Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Rustic/Regal Weekend

I left work a bit early last Friday afternoon to meet Anna at her brother's place for a couple of days. On my way to Fayette County, I crossed over the Kanawha City Bridge in Charleston to travel MacCorkle Avenue and reminisce about my college days at UC. Staying on that side of the river, it is known as West Virginia Route 61.

At Pratt, I turned up Paint Creek Road to continue explore this intriguing waterway (see my recent essay about Paint Creek). There are several pulloff areas along the road to enjoy this creek. I went as far as the entrance to the West Virginia Turnpike before doubling back.

The highlight for me were the two historical markers commemorating Holly Grove, the site of a tent colony established by striking miners after being forcibly evicted from their houses owned by the mining company. The coal mine owner and others ran an armored train up the Paint Creek valley, which was outfitted with an early machine gun. They shot up the tent colony. Fortunately, the miners (some of whom had served in World War I) had dug out the area under their tents--a bit like having your own foxhole. As a result, only one miner was actually killed (although others were wounded). This event had the potential to be an infamous massacre of miners, women, and children, but fortunately most were spared.

I stayed on the south side of the Kanawha and followed Route 61 to Montgomery, which I had traveled in the past. However, for the first time I stayed on Route 61 beyond Montgomery rather than crossing over to Route 60 on the north side of the river at Smithers. It was interesting to see the backside view of the old Union Carbide plant at Alloy. [By the way, other interesting views from Route 61 include a unique head-on look at the locks and dam at London on the Kanawha River as well as a more complete view of the large mining operation west of Smithers.]

Soon thereafter, the highway came to an abrupt switchback turn, and began climbing out of the Kanawha Valley. Eventually it follows Loup Creek, a beautiful mountain stream, with several scenic views.

Route 61 ends at Oak Hill, where it intersects Route 16. I've written before about Route 16--one of my favorite roads in West Virginia. It runs from the Ohio River at St. Marys (near my home) to the Virginia state line beyond Homer Hickam’s hometown of Coalwood.

Anna had not been able to get away from her work as early as she had hoped, so I found myself with time to kill before we met. Other stops during that Friday in Fayette County included such iconic sites as the New River Gorge Bridge overlook and the Grist Mill along Glade Creek at Babcock State Park.

I also made a stop at Class VI outdoor adventure center (where we have ziplined and rafted several times) to check out their new TimberTrek Aerial Adventure Park. It is a forest of trees interconnected with cable-based passages through a variety of obstacles. I'm debating whether I should try it out someday. It appears to me to be more strenuous than regular ziplining or even the Via Ferrata. While there, I also walked over to the Class VI overlook into the gorge, and remembered stopping there on last year's trip with my college friends.

Then it was time for me to leave the main roads and venture miles into the back country where her brother and sister-in-law live. It is so far out in the country that they have no cell service there. They have electricity and other amenities, but it was a weekend "off-the-grid" for my smartphone (Facebook survived just fine without my monitoring and occasional contributions).

One of the highlights of the weekend was hiking through the woods on the side of a hill looking primarily for morel mushrooms, but also for ramps. We were ultimately unsuccessful, but it was still a joy (and a workout) to hike through the forest. Also while visiting them, I always enjoy inspecting the creek on their property (which eventually feeds into the Gauley River), looking for crawdads, minnows, and other interesting aquatic life.

On this particular trip, we provided some help on the farm. Five cows got loose on Saturday by damaging some fence, and we scampered up and down the wooded hillside herding them back to the pasture. This led to some quick fence repairs at the field where they had wintered, and then to the electrification of the fence at the pasture where they would be moved for the spring. After working to secure the fencing at the new field, it was time to move the herd on Sunday.

This project involved marching the cattle about a mile down the little road to the other field. In those old western movies, a cattle drive is always done on horseback. But we did it with a four-wheeler, a pick-up truck, along with Anna and me walking alongside. It was quite an operation and we were glad to be able to help out.

It was a wonderful visit with family in a beautiful part of the state on a sunny, blue-sky weekend! However, on this particular Sunday afternoon, we didn't drive straight home. We had made plans to extend our weekend a bit longer. We were going to make the jump from rustic to regal by staying a night at the luxurious Greenbrier Resort. I bet we were probably the only guests there who had spent the day on a “cattle drive” before checking into the hotel. It is worth a separate story all its own, but I'm going to just append these two together.

I've always had mixed emotions about the Greenbrier. I'm proud that it is in West Virginia, and I admire its long history. I've also come to appreciate their contributions to the menu at the Tamarack Visitor Center along the West Virginia Turnpike--in particular, their fried green tomato sandwiches. I just never thought that I'd ever end up staying in such an expensive place. I worried that it was a bit too "hoity-toity" for my tastes (and wallet).

Several years ago, a native West Virginian who became a billionaire in the coal business purchased the Greenbrier, and has been using his talents to take the resort to new levels. For example, Jim Justice worked with West Virginia's Jerry West to remake the fancy restaurant here in his honor (by the way, Justice is also coach of the Greenbrier East High School's basketball teams).

He worked to get a major golf tournament established here, and also got the Legislature to approve a casino and a medical institute for the Greenbrier. He is building football fields where the New Orleans Saints will hold their summer training camp this year. He has done many other things to improve and promote the Greenbrier as well as our state. One way has been to offer occasional discount programs to West Virginia residents.

I had missed my chance to take advantage last year when I first learned of the promotion for West Virginia residents. However, when I heard that he was offering a special in April and May with an $89 room rate (note, however, that there is also a $35 daily "activity fee" that all guests must also pay) plus a free ticket to one of the big concerts (Maroon 5 or Jimmy Buffett) he sets up at the State Fairgrounds in nearby Lewisburg during his golf tournament, we decided to give it a try. We've always enjoyed Jimmy Buffett's music (plus, his college roommate taught at UC), but had never been to one of his concerts. Now by coming back to the area in July, we would get the chance!

There were a few other reasons why I had become more interested by the Greenbrier. I had read a fascinating book about Robert E. Lee's final years after the Civil War, which told of how much he loved spending summers here and gave a glimpse into the history of White Sulphur Springs. Also, my college mentor, Dr. Evelyn Harris, was quite fond of the Greenbrier. Finally, the fact that it was to be the secret hiding place for Congress in the event of a nuclear attack was very intriguing.

It was about 6:00 PM when we finally arrived, having taken a scenic ride across the Midland Trail (U.S. Route 60), down Sewell Mountain, and along Meadow River through Rainelle, Charmco, and Rupert before getting on the Interstate. Eventually we arrived at the Greenbrier where we registered, parked in the self-parking lot (we had to walk a lot further, but saved paying for the valet parking), and finally made it to our room.

It is grand old hotel that is decorated to the hilt. It is a far cry from my typical Holiday Inn Express (but the Greenbrier doesn’t offer free cinnamon rolls for breakfast). Rather than deal with the dress code expectations and the expensive prices, we decided to walk—through the impeccably landscaped grounds and past the famous sulphur water springhouse where it all began—back to our car and drive into downtown White Sulphur Springs to eat.

Using our smartphones to see what our dining options were, we decided to try a place called "50 East" (a rather odd name for a restaurant along Route 60, but it is based on the actual address--50 East Main Street). We enjoyed a gourmet pizza (jerk chicken, artichoke, mushroom, and banana peppers) which was quite tasty--and much more reasonably priced than anything at the resort. Afterwards, I had Wendy's Frosty for dessert (I decided to ignore my diet and be decadent since we were splurging by staying at the Greenbrier) while Anna made a quick stop for a few things at Dollar General. As you can see, we don't quite fit the consumer profile for most of the Greenbrier's clientele.

We got back in time to head down to the Greenbrier Theater in time for their main movie of the night (after all, I wanted to recoup some of my $35 activity fee). It just happened to be last year's remake of "The Great Gatsby" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. How ironic was it for my one night at the Greenbrier Resort to be spent watching a movie about the excesses of rich people during the Roaring '20s?

I was in junior high when the original "Gatsby" movie with Robert Redford came out. I was beginning to pay attention to current culture and Gatsby was getting lots of buzz, so I decided that I was going to read the book. However, I am much more interested in non-fiction than I am in fiction, so I got bored with the story and never finished it. In part because of my "failure" to finish the book, I never bothered to watch the original movie or the recent remake when it came out last year. So more than four decades later, inside the luxurious Greenbrier, I finally learned the story of "The Great Gatsby."

We enjoyed sleeping in rather than going to work on Monday morning. Eventually we got showered and dressed, packed up all our stuff, schlepped it down the hill to the car, and returned to officially check out. However, our time at the Greenbrier was not over yet. We had made reservations for the 10:30 historical tour of the Greenbrier, as well as the 1:30 tour of the secret bunker under the ground where Congress would continue to operate if a nuclear war had begun. Not only were we interested in these educational tours, the first tour was also another way to recoup that $35 activity fee!

The historical tour was very interesting, but it only covers the ground floor of the hotel. There is so much history here that I bet it would be impossible to cover everything in a whole day, much less the hour or so that this tour lasted. I’m really glad we did it, because it gives you a very good background on the hotel (for example, I learned there are 600 rooms in the hotel and 100 guest cottages on the grounds, and that it employs about 1800 people) as well as its furnishings. We got to see such highlights as the chandelier from “Gone with the Wind” and the painting of Princess Grace from Monaco. We learned much more about famed New York designer Dorothy Draper and her successor, Carleton Varney (who has been a UC supporter).

After the morning tour, we took a quick walk-through of the casino just to check it out. Neither of us had ever been bit by the gambling bug, so we didn’t play anything—we just wanted to check it out while we were there. Then we hopped into the car and drove into town for another cheap meal, this time at April’s Pizzeria in White Sulphur Springs (a decent $5.99 pizza and salad bar lunch buffet). Upon our return to the Greenbrier, we took a little driving tour around the cottages, homes, and other facilities on the grounds, before parking and heading back inside.

Our final activity was the $30 bunker tour (unlike the history tour, this one is not included in the Activity Fee). During the Cold War, the Greenbrier was chosen as the gathering place for all Senators and Congressman, where the government would continue to operate in the event of a nuclear attack. It was secretly built underground with huge blast-proof doors, thick concrete walls, diesel generators, water and food supplies, and everything needed for the 535 members of Congress, their families, and select staffers to survive a doomsday scenario. Fortunately, it was never needed, although the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came close to seeing it activated. The tour was a fascinating look back at the Cold War era (although just like our recent tour of the Toyota factory, cameras are not allowed), and was led by a retired local teacher who did a marvelous job.

One of the things I liked about my stay at the Greenbrier was how friendly and helpful everyone was. For example, we walked out to the front of the hotel to take pictures, and one of the groundskeepers (his name was Lonnie) walked over and offered to take pictures of both of us with the hotel in the background. So many employees would walk by you in the hallways and greet you with a big smile! It made me feel good to see all of these fellow West Virginians who were being so friendly to all the visitors.

In a way, the Greenbrier is a bit like a cruise ship that somehow ran aground in the mountains of West Virginia. The smiling and helpful staff, the luxurious furnishings, the interesting excursions that are offered, the casino, the little shops, etc., are all reminiscent of my experiences on cruises. However, the Greenbrier has more of a stately elegance—it harkens back to the grand cruise liners of old, such as the transatlantic crossings of the QE2, rather than a Carnival “fun ship” in the Caribbean.

I’m grateful that thanks to this special $89 offer, I was able to stay at the Greenbrier and experience its beauty and history. I’m glad it is located in West Virginia, and that it is a good ambassador for our state to so many visitors (many of whom are important people who would not otherwise come to visit West Virginia). It is important for outsiders to see the rugged beauty of our mountains and forests, and for them to see the goodness of our people.

Who knows—I might even come back and stay again someday! There is certainly much more to see and do than we were able to fit into this short visit. Until then, I hope Mr. Justice and the hard working folks at the Greenbrier continue the good work they do.

One of the massive vault doors for the bunker that was hidden behind some "busy" wallpaper (the only photo allowed on the bunker tour).

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