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!