Wednesday, August 27, 2014

West Virginia’s Lighthouse

With the demand for clean energy, wind turbines are becoming more prevalent along mountain ridges in West Virginia. I remember my surprise the first time I rounded a curve of U.S. Rt. 219 on the way to Blackwater Falls and came seemingly face-to-face with a huge wind turbine. They can also be seen near four-lane U.S. Rt. 33 entering Elkins and north of I-68 above Cheat Lake, as well as several other spots around our state. I find them to be fascinating!

During the construction of a large wind farm in Greenbrier County, one of the base units to support the turbine was slightly damaged at the construction site before it was erected. Although the damage was minor, this tubular tower could no longer be used for its intended purpose. Rather than send it to the scrap yard, someone joked that perhaps it could be repurposed as a lighthouse for Summersville Lake (West Virginia’s largest lake) in neighboring Nicholas County.

What started as a joke has become a reality. Just off U.S. Route 19 at Mt. Nebo is the Summersville Lake Lighthouse, which opened to the public on West Virginia’s sesquicentennial last summer. We were in the area recently and paid the $7 admission fee to climb the 122 spiral steps to the top of this tapered tower. The 360 degree view from the deck encircling the top is beautiful! One can see a portion of the lake in the distance (the lighthouse was placed in the Summersville Lake Retreat campground closer to Rt. 19 than to the lake itself). A number of larger green forested mountains dot the distant horizon (as well as the brown dirt and rocks from a mountaintop removal project beyond the lake).

While the views are impressive, I think the most interesting aspect is how this project came together. It is a good lesson in how a creative idea can come to fruition—even without major funding—when a community pulls together behind it. Plus, it shows that even a green energy initiative can be recycled by resourceful West Virginians.

Once the slightly damaged base was acquired, it was arranged for the Nicholas County Vo-Tech students to create and assemble the spiral staircase (donors to the project are recognized with a plaque on the step risers that can be easily read when walking up the twisting stairway). The top for the lighthouse (including the roof, the lantern room, and the exterior catwalk with its safety railing) was built by students from the Fayette County Vo-Tech center.

The Summersville airport just happened to have an old navigational beacon light stored away which dated back to the 1940s, complete with a rotating Fresnel lens. This was carefully restored to working condition, placed inside the top of the tower, and can now be seen from more than 30 miles away! The Federal Aviation Administration has recognized the Summersville Lighthouse as an official navigational aid for air traffic.

As an added bonus, since the lighthouse was erected no ocean-going vessels have ran aground in Summersville Lake (ha ha). If you’d like more information, check out

[This story appeared in the September issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]

Monday, August 25, 2014

Made it to Maine!

Geography was always an interest of mine. I remember the roll-up canvas maps above the blackboards in my grade school—if they were pulled down during class, I would often daydream of faraway places while examining the intricacies of the map while my teacher droned on.

Maine always was interesting because of its location at the far northeastern corner of the United States. It was an easy piece to fill in when putting together a U.S.A. map puzzle. So Maine always had a special allure, yet I had never visited there. It was the last state in the eastern half of the United States that Anna and I had not visited, so we knew we needed to cross it off our list. We decided to do it in style by making it a summer vacation destination.

We wanted to hit three primary areas while we were there—Kennebunkport, Acadia National Park, and the highlands near the Canadian border. Secondary targets included the state capitol in Augusta as well as the L.L.Bean outlet store in Freeport. We decided to take Amtrak to Boston (another train adventure for us) and then rent a car to explore the state.

Our first few nights were spent in Kennebunkport. The first day we took old Route 1 up through Portland (and its interesting wharf district) and on to Freeport—the home of the L.L.Bean Company. Their store has become a hub for other factory outlet stores, making Freeport a shopping mecca. We aren’t big shoppers (although I did luck into a discounted pair of sandals), but the drive up to Freeport gave us our first taste of Maine’s picturesque small towns.

The second day was spent with a friend of Anna’s who is from Kennebunkport. She showed us all around the area, including the small peninsula where former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara spend their summers. We also explored the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the beaches and the quaint downtown area of Kennebunkport.

Barbara & George H.W. Bush's compound

The tranquility of the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge

After two days exploring Kennebunkport (as well as Portland and Freeport), we headed away from the coastline and into the interior of the state. During our travels, we tried to avoid the interstates and instead take the two-lane highways. We stopped at the Maine State Capitol to check it out. I was able to make my connection with one of my heroes, Joshua Chamberlain. He was a professor at a college in Maine who volunteered for the Union army, led his regiment to a key victory on the second day at Gettysburg, and eventually became a General who Grant invited to Appomattox for the surrender. Then he went back to Maine where he served in their Legislature and eventually became governor.

We also stopped in Skonomish, the birthplace of another Maine politician I admired—Margaret Chase Smith. The New Balance Shoe Company has a plant there, as well as a factory outlet store where we stopped. We also enjoyed a nice lunch at an old building along the riverfront in town before heading further north.

While planning this trip, Anna had discovered a place in the interior mountains called Hawks Nest Lodge along one of their whitewater rivers and on a highway leading to Canada. The name itself was intriguing to us because she grew up near West Virginia’s Hawks Nest State Park (and Lodge). When we checked in, they told us that sometimes they get phone calls intended for the Hawks Nest Lodge in West Virginia!

After getting our room, we headed up the highway to cross the border into Quebec. We drove to a small French Canadian town and ate dinner. The town was at 46 degrees north latitude, meaning that we were closer to the North Pole than to the Equator. On the way back, we were fortunate enough to see a wild moose and her calf.

The next morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast (I had Maine Blueberry Pancakes with Maine Maple Syrup). We then went on a hiking trip to Moxie Falls, the largest waterfall in the state. It was a beautiful place! We went on to visit Lake Moxie, from where we could see a few of Maine’s highest peaks.

The tallest waterfall in Maine.

I'm exploring some of the rapids prior to the big drop-off.

Then we were back on the two lane highways, heading out of the highlands. Our destination for Tuesday night was in Bangor—Maine’s third largest city. I first learned about Bangor in Roger Miller’s song “King of the Road” (…Third boxcar, midnight train; Destination: Bangor, Maine…). We enjoyed a meal of creative dinner salads at a nice restaurant along the Penobscot River that evening.

We arrived in Bar Harbor on Wednesday and caught one of the L.L. Bean sponsored, natural gas powered, free buses into the national park. We had heard about the congestion from all the cars that come to Acadia, and wanted to do our part by not taking our own car in. However, the traffic was still very bad, and I do not think I would enjoy visiting Acadia on the weekends when it would be even worse.

Getting off at the Sand Beach stop, we walked down to the beach. We then hiked to the eastern side and up the hillside to see some nice overlooks of the beach area. The trail, known as the Great Head trail, wraps around to the other side and back to beach area.

A view of Sand Beach from the hiking path up the hillside.

From there we hiked on the Ocean Trail southward along the rocky coastline. There were numerous opportunities to venture off the established trail and onto the massive boulders facing the ocean. I enjoyed picking my path among the cracks and drop-offs that comprise this rocky coast. It was a bit like playing chess—you have to make your decisions based on several moves ahead. We went by a crevice in the rocks where the ocean rolls in that is called “Thunder Hole.” Unfortunately, you have to be there at the right time to really hear the thunder, and the tide was not right when we were in the vicinity.

Rocks and pines instead of sand and palms.

At the conclusion of our hiking that day, we hopped on the free bus and rode back to Bar Harbor. We enjoyed an excellent meal at Geddy’s, which has been in operation there since 1974. Their Maine Special was a steamed lobster, clam chowder, corn on the cob, and wild blueberry pie for $18.95. This was our first experience with a full-size cooked lobster, and it was good. We strolled around the town of Bar Harbor after dinner. It reminds me a bit of Key West, with all its tourist shops and restaurants.


Due to the fogginess, I gave up on my idea of going to the top of Mount Cadillac to watch the sunrise on our only morning in Acadia. Instead, I chose to hike across to Bar Island, which is only accessible for an hour or two at low tide. I climbed to the pinnacle of the island and should have been rewarded with a nice view across the bay to the town of Bar Harbor, but it was shrouded in fog. However, it was still fun exploring the small uninhabited island.

Later that day, we did more hiking around Bar Harbor before catching a Nature Cruise. It was still foggy, but we were able to see harbor seals, bald eagles, and other interesting sights. The local high school science teacher who provided a running narration over the ship’s sound system did an excellent job! Plus, we were able to use our cruise tickets to get a discount at a nice restaurant on the wharf. I enjoyed a delicious lobster roll for my late lunch/early dinner.

We left Bar Harbor at around 4:30 on Thursday, with a desire to get back to Kennebunkport by dark. We decided not to take the shortest route (return to Bangor and go back via interstate), but instead to take two lane U.S. Route 1 along the coast. This allowed us to see lots of small coastal towns along the way, as well as some interesting sights such as the shipworks at Bath, the old Fort Knox, and Camden Hills State Park. In hindsight, I wish we would have driven to the top of Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park for a similar view as one gets at Mount Cadillac in Acadia.

On Friday, we spent the day at Old Orchard Beach just north of Kennebunkport. This is a wide sandy beach, with a long wooden pier, and a small amusement park. There were no hi-rise hotels—this was an old-school beach town. We walked along the beach for a long distance to the south before turning around and returning. Then we ate a great meal at a beachside restaurant, watching and listening to the waves. After lunch, we walked a similar distance to the north, and then sat there for a while enjoying the ocean. Eventually, we headed back to the car and returned to our motel. That night we enjoyed our last lobster dinner at Nunan’s Lobster Hut (two lobsters and corn on the cob for $25). The next morning, we check out, drove to Boston, and hopped the train (see

Maine has a big variance from high tide to low tide,
leading to wide beaches at low tide.

I must admit that I enjoyed Maine even more than I thought I would. It is a beautiful state. In some respects, it looked similar in the rural areas to West Virginia, and the whitewater rivers we saw could have just as easily been in our mountains. [However, based on all the highway driving we did, their mountains don’t seem to get in the way quite as much as ours do.] Of course, West Virginia doesn’t have a seashore, so that is a big difference. Plus, I had never really experienced a rocky seashore before. The coastal areas, old mill towns, and seaports were all very interesting. The bottom line is that I’m glad I got to visit during the peak of the summer, and not during the winter. I hope I get the chance to return for further exploration someday.

That's me enjoying the nature cruise past a small island.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Making Mountaineers

You won’t see it in the sports media, because they tend to focus on the big revenue sports. However, there is a feel-good story here in West Virginia that I think deserves coverage, even if it is only in my little blog.

WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck, shortly after taking office four years ago, decided a change was necessary in the WVU volleyball program. The coach who had led the team since the ‘70s was replaced, just before the season started, with an up-and-coming young coach. I’ve written before about my experience meeting Jill Kramer, and the good things she has done for the WVU program, but my main concern was whether she would merely be using us as a stepping stone to bigger jobs, or would she make her long-term home in Morgantown.

She is now entering her fourth season as the head coach of the WVU volleyball team, and seems to be very happy to be here. Her teams have each shown marked improvement over the years, even with the jump to the Big XII Conference. She was on the path to making us competitive in the Big East during her first two years, but then had to aim for a much higher echelon in a conference that had even stronger competition.

It’s easy to see the progress the team has made on the court and in the win/loss records. They still have a ways to go to become a Big XII Conference powerhouse, but the trend is definitely in the right direction.

To me, the best news of all is how she has embraced being in the state of West Virginia. Although born and raised in Texas, and a graduate of TCU, she seems to thoroughly enjoy being in the Mountain State. She has told me that she appreciated an essay I wrote about West Virginia, and includes it in a package sent to incoming players so that they know a little bit about our history.

She puts a big emphasis on academics as well as community service, and the team does well in both categories. Each August for the past few years, she has taken her girls on a team-bonding road trip within West Virginia. It lets these girls who come from all over the country (and a few from other countries) get away from Morgantown and lets them see the rest of the Mountain State. For example, they’ve gone camping and whitewater rafting in previous years.

This year, they spent a day at the West Virginia State Fair in Lewisburg, greeting visitors to the WVU display. A team practice was open to spectators at Greenbrier East High School. The next day, they visited Adventures on the Gorge in Fayette County to do the Gravity Zipline tour. Yesterday morning, they actually went into a working coal mine, to experience worklife underground. That afternoon, they toured a mountaintop removal site, to see that version of coal extraction. After that, they got dressed up and attended a reception in their honor at the Charleston Marriott. All these different West Virginia activities over the past few days made for quite an interesting road trip!

Last night’s reception featured 6 foot, 3 inch Hannah Shreve, a member of the team from Charleston, who was the first in-state player recruited by Coach Kramer. When it came time to assign her a number last year, it was Coach Kramer who had an unusual recommendation for her. Most volleyball players have low numbers. However, in recognition of being a West Virginia native at WVU—and having noticed a lot of WVU apparel that features 1867 or often just 67 as the date of the school’s founding—Coach Kramer suggested that Hannah wear number 67. It was a nice way to honor West Virginia’s flagship university. [Perhaps if we get another in-state native on the team, she could wear 63 for the year our state was founded.]

I feel like Coach Kramer has come to appreciate the essence of true West Virginians—of how we value our freedom, how we work hard, and how we feel underappreciated, which leads us to carry a chip on our shoulders about the state that we love. She tries to convey that “inner Mountaineer” to all her players, in the hopes that they understand what it means to wear a West Virginia uniform—and why they must excel! She wants her players to understand that the flying WV represents not just the school, nor the city where it is located, but instead it represents this entire great state. I hope she has found her coaching home and stays with us for many years to come.

So this is a wish for good luck to the WVU Volleyball team in the coming season! I hope we pull some upsets this year and keep climbing to the top of the mountain! Let’s go, Mountaineers!

As the WVU team finishes a timeout during a game, Coach Kramer
can be seen wearing a black jacket on the right side of the huddle.

Friday, August 8, 2014

My Tale from Riding the Rails

I love riding trains! Perhaps it is in my blood, as my grandfather spent his career working for the B&O. Recently, we enjoyed a week-long vacation to visit the final state we needed to complete our list of eastern states. We had never before made it to the extreme northeast corner of our country, but had always had a curiosity about Maine. To make it even more interesting, we decided to utilize Amtrak as part of our journey (and then rent a car).

We first drove to Washington and spent the night with friends, before boarding Amtrak at Union Station. We then spent more than eight hours traveling up the Atlantic seaboard with our eyes gazing out the window as America rolled by. We began in DC, and then had a number of stops, including Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York City, New Haven, New London, and Providence, before ending in Boston.

Pulling out of the rail yard in DC.

Train tracks take you into the heart of big American cities, as well as through rural forests and farmland. Train travel is a great way to see the country! This was not the more sterilized America found along interstate highways—this is the real America that Arlo Guthrie's song "The City of New Orleans" praises. Remembering his song while riding my grandfather’s “magic carpet made of steel” inspired my mind to create a customized version of the chorus:

"Good morning, America, how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your native son.
I'm on the train they call the Amtrak Northeast Regional.
I'll be gone 500 miles til we get to Boston."

Because we stayed relatively near the coast for most of the journey, I got to see lots of activities related to water. After passing the Philadelphia Zoo, we crossed the Schuylkill River, where I had rowed during races in the '70s. To my delight, an eight-man shell was rowing as we crossed the bridge! On the return trip, our stop at New London, Connecticut, gave me a good look at the last authentic wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.

We crossed many bridges, over small creeks, rivers, and wide estuaries. I enjoyed seeing egrets stalk and ospreys fly. I watched stand-up paddleboarders, jet skis, fishing boats, and yachts. I saw fancy marinas with "big buck" boats, as well as the simple view of poor folks sitting at various fishing holes with their fishing poles.

I saw various athletic facilities, ranging from historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia to the Prudential Center—the home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils. The train also went by a beautiful minor league ballpark in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the Bridgeport Bluefish play. Of course, our train made a stop at Penn Station, which is directly underneath the fabulous Madison Square Garden (we did the MSG tour there on one of our previous NYC trips).

On the return trip, I got the idea to use the Google Maps app on my phone to track our progress. Amtrak offers wi-fi and AC outlets, so it was easy to keep track of what city we were in, what sights were coming up, and how far to the next of the seven states we would pass through (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). It was fun to watch the blinking blue dot (representing my location) as it moved along the map where there no roads shown.

We saw a variety of living quarters, from farmhouses, to urban rowhouses, to high-rise condominiums, to historic New England homes built in the 1700s, to modern homes overlooking the coast. Interestingly, there were several old warehouses in various cities that had been converted to apartments. However, there were also some overpasses that appear to provide "housing" for homeless folks.

We also saw lots of spray-paint grafitti. Most of it was a waste of good paint, but I must admit that some of it was creative, and at least most of it was colorful. I have mixed feelings about grafitti. The artist in me can appreciate some of the efforts to create a unique graphic image, but I don't appreciate spreading your ego on someone else's property. Some of these people have real talent—they just need to find a better way to use it.

We got to see the gilded dome of the New Jersey state capitol building in Trenton, as well as the white dome of the Rhode Island state capitol building in Providence. Unfortunately, we also saw lots of urban blight, and many industrial and manufacturing sites that once employed thousands of Americans, but are now idle and decaying. I kept thinking about the powerful song "We Can't Make It Here" by James McMurtry (yes, his dad is the western writer Larry McMurtry). That song was on the “play list” for my American Government and Constitutional Law classes. It's not a happy song, but it evokes the sad truth.

Along the way, we saw lots of the shipping containers that can move on boats, trains, or trucks. The development of standardized shipping containers was the catalyst to the world's interdependent economy, which led to cheap imports and the demise of American industry. Ironically, it was an American trucking company that wanted to avoid driving their trucks in the congested northeast corridor of our country that invented the standardized shipping container concept.

There is a surplus of shipping containers in America, because we import more of them than we export. That has led me to think about shipping containers as a form of housing. We've seen such houses in our Caribbean travels, but on this trip we got to see an innovative container housing complex near Providence. It looked great!

One business that seemed to be doing well was the self-serve warehouses. Many new ones were visible from the train in these old industrial areas. I guess Americans need more space for all the junk that we buy that comes from overseas in those shipping containers. Another "industry" that seemed to be doing well was prisons—many of them can be seen from the train, with their high fences curving inward, and topped with razor wire.

The decline of American industry as seen from the train tracks was a bit depressing, but not a surprise. Half a century ago that same train trip would have been very different, when America was at its peak. It makes me wonder if we will be able to avoid the same decline that has beset every great country in the past. For example, at one time the British Empire had unparalleled reach and power, but after WWII it was never the same. I'm sure the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians didn't realize their empires were declining as it happened, because it is slow and gradual effect. Let's hope that America still has the chance to avoid a fall from grace. I still have hope! [Let me emphasize that this is not a criticism of any particular president or political party, because I’m an independent and I've not been impressed with any of them.]

A view of the Manhattan skyline as we crossed
on a train bridge from Queens into the Bronx.

Monday, August 4, 2014


The New River Gorge Bridge is such an iconic symbol of West Virginia that it was chosen by the U.S. Mint to grace the back of our quarter. It proved to be a fitting place for me to celebrate West Virginia’s 151st birthday by taking the BridgeWalk tour (they offer a significant discount to West Virginia residents on June 20 each year).

The “catwalk” (originally intended for bridge inspections) was opened a few years ago for tourists. The bridge itself is 876 feet above the river, and over 3000 feet long. From the catwalk, one can appreciate both the natural beauty of this whitewater river and wooded hillsides, as well as marvel at the civil engineering that allows a four-lane highway to pass unimpeded across the imposing gorge.

The headquarters for BridgeWalk is located at the first exit north of the bridge, adjacent to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. There you sign the requisite paperwork and put on a safety harness. Then you take a short bus ride to the overlook above the bridge, before hiking a short distance down the hill, through a locked gate, and onto the catwalk underneath the bridge.

The catwalk itself is sturdy steel plating 24 inches wide, with strong handrails that were about waist high, as well as another bar about 6 inches above the floor on each side. In addition, the safety harness you wear is then clipped to an overhead cable. As you start, the maze of identical structural beams appears to stretch to infinity, just like looking into back-to-back mirrors. Although there is nothing to worry about, be aware that the traffic on the bridge above you (especially big trucks) can cause some minor vibrations that can be felt in the handrails.

Soon the ground slopes further and further away from you, as you walk towards the New River. Rafts and kayaks in a variety of colors can be seen floating down the river rapids. If you are lucky, a train might go by. Unlike most places in hilly, curvy West Virginia, this unique aerial vantage point is one of the few spots where a person might be able to see in one view an entire train from the engine to the end.

Look close and you can see a train on the near bank and rafts in the river.

The tour guide provides lots of interesting information about the bridge and the history of the area. Near the midway point, our guide told us we could sit down and put our feet over the bottom bar if we wanted to get an interesting perspective. Some of my friends with whom I have shared the picture I took of my feet over the river tell me they got dizzy just looking at it!

As we approached the Fayetteville side of the bridge, we were able to see the young peregrine falcons that recently hatched, as well as the adult falcons. Indeed, one of the adults was perched on the handrail and waited until we got within 15 feet before finally flying away. These falcons are the fastest birds of all, and are capable of 200 MPH dives.

Once we reached the opposite end, we exited the bridge and had a short hike to where the shuttle bus picked us up to take us back to the BridgeWalk headquarters ( It was an incredible way to experience the beauty of the New River Gorge.

[This story appeared in the August issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]