This is a massive post for a massive adventure! Be prepared for a long read!
It has been three months since my wonderful friend came to visit me in Fayette County, WV. I have been negligent to not blog about it or post photos. Suffice to say, I hope this blog will adequately convey how much it meant to me for her to visit me in a place where “it (I) all began”. It really touched my heart that she wanted to visit places that mattered to me, that shaped who I became as an adult. Her visit was short(ish) but boy was it packed with….well, everything.
For the first time (I think ever) I did not have an itinerary to follow (not even one in my head). I thought we would go where the wind blew us. I am so very happy that I chose not to overthink the visit. The organic flow of where we went and experiences we had were amazing. My friend Steve allowed us to park Eddie, my camper, next to his barn and use his electricity. The resort I used to work for had a shower house less than a half mile from where we parked. I arrived extra early on Friday so I could “stage” our campsite. See, Judy had never camped in an actual camper. I, on the other hand, love to glamp at every possible opportunity. Seeing as it was now October, I would be able to throw in a couple of Halloween decorations and lights. I also picked up a portable fire pit for Eddie. Many thanks to Mean Jen for helping me set up camp and for putting the pit together. (See, she isn’t always mean…)
We started our adventure on Friday, October 5, 2018. Once she parked her car and all of the hugs were had, we ventured out to see a handful of things which were close at hand. First up was a walk about town in Fayetteville. I showed her the Historic Fayette Theater where I spent a copious number of nights/days rehearsing and putting on shows. Below is me, in costume for Women Must Weep. I played Catherine Carter, the outsider (or northern harlot, if you choose). Yes, that is my real hair.
Fayetteville was named after George Washington’s Revolutionary War buddy Marquis de Lafayette. During the Civil War, the little town was fought over a number of times and at different points held by both the North and the South. Fayetteville sits adjacent to the New River. The area was renamed the New River Gorge National River by the National Parks Service in 1978, and protects more than 70,000 acres of land in and around the gorge. I looked through my photos from the trip and had zero of Fayetteville proper. I am not sure if I am so used to it being “part of me” that I didn’t think to stop and photograph… These are Judy’s shots:
We then headed to Fayette Station because that is the first place I bring all of my friends who have never experienced FayCo before. It is a 100 year old road which has turns that are so sharp you can almost see your backside once traversed. This was the path to travel before the New River Gorge Bridge was built in the late 70s. Had I planned an itinerary, I might have found this jewel of a tidbit (which I will use the next time I visit): Audio Tour of Fayette Station Road. On this road there is a curve with a wide parking area to the side. Several … SEVERAL … nights as a teenager were spent parked there with my friends. Drinking, laughing and enjoying being rebels. Those were days before the over commercialization of the area in an attempt to draw in the tourists. I have nothing against tourists, mind you. But the area is a different beast in modern times compared to the days of my youth. Without stopping, the complete trip takes about 40 minutes (starting from Idiot’s Corner just past Canyon Rim Visitor Center and popping out just outside of Fayetteville on Rt. 19). The highlight of this crazy little road is the view of the New River Gorge Bridge from its bottomside. I’ll give you a more info on the bridge a little later in the blog. When you reach the river you cross a (much) smaller bridge before making the climb back up. The bridge is the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge. Tunney is a local sports legend who, later in life, was a police officer and Sunday School Teacher in Fayetteville. His sports claim to fame? He was Muhammed Ali’s opponent in Ali’s first professional fight. They remained good friends through life and in one of his memoirs, Ali noted that Hunsaker dealt him one of the hardest body blows he ever took in his career. Although that was a major moment in Hunsaker’s life, I am sure the fact that he was three times over named the Sunday School Teacher of the Year at the Church of the Nazarene gave him equal amounts of joy (and a considerably lesser amount of pain).
I love that Judy wants to jump out and take pictures as much as I do!
Judy’s Photos (taken from Tunney Hunsaker Bridge):
It was a no-brainer decision on where to eat Saturday morning. Cathedral Café is owned by a dear friend of mine, Wendy. The Café was once home to the Methodist Church (until 1985-ish?). Wendy and I met years ago while working for The Rivermen and when I returned to the FayCo area from NY, she offered me a weekend morning job pouring coffee and serving food. I have said, on numerous occasions, Fayette County is lucky to have her. Not just because she serves up amazing brunches but because she is an amazing role model for girls and young women. Her hard work and dedication to her business is an amazing example to set for young women of the area. This was her place back in the day when it was more cathedral than cafe:
Seeing as it was brunch, we thought it apropos that we have mimosas. We corralled our waitress into helping us with the Local Trivia Board (I am horrible with the names of rapids. Always have been, always will be.) And with full bellies and happiness abounds, we started our day. As a note, Wendy came in after we had finished our meal and Judy had excused herself to use the phone. I gave Wendy a hug but Judy ran back in to introduce herself and to meet a person who matters to me from my old stomping grounds. That tickled me and was something that mattered to me a lot on our visit.
Judy and I share a love of ancestors, genealogy and not being afraid of cemeteries. On Saturday we would visit two different cemeteries where my roots are (literally) planted. (Fun genealogy trivia: the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard – a cemetery is privately owned by a business whereas a graveyard is a burial site adjacent to a church. So if it is noted in a genealogical record that someone is buried in a graveyard, you might want to check the church records of the adjacent church for baptismal or marriage records.) High Lawn Memorial is where my Parents are buried. Judy helped me locate a few other graves and we found a register of graves inside the office of the gravediggers (not an affectionate nickname, I generally despise the people who run this cemetery for numerous reasons I will not go into here). Later in the day we would wander about Hilltop Cemetery trying to find a great grandfather but instead finding the childhood memory Jack Crumb, the alligator wrestler who lived just below my parents’ house and who used to throw things from his porch at kids walking by his porch. Good seein’ ya Jack.
Judy’s photos, complete with commentary:
Before we made it to the Hilltop Cemetery, there were a few stops at the Library, Jones Mansion and I showed Judy the location where it was realized Hank Williams Sr. was dead. As the story (very loosely) goes: Hank had hired a college freshman, Charles Car, to drive him on a short tour from West Virginia through Ohio. The young man would drive Hank’s 1952 Cadillac while Hank would sleep/rest along the way. They left Montgomery, Alabama at 11:30AM on December 30, 1952. They first made the local DJ circuit, speaking on radio shows, before heading out. A snow storm cut their travel short and they checked into a hotel. As the story goes, a few women found their way into Hank’s room and when asked where they were from, one said “Heaven” and Hank reportedly replied that she was the reason he was going to hell. The next morning they checked out of the hotel and tried to make their way to Charleston, WV. It would prove impossible with the weather. Hank attempted to fly, but the plane was turned around due to the storm. Charles checked them into a hotel in Knoxville where two porters had to help him carry Hank to his room. A doctor was called (Dr. P.H. Cardwell) because of hiccups that was said to have sent Hank’s body into mild convulsions. The doctor administered two shots of Morphine mixed with Vitamin B12. Charles called the promoter to let him know Hank would not make the Charleston show. Charles was instructed to make sure Hank made the Jan 1st show in Canton. A lifeless Hank was carried to the Cadillac, the porters would recall Hank wheezing as they carried him. They positioned him in the back of the car, laying down with his arms in a V over his chest. Charles was pulled over at some point for reckless driving (passing a car and almost hitting a police cruiser). The TN officer (Swan Kitts) asked about Hank in the back seat and was told he had been drinking and a doctor had given him a sedative. Remarkably, Charles paid his fine and the officer allowed them to continue on their way after Charles explained they were in a hurry to make the Ohio show. Having now driven over 24 hours almost nonstop, Charles picked up Donald Surface in Bristol to drive while he slept. When questioned later, Charles said he dropped Surface off somewhere around Bluefield or Princeton (where they stopped for coffee) and then continued on his way. At some point early in the morning on Jan 1 1953, Charles reached back to pull Hank’s coat back up and noticed Hank’s hands were cold to the touch. Around 5:30 AM he pulled into Burdette’s Pure Oil Station and asked for help, to no avail. They directed Charles to the hospital six miles down the road. Hank was carried into Oak Hill Hospital (now Plateau Medical Ctr) Emergency Room and pronounced dead at 7:00 AM by Dr. Diego Nunnari. It was concluded Hank had died approximately six hours prior but an exact time of death could not be given with any certainty. Hank was moved to Tyree Funeral Home where an autopsy would be performed by Dr. Iven Malinin. Malinin noted needle marks in Hank’s arms and bruises all over his body along with a welt on his forehead. There were hemorrhages in his heart and neck. Official cause of death is noted as acute right ventricular dilation. He was 29 years old.
Side note: Tyree Funeral Home is where the wakes of both my Parents were held. The people who run that facility are some of the kindest humans a person could encounter during the most tragic times of their lives.
Two perspectives of the same shot in Oak Hill:
We then made our way to the train station in Thurmond, stopping at one of my favorite place on earth – the waterfall. A lot of my serious younger thinking was done while looking at the water rage over those rocks. There is a bit more trash thrown around and the water path seems to have changed over the decades. But the soothing sound of roaring water still holds the ability to put me at ease.
Thurmond was only accessible by train until the 1920s. The town thrived at that time (even absent a road) because of its location along the railway. During those days, while rail commerce was booming, the town boasted a population of hundreds of people. That has dwindled to less than a dozen, even with a road. Even with such a small population, they still have elections and voting is taken very seriously. Exploring this area is like stepping back through time.
The last photo there of Judy in front of a small yellow building – that is the Town Hall of Thurmond.
Some of Judy’s photos:
Some great drone footage of Thurmond can be found on this video:
On Sunday we woke with the dawn and I apologized to Judy for not taking her rafting but I wanted to fully enjoy the short amount of time we would share in FayCo. But, with rafting, my hearing impairment would compromise the amount of chatter we could share for almost an entire day. I really had wanted to show her what the dam and the rafting experience looked like. I sat up straight in bed and said “Let’s go to Summersville! Right now while the boats are still going in the water!” And, with a quick brushing of teeth, we were off like a shot!
For those of you unfamiliar with the Gauley River, here is a: timeline. So, Gauley River is controlled by a hydro dam. Most dams are named for the town that was flooded in order to construct the structure. That is not the case for this dam. You see, the town that was flooded was the town of Gad. And, well, you just cannot say Gad Dam in that neck of the woods without a few shackles being raised. This is a picture of Gad pre dam:
As a kid, I used to come to Summersville Lake and swim during the summer months. When hurrying home (while extra late and knowing Ma was pissed) after one of these swim trips, I had a slight car wreck. Dad told the woman (who was then lacking a mailbox post and wooden walkway because of my driving talents) he would do the repairs himself. As a result of buying lumber for the job, Dad met the best boss he ever had: Bruce Moodespaugh. But that’s a story for another blog…
Because of an unfortunate wind turbine transportation accident, Summersville can now boast having their very own lighthouse! Which, at that time of year, was decorated accordingly!
So Gad Dam backs up water to create Summersville Lake. It is 2280 feet long and 390 feet high. The lake covers 28,000 acres, including 60 miles of shoreline. During the fall, for six weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers release water to drop Summersville Lake to wintertime levels. For those six weeks, thousands of people will jump in boats and paddle furiously through rapids created by the water’s release. It is known as Gauley Season. In 2016 there was a huge 50th Anniversary event held at the dam. There were skydivers and everything. I might know a couple of them… Per the local newspaper: “The economic impact of the dam and lake are plentiful. It attracts tourists who stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. According to Toby Wood, resource manager for the lake, in 2012, the latest data available, within a 30-mile radius of the lake visitor spending topped $31 million, and of that, $14.8 million was in sales. The multiple employment of the lake is 328, he said.”
I know what you are thinking: wow, Michelle REALLY likes to take pictures of Judy taking pictures of things. Well, you are right. I really enjoyed her enthusiasm. It ignited MY enthusiasm.
As we were so close, I suggested we visit Carnifax Ferry for a little Civil War History. Judy was all in. While there she read from a sign and (without knowing) I taped her. After the fact she fussed a little that I taped her but I love having her voice on tape describing a place I am so familiar with. We four friends spend hours tapping out messages to each other in texts/messenger. However, with the amount of distance I am from my three friends, the thing I miss most is their sound. Judy and I are the loudest of our quad of friends. I can only imagine how we sounded that weekend with no one to bring us back to manageable “inside voices”.
The Battle of Carnifex Ferry took place on September 10, 1861 in Nicholas County, Virginia (now West Virginia), as part of the Operations in Western Virginia Campaign during the American Civil War. The battle resulted in a Union strategic victory that contributed to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from western Virginia. There are some good trails in that area, along with a small museum. Unfortunately for us, the museum was not open while we were there.
After a hardy breakfast at The Bob Evans, we decided to make our way to Hawks Nest and maybe catch a boat tour. On the way, we stopped to visit the Veteran’s Memorial in Ansted where Ma bought Daddy a brick. So, I found humor in this for the longest time because Daddy was alive (obviously) when Ma purchased it. The whole “memorial” thing was something I could not get through Ma’s head. This was the first time I had been back since my Dad passed in Oct 2016. I (of course) have more reverence for the site now. I miss them both so very much.
We made it to Hawks Nest and Judy purchased tickets for the tram to the bottom of the gorge where we would board a sight seeing boat. Once we reached the bottom we realized that the tickets were still in the tram! After a comedy of errors, and tickets in hand, we grabbed our seats on the boat. Although it was an entertaining ride, full of gorge splendor, we both would have preferred the boat to not smell like piss. Ugh! Once we rounded the bend and the NRG Bridge stood before us, it made the olfactory faux pas more bearable.
Some of Judy’s photos:
Before we left, we swung through the gift shop to look for squirrel merchandise we knew Pam would love dearly… The attendant was AMAZING. Then we journeyed a few miles up the road for the second Hawks Nest stop: Lovers Leap. I may have gotten married there once or something. We helped a group of kids take a picture and were then back in the truck on our way.
I found the adventure line that Judy was unwilling to cross – the Mystery Hole. She took one look at the freaky clown poster and said nope. lol
Judy wanted to see the holler I grew up in. I obliged. Seeing my holler through someone else’s eyes is interesting. My personal history is rooted there, on that no-thru dirt road. The reasons for why I am who I am all stem from that spot on the map.
Old pictures of the holler below. The upper right one would be looking toward the spot where I took the recent picture above.
And this is a picture of me, standing next to the “old trailer”. The yellow one before the brown one. I am so little. Had to have been either picture day at school or Easter. Those were the only two times each year I wore a dress.
After tossing around the idea of seeing a movie, we opted to instead visit the Whipple Company Store and take the guided tour. Back in the day, prior to NYC life and when I was “a big deal” ha in the local theater community, I performed in a couple of plays put on at the Whipple Co Store. At one time in local history, there were over 60 coal camps/mining towns within the New River Gorge area. It was designed and built in the 1890s by Justus Collins (well, design was heavily influenced by his wife), a coal baron.
In the above old photo of the couple on their wedding day – one of the traditions we learned about is the white ribbon he is wearing – it means he accepts and acknowledges she is a virgin. Way to broadcast there fella!
Atlas Obscura put together some nice pictures from the store: here.
A nice personal history piece on the site can be found: here.
And there was an audio piece from public radio found: here.
I learned some interesting things I did not know about the company store and traditions of the immigrants who mined the coal. While there we were told the site was up for auction. I know it has been sold since. I am hoping the new owners will care for the location as much as the woman we met. It would be a shame to lose that much history.
Last stop on the whirlwind adventure was the Canyon Rim Visitor’s Center and Bridge Overlook. This is a must do for any first time visitors to the area. There are a couple of good paths to take but the most breathtaking, IMHO is the one that is easiest to travel. It pops you out around the corner and allows you to see the bridge from it’s side – the whole arch in magnificent glory. As a kid in high school, friends and I would shinney the chainlink fence on the other side of the bridge. We would then balance walk one of the beams that led under the bridge and proceed to walk along the catwalk (usually carrying a six pack of Foster’s beer). I look back on my youth and sometimes wonder: how in the hell did I survive all of of shenanigans??
And a sheet of facts on the bridge I picked up in Hawks Nest:
We finished the adventure with a meal and a drink at AOTG.
Hey! Like these mushrooms, I’m a fun-gi! Get it? Fungi? The the mushroom? Oh for Pete’s sake – just look at the picture…
To be honest, I am not a fun guy at all! I am utterly ashamed that out of all the pictures above, the only one to make it onto my “#365DaysOfHappy” stream on Facebook was this one:
I can only say that I was truly caught up in the amazing time with my wonderful friend and was too carried away to be all about social media. Truth is, it was an amazing adventure that I will definitely treasure… I love you Judy Gallant Root. You are the cheese to my macaroni!
A few random photos not included above:
At the end of my trip I found myself driving towards home through one of my favorite stands of tall trees, I think it is a good picture to end the blog on…