On West Virginia, Climbing, Bluegrass, White Water Rafting, Cooper's Rock, and The End Game
05/11/2012 63 °F
I’ve fallen in love again. It was a brief affair, only three days, but it left me with that wonderful feeling of love. My symptoms are acute, and easy to diagnose. I feel the lighthearted tapping of butterfly wings in the hollow of my stomach, a rush of warmth to my head when I think of her. My heart is beating a little faster at the sound of her name, and I turn abruptly to the southeast convinced she is calling for me. These are but the whispers of my imagination, figments of my memories. However, the loving siren call of West Virginia is real and I am in love with her.
Last Friday, my friend Luke and I drove down to the New River Gorge. We flew down the freeway, whistling through the warm morning sun, and rolling high into the green grandeur that is West Virginia’s Appalachia. We turned south on Highway 19, drove Luke’s Honda past Summerville, and began to recognize features from last years adventure (See From Alaska to West Virginia, May 2011). We crossed over the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arched bridge in the western hemisphere, and turned off in the small town of Fayetteville.
As we drove through the main street of its downtown, I took stock of what it had to offer. They had a solid outdoor gear store (Waterstone) , a yoga studio, a theatre with a full season of plays and performances, the usual public service buildings, a bakery, several funky shops (The Hobbit Hole), and many appealing restaurants including Pies and Pints, The Secret Sandwich Society, and The Vandalian, to name a few. I liked what I saw. It had small town charm, friendly people, great food, and soul. That was the deciding factor for me. Fayetteville has soul.
We drove a mile out of town, and pulled into Cantrell’s Ultimate Rafting headquarters, and met up with our trip leader, and lodging staff to get settled in for the afternoon. The good folks at Cantrell’s welcomed us by name, gave a brief rundown on where to find everything, and let us know that a good bluegrass band was going to be playing at the bar that night. We thanked them, drove down to our little cabin to stow our gear, stretch, and eat a quick lunch. Our main objective for the afternoon was to rock climb down in the gorge.
Springtime in West Virginia is akin to playing in the Garden of Eden. The forest was vibrantly green, glowing in the sunlight. Happy creeks tumbled down the steep sides of the gorge, often forming beautiful waterfalls of clear water. The birds chirped all around us, and large butterflies flapped in chaotic patterns, stopping to land in the blooming rhododendrons. It was warm in the sunlight, a perfect backdrop for any outdoor activity.
The New River Gorge is a rock climber’s dream, and a Mecca to most climbers on the east coast. The rock is primarily sandstone, with lots of grip, and many routes. Most of the routes are set up to top rope, though there is quite a bit of trad (traditional route climbing) as well. There is plenty of bouldering, down in the Hawk’s nest boulders. In short, no matter what style of climbing you prefer, you can find good rock in the New River gorge.
We set up our anchors on top of The Bridge Buttress, which is located underneath the north side of the New River Gorge Bridge. It had been awhile since I had climbed, and we took our time making sure our anchors were secure. When we were satisfied, we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing high up on the rock face. We didn’t have a care in the world, simply enjoying the feel of the rock on our hands and feet focusing on the climbing problems presented to us. I kept saying to Luke, “I can’t believe how amazing this place is.”
That evening as we drove back to Cantrell’s we demolished a bag of potato chips between us. We were starving after our exertions on the rock. We learned that another large group had showed up in our absence, and had their dates wrong. Instead of turning them back, they decided to move us to another campground and into another cabin. We really didn’t mind. We knew we would have a place to sleep. We drove a mile south on highway 19 to the campground. We found the caretaker who gave us a key to our cabin. The cabin was great, and step up in comfort. It was made of old rough hewn logs, with plaster chinking in between. It had a fireplace, a full bathroom, a small kitchen area, bunk beds, a queen size bed, and a spacious back porch. It was a palace.
We cracked some beers and sat on the front porch enjoying the cool liquid in the dark of the evening. We were satisfied with our efforts of the day. The bluegrass band was going to be starting up soon, so we headed on back to Cantrell’s to see the show.
We walked into the saloon, ordered some beers and took a seat. The band was just starting up, the cigarette smoke hung low. The place was full of people, an easygoing group of West Virginians. We talked with some locals, hung out, commented on how lucky we were and how good life is. After awhile, and several brews later, we meandered over to where the band was playing. Johnson Crossing is from Asheville, North Carolina and tours around the country. I would describe their brand of music as a soulful bluegrass. It was a four-piece band, with a good lead singer and solid backup. It was a good show.
When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that Luke had wandered off onto the dance floor. “I can’t help it, bro. When I get that beat in me, I have to get out there.” I was feeling fantastic, so I stepped onto the square tile of the dance floor and began getting in my own groove. Just then, the dobro player picked up his banjo, and began to tune it. Everybody in the place knew he was about to go off, and it brought more people out to the dance floor. The band began to wind up, starting with the banjo player on a lead of “The Cuckoo.” The banjo rang true. The guitar, mandolin, and bass all followed suit. The rhythm of that song had the entire dance floor out of their minds. WE LOVED IT! We danced hard, we howled for more, we clapped in unison, we laughed, we smiled. The sweat poured off us, but the band played on. I gave out that southern tradition of a giant, “Yeeee-haawww.” That song was the best song I’ve ever heard live. It is a song that normally takes two minutes to play, but the band fed off our enthusiasm and played that sucker for what felt like fifteen minutes. It was an amazing moment. I remember looking at the lead singer and seeing his satisfaction at the power of his music. I cannot imagine how good that must feel.
The bouncer gave us a ride to our cabin for being such good sports. It began to rain, hard. I fell asleep under a hand made quilt listening to the rain hammer on our roof. My last thoughts were of how damn lucky I am. I thought back to my day full of climbing in paradise, potato chips for dinner, getting drunk and dancing all night. I almost forgot that we were here to go white water rafting.
Author’s Note: This section contains some mild cursing not suitable for younger folks. It’s harmless, and I included it because it reflects the speech and mannerisms of the region I was in.
The next morning, we awoke to my alarm, and the sound of rain lashing at the windows. One of our guides picked us up in a giant van. We learned the river was up about six and a half feet and rising. “The river is going to be in fine shape,” he told us. We ate breakfast, served military style from their cookhouse. We drank strong black coffee, and dug into the homemade biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and fruit. It was delicious. We signed our lives away, rented some wet suits, and geared up. We grabbed a life jacket, helmet, and paddle. We filed onto the old school bus, driven by an elderly gentleman who knew how to handle an old clutch on the steep, twisting, single lane roads of the gorge. The bus had that sour smell that buses carry around; a combination of old vinyl, moldy river funk, and the musky scent of lots of bodies in spongy wet suits. It wasn’t long before the windows became foggy, leaving us blind to the passing countryside.
We rode for forty minutes in that old bus, finally stopping at a place called Stone Cliff. Everyone piled out of the bus, and into the rain. The rain was still falling hard, intent to soak us before we ever made it to the river. I could see the river was rising higher on the bank, pooling around several trees that were normally dry. We met our guide, Randy, and our fellow raft mates. We each grabbed the strap of our sixteen-foot raft and hauled it on down to the river. We set it in the swollen river and jumped in.
We didn’t do much for the first three hours. Mostly, we chatted with our guide, who cracked us up with his Appalachian ways and stories of a river guide. The river was running so fast, that we put in upstream to where they normally would have, just to take up some time. It was a relaxed affair, and we passed harmlessly through some class I, II, and III rapids. This was my first taste of white water rafting, and I liked my first nibble. The rain continued to fall, and the river rose a little higher. I was freezing. I shivered in my wet suit, as we rode along. The water seeping deep into my long johns I wore underneath. Eventually we stopped for lunch, just before the halfway point of our ride. We ate sandwiches, chips, cookies, and drank water in the pouring rain. I tried to find shelter under a likeable tree, but instead of small drops, I had large bumblebee sized droplets hitting me off the leaves. It was hopeless.
We packed up, and got the rafts launched back on the river. From here on out, we were heading into the heart of the gorge, and with all the rainfall causing the river to rise, we were going to have one hell of a ride.
Now our guide Randy was awesome. He did not work us to death, and he told us what he wanted us to do when he wanted it. “Now, when I say, Forward Heavy, I want you to paddle with all you got. We need to get over to the left, other whys we are going to get beeyitch slapped and you don’t want that. If we get stuck on the right side, this river is gonna beeyitch slap us the whole length of these rapids.” His accent, mannerisms, and speech were deeply Appalachian. It was like having my brother Eric as our guide. He was hilarious, very charismatic, and I will never forget him.
We entered the first rapid, and it was a big one. Easily class V, and required some technical maneuvering to get through it safely. Just as we passed over the first big wave, and into the chaos, our raft went vertical, we heard the call of “FORWARD HEAVY!”, and we all began to row as hard as we could. It was hard to paddle, being bucked around like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. It was harder still to see anything but the river coming at me in all directions. “C’MON LAYDIEES! PULLL! PULLLLL! GIMMEE ALL YEW GOT!” Randy yelled at us, his thick accent easily heard over the roar of the water. We pulled like the ladies we were, and got over to the left side before we were bitch slapped into submission.
We whooped, we laughed, and we were thrilled by this wonderful river. Randy was ecstatic. “Great Job Guys! That was AWESOME! WHOOOOO-EEEEEE!” His enthusiastic approval was reward enough for us. We paddled on through several more big rapids, each of them requiring us to pull hard, but none of them were as tough as that first one. I had a blast, my smile widening every time our speed increased as we were sucked into the maelstrom of the chaotic rapids. No longer was I cold. I began to warm up with my adrenaline, paired perfectly with my excitement, as I pulled hard on my paddle.
All told, we had rafted fourteen miles of the New River, passing over at least twenty rapids. When we hauled out under the big bridge, we were soaked through, and very happy. It was a great day. We rode the bus back on up to the top of the gorge and back to Cantrell’s. We stepped out of our funky smelling wetsuits and handed back our gear. Luke and I rode back to our cabin to get showers, and get warm. After my shower, I laid down on my bed, to stretch out for a minute. That minute turned into two hours, and I passed out solidly for a long afternoon nap. I have had some great days in my life recently, and this one was one to remember.
The next day, Luke and I checked out of our cabin, went out for a delicious homemade breakfast at The Vandalian, and decided to drive north up to Cooper’s Rock to do some more rock climbing. All of the rock in the gorge was still wet from all of the rain, and we figured to at the very least explore the area and find where to climb. It was a solid plan and it worked out beautifully. Not only did we find another gorgeous West Virginia forest to play in, but it was also dry. We spent the afternoon top roping on the giant sandstone slabs that make up the Cooper’s Rock climbing scene.
I love climbing, and we had fun working problems on the route and exhausting our bodies. We took turns on the rock, one person climbing with the other person belaying them. We chatted amiably with some local climbers and compared notes on places we had climbed. We were the last climbers out on the rock, and we cleaned our gear from the rock as the sun was setting.
I marveled at the trip. It had been awesome from start to finish. We drove west in the night stopping for a burrito in Morgantown before continuing on to Bellaire, Ohio where Luke lived. It was midnight when I finally pulled the blankets up to my chin on his couch. I reflected on my fortunes. I had just finished yet another amazing chapter of this journey.
The next day, I drove eight hundred fifty miles to northern Michigan. It took me over 15 hours to make the journey, after only 5 hours of sleep. I was exhausted and road weary when I parked my van outside of my brother’s house in Hancock, Michigan. I was in a hurry because the next day I had to catch a plane to Seattle to celebrate my birthday with my birthday twin. From Seattle, I am going north to Sitka, Alaska and then onto Denali National Park. Thom’s whirlwind tour keeps right on trucking along.
End Game: I drove 4,402 miles since leaving Spokane, Washington on April 9th. That makes a solid four weeks on the road, and let me tell you it was an amazing trip. Thanks for reading, thanks for all of the support, and thank you to all who let me stay on their couches, and hung out with me. The following are some of my favorite pictures of the trip which did not make the original posts. Happy Travels, Fair Winds, and I’ll see you in Alaska!