Friday, April 25, 2014

A memorable detour to visit a memorial

Earlier this month, the fifth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster was solemnly noted. West Virginia lost 29 coal miners that day, adding to a long list of workers who gave their lives underground. Yet another monument (I’ve visited a few others) was erected as a tribute to the sacrifice of West Virginia miners.

Around that anniversary, I was traveling north on the West Virginia Turnpike. It dawned on me that I had some extra time, and so perhaps I should divert over to Whitesville to see this beautiful monument and pay my respects. I had never explored that particular area of West Virginia, and so I thought it was high time to do so.

I got off at the Pax exit, and used my smart phone to consult Google Maps. It seemed I could backtrack to the Beckley exit and pick up Route 3, or drive south below Pax and pick up Clear Fork Road as it heads northwest, or I could just turn left here at the Pax exit and take a small county road over the ridge to more directly hook up with Clear Fork Road. I could tell the small road was rather twisty as it went over the mountain out of the Paint Creek watershed, but it seemed like the most direct route which didn’t require backtracking from this exit, and even if it was slower, I had extra time on my hands. As I gazed to my left at the interchange, the road appeared to be very well maintained. I decided to be adventurous and take the shortcut.

Well, what started off as a wide, well maintained, two-lane road with stripes that I had viewed from the Pax exit ramp didn’t stay that way very long. Soon the stripes disappeared, and then the two-lane width was narrowed to a single lane with broad shoulders for oncoming cars to easily pass each other. As the road followed the little creek up the mountainside, it became just a single lane and soon thereafter the pavement ended as it became a dirt road.

Now it was gaining altitude quickly as it climbed the mountainside. Did I mention that I was driving a Toyota Prius? Since I wasn’t in a high-clearance vehicle, I was carefully choosing the route for my four tires on this hardscrabble road. I had not seen any other vehicles, until I rounded a turn and caught a glimpse in the distance of a white 4-wheel drive crew cab pickup whose long wheelbase had required it to back up in order to negotiate a tight switchback turn. He soon disappeared from my view.

In some places, the road had been cut into the hillside, so that on one side was a wall of dirt and rocks, while on the other side was a steep drop off. I had to hope that the ground was strong enough not to give way when I ventured close to the edge to avoid rocks or holes. The last thing I needed was to go over a cliff on a seldom used road. I don’t know which would have been worse—the injuries or the embarrassment that would occur when the authorities asked why in the world was I trying to drive a Prius over this road!

Finally, I reached the peak of the mountain, and started down the other side. I saw the entrance gates for the mining operations that had likely been the destination for the white pickup. Beyond those gates as the mountain road descended, the conditions seemed to become worse. What if this road was only maintained semi-decently as far as the mining gates because of their need for it? Would the rest of the downhill side be passable? Might it degenerate into merely an ATV trail or a deer path if I keep going? Should I put it in reverse (because there was no room to turn around), back up the hill to the mining gates, turn around there, and retreat to the Turnpike?

I decided to take my chances and forge ahead, carefully crawling my Prius over the rocks and through the water seeps. It was almost like a chess game as I carefully picked my path, knowing that I had to “play several moves ahead” so that what worked to get around one obstacle didn’t leave me without a good option for the next one. Although it was “slow-going” through beautiful, uninhabited mountain woods, I was very happy when I caught my first glimpse of civilization—a house and the beginning of the single lane pavement again. The further I went, the better this road (apparently known on this side of the mountain as Toney’s Fork Road) became.

Eventually it emptied out onto a larger county road known as Clear Fork Road. This curvy road (with stripes!) follows the even curvier Clear Fork Creek, a beautiful mountain stream full of rapids.

Finally, at the same point where Clear Fork Creek empties into the Coal River, Clear Fork Road ends at the junction with West Virginia Route 3, just south of Whitesville. I turned right onto Route 3 and drove through the downtown before stopping at the monument on the north side of Whitesville.

It is a large granite monument situated between Route 3 and the Coal River. The front side displays the life-size silhouettes of 29 miners. The back side has a lengthy history of coal mining in West Virginia. I thought the monument was very well done, even before I found out that the person who came up with the design was related to some friends of mine. [That’s one of the things I like about West Virginia—we are small enough to have all sorts of personal connections.]

I then followed the Coal River downstream via Route 3, taking me past Sherman High School (now when I hear Sherman mentioned during high school sports reports, I will be able to visualize it) before making a right turn onto West Virginia Route 94. This highway climbs out of the Coal River watershed, crosses the ridge, and then descends all the way down to the Kanawha River at Marmet. From there I was able to rejoin I-77 and head for home.

I’m glad I was able to visit the monument that honors the 29 miners. I’m also glad that I got to see a section of West Virginia that I had not previously visited. However most of all, I am especially glad that I was able to use all my West Virginia backroad driving skills to get my Prius across the mountain on a primitive dirt road—without ever scraping the bottom, spinning in the mud, or experiencing any other problems. It was a memorable trip!

However, I will note that the next time, I may not be so quick to trust Google Maps!

Front side of the memorial with 29 silhouettes. The quote is from Matthew 11:28.

Just one of the historical panels on the back of the UBB memorial.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Two Jug Trip

I had the day off last Friday and it was a beautiful day! I had previously arranged for my motorcycle to get its spring servicing and annual inspection that morning, following a long cold winter. After picking it up around lunchtime from S&P Harley Davidson in Williamstown, I headed off for a nice little ride.

It felt good to be motorcycling again on such a sunny day. Riding a motorcycle through the countryside is so much different than riding in a car. You can feel the rush of the air, along with subtle variations in the temperature (such as when passing by a shaded hollow). You can even smell the aromas of things like fresh cut grass, farm animals, or gas wells.

But my favorite difference is the way the motorcycle and rider lean together through the twists and turns, as if gyroscopically bound together. The rider slows upon entry, hits the apex at full lean, and accelerates back to vertical on the ensuing straightaway. The lean angles are only possible with the momentum of the rotating wheels—one would fall on the ground if standing still at those angles. A motorcycle rider is in full control, and his or her own safety depends on making the right decisions all the time. There is risk involved (especially with today’s distracted drivers), but to me the reward is still worth it. I think it is a bit like what the ability to fly would feel like.

I decided to head north along the Ohio River, with the first goal to cross on the Sistersville Ferry. In the early days of our country, ferry boats were the only way for vehicles to cross rivers. Wheeling became a prominent town in part because it had one of the first bridges across the Ohio River. Now there are only two ferries operating on the entire Ohio River.

But first I needed to get on the other side of the river, plus eat some lunch. I crossed to the Ohio side and ate a hotdog at The Jug Restaurant in Newport, Ohio. It is just a small place situated on the bank of the Ohio River, but it has been there for years and is a very popular location. I love sitting on one of their picnic tables under the big tree and watching the boats go by.

Then it was up Ohio Route 7, beyond the little town of New Matamoras, Ohio, to catch the ferry boat over to Sistersville. You head straight down the riverbank and, upon the ferry’s arrival, you then drive right onto the boat. We were slightly delayed in our crossing by a large towboat that was making its way downstream, which gave me more time to take my helmet off, walk around to stretch my legs, and enjoy the scenic views.

Once we were on the West Virginia side, I made a quick tour through the quaint small town of Sistersville. The old hotel there (The Wells Inn) is getting some business again from the natural gas boom in the area. I headed south on Route 2 out of the city and turned inland on Route 18 towards Middlebourne, the county seat of Tyler County.

I passed by the Tyler Consolidated High School as I got closer to Middlebourne. I know from my school board days that it was a hard decision to merge Sistersville High School and Tyler County High School into the new Tyler Consolidated High School in 1993 (if I had been involved, I think I would have avoided a name that matched the initials of the former Middlebourne school—so I would have preferred calling it John Tyler High School), but hopefully the hard feelings have subsided.

As I got closer to Middlebourne, I saw a new restaurant called “Speedway Diner.” I didn’t have time to stop, but it looks interesting. There aren’t many aluminum diners in West Virginia. Best of all, it features a real race car mounted on a pole for its sign.

Soon I was riding through the heart of downtown Middlebourne, past the Tyler County Courthouse, and out the other side (it is not a very big town). Besides riding the Sistersville Ferry, my second goal for this ride was to check out another place known as “The Jug.” This “Jug” is named for a geographical oddity of Middle Island Creek (West Virginia’s longest creek). This creek has an over three mile circular loop (like a jug handle) before returning within a hundred feet of itself. In the late 1700s, a trench was dug across this narrow strip of land to power a mill on the downsteam side. [This trench is also known as a raceway, which is ironic when you consider that Tyler County Raceway, a dirt oval racetrack, is only a few miles away.]

Floods had destroyed the mills that had been built (and rebuilt) there over the years, and the raceway had been made even larger by the flood erosion, changing the overall flow of the creek, leaving very little water for those living on the three mile loop. In 1947, the state of West Virginia built a dam there to restore the flow of the water to the original channel. The state also owns the land on the inside of this loop of the creek, and operates it as a wildlife management area.

A friend had told me that “The Jug” makes a nice place to kayak, because the dam allows you to paddle a big circle and then come back to where you park your car. I wanted to check it out on this motorcycle trip, and then come back this summer with my kayak. I was surprised to find out it is all located within sight of Route 18 not far beyond Middlebourne. The sound of the water going over the dam and the rapids below is melodious. I look forward to returning there this summer for a kayak trip!

While I was exploring the dam area, I had noticed some race car haulers passing by on Route 18. I thought that Tyler County Raceway ran on Saturday nights, so I was a bit confused as to why I had seen several race cars go by. So before heading for home, I continued out Route 18 a bit further, to the Tyler County Fairgrounds. It turns out they were having a special race that Friday night, and the crowds and cars were already starting to appear. I couldn’t stay, but it was fun to revisit the speedway and see some of the race cars unloading in the pits before I headed back across Route 18 and down Route 2 for home.

All in all, it was a great day for a motorcycle ride, from The Jug to The Jug and home again.

Looking across the low water dam that was built to block the former cut in the hill which formed the raceway to the mill. Supposedly one can kayak down the creek (disappearing in the distance to the left of the hillside) for over three miles before reappearing just downstream from this dam.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Run River Run

Another of our semi-annual college reunions was held last weekend. It was good to mingle with my "tribe" once again on what for us has become sacred ground—our beautiful University of Charleston campus across from the West Virginia State Capitol. As always, I left with my throat sore from talking so much and my cheeks sore from laughing so much. It was wonderful!

I’m not sure if other schools’ alumni reunions are as much fun as our reunions seem to be. Maybe our school was just the right size to promote close social bonds during our student days, which have carried forward to today (primarily thanks to Facebook virtually reconnecting us again). Plus, our era in college was prior to the video game boxes, the Internet, and hundred-some channel cable TV that often keeps current college students cloistered in their dorm rooms.

Those years from 18-22 were so formative to the adult life that I have led! I learned a lot from the professors there, but I also learned a lot from my peers. Many of them came from lands that were foreign to me—not just other countries, but also exotic locations such as New Joisey and Lon Gisland.

The friendships I formed there are stronger than any others. When we get together again, the conversations are effortless, the laughter is hearty, and the hugs are about genuinely connecting—not "hooking up" (or whatever they are calling it these days).

Indeed, I am of the opinion that one of the reasons why we enjoy these reunions so much is that the "dating and mating" factor that was so important to us when we were 18-22 is less important today. We can appreciate each other so much more when we are not second guessing the other person's motives. A hug becomes a warm greeting to an old friend, not an invitation for spending the night together. We are truly friends!

Also, watching others hug is not a cause for rumors or jealousy, as it might have been during the days of campus society soap operas. I'm not envious of the female attention another male might get. We are all adults now, and as such we probably get along even better than we did as youngsters.

Even if we didn't know each other well because we ran in different circles when we were students, we are glad to see each other now. It is so much easier to strike up a conversation with someone we may not have even known. Indeed, sharing stories from the old days is a favorite topic. Just by being there it means that we have jointly survived the last 30-some years of adulthood—unfortunately, some of our colleagues didn't make it this far.

None of us look exactly like we did in our prime, but that doesn't matter. No one cares if you have put on weight or lost hair (or both, as I have). When we look at each other now, we also see ourselves as we looked back then. This unique "familiarity filter" is something we can't do with most other people, and it is refreshing and stimulating—it makes us all feel young again.

What one has accomplished since graduation is not important at these events. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, nor whether you are still married to your college sweetheart or divorced multiple times—we are just glad to see you again, along with our other compatriots, all back on that sacred ground again.

If you get the chance to attend your school’s reunion, I’d encourage you to go and have a good time. If you attended UC (regardless of whether you graduated or not), I hope you will join us for UC Homecoming the first weekend in October. I think everyone who has attended an alumni reunion event has had a wonderful time. Although the football game will be over in what was formerly known as Laidley Field, there will be alumni events on the UC campus as well. I am sure many of us will want to walk on our gorgeous riverbank while we are there, re-living our memories of that sacred ground. As you gaze upon the Kanawha River, you might even recall a Loggins & Messina hit from the mid-'70s, whose chorus probably means even more to us now than it did then:

And it goes on and on,
Watching the river run,
Further and further from things that we've done,
Leaving them one by one,
And we have just begun,
Watching the river run,
Listening and learning and yearning,
Run river run!