intention to filibuster to require a 60 vote “supermajority” to move legislation. No longer did they have to stand and openly talk about their opposition. It became too easy to use the simple threat of filibuster as an obstruction tactic.

It would have been better to get rid of the 1975 rule change than go nuclear. If minority members (whether Republicans now or Democrats prior to 2009) want to filibuster, make them stand in the well of the Senate and explain to the public why they oppose a particular measure or nomination. The glare of the spotlight (we didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle in 1975) would often show their thin arguments on the merits and demonstrate to the world that it was really about obstructionism.

If they were actually required to articulate their opposition, and to do it for a long and physically exhausting period of time blocking other activities in the Senate, then some might re-think whether it was really worth it. The general public would grow tired of these childish tactics, and I think filibuster usage would soon decrease from where it is now. It could still be used when absolutely necessary, but not for every little action.

The best part is that this solution would not have had the same impact on party polarization. Heck, the GOP’s Rand Paul already has shown his willingness to use the classic filibuster (plus Ted Cruz’s effort, while more of a soliloquy and not a real filibuster, was a bit similar). For the Democrats to go nuclear, just five years after they were in the minority and up in arms about it being used against them, is very short-sighted. Yesterday’s decision will likely come back to haunt them when they are in the minority. It will only lead to further political polarization, which is a terrible thing. To me, our democracy requires leaders who can compromise for bipartisan solutions, rather than those who use their temporary majority status for a power grab.

Somehow it is probably fitting that I am writing this on the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, which—when historians of the future look back over the centuries to our era—will probably be seen as the beginning of the end of the American empire. Yesterday’s vote is yet another contribution to this decline. But I still cling to my idealistic hope that things can get better.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rocket Boys

I’m a big fan of Homer Hickam, author of the outstanding book entitled “Rocket Boys.” In 1998, I was serving in my second term on the county school board when I first heard about a great new book celebrating education, the space race, and West Virginia—a perfect combination for me! I eagerly devoured the book “Rocket Boys” and eventually the rest of the Coalwood Trilogy.

I loved Homer’s stories in part because of the similarities we share (although he is much older!).

• Both of us were born in West Virginia, and have a strong affinity for its land and people.
• Both of us were blessed with some inspiring teachers who cared about our education (you can read about mine at
• Both of us did science fair projects about model rocketry (although mine didn’t win a national award) and formed a rocket club with our friends (you can read about some of my model rocket history at
• Both of us were eventually able to turn our interest in rocketry into a job at NASA and visit its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Huntsville (I was working at NASA HQ when Challenger exploded--
• Both of us have been underground in a working coal mine, and experienced the “blackest black of darkness” as well as the grim reality of carrying a numbered bronze tag so that your body could be identified in case of an explosion (for more about my trip underground, see

I also had another connection with the “Rocket Boys” story. While serving on the school board, I learned that the only school in the entire state that had not been successfully paired with a business partner was Homer’s alma mater, Big Creek High School. I contacted a former co-worker at NASA Headquarters and shared the story, which resulted in a unique partnership with NASA through Marshall University.

Fortunately for me, Anna is also a big Homer Hickam fan. About a dozen years ago, we made a trip to McDowell County to visit Coalwood (on the same Route 16 that starts near my hometown along the Ohio River in Pleasants County—see We stopped at the convenience store across from the house where Homer had lived, and talked with the folks there. They insisted we needed to get the “grand tour” and called for Red (O’Dell’s dad, the junk yard guy). He soon picked us up in his old pickup truck and proceeded to drive us around the Coalwood area, pointing out various landmarks from the books. It was a great experience!

However, it was a bit depressing as well, because it was easy to see how the economy had changed so much and that Coalwood was just a shadow of what it had once been. It wasn’t just the Coalwood community, though. On our way there we drove through Welch, the county seat, and it was obvious this once proud major city was on the decline (and the same can be said for most of the West Virginia coalfields). It is a problem with which West Virginia continues to struggle.

We decided to return to Coalwood a couple of years later to attend the annual “October Sky Festival.” It was a big event and most of the “Rocket Boys” were there. It was good to see the community on a festive occasion, as well as seeing some of the real life characters from the books. It was interesting to see them as adults (and to meet Homer’s wife, too).

We had met Homer for the first time in 2002 when he spoke at Ohio University, not far from Parkersburg. This was not long after the Quecreek mine rescue in Pennsylvania, and Homer was able to include in his presentation some pictures of his dad’s similar rescue device from the Coalwood mine. We later attended Homer’s presentation at WVU’s Mountainlair in Morgantown. Each time we got a chance to briefly talk to him afterward.

These various brief meetings with Homer culminated in a chance meeting at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. We just happened to arrive at an entrance door at the same time and recognized him, leading into a nice conversation in the airport lobby. He truly is a wonderful gentleman—whether he really remembered us from those previous meetings or not.

Last year, we heard about “Rocket Boys: The Musical.” Apparently some Broadway folks thought that the Rocket Boys story had potential as a play. They wrote songs that fit the story and decided to try it out at Grandview State Park near Beckley (where the “Honey in the Rock” and “Hatfields and McCoys” shows have always been performed). We wanted to check out this new “song and dance” version of the story, but just couldn’t fit the limited run into our busy schedules the past two summers.

We finally got our chance to see the show this past weekend. Fairmont State University made arrangements to bring the show to their campus as another way of celebrating West Virginia’s sesquicentennial year. It was a good performance, and a great way to commemorate our 150th! We also enjoyed touring the special museum exhibit about coal mining that they are concurrently hosting in the top floor of the theater building.

If you liked the “Rocket Boys” book (or the movie “October Sky” which is an anagram of the book title), then you should also see “Rocket Boys—The Musical” (details on the FSU engagement can be found here). As they say in the book, it is prodigious! And (even though we haven’t crossed paths in the past eight years or so) if you ever meet Homer Hickam, tell him I said “Hi!”

That’s me inside the actual Space Shuttle trainer in Houston. My left hand is on the joystick controlling the shuttle's robotic arm. The window into the payload bay is in front of me, while another window is above my head. It was a day I will always remember!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

High on Alpine Lake

We are always looking for new places to take our flat-water kayaks. It is fun to be “the captain of your own ship” and explore different sites from the unique vantage point of the water. Recently, we made a short trip to Preston County to try out Alpine Lake, a privately developed vacation community with golfing, a hotel/restaurant, and a huge lake. I don’t remember how I first heard about Alpine Lake, but I had originally thought it was an exclusive resort that required membership. However, we had noticed their billboard along I-68 and had heard radio ads, so it was clear they welcomed visitors.

To get there, we drove I-68 to Bruceton Mills, then south through Albright and beyond to Route 7. From along the Cheat River we headed up Route 7 (with its beautiful view from the high ridge) to the interesting town of Terra Alta. Like many small towns in West Virginia, it is apparent that Terra Alta was a bustling place in its heyday. Just beyond the town (after passing Hopemont, the old West Virginia tuberculosis hospital), a sign directs you to turn left.

Just a few miles up this county road is the entrance to Alpine Lake. There is a guardhouse at the entrance, and we told him we wanted to kayak on the lake. He gave us a temporary parking permit and directed us to the lodge. At the reception desk inside the beautiful lodge, we paid $5 each for a day pass, and then headed for the boathouse area. Everyone was very friendly!

Alpine Lake is at an altitude of nearly 3000 feet, and sits adjacent to the state borderline that runs north/south between Preston County, WV and Garrett County, MD. What really attracted me to this lake was the fact that they don’t allow gasoline engine boats. With all the motorboats on Cheat Lake, Summersville Lake, and other major lakes, we have found ourselves dealing with their wakes more than we wished. It was nice to have a large body of water to explore on our own without worrying about the waves—or the noise.

We paddled our way around the perimeter of the lake, watching for wildlife and enjoying the scenery. For the most part, the trees come right down to the shoreline, with occasional big rocks along the shore. In some areas, we enjoyed gazing through the dark wooded banks at lush beds of ferns growing on the forest floor. Besides seeing fish, herons, and a muskrat, we also enjoyed seeing some of the nice houses hidden among the trees. Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy and overcast that day, but we still had a good time.

Afterwards, we drove around parts of this huge development, admiring many interesting homes, most of which were well hidden amongst the woods. We had chatted with some residents at the boathouse and at the lodge, and they enjoy living there. Some of the homes are just summer vacation cottages, but others live there year round. It is a modern community nestled among the trees high in the mountains of Preston County. They also have a nice golf course (as well as miniature golf).

If you are looking to get away from the jet-skis and speedboats to enjoy a quiet paddle in your kayak, or if you just want a Sunday drive to a beautiful spot in West Virginia, then I recommend taking the high road to Alpine Lake.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Fayette Photography Foray

Some old college friends of mine from out of state flew into Charleston recently, and wanted to see some photographic scenery of wild, wonderful, West Virginia while they were in town. With only a limited amount of daylight to work with, I took them on a tightly scheduled photographic foray to Fayette County. After their arrival, we started our journey at 4:00 PM. [In case anyone else would like to duplicate our odyssey, I will indicate within brackets the driving times to each major stop—of course, the time you spend at each stop is up to you.]

{45 minutes from Charleston}

After following Route 60 east, our first stop was at the parking lot below Kanawha Falls. Somewhat like Sandstone Falls on the New River near Hinton, this powerful waterfall stretches broadly across a wide expanse of river. It was harnessed for hydroelectric generation many years ago, but much of the water still tumbles over the natural precipice.

A small segment of Kanawha Falls, with the town of Glen Ferris in the distance.

{5 minutes east on Rt. 60}

Cathedral Falls is tucked into the hillside just as Route 60 begins its twisted journey up Gauley Mountain. There is a nice roadside park there, and unless the weather has been dry, this cascade waterfall can be quite beautiful.

Cathedral Falls cascading towards the New River.

{12 minutes further}

The overlook at Hawks Nest State Park is a true West Virginia landmark. Its iconic view has been popular for generations. I explained about the CCC helping to build this and other state parks. I also told the story about the hundreds who died from silicosis after working on the tunnel through Gauley Mountain.

Looking downstream from the Hawks Nest overlook.

The view from Hawks Nest looking upstream at the railroad bridge.

{25 minutes (to New River Gorge Bridge overlook)}

We then doubled back (past a private tourist shop called the Mystery Hole for a second time, which I described for my curious friends) on Route 60 for a couple of miles to get on Route 16 and cross the New River on the Cotton Hill Bridge. As Route 16 climbs out of the bottom of the gorge, it follows Laurel Creek as it tumbles down to the river. Unfortunately, there is not enough room between the hillside and the guardrail to pull off and park, but keep your camera ready while passing by, because there are a couple of large waterfalls on this creek. Near the top, there is also an old mill dam with a bit of room to park.

A quick shot of a waterfall on Laurel Creek along Rt. 16.

Laurel Creek spilling over an old mill dam.

We stayed on Route 16 until it met Route 19 at Fayetteville, where we turned left at the stoplight. The next event was crossing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. As pictured on the back of the state quarter, this 876 foot tall bridge is an engineering marvel. Upon reaching the other side, we stopped at the visitor center and walked to the overlook to better appreciate what we had just crossed.

The view from the overlook for the famous New River Gorge Bridge.

{4 minutes}

We then went about a mile north on Route 19 and took the Lansing Road exit to the “Adventures on the Gorge” rafting headquarters. Although this area has lots of interesting dining choices, I wanted to eat dinner here at Chetty’s Pub because of its location on the edge of the gorge. This facility has some nice overlooks, and we were able to get some beautiful shots before the sun set.

Looking upstream from the overlook behind Chetty’s Pub.

A view of whitewater on the New River below Chetty’s Pub.

{70 minutes}

As we headed back to Charleston in the dark, we drove back across the big bridge again, then through the town of Oak Hill (I pointed out that Hank Williams had died here), and down to Route 612 by the old Whipple Coal Company Store (unfortunately, it was too dark for a picture). We returned to Charleston via the West Virginia Turnpike with lots of good pictures in hand. Everyone had a great time! Of course, there were still lots more to get on a future trip, such as the grist mill at Babcock State Park, the Hawks Nest tram, a hike to Long Point, the Mill Creek waterfall, etc. There is always more scenic beauty to experience in Almost Heaven, West Virginia!

Sunset over the New River Gorge at the end of a great day with friends.

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[Note: This story was written back in April and was submitted to Spotlight West Virginia Magazine. It was selected for publication in their Fall 2013 issue (see page 15). I must credit my college friend Geralyn M. for the great photos used in this story.]

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Cheat from Seat to Seat

I recently took a kayak trip about 11 miles down the Cheat River, from Parsons (the current county of seat of Tucker County) to St. George (the original county seat of Tucker County).

It is an interesting political tale as to how the Tucker County seat was moved. In 1888, the railroad came to Parsons, adding quickly to its growth. Parsons already had an advantage of being more centrally located in the county and now had an important transportation advantage. In three attempts (1889, 1890, and 1892), Parsons residents petitioned to have the county seat moved, but fell short of reaching the required level of support.

Finally, in 1893 it appeared that they had garnered enough support, but the outcome was challenged—first in court and then as an appeal to the state government. Rather than waiting for the state’s response, vigilantes took the matter into their own hands and marched to St. George to forcibly capture the seat of county government. The county records were seized and relocated to Parsons. They even stole the bell from the clock tower of the old county courthouse at St. George! This happened on August 1, 1893, six days before the state officially recognized Parsons as the new county seat on August 7. If you think politics in local government gets crazy now, just think what that must have been like!

The upper Cheat River is only rated as Class I-II rapids. Some people choose to float this section in innertubes, but I think kayaking is more fun. We put our kayaks in the water at Parsons, and very quickly we were going through rapids—the first of many that day. To me, it is both fun and challenging to try picking the best route to take through the rapids and avoid getting stuck on a rock—or worse yet, dumping your kayak.

Most of the time, we were alone under a beautiful blue sky surrounded by lush green trees, following a fast flowing river through a series of descending rapids to each subsequent pool. There was some farmland bordering the river at times, and on rare occasions some houses were visible. Some of the steep hillsides featured cascading waterfalls, as small tributaries flowing from recent rains joined the Cheat River.

Several times we encountered islands in the river, and we always followed the advice we were given to choose the path to the right side. There was only one time that I momentarily became stuck on a rock in a shallow spot, but I was able to extricate myself and get back in the flow.

We had been told that we would go past two bridges, and then the third bridge would be at our destination of St. George. The first bridge was a modern one for a small road, but the second one was merely the remnants of an old suspension bridge that had been destroyed in the devastating flood of 1985. The final bridge at St. George gained some media notoriety after that 1985 flood, because there was a widely circulated flood damage picture showing a dead cow with its legs hanging down, stuck with other flood debris up in the air within the metal framework under that bridge.

All too soon we arrived at the St. George bridge and realized our wonderful day on the Cheat River had come to an end. However, it will not be our last visit there, because I hope to return to explore more of this beautiful river. Earlier this year, the state officially recognized the Cheat River Water Trail, running from Hendricks (3 miles above Parsons) to Rowlesburg (24 miles below St. George), so there is a lot more river for me to explore. For more information, check out

Although I didn't bring my camera on this trip, the good folks at Blackwater Outdoor Adventures (who shuttled us from their location in St. George upstream to Parsons) sent me this picture of the St. George Bridge.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Racing School

Part I – Overview: I went to Racing School! Actually, I participated in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, and drove a 500 horsepower stock car for 10 laps around a half-mile paved race track. It was a blast!

Last week when I found out about this and called, I was able to get one of the few remaining spots in the last group of the last day—4:00 PM on Sunday. I was told to read the materials they would e-mail to me, and to arrive about 30 minutes before my appointed time for the registration process. However, I was anxious for this big event, and arrived with plenty of time to spare. This allowed me to watch others on the track, take pictures, and get a feel for how it operated.

Student racers accelerating out of Turn 4 at Motordrome.

After filling out some paperwork, the students for the 4:00 session met in a building behind the grandstand for our drivers meeting. The director spent more than half an hour explaining everything to us and answering any questions. He demonstrated how to quickly release the five-point safety harness. He also brought a shifter assembly to demonstrate the “lightning rod” gear shift (just two speeds—forward for low and backward for high). He used a map of the track to point out the path we should take (marked on the asphalt with strips of green duct tape on the inside and pink duct tape on the outside) as well as the orange cones that were set up to mark where we were to begin using the throttle coming out of Turns 2 and 4, where we were to lift off the gas near the end of the straights, and where we were to touch the brakes at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3.

A pair of cars diving into Turn 1.

He discussed how to climb into and out of the car, how to turn on the ignition and hit the starter, how the radio commands would work, and everything else. It was a comprehensive overview of the entire process, with a major emphasis on safety. He also made it clear that they were not hiring drivers and that this was not an audition, so don’t try to push the envelope and get yourself in trouble. They don’t even provide your lap times because it isn’t important—the idea is to have a good time and feel what it is really like to drive a race car.

After the meeting concluded, we walked to the gate and crossed the track into the infield. There we were given our official racing uniforms to put on, and then provided with a helmet. I had noticed on their website that you could bring your own helmet if you wanted as long as it was a Snell rated helmet. So, I brought along my full-face motorcycle helmet, but found out during the registration process that I could not use it because it didn’t have the clips installed for use with the HANS device (this safety device restricts neck and head movement and was developed after Dale Earnhardt’s death). At least they provide everyone a clean black helmet liner to wear under the helmet.

Apparently, while we were in our drivers meeting, someone had hit the wall on the track, and delayed the previous group. Thus, there was a bit of wait before I was eventually assigned my car, while the sun sank lower on the horizon (which somewhat hampered the visibility coming out of Turn 4). They put you in different cars depending on your size and whether you have paid for the extra in-car video option (I did not choose that option). While waiting for my turn, I walked around the pits, took more pictures, and talked with classmates. The excitement level continued to build within me.

Soon, one of their crew members was helping me get into the car (a bit like a medieval squire assisting a knight)—after the obligatory photo taken while halfway into the car. He made sure my safety harness was properly adjusted. Because of my previous experience at the Richard Petty Driving School, I knew to ask him to make sure my front tires were straight before putting the quick-release steering wheel back onto its splined shaft (it is a bit frustrating if you think the steering wheel is on straight, but when you take off you discover it is actually off-center because the tires were turned when it was last parked).

Indulging my childhood dream of being a race car driver.

He made sure I knew where the gear shift that I would use was located (there are two, but only one would be needed on this track), and where the ignition and starter button was located. It was important to get a feel for the location of these items, because once I put on the helmet and it was connected to the HANS device, I was not able to adequately look down and to the right enough to see these items. He then gave me the two foam covered speaker “discs” to push up between my head and the helmet so that they rested next to my ears. Then the window net went up and the radio checks began—you must give the proper hand signals to show that you can hear properly (and the volume is loud at first, but it needs to be that way so you can hear while racing on the track).

The view from the driver’s seat, before I put my camera away.

There were five cars in my group, and I was in the last car in the line on pit road. The command was given to start the engines, and so with the transmission in neutral and my left foot on the brake, I flipped up the ignition toggle switch (mounted on the right side interior wall) and then punched the adjacent starter button while pushing (not pumping) the gas pedal. Fortunately, my engine started right up, and I depressed the clutch before shoving the shifter forward into low gear.

Eventually, the cars in front of me cleared out and it was my time to get started. After watching many others take off that day, I knew that I did not want to be one of the many who had stalled the car (just as I saw at the Richard Petty school, where many students also stalled). My experience with standard transmissions paid off as I smoothly began rolling down pit road. With a quick zig towards the right at the end of pit road, I entered the banking of the first turn and, as instructed, shifted from low to high gear, even though we were still on our “pace laps.”

Apparently the driver of the third car in our group had experienced some problems with shifting (some folks grab the wrong lever, instead of the one marked for them to use), and as we came back around into turn 1, he ended up slowing to a crawl. The car just ahead of me continued to follow in his tracks as we had been instructed, between the green and pink boundary lines. However, I saw no need for three cars to stop on the track while under caution, so I went wide and passed them both (the race director apparently had no problem with my split-second decision, because nothing was said on the radio about it). Just like with coloring books, sometimes it is okay to go outside the lines!

This put me third in the line-up as they got the cars spaced around the track before giving us the green flag. Soon I was following the back of the car in front of me, who was being held up by the first car. The race director instructed the driver of the first car to “left and lift for a two car pass”—meaning move to the inside of the straight and let off the gas so that the second and third place cars could pass. All these instructions had been laid out in detail during the drivers meeting.

Once we were past the slower car, I continued to follow the car in front of me. Had it been a real race, I think I could have passed him. However, we were still flying along at a pretty good clip and I didn’t want to risk an accident. I was having a great time listening to the motor wind up coming out of the turns and feeling the speed as I raced down the straights. There is a lot of acceleration with a racing engine! You really get a sensation of “diving into the turns” because it feels like you are going downhill from the outer wall on the straightaways down to the inside lane of the banked turns. Especially in the third turn, where there was some bumpiness to the asphalt, and you really had to control the steering wheel as it chattered into the apex, before easing back into the gas.

One of my goals was to count my laps in my head, but there is just too much to concentrate on while you are out there (I had the same good intention at the Richard Petty school, and had hoped to do better here, but decided it was just easier to enjoy the ride). I feel like I got at least my ten laps, because I was having a blast out there. Unfortunately, our time ran out, and coming out of Turn 2 I slowed down, stayed to the inside, eased around Turns 3 and 4, entered pit road, and coasted to a stop before flipping the toggle switch to kill the engine. My squire soon arrived to help me from my trusty steed.

It was quite the adrenaline rush to actually drive a race car on a race track. It’s been a couple of days since and I can still feel the excitement. I’m very glad I did this and would recommend the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience to other racing fans.

Part II – Background: I discovered this opportunity while doing a websearch to see if Columbus Motor Speedway still offered their Tuesday night “Ride & Drive” program. For $50, they let you on their track with one of their Legends cars (small racers built to look like old cars, but powered by four-cylinder motorcycle engines). I had done this last year and had a good time, and so with a government shutdown looming on Tuesday, October 1, I thought I might drive up to Columbus and try it again if I was going to be sent home that day.

This websearch showed me other links where the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience had been to Columbus, and that there had been half-price deals from discount sites like Groupon and Living Social. I also saw where the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience was scheduled for the upcoming weekend to be at Motordrome Speedway in Smithton, PA (about an hour north of Morgantown, where I would be for the WVU football game on Saturday).

I called the toll-free number (1-855-22-Rusty) and asked if there were any available slots on Sunday. The only timeslot left was the last one at 4:00 PM. I then asked if I could get the same half-price deal that I had seen on the Internet. She went ahead and gave me the same rate of $124.50 rather than the normal $249 for a ten-lap session. I gave her my credit card number and e-mail address to cinch the deal. I love discounts!

It should be noted that when I arrived at the track for the registration process, I found out that I had to pay the state sales tax on the $124.50, plus on the $60 insurance that I opted to buy at the office trailer. This is not a big deal, but just thought I would share with others that you need to be prepared to pay when you arrive. I wrestled with whether to buy the insurance or not (because I thought I would be a careful driver plus I had some previous experience), but ultimately decided that I was doing this for fun, and that I would not have as much fun if I was going to be worried about being “on the hook” for a potential $15,000 loss if I wrecked their race car. I chipped in the extra $60, knowing that I already had a good deal on the overall price.

The weather ended up being fantastic for the entire weekend. I looked forward to visiting Motordrome Speedway again for the first time since I had been a spectator there while a WVU student in the ‘80s. I had also been there once with my dad and uncle when they were part-owners of a sprint car (driven by Steve Dickson). That visit was for a mid-week special sprint car race at what was then known as “Motordrome 70” speedway (it is located within sight of Interstate 70) back when the track was dirt instead of asphalt. The pit area used to be on the hill above Turns 3 & 4, but now is located in the infield. It was interesting to see how much has changed at Motordrome since it has become a NASCAR sanctioned track.

It had been over 12 years since I had participated in the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) at the speedway built in Walt Disney World, but I will attempt to compare the two schools. I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Orlando, especially since Richard Petty had been my childhood favorite (I was always just lukewarm towards Rusty Wallace). I will say that the RPDE cars were probably in better shape than the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (RWRE) cars. However, they probably have an advantage by staying full-time at Disney World rather than constantly being loaded up into trailers and heading off to the next weekend’s racetrack.

My guess is that the RPDE cars may have actually been NASCAR Sprint Cup cars at one time, whereas the RWRE cars looked more like they came from smaller “minor league” short track late model series (such as NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series or the ARCA/CRA Jeg’s All-Star Series). Most casual fans won’t notice this difference, because to them they are all race cars. These cars were probably more suited for a short track like Motordrome than a former Sprint Cup car would be.

One of their cars diving into Turn 1.

At RPDE, students were paired with “teacher” whose car we were expected to follow. If a student was performing well, the teacher would gradually pick up the pace. In 2001, there were no radios—just hand communications from your teacher ahead of you plus the flagman. There was no passing whatsoever, and I think it may have been just one student/teacher combination on the track at one time.

RPDE did provide you with a computerized printout of your lap times and speed. RWRE does not do this, because they think it causes more problems than it is worth. I remember being quite disappointed that I didn’t set the fastest time during my session at RPDE (I came in second). It was probably more enjoyable not getting that printout at the end of the day, because in my head, I was flying around the track (although somewhat held back by that car in front of me).

I don’t remember what I paid in 2001, but according to their website, the smallest package at RPDE is now $449 for just eight laps. I also checked Dale Jarrett’s racing school, and they charge $395 for eight laps at various NASCAR tracks. Granted, you are paying a higher amount to race at Bristol, or Richmond, or whatever NASCAR track they happen to be at (or for RPDE’s full-time site at Disney World Speedway). Also, I can’t remember if insurance was included in those prices. However, for me it is more about the experience of controlling a real race car, and I’m fine doing it at a local NASCAR weekly track like Motordrome—especially when I can do it for just $12.45 a lap (plus tax), as compared to $56 bucks a lap for RPDE.

However, if you really want the best bang for your buck, it is hard to beat the deal on Tuesday nights at the 3/8 mile Columbus Motor Speedway. They give you 2o laps in their “Ride & Drive” Legends car for $50 (call in advance to make a reservation). The power to weight ratio of this small race car gives you plenty of excitement—and enough laps to really improve your driving capabilities. However, some folks might not like it because it doesn’t look like a real NASCAR racer.

The “Ride & Drive” Legends car I drove at Columbus.

Part III – Conclusion: The bottom line is that I was quite satisfied with my day at the track with the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience ( I will treasure it for years to come! And if any NASCAR team needs a last minute substitute driver at Martinsville later this month, I’ll be available!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

An Ode to Loyalty

I’m glad I am a loyal fan, and not a fair-weather fan. I was born a West Virginian, and much of my identity is tied to my native state. I spent four years at its flagship institution of higher learning and have attended most home games since my student days (when I often watched from the grassy bowl behind the north end zone where the luxury boxes are today). However, my dad had taken me to games at old Mountaineer Field long before the new stadium was built.

Fair-weather fans spent the last week griping about our football team. They didn’t bother to go to the stadium yesterday. Long ago I quit checking out message boards and some fan sites because I hate listening to them. Their negative attitudes and energies probably affect other parts of their lives. I just can’t imagine it being much fun to be one of them.

Instead, I support my team whether they win or lose. They are my team. They represent my home state—and I can’t change that. Although this particular essay focuses on football, it really applies to all WVU teams—I try to support all of them (and loved watching the volleyball team get their first Big 12 victory on Friday night at the Coliseum). It is better when they win, but sometimes they lose—and I’ve learned to accept that. I think life is better that way.

Life often has its ups and downs, just like sports teams. You have to be able to survive the bad to enjoy the good. Losing can be character building. I believe winning every single time would corrupt your soul. Plus, there are few things better than when you are the underdog and surprise the big dogs. Yesterday was one of those moments.

Oklahoma State was undefeated and the highest ranked Big 12 team. They had a bye last weekend and probably watched the Mountaineers lay an egg against Maryland that Saturday. Being the loyal fans we are, we had followed our team to Baltimore and (except for a brief part of the first quarter) sat through most of that game in a miserable rain. It wasn’t fun!

Unlike the fair-weather fans, I wasn’t clamoring to fire the coach. I wasn’t griping about the players, or complaining about the Athletic Director. Things simply aren’t that bad. Some so-called fans have been spoiled by West Virginia’s successes during this new century. I’ve been around long enough to know it isn’t always that way. I’ve learned that suffering through the realities of a losing season helps make you appreciate the winning seasons that much more. I’ll never forget how great it was to finally beat Penn State!

Good fans give their teams some slack. It takes time and nobody wins every game (not even our multi-time NCAA Championship rifle team—which I have also watched). Hang in there during rough times, and often your loyalty will be rewarded. It may not be as soon as you want, but life moves in cycles, and your day will come. This is one of the life lessons that sports can teach you, and why sports became a part of collegiate education.

There are still a lot of games left, and this year’s team still has a lot of things they need to work on to be a consistently strong team. Hopefully they will continue to improve. They may or may not make it to a bowl game again this year—but I’ll be supporting them every step of the way. Plus, if they don’t, there is always next year!

In the meantime, you will find me at the stadium, cheering along with thousands of others to support our team. I hope many of you will join me, because all these student athletes wearing the West Virginia uniforms deserve our support.

Finally, I just want to point out to the fair-weather fans that they missed one of the greatest moments in the life of a fan. There is nothing better after a big win than singing “Country Roads” with an entire stadium. I will long treasure that moment yesterday, hugging Anna on one side and my daughter on the other, as we swayed together while belting out this signature song for West Virginia after a stressful but ultimately satisfying day. I’m glad I was there! Montani Semper Liberi!

I didn't take any pictures at the football game yesterday, but here is a picture of the big volleyball game Friday night. At the end of each timeout, the team members all join together with hands pointing skyward--all for one and one for all! Go Mountaineers!

Bridge Day!

Back in the ‘70s, during one of our in-state family vacations, Dad took a detour off of Route 60 onto the unfinished new four-lane Route 19. Soon the new roadway ended, so we had to park the car along the road and hike the last portion to get to the overlook. He wanted us to see the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, because it was truly an engineering marvel.

The partially finished bridge was incredible! I’m glad I got to see it as a youngster, because it has become such a symbol of West Virginia that it was chosen for the back of our state quarter. I’ve enjoyed driving over it many times since, as well as rafting under it. The bridge figures prominently in many activities in the region—and perhaps the biggest event is the annual Bridge Day extravaganza on the third Saturday each October.

I’ll never forget my first Bridge Day. It was a long walk from where the shuttle bus dropped us off, passing by many interesting vendors and information booths, just to get to the bridge itself. There are thousands of people who come from all across the state, as well as out of state, for this special day—and there is a good chance you might see someone you know. I wasn’t nervous upon starting across the bridge, because it feels quite sturdy and stable. As we progressed further across the bridge, we would stop periodically to look over the edge and see how high up we were. The view is amazing as you gaze down on the rapids in the river below. You might even see a long coal train go by.

Although driving across the bridge had never bothered me, I knew that I possessed what I considered to be a healthy fear of heights. While touring a few big city skyscrapers, I had felt a bit uneasy, and had to convince myself that it was really safe up there. As it turned out, I didn’t have much of a problem walking on the bridge because the wall is very sturdy and I felt very secure. Conquering the fear of heights really involves convincing your brain that you are truly safe. However, I did hold tightly onto my hat, and when taking pictures over the edge, I had a death grip on my camera—you never know what might happen.

Looking nearly straight down as a parachutist soars over the trees (note the rapids on the river).

As you reach the middle, the crazy BASE jumpers are hurling themselves off the edge, with their multi-colored parachutes allowing them to glide in for a (hopefully) safe landing. A bulls-eye target is provided on the cleared off beach area next to the river. It allows a competition to see who can best maneuver and control their flight, but some purposely choose just to land in the river with a big splash. [The important thing is to not land with a big splat!]

Eventually, we reached the northern side of the bridge, and walked through the smaller line of vendors on that end. On our way back, we ventured over to the overlook area (which is similar to the vantage point I had enjoyed as a youngster before the bridge was completed). This provided a good view of the ziplines running down from the bridge on this end, as well as those rappelling straight down from underneath the bridge, who look a bit like spiders dangling from a web.

Our return trip across the bridge provided more beautiful views, as well as the chance to mingle with thousands of folks who come from near and far for Bridge Day. However, there were two minor incidents that stuck in my mind from that day.

First, some lanky teenager, leaning with his backside against the concrete wall, thought it would be cool to place his hands on the top of the wall and hop up to sit on the wall. Oh my gosh! Even though the wall is pretty thick plus there is a safety rail on top, I still thought that was very poor judgment, because I wouldn’t want to accidently tip over backwards! There have been lots of tragedies happen because of simple moves such as that which seemed harmless at the time (if you don’t believe me, do a web search on “Darwin Awards”). I haven’t seen much “wall sitting” in recent years, because I think the authorities (who are now present in greater numbers) discourage such actions.

I witnessed another scary episode that day when a child wanted to get a better view of the landing zone for the parachutists. His father stood behind him, grabbed him under the armpits, and lifted him up for a better view. Granted, the lower half of his body was still behind the wall, and he was only slightly tilted towards the river, but it still made my spine shiver! What if a bee had chosen that moment to sting the father on the arm, causing him to involuntarily react and drop the child? [Well, it probably wasn’t all that dangerous, but sometimes my mind wanders off like that.]

Aside from these two brief scary moments, both caused by others who were apparently not the least bit impacted by any fear of heights, I felt perfectly safe on the bridge. The view is awe inspiring, especially when you consider that we would never have that unique vantage point, high in the air above the gorge, were it not for the engineers and brave construction workers who pieced the steel together to build this bridge.

I’ve since been back numerous times for Bridge Day, and have always enjoyed it. I need to get down there again, because I want to see the catapult in action. Apparently, jumping off a diving board 876 feet above the river wasn’t enough for these crazy jumpers, so last year a new contraption, inspired by castle sieges in the middle ages, was unveiled. Now a parachutist has the option of sitting at the end of the long arm of the catapult, and waiting until the operator pushes a button. At that moment, the parachutist is hurled up and away from the bridge.

I’m not ever going to become a BASE jumper, but seeing a catapult in action has a certain appeal to me. If I were to parachute off the bridge, I’d prefer to use the catapult. I don’t think I could ever convince myself to take that literal “leap of faith” and jump off a perfectly good bridge. However, I might be able to sit back in a comfortable “chair” away from the edge of the abyss. If all of the sudden, it quickly hurled me off the bridge, then at least I didn’t have to make the decision myself to jump—I’d have to parachute to save myself. Somehow that makes it easier for me to think about BASE jumping. Pretty crazy, huh?

It is just part of all the amazement that happens during the biggest one-day event in wild, wonderful West Virginia. Everyone should check it out at least once!

Pedestrians walking the bridge--taken from the overlook where I first viewed the bridge while it was under construction.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

College Bowl, UC, and me

I remember watching the “College Bowl” quiz show on television in the 1960s. This academic competition, requiring quick recall of facts, pitted teams of four students from colleges around the country. It was originally hosted by Allen Ludden (the husband of comedienne Betty White). Although popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the national TV show disappeared for various reasons by the early ‘70s.

The early success of College Bowl had spurred many local TV stations to host their own scholastic quiz shows, which continued even after the original show went off the air. Some still continue today, such as KDKA’s “Hometown High-Q” in Pittsburgh. In Parkersburg, WTAP created “TV Honor Society,” and I was selected to be the captain of the Parkersburg High School team my senior year. I’ve always enjoyed trivia competitions!

Later in the ‘70s, the national organization of college student union directors wanted to resurrect College Bowl as a positive activity for students. When Barry B., the director of UC’s student union, announced that he had acquired a buzzer system and would run a campus tournament, many of us were eager to give it the old college try.

My fraternity formed three teams, and I was the captain for our best team. We went on a win streak. It lasted until the championship game, when we faced another very strong team. We lost a close game for the campus championship to an independent group known as the “Crums,” but both teams were selected to represent UC in the state championship tournament that we would soon host.

The Crums were comprised of two players (Chuck and Brian) from the DC area who had played on the Washington regional TV show “It’s Academic,” a pre-med student (Mark) from Boone County who had played on WCHS-TV’s “High School Bowl,” and a non-traditional student (Carol)—a housewife and mother who had decided to return to college to get her religion/philosophy degree. It was an experienced and eclectic group—which is a good characteristic of many quiz teams.

Teams from WVU, Marshall, and most of the other West Virginia colleges came to the capital city for the state championship in the spring of 1978, and the two UC teams did well. A trip to Gettysburg College for the regional tournament awaited the state winner. My team lost to Marshall in the semi-finals, but the Crums defeated them to win the state championship. The good news for me was that I had played so well that I was selected as the designated alternate, who would accompany the four winning team members to the regional competition as a backup if needed.

Gettysburg was a lovely campus, where teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and DC gathered to see who would win the all expenses paid trip to the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for the national championship. The national finals would be televised, with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming as the master of ceremonies. Jeopardy, like College Bowl, had mostly disappeared from television during the ‘70s—until it reappeared in 1984 with Alex Trebek as host. Art Fleming was just as revered by trivia buffs then as Alex Trebek is today.

As we got ready for our first game in Gettysburg, one of the Crums team members came down sick, and thought it would be best if I took his place. I played well and we ended up winning, but I assumed that if Chuck felt better, I’d step down and resume serving as the backup. However, Chuck (a fellow political science major) said he didn’t want to break up a winning combination, and insisted that I continue playing (he always was a great guy!).

We won all of our games, which included Pitt, Penn State, Maryland, and then the final round against Catholic University from Washington, DC. The little school from West Virginia had gone up against some of the biggest and best institutions in the region, and won the trip to the national championship! [At that time, Queen’s song “We are the champions” was still relatively new, and every time I hear that song, I always remember all of us singing that song as we drove down what was then the newly completed I-79 back to Charleston.]

Just after school finished for the year, we flew to Miami Beach with our coach, a beloved young, dynamic political science professor who had just announced that he was leaving for a bigger school. It was nice to have this last hurrah with him. [I remember that he insisted we must take a taxi from the Fontainebleau Hotel to Little Havana to get some multi-cultural experience during the trip.]

We had a great time at this historic beachfront hotel. Sixteen teams from around the country were there, and we drew prestigious Stanford University in the first round. We lost a close game in the hotel’s big auditorium to them, so we were immediately eliminated. I don’t remember a lot about the game itself, except being excited to meet Art Fleming and that all the bright lights for TV made it hot. However, as it turns out, Stanford went on to win the national championship—and our game was the closest one they had! So even though we lost in the first round, we established ourselves as strong competitors. Not bad for a little known school from West Virginia!

The fancy medallion that was given to all participants at Miami. It has my name and the date on the back.

That was not to be the end of the story. As a result of our strong showing, UC was selected to participate in a radio version of “College Bowl” which would be broadcast over the CBS radio network in 1979. Art Fleming would again serve as the emcee, and the games would take place each week on a different college campus. Not only were we asked to participate in this invitational tournament, but we were to be the host school for a first round game. Our opponent would be none other than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

By the fall of ’79, I was doing a semester in Washington, DC, but I came back to campus for this event. Although two of the original members (Brian and Mark) of the Crums were gone, Chuck, Carol, and I were joined by another pre-med student (Mike) who was also very good. The live network broadcast of the game took place in the ballroom atop the UC student union, with a large crowd watching us compete.

Once again, we tried hard but came up short, losing to MIT on our home turf. However, it is hard to feel bad when the teams that beat you in national College Bowl competitions were Stanford and MIT. In my humble opinion, I think we proved that the University of Charleston had some brainpower on our campus, too!

Although it is a lousy picture (with me blinking), here we are at a practice session with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming prior to our 1979 match with MIT.

Finally, I should mention that I got the chance to tell this story to Betty White back in the ‘90s (before she became famous again), during one of her trips to the University of Charleston (she has been a supporter of my alma mater). College Bowl meant a lot to her and her late husband, and she was glad to hear about UC’s successful participation. As you can tell, College Bowl meant a lot to me, too!

[P.S. While searching the Internet to see what info might be available for this story, I discovered that the University of Charleston (then known as Morris Harvey College) had also appeared on the original TV version in 1967.]

Friday, September 6, 2013

Mountain Creek Cabins

I’m old and overweight, but I still “get off the couch” from time to time and sign up for some 5K running/walking events. The important thing is not whether you finish in first place, but just that you are out there doing it, no matter how fast.

This past spring, I competed in a 5K at Coopers Rock State Forest near Morgantown, WV. As often happens at these races, they not only give out awards to the top finishers, but they also have drawings for door prizes. On this day, I happened to win the top door prize—a free night at Mountain Creek Cabins not far from Coopers Rock. [See, it does pay off to get off the couch!]

I called recently to set up our visit, and had a good conversation with the owner, but I discovered that the registration process is best done over the Internet. It enabled us to pick the cabin we wanted from among those that were vacant of the eight cabins they offer. We decided on the “Mountaineer” cabin, because we are big WVU fans. The electronic reservation process worked well and the secret code for the electronic door lock on our cabin was sent to us.

This particular log cabin is special, because it is decorated with all sorts of Mountaineer paraphernalia. We certainly felt at home there! The small cabin had a loft bedroom with a spiral staircase. The downstairs had a wood paneled great room with a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and another bedroom. It worked perfect for our one night mountain getaway.

It is indeed a getaway! You take the Coopers Rock exit, but head east on old Route 73 over the crest of the big hill, and then cross back over I-68 on a smaller local road called Pisgah Road. The cabins are about four miles from the old highway. Fortunately, there are Mountain Creek Cabins signs directing you through progressively smaller roads all the way to your destination. The cabins are tucked into a wooded area, surrounded by ferns and rocks. It is a lovely location.

There is no Internet and very limited cell service (I found it better to walk up the driveway because there was no signal inside our cabin). However, there is a hot tub on the back porch, and a DVD player which we utilized that night. In this beautiful isolation, I was able to get a lot of writing completed, including this review. Best of all is the bubbling brook running down the mountain, just behind the cabins. I love the melodious sounds the creek makes as it heads for Big Sandy Creek and then the Cheat River Gorge.

I highly recommend Mountain Creek Cabins ( if you are looking for a getaway in the greater Morgantown area!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jet-Boating on the New River

I’ve had the good fortune over the years of spending time in the New River rafting, kayaking, and even swimming. I recently added another method of New River transportation to my list when we tried out the New River Jet Boat at Hawks Nest State Park. While not quite as adrenaline-inducing as some of my other adventures, it was still a lot of fun.

We called ahead to get the information we needed. To our surprise, the woman who talked to us had a distinctive British accent. The cost is only $23, and the trip times are not fixed, but somewhat flexible. You can get to the boat by taking the tram from the Hawks Nest Lodge (the preferred method), or by hiking down the Ansted Rail Trail (1.8 miles one way), or by driving down the narrow dirt road to the Hawks Nest Marina.

The marina is at the narrow “lake” formed when Union Carbide built a dam in the 1930s to divert water from the New River into a tunnel through the mountain to generate electricity for their plant in Alloy, West Virginia. Unfortunately, the rock that the tunnel builders had to cut through was primarily silica, and the dust the tunneling produced caused many of the men to get lung disease. The Hawks Nest tunnel has been characterized as the worst industrial accident ever, because hundreds of Depression-era laborers died from the silicosis they developed.

The jet boat can hold 15 passengers in three rows of four seats, plus two seats at the back on either side of the engine bay and one at the front next to the captain. There were only eight other passengers on board when we went. Rather than sitting next to each other (side by side), we chose to both take a seat on the side, with me sitting directly behind Anna. This made it easy for us to talk to each other, yet we both enjoyed a “ring-side seat.”

The captain of the aptly named “Miss M. Rocks” (as in “avoid those rocks”) was a retired raft guide, who regaled the passengers with informative stories about the area (along with a collection of corny raft guide jokes). The boat first heads downstream for a view of the rock formation that supports the Hawks Nest Overlook, and then further down to the Hawks Nest Dam, including the gates to the water tunnel. Then he turns upstream, going under the railroad bridge and past numerous fishing cabins nestled on both sides between the river and the railroad tracks. Some of these cabins are in better shape than others, but all of them seem to have an interesting “personality.”

The jet boat can go pretty fast when he opens up the throttle, and soon you round a bend where the famed New River Gorge Bridge comes into view. You begin seeing submerged boulders as the man-made lake becomes the wild river that nature intended. The captain is able to skillfully guide the boat through the shallow water until finally reaching some impassable rapids, where he turns the boat sideways to allow a clear view of the bridge, before reversing it 180 degrees to allow the other side of the boat to get a great view. A bonus on our trip was that we got to see one of the eagles that are nesting in the New River Gorge fly over the river.

The New River Jet Boat ride is a great way to introduce folks, both young and old, to the beauty of the New River Gorge, and to let them get a distant glimpse of the famous arch span from the water level. We enjoyed talking after our trip to Sue and Rick, the couple who run this business (she has the British accent; he has the corny jokes). I highly recommend a ride on the jet boat, especially for those who, for whatever reason, won’t be taking a raft trip down the New River.

Friday, August 30, 2013

My Favorite Pennsboro Race

I grew up going to races at Pennsboro Speedway in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s. It was always a magical place for me as a kid, sitting in that old wooden covered grandstand near the first turn. We went to other tracks as well, but this was my favorite, with two bridges (and a large culvert bringing another stream to join the main one in the infield) as well as an asymmetrical design (turns one and two had a much longer radius, while turns three and four were much tighter). It had served as the Ritchie County Fairgrounds and was originally built in the late 1880s for racing horses, but evolved into a track for man-made horsepower. It was a tricky track, demanding the best out of drivers and machinery.

Unlike other speedways with lights that could run at night, the big old half mile at Pennsboro ran on Sunday afternoons. While this may seem as a limitation to some, it ended up allowing Pennsboro to draw a wide range of cars, beyond just the normal West Virginia/Eastern Ohio/Western Pennsylvania region. They could run their home tracks on the weekend evenings, and then haul to Pennsboro to end the weekend.

I got to see Butch Hartman and Don Gregory race there before they made it big in USAC and ASA respectively. As the word spread about Pennsboro, more fans and more cars came from further distances. I remember when the cars from Michigan started coming down—drivers such as Ray Nece, Marv Parenteau, and Erv Baumgarten.

I’ve seen lots of great races at this track, and most people would most likely pick one of the Hillbilly Hundreds (my favorite was when Dorus Wisecarver won in his ’67 Plymouth) or the Dirt Track World Championships (probably Jim Dunn’s upset win) as their favorites (or maybe even the ARCA race that was held there, which rates high on my list). However, probably my favorite Pennsboro race was the Spirit of ’76 race (a 76 lap feature in conjunction with the Fourth of July holiday) back in 1979.

By this time, I was old enough for a pit pass, and brought my pocket instamatic camera with me (hence the accompanying pictures). After many years of drivers from outside the state winning the big races, Charleston’s Gene McNeely had won the Hillbilly Hundred the previous Labor Day, and his yellow Camaro with the orange chiseled #20 on its sides was a favorite to win the July 4th special race. As I recall (and I don’t claim to have a perfect memory, but it makes the story better), this native West Virginian set fast time and sat on the pole, leading the early stages of the race that day.

Gene McNeely driving fast out of turn four that day.

This race was memorable to me because it brought in a new challenger from a new region. Most out-of-staters came from the north or the midwest, but this one was different. The long awaited Interstate 77 had finally been completed into North Carolina, which was enabling many West Virginians to head south looking for jobs, as our state’s economy weakened.

However, I-77 goes both ways, and on this day it brought a white Camaro with blue and red trim northward, all the way from Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Besides the double zeroes emblazoned on the doors, it had sponsorship from “Petty’s of Spartanburg.” We knew that Richard Petty was from North Carolina and probably wasn’t connected, but just to have “The King’s” name on the side was pretty cool. It turns out that this new guy was named Freddy Smith. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was a name we would get to know well over the coming years.

Besides the "Petty's of Spartanburg," if you look close you can read "Smith & Sons Automotive, Kings Mtn. NC" on the rear quarterpanel. Also note the 10 feature win stickers on the plexiglass support for the rear spoiler.

I don’t recall where Freddy started the race, but it wasn’t long before he was on Gene’s tail, dogging him through the turns. I remember that Freddy’s car had a limp strip of black rubber below the plastic front spoiler, in an effort to keep air from under the car yet still having flexibility for the unevenness of a dirt surface. At high speeds, this black rubber strip would undulate back and forth. This rhythmic flexing reminded me of the “wings” of a manta ray as it swims along the ocean floor. It looked threatening.

I remember thinking “Surely a guy who has never seen this speedway ever before can’t come into this oddball track and knock off the homestate favorite!” Although he was a rookie at this track, Freddy Smith wasn’t a rookie racer—he was a heckuva driver, and indeed he passed Gene McNeely. I thought the homestate hero might get back around him before it was over, but it didn’t happen. Despite never having been to the track before, Freddy Smith went on to win the Spirit of ’76 race—the first of many checkered flags he earned at Pennsboro.

He was the first of many racers who came up I-77 from the south, as transportation links improved and Pennsboro's reputation grew. However, I’m not sure there has been any other driver from anywhere else who came into Pennsboro for the first time and beat the established veterans there. It was a great race—one of many I was able to enjoy as a spectator at this historic speedway.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Allegheny Highlands Trail

I ventured to Parsons recently to add another West Virginia bike trail to my list. I’ve done the North Bend Rail Trail, the Greenbrier River Trail, the West Fork Rail Trail, the Deckers Creek Rail Trail, and the Mon River Trail. This time I wanted to try the Allegheny Highlands Trail, an abandoned train line now converted for bicyclists, hikers, etc. I parked at the old train station visitor center parking lot (along Rt. 219 behind Sheetz) and hopped on my bike. The first five miles or so are paved for easy riding.

As I left Parsons, I soon encountered the first of several historical markers about the 1861 Battle of Corricks Ford. Being a Civil War buff, I stopped to read them all. Most people don’t realize how important “Western Virginia” was during the first year of the Civil War, as Confederate forces sought to secure all of Virginia, including the B&O Railroad. Union forces under General George McClellen were sent to protect the vital railroads, and push the Confederates out of “loyal Virginia”—paving the way for West Virginia to become a state.

Corricks Ford received lots of national press coverage because it was the first time that a general (for either side) had been killed in battle. Confederate General Robert Garnett was killed along the banks of the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, and his body was brought by Union troops to the Corrick house, which still stands near the bike trail. As other major battles occurred during the later years of the Civil War, the early battles in what is now West Virginia were crowded out of the history books, but in 1861 the eyes of the nation were upon this area.

Beyond the battlefield, the next landmark was the Kingsford Charcoal Factory. I always prefer Kingsford for my cookouts, because of its West Virginia connection. I thought it was interesting to see this large industrial complex along the Shavers Fork.

Not long thereafter, the trail veered away from the river, and started working its way uphill. This rail-trail diverts onto a country road for a while, although I did not have to deal with much traffic. Soon, I was off the road and on a hard-packed gravel trail, going up through the forest. I could sometimes hear (and occasionally glimpse) U.S. Route 219 off to my right, but mostly it was just beautiful West Virginia woods. Around every bend, I kept hoping to see the crest of the hill, but it seemed each new stretch of the trail continued upward. I pressed onward.

Finally, I crossed the top and started down the other side. The downhill section was nice, but to my disappointment, not nearly as long as the uphill stretch had been. The trail crossed Rt. 219 a couple of times (be careful!) and spends most of the next ten miles or so rolling through the countryside, with no more major hills. Often it runs beside a lovely little creek, and in the distance one can see the giant wind turbines on a high ridge. The trail also runs past Elkins Speedway, where race cars fly around the dirt oval on Friday nights.

The last few miles of the trail are paved, making for a nice ride. Eventually, I reached the end of the trail, just a mile from downtown Elkins, and about 21 miles from where I began in Parsons. Plans were recently announced to finish the trail all the way into downtown, but for now (unless you want to run alongside the highway), it ends at Milepost One. I took a break and ate the lunch I brought with me, before heading back.

It was fun to see things from a different angle on the way back. After about a dozen miles or so of relatively flat peddling, I began to climb out of the Tygart watershed. Fortunately, since I was not as energetic as when I had begun this journey, the Elkins side of the mountain is not as intimidating as the Parsons side. It still felt good to reach the cut through the rock that marks the crest of this old rail line.

From that point on, it was seven miles of downhill all the way to Parsons and the Cheat River. What a nice way to end a wonderful day on a bike trail through West Virginia!

If you are considering biking this trail, I highly recommend starting on the Parsons end, so you can hit the big hill while you are fresh, and then reward yourself with the nearly effortless downhill ride at the end of the day. If you don’t think you are ready for a 42 mile round trip, then I still would start at Parsons, because one can read all the Civil War markers, see the Kingsford plant, and enjoy the whitewater of the Shavers Fork, all within about a five mile round trip.

Regardless of how far you go, I had a great time on the Allegheny Highland Trail, and encourage others to check it out.

Looking up Shavers Fork toward the Kingsford factory.