Friday, December 26, 2014

Riding the Durbin Rocket

I caught one of the last runs of the year on the Durbin Rocket recently. The Durbin Rocket is a steam powered excursion train operated by the Mountain Rail Adventures, which also runs the Cheat Mountain Salamander diesel train that I rode last year out of Elkins (and wrote about in an earlier article for Two-Lane Livin’). The old town of Durbin sits astride U.S. 250 (part of the old Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which is the name still used in their mailing address) less than an hour south of Elkins.

This coal-fired locomotive was built in 1910 and designed for the steep grades servicing logging operations, featuring driveshafts and beveled gears powering all of the wheels for maximum traction. It sat puffing smoke and hissing steam as it calmly idled prior to our trip—its rhythmic pulsing made it seem as if it were breathing. Whenever the throaty steam whistle was blown, it reverberated off the nearby mountainsides.

Unlike its glory days hauling timber off the mountains, this remnant from the past merely takes a few antique passenger cars and a caboose down the narrow valley of the upper Greenbrier River. The roundtrip journey only covers about twenty miles, but it is very scenic. The clear waters of the Greenbrier River allow one to see the scattered flat rocks along the river bottom, in a variety of irregular polygon shapes. Whitewater rapids interrupt the river’s flow at various points. A beaver dam was visible on one side-section of the river. I also saw deer raise their heads, perk their ears, and stare at the “iron horse” that noisily rolled down the tracks. A kingfisher on a branch overlooking the river opted to fly further downstream to escape our commotion.

There were four passenger cars this day—a completely open car directly behind the locomotive; an old enclosed railway post office car with some seats and windows; an open car with conventional seating plus a roof; and a traditional red caboose. Both the caboose and the enclosed car had coal-fired stoves to provide some heat on this cold day. I chose to ride in the caboose, where I could climb up the ladder and into the cupola to see in all directions. It was a unique spot in which to sit.

The train stops for about 15 minutes on the far end of the line to allow passengers to get off and take pictures and/or explore the river. It also made a brief stop on the way back at a creek bridge to lower a siphon hose and take on water from a pure mountain stream. This was apparently a common method in the old days, but I was more familiar with the elevated water towers that once provided steam engines with refills.

Eventually, our slow and steady pace brought us back to the station in the heart of Durbin (just because it is nicknamed the “Rocket” doesn’t mean it runs fast). I had a great time going back in time and riding the rails that day! There is just something exciting about the sights, the sounds, and even the smells of an old coal-powered steam engine. It truly is a living fossil from a bygone era.


[This story was published in the January issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]

Friday, November 28, 2014

Coalwood: Then and Now

I grew up during the “space race” of the 1960s, and was always interested in the space program—even building and flying my own model rockets. I was even fortunate enough to work for NASA for a few years during the 1980s, before moving back to my hometown in West Virginia.

Given my love for my native state, and my interest in the space, it should come as no surprise that I was captivated when Homer Hickam’s book “Rocket Boys” first came out in 1998. Everyone should read this book! I enjoyed the entire Coalwood Trilogy (“Rocket Boys,” “The Coalwood Way,” and “Sky of Stone”) as well as the movie version entitled “October Sky” (plus I saw the new musical version performed onstage at Fairmont State). Although I wasn’t born until after Sputnik, I could readily identify with the Rocket Boys and their adventures (see http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2013/11/rocket-boys.html for more on this topic).

One of the historical markers in Coalwood.

We had driven to Coalwood about ten years ago to attend the Rocket Boys Festival when it was still being held there. In recent years, the festival location has moved to Beckley’s Exhibition Coal Mine. This year, they offered a bus ride from Beckley to Coalwood with one of the original Rocket Boys. Roy Lee Cooke is now in his 70s, and was the “ladies’ man” of the Rocket Boys. He is still quite a character!


Roy Lee telling us all about the launch site.

We loaded onto the bus and he regaled us with his stories all the way from Beckley to Coalwood, through the beautiful mountain scenery on a glorious fall day. For example, there is a long, winding hill crossing a ridge that separates Coalwood from the county seat of Welch. He told us about being so familiar with this curvy stretch of West Virginia Route 16 that he would drive it at night with his headlights off just for the challenge. [That is not the smartest thing to do, but that is what they did for fun back in the late ‘50s.]

When we arrived in Coalwood, Roy Lee gave us an entertaining guided tour, pointing out all the highlights of the town as it was nearly 60 years ago, including the launch site outside of the town. He also told us about acquiring the moonshine that was a critical ingredient in their homemade rocket fuel.


The company's clubhouse with the church just beyond.

Unfortunately, what had been a proud and booming coal town has been on the decline since the mine shut down. Nature is reclaiming much of land that is no longer being used. Unfortunately, hoodlums are destroying some of the vacant buildings as well. It seemed even more run-down than when I had been there a decade ago. I wish I could have experienced it in its glory days!

Some of the local residents provided lunch for the bus tour group in the basement hall of the Coalwood Community Church. Not only was the food good, but it was interesting to talk with them about the problems they face today. Life isn’t easy in Coalwood without good paying jobs nearby—a dilemma faced by too much of West Virginia. It makes one wish we could go back to the “good old days”—or does that make me sound like a grouchy old man?


A picture of our tour group, with Roy Lee on the right (hugging the young newspaper reporter). That's me with my University of Charleston shirt. Notice that this was taken under Roy Lee's street sign. By the way, this story appeared in the December issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Flat Stanley" visits Morgantown

[I went to the University of Charleston with a woman who now teaches school in Connecticut. Her students are doing a “Flat Stanley” project, where they color a paper cut-out of a boy and send him through the mail to another state (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flat_Stanley_Project). By hearing about their Flat Stanley’s adventure, they learn about different states. I took the Flat Stanley that was sent to me for a weekend in Morgantown, WV, where I attended grad school and law school at WVU. Here is the report I’m sending back to the STEM Academy in Connecticut.]


Stanley accompanied me over the weekend to Morgantown, West Virginia. Anna and I had a great time showing him around town. Morgantown is best known as the home of West Virginia University.

The original part of campus is known as Woodburn Circle, where Woodburn Hall and two other nearby buildings on either side formed the original college when it was founded in 1867. This is a picture of Stanley at the circle with old Woodburn Hall in the background (when I was a WVU student, I had classes in there).

Near Woodburn Circle (which can be seen in the background) is the silver mast that was removed from the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia (look close to see the "crow's nest" just to the left of Woodburn Hall's center tower). This ship was sunk by the Japanese in World War II, but was able to be repaired and later fought during the war.

The building on the left in the picture above is the “Mountainlair”—the student union building at WVU, where students can eat, attend events, see movies, go bowling, etc. Here is a picture of Stanley on the sidewalk between Woodburn Circle and the Mountainlair, showing the front of the Mountainlair with old Stewart Hall in the background. Stewart Hall is where the president’s office and other administrative functions are located.

A famous statue is located adjacent to the Mountainlair. Here is Stanley with the larger-than-life West Virginia Mountaineer.

I took Stanley to the top of Law School Hill, which overlooks the football field where the WVU Mountaineers play their home games. Here is a view looking down into the stadium. The press box is located above Stanley’s arm.

The other major sports venue is the WVU Coliseum, where the basketball, volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics team perform (plus numerous major concerts, etc.). This picture of the Coliseum was taken from the parking lot of the WVU Creative Arts Center (CAC), where students learn theater, music, art, etc. Big name acts often perform at the CAC—Sesame Street Live was there over this weekend.

In front of the Coliseum is a statue of WVU’s most famous athlete. West Virginia native Jerry West graduated in 1960, and became a star player for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. He was such a big star that they used a picture of him to form the red/white/blue logo of the National Basketball Association which is still used today.

The WVU volleyball team had a home game against Baylor University on Saturday evening. The Mountaineers ended up winning the match in three straight games. Here is Stanley on the far left watching the pre-game warm-up (which is why there are more than six players on the court). The Mountaineers wore their white jerseys with gold trim around the blue numbers, plus their blue shorts, for this game. Notice the bottom of the large hanging scoreboard, the big WV symbol on the court, and the crowd that was already there before the game started. Stanley got to sing John Denver’s “Country Roads” along with the team and the crowd after the victory, which is a tradition among all major sports at WVU.

One of the most unique things about WVU is the PRT, which stands for Personal Rapid Transit. It is a transportation system built in the early ‘70s to take students around the campuses (the main downtown campus was running out of room, so they expanded on a nearby hilltop area that now comprises about as many buildings as the old downtown campus). The PRT uses small robotic cars that run on elevated trackways to various stations. Here is a picture of Stanley as the door opens up on one of the cars that just arrived at a station (if you look close, there are a few students sitting inside this car, waiting to get off at a different station).

This picture is taken from Stansberry Hall, the old fieldhouse where Jerry West played basketball for the Mountaineers. This photo lets you see an outside view of a PRT station, along with the elevated concrete roadway that these futuristic cars run on. In the upper right corner is the old observatory where astronomy students used to look through telescopes at the night sky (WVU recently got a brand new observatory atop a different building).

There is more to Morgantown than just the university. We took Stanley to see the Civil War Memorial, because the Civil War is what allowed West Virginia to become a state. Originally, this mountainous area was part of the state of Virginia. However, the rugged landscape here was very different than the flat lands in most of the rest of Virginia. They had big plantations and owned slaves. The western portion of Virginia always felt like the rest of Virginia didn’t like us, because they had been settled first, and they controlled the state government. Most of our state tax money seemed to be spent on better roads in the east and harbor improvements along the waterways. About the only major government expenditure made by the old state of Virginia was to build the state’s insane asylum in the western counties.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Virginia government in Richmond decided to secede from the United States and join the Confederate States of America. This was primarily because of they wanted to keep their slaves. However, the mountainous counties of western Virginia had few slaves and wanted to stay in the Union. At first, we broke away and declared ourselves to be the loyalist state of Virginia. Then, we asked Congress to consider us as a new state—the state of West Virginia. It was somewhat controversial as to whether it was legal to carve us out from the state of Virginia, but since Virginia had opted to join the Confederacy, the Congress passed our statehood act and President Lincoln (after much deliberation) signed it. We officially became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

The Civil War is very important to West Virginia, because it was also similar to a war of independence for us. Had the Confederates won the war, not only would slavery have continued, but the new state of West Virginia would surely have been declared invalid and absorbed back into Virginia. Our state’s early leaders would have been persecuted as traitors, and Virginia would really have looked down on us from that point onward (even worse than when they looked down on us before).

So West Virginian’s had a vested interest to win the war, and my forefathers fought hard for the Union. That is why this large statue is here—to remember those who fought to defend the Union. However, this is not the only war that West Virginian’s fought hard in—West Virginia has always sent among the highest percentages of its population into the military. There is a strong sense of patriotism here.

Another spot we took Stanley was near the locks on the Monongahela River. Morgantown grew up along the banks of this river, which flows northward into Pennsylvania where it joins the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. Locks along this river were built primarily to enable barges of West Virginia coal to be sent downstream to the steel mills in the Pittsburgh region. Coal mining is a big business in this state.

There is a high peak of exposed rock in Morgantown known as “Sky Rock.” We hiked to the top of this pinnacle to let Stanley get a 360 degree view of the area. Here are some pictures from that adventure.

Notice the Monongahela River hundreds of feet below (look close and you might notice the bridge carrying Interstate 79) in this view towards the west.

If you look real close in this easterly view, you might notice a baseball diamond down below. There is a federal prison located near Morgantown, and this baseball diamond is inside the fences surrounding the prison. Interstate 68 is also visible in this picture. Although they don’t show up in this picture, there are about a dozen large wind turbines generating electricity along the mountain ridgeline to the northeast.

West Virginia is quite hilly. We would have taken Stanley to beautiful Coopers Rock to look down into the Cheat River Canyon, but the access road is closed from November through March. However, we did take Stanley to see some of the rapids and waterfalls while hiking along Cobun Creek in Morgantown. West Virginia is known for its scenic beauty.

Stanley also got to eat some local delicacies while visiting West Virginia. One food that West Virginia is known for is pepperoni rolls. Many immigrants from Italy came to work in our little coal towns when the coal mines were booming in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was easy for the coal miners’ wives to take pepperoni, wrap it in bread dough, and bake it, to make a tasty snack for the miners to take underground with them. It became a traditional food in West Virginia. Pepperoni rolls are found in just about every gas station and supermarket around the state, as well as on some restaurant menus. Here is Stanley with a partially eaten pepperoni roll.

Another food item that is prevalent in West Virginia is to order a hot dog with sauce (sometimes called chili, but not chili with beans) and cole slaw on it. Here is Stanley with a couple of West Virginia style hot dogs.

Because November 22 was the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, we took Stanley to a local park along the riverside bike trail that has a nice memorial to JFK. West Virginian’s had a strong affinity for President Kennedy, and his victory in the 1960 West Virginia primary helped to propel him to his party’s nomination. This memorial shows him (a “flat JFK”?) on a granite wall, with a statue of his little son John facing the wall as he was seen at the funeral saluting his father’s casket. Here are front and rear pictures of Stanley consoling John-John.

Finally, on Sunday evening, Stanley got to experience the WVU Mountaineer basketball team defeating the NCAA defending national champion UConn Huskies in an ESPN tournament championship game held in Puerto Rico. It was a nice way to finish off a fun WVU weekend. Even if Stanley might be a Connecticut Huskies fan, he sat silently and politely refused to cheer for them while his host cheered on the Mountaineers!

I hope Stanley enjoyed a safe trip home to East Hartford, Connecticut. More importantly, I really hope Stanley had a good time visiting and learning about my home state of West Virginia!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Turnpike Turmoil?

The West Virginia Turnpike has been an important part of my life. This important route was the golden pathway to Myrtle Beach and other southern vacation spots, even back in my youth when much of it was still just a two-lane highway (with an occasional third lane for passing trucks lumbering up the hills). I can also remember the paper ticket given to drivers when you entered the turnpike, which determined how much you would pay, based on where you exited.

Even though it has been upgraded to Interstate highway standards over the years, it still follows the same basic path, from the upper Kanawha Valley to the Cabin Creek hollow first, and then crossing over (formerly through the Memorial Tunnel) into the Paint Creek watershed to get up to Beckley (check out my story about Paint Creek). From there, it goes past Flat Top Mountain and on to Princeton. [Did you know you can see Pipestem Resort (if you know where to look) in the distance from along that section of the Turnpike?]

This hilly, twisty highway goes through some of the most impressive surroundings in the state. I’ve always enjoyed the rugged scenery of this mostly undeveloped area. However, in recent years, I’ve been noticing more encroachment by nearby surface mining. If you look closely along the ridgelines adjacent to the turnpike, you can often tell that they are actually the edge of an active surface mine on the other side. For example, just north of the Pax exit (on the western side) one can see the edge of the mining operation that I stumbled onto when driving to Whitesville (read that story here). Thankfully, there seems to be an effort on the part of the mining companies to avoid infringing too much on the “viewshed” of the turnpike, but these obvious man-made activities along the ridge tops still take away from the “wild and wonderful” aspects of this amazing territory.

This juxtaposition of scenic beauty/surface mining was hammered home to me yesterday during a brief stop at the Morton travel plaza on the northbound side of the Turnpike, in the southeastern part of Kanawha County. On that warm November afternoon, I decided to hop the fence bordering the parking lot (there is an obvious low spot in the fence that people use to get over it) and follow the path to explore nearby Paint Creek.

After crossing the fence, I noticed one of the travel plaza employees enjoying his “smoke break” looking at the creek. He told me about the turtles that are often sunning themselves on the downed tree along the opposite bank, and about the big trout that he often sees there (he also cautioned me about the copperhead he claimed to have killed there recently).

I carefully roamed around the water’s edge and took a few pictures, while marveling at nature’s splendor that is so close to a busy roadside rest area. Most travelers are totally unaware of this paradise beside the parking lot. In addition to offering all those slick travel brochures inside the travel plaza touting West Virginia’s scenic beauty, perhaps the Turnpike Commission should develop a simple walking trail out back along Paint Creek to let visitors see the real thing!

As I got back to the car, I was startled by a huge explosion that reverberated across the hillsides, followed closely by a second similar explosion. This was definitely not a hunter’s rifle, or merely a backfiring truck!

At first I was unsure what had occurred, but then I saw the smoke rising from the top of the ridgeline. I had not previously noticed it, but apparently there is yet another surface mine just across the Turnpike from this travel plaza. A major chunk of the mountain had just been destroyed. The black smoke from the explosive charges and the white rock dust (at least that's my best explanation for the two colors) mingled together as they slowly rose into the air. Soon the wind picked up the smoke plus the ensuing dust, draping it across the narrow valley used by the Turnpike (I was already in the car and getting ready to leave, so I didn’t take a third picture showing the maximum coverage of the smoke and dust). I’m sure many drivers wondered what had caused this unexpected blanket of smoke to temporarily darken the area.

Thus, just a few minutes removed from enjoying West Virginia’s autumn splendor along the edge of Paint Creek, listening to the melody of the water flowing over the rocks, I had been starkly confronted with the ongoing destruction of the nearby mountain.

At some point, will the mining interests start removing the majestic mountainsides that border the Turnpike? It also makes me worry about the unseen countryside just beyond the edges of the Turnpike. Plus, if strip mining is so prevalent along the edge of the busy Turnpike, how bad might the destruction be getting in the less visible areas of our state?

Friends from Ohio who traveled the Turnpike recently posted on Facebook on how much they enjoyed their drive back through West Virginia’s fall colors. Others have shared similar comments about their love of the Turnpike terrain over the years (and not just in the fall). I can only hope that all of us will continue to be able to enjoy the Turnpike viewshed for many years to come, and that our temporary need for coal today does not leave West Virginia with a devastated lunar landscape in the future.

I’d like to think that most folks feel this way, and that such a simple desire for West Virginia's future does not automatically label a person as a “tree hugger” or some other pejorative political term.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Marx Toy Museum

Most of us have fond memories of our childhood, and many of those memories center around our favorite toys. West Virginia’s northern panhandle is fortunate to have two museums which focus on toys. One reason why the northern panhandle is associated with toys is because the Marx Toy Company had a large factory in Glen Dale, West Virginia (between Wheeling and Moundsville).

When I was young, there were a number of well-known competitors in the toy market such as Marx, Mattel, Kenner, and Hasbro—but only Marx had a plant in West Virginia. It operated from 1934 to 1980, and employed 2000 workers at its peak.

I wrote about Wheeling’s Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum in the December 2013 issue of Two-Lane Livin’. It was opened in 1998 and is located in a large, two-story former elementary school not far from the Elm Grove exit of Interstate 70.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the smaller Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville. It opened in 2000 and occupies a former grocery store along Second Street in downtown Moundsville. The sole focus of this museum is on former Marx Toys. This single-story building is packed with tricycles, doll houses, trains, toy soldiers, etc.

The museum contains a wide variety of items from all the decades that Marx was in business. It is easy to see that this place is a labor of love for former employees of the company who want the memory of the local plant to live on. It provides a nostalgic look at how American children played over the decades of the 20th century. The museum also has a corner devoted to country music star Brad Paisley and the toys he played with while growing up in Glen Dale.

Although I found an electric train caboose as well as a farm tractor that I remembered owning, apparently I didn’t have a lot of Marx toys myself. However, I was able to find several toys that had been familiar with through others. I never owned “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” but I had played it at friends’ homes. “Johnny West” was a western version of GI Joe, but I was never much interested in these male action figures. The “Big Wheel” (and its subsequent variations) was one of the most popular Marx toys, but I had already graduated to bicycles by the time it had come out. I did find one of my sister’s favorite toys—a purple “Dino the Dinosaur” from the old Flintstones cartoon show.

For a small town, Moundsville has several interesting attractions. I’ve toured the old state penitentiary, and it was fascinating during the daytime—but I’m not sure I want to sign up for their night tours at Halloween! The Grave Creek Mound (and its adjacent museum) does an excellent job of telling the story of the Adena Indian moundbuilders. Grand Vue Park (a county park) overlooks Moundsville and has lots to do, including ziplining (I previously wrote about my adventure there). Now I can add the Marx Toy Museum to my list of Moundsville attractions I have visited.


[I wrote this story for the November issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Martinsville Memories

A “sense of place” is important to me. I’m much more interested in a place after I have visited there, and have an understanding of the overall surroundings. I need to know what is beyond the borders of a picture (or the television screen). My mind likes to have its own panoramic mental picture.

Sometimes it is good to “recalibrate” your sense of place by revisiting spots that have changed over the years. Such was the case with my recent trip to southern Virginia, through the beautiful autumn colors, to reunite with Martinsville Speedway.

My first NASCAR race was the 1965 Daytona 500—my next NASCAR races were at Martinsville, beginning in 1967. Our annual spring pilgrimage to the Virginia 500 continued into the mid-‘70s, and originally involved taking numerous two-lane highways to arrive at our destination. Dad took me to lots of local racetracks in the tri-state area, but as a youngster, my one trip a year to see the big stars of NASCAR compete was to Martinsville—the closest track to our home. We would generally park in the infield along the fence leading into the third turn, with a good view of the big “human powered” scoreboard above the landscaped boxwood shrubbery lining the outer walls. Martinsville was a beautiful track, and even included a small lake just outside the track which contributed to its impeccable park-like environment.


I took this picture at the Dogwood 500 in the late '70s.
Notice the shrubbery and the scoreboard.

During my youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s, racing was a cult sport and mostly ignored by the mainstream newsmedia. Often we would not know who won Sunday’s big race until our beloved Speed Sport newspaper would arrive by mail every Thursday. Only the biggest races might merit tape-delayed, partial coverage the following Saturday on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I often wished that someday my sport of auto racing would become as big as football/baseball/basketball sports that interested my peers as well as the general public. However, from that na├»ve childhood desire, I learned to be careful what you wish for!

With the advent of ESPN (as well as improved camera technology), television coverage of auto racing began to take off in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder” seemed to bring in tons of new race fans—many of whom had little appreciation for the history of the sport, and often seemed most interested in the crashes. Plus, big money really moved into the sport, making sponsorships more important than driver talent or managerial ethics. Ticket prices and traffic headaches were other discouraging effects. Somehow, my beloved NASCAR seemed to edge closer to evolving into a combination of daytime soap operas and WWE wrestling.

The big business aspect has taken some of the fun out of my sport. I still follow it, and watch it on TV occasionally, but haven’t been to an actual Sunday NASCAR race for over twenty years. However, last Friday I had the opportunity to stop by Martinsville for their practice and qualifying day. Tickets are only $15, with free parking and no traffic hassles. The weather looked great so I decided to check it out again to revitalize my sense of place and create some new mental pictures.

Since my last visit to Martinsville about 35 years ago, I knew from television coverage that the track had changed. The old concrete seats crammed between the backstretch and the railroad tracks (where I sat one race weekend) are now covered with huge billboard signs angling down towards the track itself. Massive grandstands arc around the turns at both ends of the track (no more human powered scoreboard or immaculately trimmed shrubbery). The stands on the front stretch are several times higher than the old covered grandstand used to be. No one gets to drive their car into the infield to watch these days because the massive car haulers now used by every team are intricately parked adjacent to each other, filling up most of the space (along with the new covered garage area).


The new look of the track from high up in the stands near Turn One.

I drove to the track via a new route, coming across Route 58 from I-77 at Hillsville. Although there is still some stretches of two-lane road on Route 58 (including the beautiful “Lovers Leap” overlook), the vast majority of my trip was on four-lane highways—a big improvement over the old days!


Fall colors from the roadside pull-off at Lovers Leap.

I came into the track entrance from the south on U.S. 220, and discovered that the old entrance street had been replaced by a new multi-lane entrance road. The lake had been drained and converted into “fan zone” filled with souvenir trailers, show cars, food concessions, etc. The track’s business office behind the grandstand was at least in the same spot, although expanded. It all looked different to me—except that the old TraveLodge motel (now under a different name) still stands on the southbound side of 220 just outside the track (although we stayed there a few times when I was a kid, it doesn’t look near as nice as I remembered it—I guess we are both getting old and showing our age).

An interesting surprise for me was that the late Wendell Scott from nearby Danville, Virginia was being honored this weekend. Wendell had been the only black driver on the NASCAR circuit (the Richard Pryor movie “Greased Lightning” was based on Wendell), and he endured a lot of crap in a southern sport during the ‘60s, but still competed on a shoestring budget because he loved to race. Wendell was recently voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year, even though he only won one race in his entire career. As a tribute to him this weekend, one of the cars, as well as one of the race trucks, were running as #34 with a special “old school” Wendell Scott paint scheme. I can remember seeing Wendell run during my childhood visits to Martinsville, and it was nice to see “his car” running on the same track again. [As it turned out, the #34 truck won the race on Saturday, and the #34 car had a top ten finish on Sunday.]

Darrell Wallace in his Wendell Scott tribute truck--his victory last year in this race made him the first black to win a NASCAR race since Wendell.

During my visit on Friday, I made a point to eat a hot dog from the concession stand at the race track. Martinsville has always prided itself on the quality of its hotdogs, even back when I was a kid. I was glad to see that the $2 price tag was within reason in this day and age (I don’t remember—and I don’t think I want to know—how cheap they were in 1967).

I had a wonderful day at the track! I’m so glad I made the effort to check out Martinsville again and recalibrate my memories. During the day, I moved around to sit from various vantage points, including some particular seating areas that I could remember from times in the past when I sat in the grandstands. It was fun to put myself back in the same geographical spot where I sat all those many years ago.


The view towards Turn One, without the roof
that used to be over the main grandstand.

Sometimes change can be beneficial. Even though I miss the old-fashioned human powered scoreboard, I must admit the new-fangled huge video screen towering above the center of the infield does provide excellent information as well as replays. The electronic telemetry made it easy to keep up with which cars were turning the fastest laps in real time.

Despite all the changes, I still got to see a reminder of the old scoreboard, the shrubbery, and one of my childhood heroes. Fortunately, I discovered (underneath the back of the main grandstand) there are about half a dozen billboard-sized signs displaying black-and-white pictures of classic Martinsville action, featuring Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, and others. Best of all, though, was a nostalgic picture of Richard Petty, in his 1967 Plymouth, entering the fourth turn with the shrubbery and old scoreboard behind him. It was likely taken at the exact Virginia 500 that was my first race at Martinsville (which Petty won), and I loved seeing it again! I certainly haven’t forgotten that day, and I’m glad that the Martinsville Speedway hasn’t totally forgotten it either. Hopefully it won’t be another 35 years before I come back to Martinsville again.


My favorite billboard under the bleachers.
Notice the men who manually kept the scoreboard correct.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beartown and a Battlefield

Beartown State Park is a unique place not far off of U.S. 219, less than 25 miles north of Lewisburg. It is just a small, day-use only park, with only a few picnic tables and minimal facilities. However, it is well worth an hour of your time (or less if you are in a hurry) to check out this special park.

Beartown is actually a jumble of large boulders, crevasses, and overhangs that seem like they would make a great place for bears (or some type of magical forest creatures?) to live. Much of the sandstone surface is pitted from erosion, adding to the mystique. We were there on a beautiful summer day, with dapples of sunlight forcing its way through the verdant leaves and dancing on the ground around us.

A trail leads from the parking area down a short distance to where the boardwalk starts. The boardwalk provides an easy way to explore Beartown, with views from up above as well as down inside the rock formations. Just be careful on the steps that take you up and down—especially since your eyes will be busy staring at the incredible combination of rocks, trees, moss, ferns, etc.

There are several signs along the way, conveying educational information. The boardwalk itself actually forms a circle, but you can choose to start in either direction. There are a few places where short extensions (spurs) off the main boardwalk provide unique perspectives, but the main pathway will take you back to where you started. Once you arrive back at the beginning, I would recommend reversing course and retracing your route around the boardwalk again. It may surprise you to see things from a different vantage point on your way back.

While you are in the area, you might want to also check out Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park—their respective entrances are only three miles apart on opposite sides of Rt. 219. These two nearby state parks share a common superintendent as well as other resources. In November 1863, Droop Mountain was the scene of the last major battle for the control of West Virginia during the Civil War. The Confederates held the high ground, but determined Union troops fought their way up this hillside to force the rebels into retreat. A log cabin near the park offices houses a small museum, plus there are a number of educational signs around the park providing insights into the battle.

There is a really nice observation tower that provides an awesome view of the small town of Hillsboro and rest of the valley below, as well as the ridges beyond. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression years. I climbed it as a youngster when my family visited years ago, and felt like a youngster climbing the steps again during our recent visit. There are also a number of intriguing hiking trails that I hope to explore on a future visit.

If you find yourself in the area, these two state parks provide a nice respite from everyday life, while teaching visitors about nature as well as our history. They make for a wild and wonderful combination!

[I wrote this story for the October issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Grand Vue, Indeed!

I recently added another ziplining experience to my list. I’ve had the good fortune and fun to have flown through the air a dozen different times at half a dozen locations in West Virginia, as well as a couple of more in Ohio. I’ve before at Hocking Hills (twice), the Treetops Canopy Tour at the New River Gorge (twice), the WVU zipline near Coopers Rocks (twice), the Wild Safari zipline above "The Wilds" in eastern Ohio, the long double zipline at Burning Rock, the Gravity zipline in Fayette County (twice), and the canopy tour at Nelson Rocks.

My latest attempt at flying through the air on a wire was in Moundsville, WV. Marshall County established a recreational park in 1974 on top of a hill, with scenic views overlooking the town of Moundsville as well as the Ohio River. Although it was indeed a “grand view,” they apparently found out that there is already a “Grandview Park” in West Virginia (formerly a state park, it became part of the New River Gorge National River under the auspices of the National Park Service in 1990). Grandview Park overlooks the New River Gorge near Beckley and has long served as home for the “Honey in the Rock” and “The Hatfields and McCoys” outdoor dramas. So with some creative spelling, I assume those in Marshall County who were in charge at the time came up with the name “Grand Vue Park.” None of the workers I met that day could verify this chain of events, but I’m willing to speculate that is how the park’s unusual name occurred.

[I want to make a couple of quick points if you drive there to go ziplining. Just because there are signs within the park directing you up the hill to the “Zipline Basecamp,” be aware that they want you to park your car at the golf course club house parking area (it is mentioned on the website and in your reservation notice). After signing paperwork there, they bus you up to the basecamp. You finish the course near where you parked. Also, be aware that Google Maps on my phone did not seem to have a clear idea where Grand Vue Park is really located, based on the inaccurate driving advice the voice on the phone was trying to give to me when I reached Moundsville. Luckily, I had a good idea of where it was plus they are some signs directing you there.]

This is the main tower from which three of the zips start.

About three years ago, Grand Vue Park added a ziplining course. It includes a seven zip canopy tour, with three swinging bridges, and a long, grand finale zip (that can also be done as a single zip ride). The entire tour of eight zips takes about three hours usually, but our trip took three and a half hours—you’ll see why later in this story.

The Grand Vue Zipline turned out to be different than any of the other ziplining courses I have tried. This was apparent when we gathered to get our gear before starting. For the first time ever, they brought out a scale and required everyone to step on it individually to ensure we were below the 270 pound weight limit. [The guides were able to make some jokes about some participants who had been “overly optimistic” when estimating their weight on the forms we filled out prior to starting.]

But that was just the first difference—I immediately noticed that the “trolley” which runs on the wire had metal plates on both sides covering the wheels. I supposed this was a safety consideration, but noticed that it made it heavier and a bit more cumbersome to carry around—not a major problem, but different than my previous experiences. They claim that all the gear weighs about ten pounds.

The harness that we wore was also different than I had used before. Rather than belts at various points of your body, it was more of a sling. This made it a bit heavier as well, but it did make it easier to lay flat when flying through the air. Another difference I noticed was that there were no gloves to wear.

Finally, the apparatus hanging from the trolley was different. It was a bit similar to a circus trapeze, providing a bar for you to grasp with your hands. However, when lying flat, you couldn’t reach the bar, and instead were instructed to grasp the belts (not the carabineers!) below it. Thus, simply getting “geared up” showed me that this was not the same as my other ziplining experiences.

After a quick “ground school” on a short zipline, we climbed the main tower for the first run. This wooden tower would be scaled three times during the day, plus there was another tower on the course with a spiral staircase. When you add in the uphill hiking we did a few times, this was the most physically demanding zipline course I’ve ever tried. Although I enjoyed getting a little workout while ziplining, I’m sure there are some folks who might be surprised at the amount of physical exertion required here compared to other courses. This isn’t an activity for those who are out of shape—there are no elevators or escalators, so uphill walking and stair climbing are necessary.


I love flying through the air! Notice the "trapeze bar" and how the sling lets you lay flat if you want.

It became apparent at the ground school that there was no need to worry about putting your hand up on the wire for braking purposes. The trapeze bar resulted in the rider hanging too far down to reach the wire (which was probably a good thing, since we didn’t have any gloves). All the braking would be done automatically by a stopper block and cable as we approached the end of the line (similar to what is used at Burning Rock and on the Gravity ziplines). During the ground school, they also stressed aerodynamic braking by sitting upright and putting out your arms and legs out to catch as much air as possible—this maneuver was called the “starfish.” The guides would signal you if they thought you were coming in so fast that you needed to “starfish.”

The guides had also pointed out that on a few of the zips, there was the possibility that you might not have enough momentum to make it all the way to the platform (especially those who weighed less). In order to avoid requiring a rescue, they encouraged folks on some of the runs to lay back and stretch out to make their bodies as aerodynamic as possible. This was called the “torpedo” and was the opposite of the “starfish.”

As our group began ziplining, everything went well, despite the fact that none of the other eight customers that day had ever ziplined before. We started from the tower and went for about four zips before finding ourselves back on the main hill. We hiked to the top of the hill and took a short break at the basecamp (a covered picnic area with open walls on three sides) where we had started. Then we climbed the main tower for the second time to continue the course.

This first zip of the second segment was one where the lightweights ran the risk of not making it to the platform. Thus the guides had the heavier men go first, so that there would be some assistance at the far platform if needed. Obviously, I didn’t have any problem torpedoing to the other end of the zip. However, one of the women didn’t make it to the platform, and was unable to catch the throw-bag with the rope that could have pulled her in. With no ability to reach the wire to brake herself, she rolled back to a point of equilibrium and had to be rescued by the guide. This caused a substantial delay, but she was soon back on the platform and the remainder of the group began zipping down the wire again.

However, another woman just missed making it to the platform. This time, she was able to grab the rope as the throw-bag went by her. As the guide began pulling her in, she lost her grip on the rope—but she didn’t want to let go entirely. So she tried to grasp the rope that was sliding through her hands as the guide pulled, not realizing that she was getting a rope burn. By the time she made it to the platform, both of her hands were injured. They were able to bandage her up and she completed the rest of the course, but it was the first time in all my zipling that I’ve ever seen someone get hurt in any fashion. It was a very unfortunate incident, that somewhat ruined what otherwise would have been a fun day for her, her boyfriend, and even the rest of the group.

In hindsight, perhaps the guides could have given better rescue instructions, or perhaps ensured the rope was secured to her body or the sling so that her hands could have been better protected. Of course, on every other ziplining course, she would have been wearing gloves, and this would not have happened. Personally, I wish they would go ahead and provide gloves to everyone on this course. It felt weird to me to be ziplining without them. Even if you aren’t using your hands to brake on the wire, there are still a lot of advantages to wearing gloves, whether to protect from potential rope burn during a rescue or perhaps merely to protect from potential splinters on the wooden bannisters.

After the rescue incident, we did one more zip that dropped us to ground level partway down a hillside. Then we hiked up and over to another tower—this one with a narrow spiral stairway of about 70-some steps. Once at the top, there was a long zip back to the bottom of the hill where the basecamp is located. On most of their zips, there are two separate lines, so potential you could “drag race” your friends from platform to platform. However, the guides had only used one line on each run until we reached this one. Those who wanted to were now able to pair up and fly parallel to each other.

Upon reaching the opposite slope, there was a steep hike up the hill to the picnic shelter/basecamp, where we took another short break. Then we climbed the 90-some steps of the main tower for the third time for the final and longest zip—a 2100 foot dual line providing a nice view of the town below. Apparently, customers can also choose to only zip on this line, rather than pay to do the entire canopy tour. As with the previous zip, couples were able to race each other on this last opportunity of the day. I definitely got some speed up by torpedoing down this zip—it was a nice way to end a pretty good day.

I’m glad I went to Grand Vue Park to zipline. It was nice to get a bit of a workout while ziplining, so all the hiking and stairclimbing didn’t bother me—but I would want folks to be aware of it. However, I will be bringing my own gloves with me the next time I zip there, and would encourage others to do the same. I also want to mention that I appreciate the photo package they offer here. For just $7, all the pictures the guides take can be sent to you via email. Usually, I consider the optional photo packages to be overpriced, especially with the ease of today’s digital cameras. However, the $7 price seemed reasonable, and they sent the pictures a few hours after our trip had been completed. Finally, although I didn’t take advantage of it, I understand they sometimes offer two-for-one deals on Groupon and Living Social, plus they have an All-Day package deal if you want to do other activities at the park.

All in all, I’d recommend the Grand Vue zipline tour, and I hope to try it again someday.


I'm "torpedoing" down the final zip, with the town of Moundsville visible in the valley below. I inserted an arrow to show where this zipline ends on the opposite hillside.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Road Trips

I grew up as a Mountaineer fan, and am proud to cheer on our state’s flagship school at numerous sporting events. I’ve been lucky enough to attend quite a few bowl games, as well as some nearby regular football season away games such as Maryland, Pitt, and Virginia Tech. Until this year, I’ve never had a season where I attended more than one away game—but in just the past two weeks, I was able watch the Mountaineers play twice away from home. It is fun to be part of “Mountaineer Nation” and go into a different stadium to cheer for your team. The fact that WVU has fans who are willing to travel has always put us in a good light (and helped us escape the Big East to land in one of the “power conferences”).

The first game occurred on August 30 this year. We (my daughter, Anna, and myself) had a mostly enjoyable trip to Atlanta to watch WVU play #2 Alabama in the Georgia Dome for the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic. Even though the final outcome of the game was a defeat for the Mountaineers, we still played pretty well against one of the best teams in the country. Although the Alabama fans outnumbered us (considering they didn’t have to come as far), I think they were surprised by how many of our fans made the trip from West Virginia. The blue-and-gold contingent represented our state well.

The three of us arrived late Friday afternoon (after purchasing $2.99 gas in Wytheville, VA—I’ve not seen a below $3 price at the gas pumps for a long time!), and checked into our hotel in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. By the way, our hotel was charging nearly $300 a night for rooms because of numerous events bringing folks to Atlanta (including the big NASCAR race just south of town), but I had immediately made a reservation last year when this game was first announced, which locked us into a $76 rate. It pays to reserve early!

We then headed to the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority) station, and learned how their light rail/subway works. We purchased a round-trip card and rode downtown, to test out what we would be doing on game day. Once downtown, we explored Underground Atlanta and other parts of downtown. I had seen most of the major sites during my previous visit to Atlanta (http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2011/06/hotlanta-trip.html).

During this same weekend, a large convention of science fiction/fantasy fans were in town, and there were lots of interesting costumes roaming Peachtree, the main street downtown. For example, characters from Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, assorted superheroes, and even Waldo could be found around town throughout the weekend. We ended the evening with dinner at the salad bar of a Jason’s Deli, which proved both delicious and healthy.

The next morning, we again rode MARTA downtown dressed in our blue and gold game gear. There were hoards of people from both schools gathered near the Georgia Dome for the game. It had the same feel as a bowl game, with fans from both teams at a neutral site. Eventually we went inside and found our seats. Prior to the kickoff, I was also able to meet with a long lost friend whom I had not seen in about 30 years. It was the first time I’ve watched a game in a domed stadium—which came in handy when a thunderstorm rolled through about halfway through the game.

Speaking of halfway, the WVU Band did a fantastic job with their halftime performance. Even the few ‘Bama fans scattered on the WVU side of the field were impressed. We may have lost the football game, but our band (the “Pride of West Virginia”) won the halftime competition with their salute to the branches of the military.


The "Pride of West Virginia" forms the outline
of our state at the Georgia Dome.

After the game, we found a decent place for dinner. Then we drove to “The Varsity” near Georgia Tech for dessert—their Frosted Orange drinks. This overgrown drive-in has been featured on numerous food-related television shows. It is quite a large operation that has become an institution in Atlanta (http://www.thevarsity.com/history.php).

On Sunday, my daughter wanted to visit an Art Museum downtown. Fortunately, there was a display featuring old concept cars from car shows of the past. It provided me with an interesting place to spend my time.

We made it back to West Virginia, and I got to introduce my daughter to Little Buddy Radio (http://www.bobdenver.com/radio/) as we passed through the Princeton area. We stayed overnight on Sunday at Hawks Nest State Park Lodge. This was primarily because I was taking my daughter ziplining the next morning, but it also provided us with the opportunity to stay at two different Hawks Nests, following our previous visit to the Hawks Nest Lodge during our trip to Maine (http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2014/08/made-it-to-maine.html).

We had a great time riding the Gravity Ziplines through Adventures on the Gorge—the first visit for my daughter, but my second visit there (read about my first visit at http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2014/06/fayette-county-flying.html). I was lucky enough to have the same guide from my trip back in June, and she remembered me.

After our aerial adventure, we picked up Anna, ate some lunch, and headed for home. It was a fun road trip even if we came up a bit short on the scoreboard.


Two weeks later (after watching a home game victory on the Saturday in between), we loaded up the Prius for another Mountaineer football game road trip, this time with my daughter’s boyfriend joining us. I was off this past Friday, so I was able to cheer on the WVU Volleyball team to victory over Kent State in the Coliseum that afternoon, but had to wait until the others got off work before we could leave. On our way east on Friday night, the four of us stopped in Frederick, MD, and enjoyed a nice dinner with a couple of old friends from Parkersburg who moved there years ago. Eventually, we checked into our hotel at College Park, Maryland.

The next morning we coordinated with Anna’s friends from her WVU days, and the ten of us eventually made it to our seats in the visiting team area of the stands at Maryland’s Stadium. Fortunately for us, the top rows of the lower section where we were seated were underneath the front part of the upper deck, so we were protected from the intermittent rain showers during the game. It was much more enjoyable to be dry, especially compared to sitting in the monsoon rains during last year’s miserable shutout defeat at the Ravens Stadium in Baltimore last year.

Speaking of last year’s game, one of the many things that went wrong that day was that Maryland had decided that the WVU Marching Band would not be allowed to perform that day. Despite a long history of joint band performances between WVU and Maryland at both home fields, a new athletic director decreed that only Maryland’s band would perform. Needless to say, WVU fans (many of whom consider the “Pride of West Virginia” to be nearly as important as the football team) were not pleased by this new policy, and rebelled against it in social media and elsewhere. The Baltimore Sun published several letters, including one that I wrote (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-09-19/news/bs-ed-wvu-band-letter-20130919_1_west-virginia-university-maryland-wvu-band). I pointed out that this new “No Visiting Bands Allowed” policy would not be permissible in the Big Ten Conference that Maryland was joining.

Sure enough, this year the WVU Band was allowed to perform, and both schools worked together on a fantastic halftime show. With the Bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore this past weekend, there were lots of events going on in the area to commemorate the Star Spangled Banner, which was written that day. The Terps football team wore special uniforms based on the Star Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry. Both bands performed a patriotic medley that told the story of the battle, and concluded with a humongous flag being unfurled which covered the entire playing surface of the football field. It was impressive—and demonstrated how much more entertaining halftime band performances can be when Maryland leaders show some respect for their visitors.

The game itself started off great! As the first half neared its end, we were ahead 28-6. However, I knew there was still a lot of time left. I remember telling my daughter that I wish we could just end the game right now, but she replied stating that she wanted to run the score up even higher after last year’s game. I told her not be overconfident, because momentum can turn around quickly in football games (and I’m old enough to have seen this happen numerous times to the Mountaineers). Sure enough, in the last few minutes of the half, Maryland scored two quick touchdowns to go into the locker room down just 28-20. Then, their quarterback ran 75 yards on the first play of the second half to make it just a one-point game, 28-27.

What had been the makings of a blowout in the first half turned into a nail-biter in the second half. Maryland never got the lead, but had been able to tie the game with only a little more than two minutes left in regulation. In the stands, the large contingent of WVU fans had been making lots of noise cheering on their team throughout the game. Emotionally, the game was very intense, and it all came down to a long field goal attempt at the end. Fortunately, the ball made it through the uprights and over the crossbar. The fans in the stands went ecstatic, with much jumping and hugging and high-fiving! It was an incredible roller-coaster game, and we all felt like we played a small part in helping the team to victory.

That evening and the next day, we explored downtown Washington, DC. My daughter is very familiar with DC, and I lived there for three years early in my career, but her boyfriend had never been there. Although we were only able to scratch the surface in the limited time we had available, I think he really enjoyed seeing the major sites (see http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2013/07/dc-destinations.html for my tips on sightseeing in DC). I am especially glad that I took him over to see the Marine Memorial of the flag being planted on Iwo Jima, because it turned out that his late grandfather had been there for that battle.

We had a great time over this past weekend (especially since the football team didn’t lose the game), but eventually it had to come to an end. We made the long drive back into our Mountain State yesterday afternoon and evening because all four of us had to go to work on Monday morning. Even though the football team didn’t win both these games, we feel that we went 2-0 when it comes to having a good time going on the road to follow the Mountaineers!


After the initial excitement of winning the Maryland game, I finally remembered to take a picture as the players left the field.