Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Getting Out in Motown

Morgantown has always been an important place to me, ever since my Dad took me as a kid to my first Mountaineer game at the old stadium. During my four years as a student there, and through countless visits ever since graduation, I have come to know the area quite well, and enjoy sharing its highlights with others. When giving a tour of the town, I always include the obvious choices related to the University, such as the original buildings at Woodburn Circle (and the nearby mast from the USS West Virginia, which sank at Pearl Harbor but was repaired and fought later in WWII), the Mountainlair, the Coliseum, the PRT system, and the new football stadium (which becomes the state’s largest city on gamedays).

However, the outdoorsman in me likes to get away from the city and enjoy nature’s wonders in the area as well. Fortunately, there are lots of places to do this within easy range of “Motown.” Although it was hard to narrow down, here is a list of my top five favorite scenic locations. When I was a student, I sometimes enjoyed taking my books to study in some of these locations. Feel free to share this list if you know a student at WVU who might benefit from some inspirational outdoor study halls.

1. Sky Rock at Dorsey’s Knob is a “must see” located along Route 119 just south of town. Park your car and make the hike up the hill to a huge rock at the pinnacle. A majestic 360 degree vista of the entire area awaits you there.

2. WVU’s Earl L. Core Arboretum covers the steep hillside adjacent to the Coliseum parking lot. Many of the trees in this old-growth forest have been labeled for identification. Various trails criss-cross the wooded slopes, all the way down to the rail-trail along the river. [By the way, the rail-trails in Morgantown are terrific for bicycling!]

3. The Cobun Creek Reservoir is located in White Park off Mississippi Street in the southern end of Morgantown. You can park near the ice skating rink to access the lakeside trails. I especially recommend checking out the “rapids” below the dam as the stream tumbles towards the Toyota dealership on Don Knotts Boulevard.

4. Driving a bit east on I-68 leads you to Coopers Rock State Forest. The main overlook provides a panoramic view of the Cheat River Gorge at the upper end of Cheat Lake (indeed, the lake itself is another good place to escape from the city). Besides the main overlook, I recommend taking one of the well maintained hiking trails there to check out the view from Raven Rock (further upstream from the main overlook) or the abandoned remains of the Henry Clay Iron Furnace, built in 1836.

5. Last but not least is Deckers Creek, which runs adjacent to Route 7 into Preston County. This mountain stream abounds with rapids and waterfalls on its downward journey to Morgantown. There are several pull-off areas along Route 7, but the best place to stop is just east of the Preston County boundary, where there is a small public picnic area. Trails lead down to the nearby creek, which has a number of scenic waterfalls in that vicinity.

Look close and you can see me standing to the left of this beautiful Deckers Creek waterfall, just below Rt. 7 near the Monongalia/Preston County line.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Identity Theft

I wrote an essay about identity theft that appeared this week in the Charleston Daily Mail. Perhaps some of you might be interested to check it out at

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Urbane Camping

After our first visit to Café Cimino this past winter, we knew we had to get back there again! I wrote a story ( about how impressed we were with the food and the people at this charming country inn. This time, we decided to splurge and spend the night instead of just eating dinner. In addition, although the interior of this historic mansion is beautiful, we wanted to eat outside along the scenic Elk River this time.

Upon arrival, we checked into our nicely appointed room, which included a private balcony overlooking the river. The house was built at the upper end of Sutton just below where a creek joins the Elk River. A series of small rapids directly behind the house delight the ears with the constant sound of whitewater. We love the sound of rushing water (except for that time when the washer hose burst!).

Our table was waiting for us in the riverside dining area. We enjoyed watching two green herons cautiously stalking the water’s edge, thrusting their necks out from time to time to grab a small fish. Green herons are smaller and less majestic than blue herons, with shorter legs and neck, but are still fun to watch.

During our first visit, we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, and upon arriving at the front door of this lavish mansion, we wondered if our casual jeans and t-shirt attire was acceptable. We were quickly assured that casual dress is fine in this establishment. To us, this became one of the endearing points of Café Cimino—you don’t have to get all “gussied up” to enjoy gourmet dining. Why wear a neck tourniquet when you are trying to swallow good food?

Another thing we noticed during the first visit was how amazing our waitress was! Jill was very helpful to us as first time visitors, and we wondered if she was the norm or the exception. We soon found that the waiter for our second visit was just as warm and friendly as Jill had been. Luke even gave us his card and offered to be our guide down the Elk River if we bring our kayaks sometime. Just like Jill, he has worked at Café Cimino for years, and is very loyal to the business. He is an amazing guy!

Once again, the food was incredible. I had the soft shell crabs—a rare dish that I first experienced while living in Washington. [Actually, my very first soft shell experience was at a drag strip in southern Maryland, where they served them on a hamburger bun. It looks a bit crazy to be handed a bun with legs and claws hanging out the edges!] My main course was served with the best bok choy I’ve ever tasted, accompanied by a gnocchi dish with ramps and morel mushrooms, both from the woods of West Virginia. Everything was delicious!

We enjoyed an after dinner walk along the rocks at the edge of the river as the sun went down. Then we sat around the firepit in the side yard as darkness set in. It was a bit too cloudy to see the stars (the moon peeked through a few times, though), but on a clear night I’m sure the sky is beautiful. In the meantime, we chatted with other guests and watched the mesmerizing fire dance around the logs. [Some of you might recall my discussion of flames at]

As I peered into the orange glowing embers and yellow flames, I realized that what we were experiencing could be described as luxury camping. We weren’t dressed up, but had just enjoyed a gourmet meal while outside watching herons and listening to the river, followed by a brief hike, and then finishing with the communal campfire (however, unlike real camping, a waiter periodically checked on the folks at the campfire to see if he could bring us anything). When the time came to call it a night, instead of getting into a sleeping bag inside a tent, we went back to our comfy bed in our room and watched television. Life is good!

However, I must point out that luxury camping does not come cheap (perhaps I should call it “Urbane Camping” since the last name of the couple who own Café Cimino is Urbanic). Some of you who know me well are probably surprised that a tightwad such as myself would spend significantly more for meals and lodging than I typically am prone to do. Indeed, we spent more in one night than we do other times for the whole weekend.

One of the reasons why is the friendliness that pervades this establishment. Everyone we have met here has been very welcoming, contributing to a magical atmosphere during our visits. The owners are trying to provide West Virginia with a unique experience—both in dining and lodging—without the haughtiness that you can get at other luxury locations. You can pull up out front in a Cadillac or on an old motorcycle and be treated with the same excellent service and food. I applaud their efforts to provide outstanding products (often using locally sourced foods) and service (from loyal employees who are treated well by the owners). I also appreciate their efforts to make this unique concept work in an historic building within the small town of Sutton in the middle of West Virginia.

We can’t afford to visit very often, but we will be back again, and are absolutely certain that we will have an enjoyable visit. Because of that certainty, Café Cimino is a great place for special occasions. In fact, two other couples with whom we talked had both come to celebrate their respective anniversaries.

I should also mention that by staying overnight, we got to check out for the first time the free breakfast provided for guests, and it was indeed delicious. We enjoyed sitting inside the lovely house, eating the wonderful food, and conversing a bit more with the staff and other guests before leaving. We had a great time, and look forward to our inevitable return trip someday. Until then, I’ll try to put more money in my piggy bank.

I took this picture before leaving Cafe Cimino Country Inn (

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mon River Bike Trail

I enjoy taking long rides on bicycle trails, safely away from traffic. Two of my favorite rides were on the Greenbrier River Trail in 2011 ( and the entire North Bend Rail Trail in a single day back in 2007. I recently got my first long ride of the season on the Monongahela River Trail, from Morgantown to Prickett’s Fort near Fairmont (read more about Prickett’s Fort at The Morgantown area offers over 50 miles of bike trails, with the Mon River Trail also stretching to north to Point Marion, PA, and the Deckers Creek Rail Trail extending well into Preston County.

There is something about pedaling through the woods that I find relaxing; although it is great exercise as well. You get the connection with nature that comes from hiking, but one can cover far more territory. I like the challenge of controlling my path and speed, and the feeling of momentum from the spinning wheels.

However, I also like the freedom to stop and savor the view from time to time. On this particular trip, I made a stop to more closely examine a nice waterfall coming down the hillside. I was being careful to watch for poison ivy and snakes as I angled for a better view. As I carefully stepped back down the hill to the bike path, this time I noticed a hidden snake. Fortunately, it was only a garter snake, but it “put a little spring in my step” and I wondered if I had somehow missed this snake on my way up the hill.

I also like to stop on the bridges and gaze at the water below. Often I see bluegill, whose bodies are pumpkin seed shaped with a tell-tale dark spot on the gill flap. Sometimes I see longer bodied fish, usually bass or carp. Although I didn’t see any turtles this time, sometimes you can also see them swimming or sunning themselves.

On this day, I also rode by some baby Canada Geese along the trail, whose parents closely watched and hissed at me to protect their offspring. Later, the noise of my bike spooked a great blue heron, which stretched his long wings and gracefully flew further downriver.

A spring day like this was provided some great views of wildflowers along the path. I’m not as good as my mom at identifying wildflowers, but I saw trillium, wild geraniums, and wild irises.

While most of this trail is isolated woodlands, if you look close there are some remnants of previous activities in the area. In particular, there is an impressive long row of brick coke ovens—now nearly overgrown and easily overlooked—that provides testament to man’s previous activities in these woods. During the coal industry’s heyday in this area, did the men who worked here imagine these coke ovens would someday be nearly indistinguishable from the forest?

Perhaps the biggest examples of human influence are the three massive locks that span the river, allowing boats to maintain a navigable depth all the way to Fairmont. The first one you pass is the Morgantown Locks and Dam, just south of the downtown area. Because this lock is so easily viewed from Don Knotts Boulevard, it is generally kept clean. However, the Hildebrand Locks and the Opekiska Locks further upstream tend to have lots of flotsam littering the top of the locks. From the downstream side, the water shooting over and out from the locks looks good, but the floating junk on the upstream side is depressing.

It reminds me of the iconic anti-littering TV spot from the ‘70s with the Indian who cries a tear because of our pollution. The trash at the river locks was the only sad part during an otherwise uplifting day amidst nature’s beauty on the bike trail.

A depressing view of the "dam trash!"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Walking the Universe

Green Bank is an out-of-this-world place! This secluded valley in the mountains of West Virginia was selected by the government in the late 1950s as the site for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), where they could “listen” with their huge “ears” to radio waves from across the universe.

I had visited Green Bank as a youngster during the ‘60s, before I could fully comprehend the science behind these giant dishes. However, this kid was mesmerized by what I saw that day, and I still remember the black and white souvenir booklet I got that day, and kept for many years after my visit. I knew I wanted to return some day, but it is a bit out of the way. I saw the antennas from a distance a few years back, because the bicycling trip I took on the Greenbrier River Trail ( started in the nearby town of Cass, but I didn’t have time to stop and visit that day.

Recently, Anna had some business to attend to near Green Bank, so we arranged for her to drop me off at NRAO. Arriving at 2:30 PM, we agreed to meet in the parking lot at 4:00 PM, giving me an hour and a half to check things out. Unfortunately, I found out that the fancy new Visitor Center was closed that day, so I would not be able to see the exhibits inside. However, an employee gave me a sheet of paper outlining a personal walking tour of the grounds, and said I could follow the map and read the interpretive signs, as long as my cell phone was powered off. These antennas are so sensitive that any electronic devices could cause interference. In fact, the only vehicles allowed within the gate beyond the visitor center are diesel powered, because their compression ignited engines don’t require electrical spark plugs. [I guess that is why I saw a 30-some year old diesel VW Rabbit Pickup there—I had not seen one of those in years!]

The road through the NRAO compound runs for almost two miles, passing a variety of telescopes that have been used over the years. The main road is also used to create a scale model of our solar system to give visitors a sense of its size. Near the start, our sun is represented by an 18 inch sphere, with Mercury, Venus, Earth (the size of a pea), and Mars coming in short succession. Jupiter and the other planets stretch out across the rest of the road, until you reach Pluto at the largest telescope near the end (it must be cold that far from the sun!).

So on this beautiful spring day, I was walking alone, step by step through the signs describing the planets as well as the radio telescopes, with no noise but the breeze in the nearby trees. The juxtaposition of all this cutting edge technology next to the West Virginia woods was intriguing. To think that these dishes were picking up signals from across the universe is amazing! Someday, we might detect radio evidence of life elsewhere in the universe—NRAO was the site of the first Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. I wanted to take pictures, but could not do so without turning on my cell phone (if only I still had my Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera).

I made it to the end and then hurried my pace on the way back. Not only do I use my phone as a camera, but on this trip I had left my wrist watch at home, relying instead on my phone to tell me the time. I was trying to estimate elapsed time in my head, so I would be back in the parking lot to meet Anna at our appointed hour. There was no way for us to call or text each other about meeting up—besides the limitation on electrical devices near the antennas, there is no cell service whatsoever in the Green Bank vicinity. The government has declared a radio-free space around the entire area, so cell phone communications are non-existent.

Fortunately, the inner clock inside my brain had “guess-timated” correctly, as I arrived at Anna’s car precisely at 4:00 PM. I love it when that happens! I had a great time on my 90 minute walk contemplating the cosmos at Green Bank. Now I need to return someday to see the exhibits inside the Green Bank Visitor Center. There is some concern that efforts to cut the federal budget might result in the closure of the NRAO, so I better not wait as long between visits as I did the last time!

While I didn't take any pictures, here is one from NRAO that shows the largest telescope and the mountains behind it, and a tour bus in the foreground.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ziplining at WVU

Several years ago, I took my first zipline canopy tour in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. Since then I’ve zipped three more times there and at Adventures on the Gorge (near the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County, WV), and have enjoyed realizing a childhood dream of flying through the trees. So when I heard that my alma mater had opened a zipline canopy tour in the WVU Research Forest near Coopers Rock, I wanted to give it a try. I signed up my daughter and myself for a trip on the opening weekend.

WVU is the first university to offer a zipline tour—it is an operated by the Adventure West Virginia program, which conducts various adventure-based and experiential education programming. This organization has a “challenge course” with various ropes and climbing apparatus to test your skills. They also are known for their special orientation programs, which expose students to the great outdoors in our state, taking them to such locations as Blackwater Falls and Seneca Rocks. The addition of a zipline canopy tour within the WVU Research Forest goes right along with their mission.

Because it is meant as an introduction and as an educational program, experienced zipliners may be disappointed to find out that there are only four ziplines on this canopy tour. However, the idea is to expose students, as well as the general public, to the fun of flying through the trees, while teaching them about forestry practices and other topics.

There is a strong emphasis on safety here. The safety harness and other equipment are all brand new, including a nice helmet designed for this activity. The guides do a good job getting everyone set up with their gear, and there is something reassuring about the sound of carabineers clicking, and the feel of the harness being snugly tightened.

The course itself is a double zipline (two parallel cables approximately 8 inches apart) using vinyl covered steel cables. At each landing platform, there are “boat bumpers” on the wooden platform and padding covering the anchoring tree, as well as a manual braking system controlled by one of the guides. The trolley that you hang from is a new design with handlebars to better control your body while rolling along the cable.

The four zips are successively longer, with the last two being approximately 600 and 800 feet long. Between the landing platform for the second zipline and the starting platform for the third zipline, one must cross a short rope bridge built with logs instead of planks. You are always connected by two safety cables, so the chance of something going wrong is nil. The key with such challenges (as I learned on the Nelson Rocks “Via Ferrata”—see is to focus your vision about five or six feet away, so that you are only concentrating on placing your foot on the next board, and not looking at the ground below.

After arriving at the final platform, you get to repel down about 35 feet to the ground. Again, the guides do a great job of explaining this maneuver to a novice. All you really need to do is trust your gear, lean back and sit in the air, while keeping your feet against the edge of the platform. What you don’t want to do is take your feet off the platform too early and swing into the platform with your face!

This course is perfect for someone to try ziplining for the first time. During the month of May, the cost for the general public is only $30—beginning in June the price will increase to $50. I’d recommend getting up on top of Chestnut Ridge and give this a try soon! There is nothing comparable to flying through the trees!

WVU Mountaineer Jonathan Kimble (a great guy whom I have had the pleasure of talking with several times) participated in the "Grand Opening" for the new zipline on May 1.