West Virginia Life

Opening Day for Trails

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April 13th is opening day for trails across the country. This means communities all over have events to celebrate the rail trail that runs through their town. I was recruited to this particular event in Salem, WV for a specific purpose: to help assess the interaction between the town and the trail.

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We scoped out the trail conditions and found some major problems just outside of town. Water runs in ditches on either side of the trail bed, which is now much lower than when the railroad ran trains on it. When the railroad pulled out, the company tried to make as much as it could from all the components that once made up the tracks. Railroad ties, steel rails, and even the ballast that supported them were sold off in truckloads.

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The lack of drainage creates some serious issues for the trail surface. It was swampy with mud and completely impassible in places. The water has created a path of least resistance, at times directly bisecting the trail.

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We also saw quite a few unnatural “waterfalls” along the way, such as the pipe above that spews soapy water into the trailside ditch. We stopped when it became clear conditions weren’t going to improve, but not before seeing this collection of barking dogs. They remain fairly intimidating despite the chains that tie them to their individual houses.

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Someone bought the house below to open a trailside store, but it never materialized.

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The bright spot in town is the Dairy Queen, which also happens to be the site of my very first job. That’s right. At age 16 I learned to make a kickass Blizzard and a cone with a perfect curly cue on top, all while wearing a monogramed visor. My childhood babysitter, who we called Zippie, managed the store when I was in high school. It was the cleanest fast food restaurant you’ve ever seen in your life. On slow nights, she’d put me to work scrubbing the bathroom walls. I believe she owns the place now, and she still runs a tight ship.

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They have nice new picnic tables outside, some open air and some under a covered patio, as well as a bike rack and a place to tether your horses. The onion rings are still delicious.

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This beautiful house sits on Main Street, which is largely boarded up and closed now.

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There were a few nice touches, such as this little courtyard surrounded by daffodils. and a quaint little bridge to access the trail from the sidewalk on Main. But otherwise, the downtown is largely boarded up and closed.

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For such a tiny town, I could not believe how many kids on bikes showed up to participate in the bike rodeo.

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The best part was, the “rodeo” was a simple course laid out with a sack of flour and some orange cones. The kids had these determined little looks on their faces as they threaded their way through the course.

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We rode east out of town all the way to this tunnel, which is not in good shape. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, and the ground was muddy and filled with puddles. We decided millions would be needed to fix all the issues there. Can you imagine? For just one tunnel. But the goal that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is working on right now is connecting the trail from Parkersburg, WV to Pittsburgh, PA. And to do that, not only will they need to acquire additional property to bridge the existing gaps, but they’ll have to address these infrastructure issues as well. It’s a big job.

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It was pretty inspiring to meet all these people who drove several hours to support this effort in a community that isn’t even theirs. I tend to think it really meant something to all those determined little cyclists.

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Damn Good Junk

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I took the back roads to Davis last weekend, and so many things along the way begged to be photographed. But often the roads are narrow or someone’s house is right next to the thing I want to capture, and I didn’t want to stop. Lucky for me, this amazing junk shop had a pull off directly across the road. Who can resist a man in a roof canoe peddling Damn Good Junk? Not me.

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I also liked the look of these gas pumps, leftover from another time but still regally standing guard over the toilet on the porch just behind.

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I have a very poor memory for routes, but I realized as I wound my way down old Route 50 through turns so tight you almost feel dizzy in the driver’s seat, that I’d driven that road many times before. Just beyond those tightest of turns is Cool Springs, which is the most entertaining (and long-standing) of destinations. My mom used to stop there every year on her way to Ocean City, Maryland, and the windy roads never failed to make her sick.

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Hot dogs, milk shakes, fresh produce, and a coonskin cap are all available for a price in the store that still has an old school lunch counter, and so much more. The walls are lined with taxidermy, and local handmade soaps and jewelry are mixed in with the most amazing collection of kitsch and the tackiest of West Virginia paraphernalia. It’s a real treat for the eyes. The shake was pretty good too.

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The grounds include these stone figurines, an array of barnyard animals, and an impressive collection of tractors and train parts that has clearly taken years to assemble.

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The closer you get to the mountains, the more beautiful the landscape. I’ve never managed to get a satisfactory photo, but I get excited every single time I come across the giant row of windmills on Backbone Mountain. They’re just so huge and dramatic.

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My ultimate destination was the Billy Motel, where I’ve wanted to stay for years. I must say, I was not disappointed.

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When I walked into the office/bar to check in, a man in the corner said to his friends around the fireplace, “Well, shall we bash Trump some more?” And I knew I was in the right place.

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The rooms have a fresh, modern look, and the tile in the bathrooms is clearly old but revitalized (through lots of elbow grease I learned). On the rough-hewn wooden shelf were two drink tokens to use at the bar, and beside the bed was a collection of stories by Breece D’J Pancake. I love this attention to detail.

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Not only is the bar full service and the bartender a friendly source of local knowledge, but the room is filled with midcentury modern gems.

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Outside is a quaint little courtyard with a buddha in the corner. Naturally.

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Everything was just so well done. AND, it’s in West Virginia. It’s no wonder the New York Times has taken notice.

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We drove a short distance to downtown Davis for dinner at Sirianni’s and then danced to the music of a very fun and energetic band called Qiet at the Purple Fiddle.

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The next morning I stopped on my way to breakfast at Tip Top to photograph this amazing mural created by Nellie Rose, a local textile artist, who I met for the first time on the dance floor at the Fiddle the night before. She was sweet and friendly, and I couldn’t help but tell her in what I hope was not too much of a fan voice: “I follow you on Instagram!”

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Seriously, friends. Thomas and Davis: They’ve got a good thing going right now, and you should totally check it out.

A Genuine West Virginian

Today I visited two sites where construction is underway to address water quality and other issues on old mining properties that companies abandoned before conducting the required clean-up. When that happens, the Department of Environmental Protection takes over and uses the bond money the company posted when it obtained its mining permit to reclaim the site. 

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This site is in a "town" called Century, which, although it has a Main Street and a few others, appears to be just a handful of houses clustered together in a remote area without cell service, quite close to what used to be a fully functional coal mine. The trailer above sits just opposite the entrance to the site, which is unmarked except for a single metal gate near the entrance. Some say it was the largest mine in the state, but I learned today that some say that about nearly every mine in West Virginia, so I'm pretty sure that's not true.

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Walk a few hundred feet past the entrance, and telltale signs reveal themselves. Part of the old mine shaft remains visible, though it is caved in and impassable, and the dirt the workers have disturbed bears the unmistakeable shade of acid mine drainage. 

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I met some engineers at the site, and we stood around the truck and looked at the site plans before taking a tour to inspect the progress.

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The machine the mining company used to dredge this pond during operations still sits beside it. Over the last few weeks, workers have drained the pond as much as they can. Next, they will dig out the remaining water and acidic sludge and move it to another location to allow it to dry out and harden to the texture of regular dirt. The pond, once cleaned, will then be used for stormwater runoff.

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The color is shocking in person and makes me think I'm in the middle of Yellowstone. But of course, I am not.

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Truckers bring huge loads of rock and spread it in a drainage ditch to catch the water seeping from the site and channel it to the preferred location so it can't get into a creek.

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I'm strangely comfortable standing outside around a truck, the only girl amongst a crowd of men in boots. Their outfits remind me of my dad. I grew up inspecting logging roads and sitting on tailgates, and so this all feels very familiar.

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This "wetland" exists, I learned, as a result of the mining company's use of the land. Had they not been there, water would never have pooled in this way, and we would not see cattails in a random spot at the top of a hill, waving silently as frogs hop in and out of orange water.  

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Coal companies came and extracted a resource, bringing jobs in the process. They left a mess for someone else to clean up, and now people here have jobs simply because those companies did not fulfill their obligations. This "extract and run" strategy has left its mark in more ways than one. I believe it has shaped the way people here view the land, not as something to be maintained and cared for throughout time, but as something to use and abuse, as you might an old truck.

There is sadness and irony here, yet today left me feeling more a part of this place than my normal routine allows. In this space, having grown up in Doddridge County, the daughter of a logger, makes me a part of all this. Like a genuine West Virginian.