- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

West Virginia defies easy categorization. Ever since 55 counties elected to leave the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1863 in an ongoing feud with their wealthier, more established eastern neighbors, the 35th state to join the union has forged a path that is as unique to its identity as is its rather odd geographic shape.

Is it North? Is it South? Eastern? Midwest? Why did they leave the commonwealth?

From industrialized, formerly steel-producing areas up north sandwiched amid Pennsylvania and Ohio to the rural and wild southwestern part of the state near Kentucky — where coal was once king — the Mountain State has many treasures to offer, not the least of them the craggy ridges that lend the state its nickname.

The capital city of Charleston and its environs offer hidden gems of nature, cuisine and culture that are but a few hours’ drive from the nation’s capital. The Washington Times was recently invited to “almost heaven” to experience the treasures of the southwestern part of the state. Along the way, so much wonder and adventure was found in the hills and vales of the Mountain State.



 

Day 1:

Getting to Charleston from the nation’s capital by car presents a bit of a conundrum as there is no direct interstate connective bridging the 360 miles from Washington to the capital of West Virginia, requiring motorists to go first west and then either north or south to negotiate a pass through the Appalachians on some combination of interstates 81, 68 and 79.

It’s a six-hour drive any way you slice it. Rail service is available by Amtrak, but the train trip takes a good eight hours.

For our money, take to the skies.

American Airlines offers direct, nonstop service from Reagan airport to Charleston’s Yeager a few times a day. Mind you, these are small planes, so even one cancellation in the lineup can domino through the remainder of the day’s air schedule (as this reporter found out on his first aborted trip to West Virginia in June). It’s just a little over an hour flight time, allowing for more fun upon touchdown.

Landing in Charleston, I am met at the eponymous airport by a statue bust of Charles “Chuck” Yeager, a native of nearby Myra, who entered the history books on Oct. 14, 1947, by becoming the first pilot to break the sound barrier in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.

I am met in baggage by Mallory Richards of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau, the organization that has worked tirelessly to set up an itinerary for my trip. The airport is but 3 miles from downtown, but it isn’t until we descend from the higher elevations that the West Virginia Capitol comes into view, denoting the state’s largest city, sited here at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers.

My first stop is the J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works (4797 Midland Dr, Charleston, West Virginia, 25306, 304/925-7918) on the outskirts of town. Salt mining and refining was once the lifeblood of this region — the remnants of an ancient sea that receded in prehistoric ages. Nancy Bruns, a seventh-generation member of the family that started the business, takes me on a tour of the grounds, which includes greenhouses — extremely hot on a summer day — where the product is separated from its impurities. Ms. Bruns’ family goes back deep into Kanawha County’s history, and even though she lived out west for a time, the call of home to take over the family business proved too persistent to resist.

The shop offers tastings of the various wares, including a must-try combo of the salt with caramel for a sweet-salty mashup.

Heading southeast, Mallory takes me on a windy trip alongside the Kanawha River, whose banks still bear the evidence of the horrific June flooding. Gradually the elevation slopes upward into Fayette County, where suddenly the road opens up and the New River Gorge Bridge comes into view. It’s 3,030 feet across the bridge, with its highest point 851 feet above the New River below.

A left turn brings us to Adventures on the Gorge (219 Co Rte 60/5, Lansing, West Virginia, 25862, 855/379-8738), where whitewater rafting, dining, craft beer and views of the gully await the venturous traveler.

I am met by Brian Campbell, one of the founders of AOTG and its marketing officer. After a brief tour of the property — pool, seats to take in the bridge and watch the sunset, restaurants and bars — I am led to my cabin, a rather decently apportioned affair with comfy bed, TV, outdoor deck and everything one could want for an evening. (For those who desire more rustic accommodations, less-glamorous cabins are available.)

Next it’s time for the Canopy Tour, in which visitors walk into the woods for a three-hour tour (Gilligan not included) of zip lining through the woods. Our guides, Snake and A-Train, give us a safety lesson on how to enjoy the activity as close to risk-free as possible (after all, this is an “adventure” tour!). Carolyn Symes of Carolyn Symes Photography is on hand to document the journey through the trees.

After a few “practice” lines, we hit longer, faster, higher lines that whoosh through the forest canopy above trees, valleys, creeks and scurrying fauna below. Safety is paramount, and Snake and A-Train never make a move without ensuring that myself and the other guests are properly harnessed into lines or stationary objects at all times. They are professional bar none, but nonetheless are not above a good jest about legendary wood creatures or “that time a line broke.”

At the final platform, we rappel down to ground level, and none too soon as a monstrous torrent of thunder, lightning and sheets of rain descends upon the mountain. It’s a good time for a beer back at base camp, and Brian treats me to some local WV brewskies.

Then it’s off to dinner but steps away at Smoky’s, where diners are offered buffet-style dining from highly talented chefs. The offerings vary day by day, but expect succulent meats, vegetables, pastas and desserts. To complement the meal, choose from one of the bar’s refreshing cocktails. A margarita was especially welcome after such a long day.

Retiring for the evening, I return back to my cabin in the woods, crank up the AC and crash out after a fine first day.

 

Day 2:

There’s no resting at AOTG. This is a spot for adrenaline junkies only.

Bryan has me meet him back at Smokey’s for breakfast buffet at 7:30, and then it’s off to meet my crew for the morning’s whitewater rafting excursion on the New River. We are each outfitted with a paddle, personal flotation device (PFD) and given the safety spiel on the bus ride upriver.

Some nervous looks pass among the passengers, and no doubt at least some of them saw the video of yesterday’s expeditions, in which one vessel overturned her cargo of rafters. It’s been well over a decade since I last so rafted, and I’m excited, especially to navigate a river I’ve never seen.

At riverside, myself and six other passengers are met by Mike, our guide. Mike is regular salt-of-the-earth, who trains water rescuers to pull the unfortunate out of the river. He gets all of his crew’s names down in minutes, a trick he must surely have perfected from river trips several times daily.

“You’re all my family now, and I would never endanger my family,” Mike says as we push off into the river wild. “I’ve been traveling this river for decades, and I know it well,” Mike assures us.

We paddle down the Lower New River as it cuts through the valley floor. It’s a warm though cloudy day, and thus perfect for getting soaked as Mike commands his crew through class 4 and 5 rapids. It’s enervating and requires focus — all hands must be on deck. Seated at the port bow, I woop and holler as we negotiate rapids and eddies, with Mike guiding us expertly through calm and rough waters both.

I even try my hand at jumping overboard to ride through the rapids in my life jacket alone, but it’s less fun than it looked, and catching a breath in between taking waves in the face is an art form I’m not sure I want to master.

Later downriver, there’s an enormous rock midstream, where Mike dislodges myself and two of my raft mates. We climb up the boulder and jump, descending 10 feet back into the drink. It’s fun to float, but as the New River Gorge Bridge is coming up, Mike beckons us swimmers back into the vessel as some of the most challenging waters of the day are ahead — both afore and aft the bridge.

We dislodge not far downriver from the bridge. I was hopeful of a quick rest, but I am met by Brian’s wife, Jessica, who shuttles me into downtown Fayettville for lunch at the Secret Sandwich Society (103 1/2 Keller Avenue, Keller Ave, Fayetteville, West Virginia, 25840, 304/574-4777), an institution along the town’s main drag.

Here the sandwiches are named after presidents, with corresponding portraits of many of our nation’s chief executives located about the interior. I opt for the Polk, which features roasted chicken cutlet, chipotle-bacon jam and roasted garlic mayo on a brioche bun. With chips and a drink, it does the trick, and I’m ready for my next outing.

Since this area is all about the bridge, it makes sense to hit up the New River Gorge Bridge Walk (57 County Rte 85/9, Lansing, West Virginia, 25862, 304/574-1300).

From base camp it’s a quick bus ride to the park where we hike down to the trailhead, offering stunning views of the cross-chasm causeway on this perfect day. Young Joel, our guide and a student at WVU during the offseason, harnesses us up for the amble along the catwalk beneath the span itself. Joel hooks our harnesses up to the overhead safety cable system, the longest of its kind in the world. One of our number is afraid of heights, but his mates convince him to take those first tentative steps.

My adrenaline is rushing along, and at first I’m invigorated ambling along a thin walkway a quarter-mile above the gulch. But then, as what I can only deign to be a super large truck passes overhead, the entire catwalk vibrates violently. I grasp the rails, and my pulse and breathing quicken.

I know it’s solid, I know it’s been walked over many, many times, but the lizard part of my brain temporarily needs to be tranquilized. As Joel informs me he has walked the walk over 300 times, I take some deep breaths and try to look, if not down, at least around and enjoy it.

Unlike the intermittent few seconds of adrenaline that come with zip lining or whitewater rafting, the Bridge Walk is a slow, intense, never-ending anxiety burn. It reminds of those articles I’ve read about people under constant stress developing all manner of health issues.

Joel entreats us to sit and relax at the bridge’s midpoint. My photog friend from yesterday Carolyn is back, and she snaps some pics of Joel and I seated at mid-bridge, our feet dangling nearly 900 feet above the heads of the afternoon’s rafters, where I floated by but hours ago.

After nearly two hours of a near-mile trudge, we make the far side of the bridge. I breathe a sigh of relief, but I’m glad I did it. Danger, even if it’s illusory, focuses the mind and forces you to appreciate more your surroundings.

Tipping Joel (always tip your guides) and hugging Carolyn goodbye, my host Brian loads me in his truck. We head north and west, out of the higher elevations and back toward Charleston. I’ve only been in the highlands for 24 hours but it feels lie a week, as so much was packed into my time here.

After checking in at the riverfront Sheraton Four Points Charleston (600 Kanawha Blvd. E, Charleston, West Virginia, 25301, 304/344-4092), I crash out for a much needed power nap.

In the hotel lobby I meet Alisa Bailey from the CCVB, the godmother of my expedition and my hostess. We walk a few blocks to dine at Black Sheep Burrito and Brews (702 Quarrier St., Charleston, West Virginia, 25301, 304/343-2739), a local joint serving Mexican food — and far below the D.C. prices I’m used to — which shares a retail space with the Charleston Brewing Company, where I once popped in for a brew during a drive through these parts back in 2013.

Alisa and I dine on delicious, spicy guacamole, followed by delectable tacos and a rather hefty burrito that gets the better of me in the end due to its girth. Oh, and beers from the other side of the establishment, of course.

Because it’s summertime, Alisa drops me off for Live on the Levee, a free outdoor concert series on the Kanawha right in front of the Sheraton. Folks from town walk in — the streets in front of the riverfront are closed off — while those with boats pull their vessels up to the marina to hear the music from comfort and pop open their coolers of beer. Tonight’s entertainment is The Revelers, a Louisiana cajun band blending sounds of the South with some more Northern influences. There’s a palpable joy in the air, no matter that gray clouds are rolling toward town, with sky rumbles in the distance driving some patrons away before the encore.

With darkness having descended and a light rain dripping upon Charleston, I walk the riverfront and the streets near the levee. It’s Friday, and somewhat to my surprise, there are few people out and about. But there are plenty of watering holes, so I pop in an inviting one called Sam’s Uptown Cafe (28 Capitol St, Charleston, West Virginia, 25301, 304/346-6222).

I sidle up to the bar and order another local brew. Then just behind me, I hear, “Mallory, what would you like?” Just on the off-chance that it’s the same Mallory from the CCVB who drove me around yesterday, I turn around — it is, indeed, she. Mallory is with friends, and she introduces me duly around. Her group is dining, but as I’m still full from my burrito, I stick to a liquid diet.

We all move upstairs, where there’s another bar and also games for adults, including a life-size Jenga station. Loading up on Maker’s Mark, I play Mallory’s friends at the block-balancing game as well as Connect Four.

Even far from where I currently call home, I am feeling more than welcome.

 

Day 3:

Alisa meets me in the lobby of the Sheraton and we amble down the street to Taylor Books (226 Capitol St, Charleston, West Virginia, 25301, 304/342-1461), which retails not only in tomes of all manner but also in coffee and other morning drinks.

We sit down with Larry Groce, the longtime producer and host of “Mountain Stage,” the legendary live concert series produced by West Virginia Public Radio. Mr. Groce stages shows both at Charleston’s Culture Center Theater as well as taking the gig on the road and overseas. Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Phish and R.E.M. are just some of the famous acts have graced its stage.

Next stop is the East End Bazaar — Open Air Market, a weekly outdoor shopping stop situated on a block downtown. Here patrons can buy wares of local artisans, such as guitar-maker Craig Southern [https://southernguitars.weebly.com/], whose hand-crafted axes have been favored by such luminaries as Tommy Hilfiger and guitar god Peter Frampton.

It’s lunchtime, so Tim Brady of the CCVB and Ric Cavender of Charleston Main Streets bring me down to Bluegrass (1600 Washington St. E, Charleston, West Virginia, 25311, 304/346-2871), a crown jewel in the effort to revitalize downtown with restaurants, shops and other attempts aimed at urban renewal.

Owner Keeley Steele pops out of the kitchen to say hello. Unsurprisingly, as the owner of a dining establishment, she has been her since before dawn, but that fact doesn’t damper her easy manner and sharp sense of humor as she swings by to ask after our sandwiches.

Oh, and Mallory, of course, is dining nearby.

Time for some culture and some history at the West Virginia Capitol, whose golden dome glows in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. Inside is the West Virginia State Museum at The Culture Center (Capitol Complex, 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East, Charleston West Virginia, 25305-0300, 304/558-0220), which traces the history of this fascinating place from prehistoric times right up until now. It’s hard to read every panel and display in a single visit, but paramount is learning about how the state was born during the strife of the Civil War: The rural western counties were given short shrift by the wealthier eastern Virginia, and the industrialized areas near Ohio wanted a state not only where slavery was forbidden, but also to join with the advancing Union armies. West Virginia’s rather unusual shape comes from counties in the northeast taking areas of railroad from the Confederates, with the northwestern areas in between Pennsylvania and Ohio brought along to the new state for their industrial might.

There’s so much more to learn, and one can spend hours here. Good thing admission is free.

After some R&R back at the Sheraton, Kristen Harrison of the Capitol Market Board meets me for an Autopod to the Capitol Market on Tap! event going on down at Capitol Market, an old railroad station now turned into a multipurpose dining and recreation area. Today dozens of craft beers not just from West Virginia but far and wide are on tap, and it’s a fine evening for enjoying same. I chat up reps from many of the brewhouses, and toast to meeting them again in Denver in October for GABF.

For my final boozing stop of the evening, I was told that no visit to Charleston is complete without a drink at Red Carpet Lounge (308 Elizabeth St, Charleston, West Virginia, 25311, 304/342-9977), a place where state politicians often mix with locals after the day’s business at the capitol is complete (if it ever is). This is a true, dyed-in-the-wool local spot, a do-drop-in lacking any and all semblance of pretense, where you can hear live music out on the outdoor patio or simply try yet another Mountain State beer indoors.

I order a beer and a stiff drink of whiskey for the bargain of $8.50. I am definitely not in D.C. anymore.

Of course, Mallory is here once again. It’s now more funny than anything.

It’s been a long weekend, and I’m thoroughly bushed from the trip, so I head back to my hotel. West Virginia has taught me much about its history, its culture, its cuisine and its adventures, but what truly stands out as I pack my bags for the morning flight home is the unforced, ubiquitous kindness of Charleston’s people. Never a bad word or too hurried to chat for a few minutes. Everybody seems to know everyone, and people greet one another with an easy smile. No one seems overly stressed. People here in the West Virginia capital region are ever welcoming and always friendly.

It’s something the goons at the U.S. Capitol, back where I live, might well take into account.

To learn more about traveling to Charleston, visit the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau (CCVB) at CharlestonWV.com.

 

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