Sunday, June 23, 2013

Flying in Fayette

As a young child in the 1960s, our family vacations to Virginia Beach involved taking Route 60 across the mountains. Following the Kanawha River upstream to its start where the Gauley and the New River meet was always fun, but past the Kanawha Falls/Gauley Bridge/Cathedral Falls area, one begins an incredible climb up Gauley Mountain. Before the four-lane highways were built, roads like Route 60 carried lots of traffic, including lots of long haul truckers, which made Gauley Mountain even more of an ordeal for drivers. The road’s twists and turns that take you from river level to mountaintop level sometimes were enough to sometimes make me car sick (I didn’t know back then how much I would love those same twists and turns as an adult riding a motorcycle).

Even as a child, I knew this New River Gorge area as one of the most interesting regions in the beautiful state of West Virginia. We sometimes would stop at the Hawks Nest Overlook to let everyone take a break (including the car). Another “milestone” along that route was the Mystery Hole. This gift shop/gravitational oddity is an interesting example of roadside Americana which is still in business today, much the same as when I was a kid. We also veered off to see Babcock State Park (with its iconic grist mill) a time or two as we passed nearby, before Route 60 eventually leads downhill to Rainelle and then historic Lewisburg.

Fast forward to today, and the Fayette County area is a leading tourist attraction, with many opportunities for outdoor adventures, whether it is rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, ziplining, etc. This year, the Boy Scouts will hold their first national Jamboree at their new camp in the New River Gorge area, exposing thousands of scouts from across the nation to the wonders of West Virginia.

I’ve been fortunate to take advantage of this region’s various activities over the years. One of the more “exotic” adventures I tried was a flight over the New River Gorge in a Stearman bi-plane. Wild Blue Adventures has a small grass airstrip just behind the Shell Station along Route 19 between Fayetteville and Oak Hill. One Sunday afternoon before heading home and back to work, I decided the time was right to give this a try.

The pilot was very nice, and set me up with a leather helmet complete with earphones and a mike so we could communicate. After a brief explanation of the cockpit, the engine started and he taxied to the grass runway. As we took off over the Wal-Mart/Lowes shopping center, I was surprised to see on the opposite side of Route 19 an extensive housing development (it must be rather affluent, based on the number of backyard pools which were visible).

Soon we were flying over Fayetteville and then the New River Gorge. Seeing the bridge from several hundred feet up in the sky was an unforgettable experience. So many things look a bit different from that aerial perspective. As a result, I gained a new understanding of how some of the roads and ridges in the area tie together.

Before long, my time in the bi-plane came to an end. The pilot skillfully brought us back for a landing on the grass runway and taxied to a stop. I exited the airplane with a familiar feeling from my childhood—just a trace of queasy stomach, but still astounded about the wonderful Fayette County sights I had witnessed.

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