Category Archives: West Virginia
What I did was illegal, but the misty river was sublime.
And so on the morning of October 14, 2016, I pulled off the side of Route 340 in Virginia, attached my Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 lens to my D800, and took a hike along the insanely busy highway.
I’d just crossed the Shenandoah River after spending the night in a Victorian home in Harpers Ferry W.Va. I was heading to the Potomac bridge below Harpers Ferry, where a pull-off is provided. But the Shenandoah was even lovelier with the sun starting to burn through the bank of fog that hugged the town.
So I dodged the morning commute traffic, scrambled over the concrete barrier to the bridge, walked out over the river and began shooting, all the while wondering if my car would be towed or what kind of fine I would face if tagged.
This was a labor of love. As a child I recall crossing the Shenandoah on this very bridge, my father driving, and being so impressed with river’s rugged beauty. It was nothing like the rivers back in Ohio, muddy, narrow and prosaic. Here was a river with rocks like fans, broad and dotted with islands and diverted for power. A river with a history, flowing through one of the most beautiful valleys in the East.
I returned to Harpers Ferry several times as an adult, but I never was happy with the images of this river that I captured. They never matched the magnificence of that memory from 50 years ago.
This morning, however, was different. This morning was it.
And I took the chance. I risked losing my car, a fine, embarrassment, even personal injury as I dashed through the traffic.
Those are kinds of things you do for love. When you finally find that which measures up to your memory, you risk it all.
And sometimes, some sublime moments, it is worth it all.
I made it back to the car unscathed. About a quarter mile up the road, a Virginia State Police trooper was doing speed patrol. I am glad the officer was preoccupied and didn’t notice my illegally parked car.
What we do for love, we do for beauty, we do for memory.
And sometimes all we end up with is the memory.
John was editor at Goldenseal Magazine for the entire time I wrote for the magazine. He was a nurturing, kind and encouraging editor, adjectives seldom attached to that title. I loved working for John and especially appreciated the freedom he gave me in the development of the Back Roads feature, which I still write.
John left Goldenseal last year to embark upon his lifelong dream of being a full-time songwriter and performer. John has been called Hank Williams with a sunny disposition. His voice is rich, authentic and filled with life’s hardships and rare joys. His lyrics are real and probe the complexity of our emotions and relationships, with some yodeling and Irish and Scottish elements thrown in for good measure.
John played in Fairview, Pa., Friday night and was heading to another house concert, in Streetsboro, this evening. Another musician, Artie, a guitar player from Baltimore, joined us for melts and memories amid the 1950s diner’s decor.
John’s latest project is to record all of the state songs of the U.S. He recently did a online funding project to pay for the studio time that will require.
Last year, John released his solo acoustic CD, “Thinking About the Weather.” John’s great sense of humor comes through in “She Talks to Me,” a song about the woman’s voice on his GPS, while we can all identify with someone who has hurt us in “Do What You Do Best.” And he questions how it is that even though we get hurt by it, we still manage to fall in love again in “How’d You Steal My Heart?”
John loves singing his songs, whether in the studio, in a small house concert or on West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage. But he admits it is a very financially challenging life, even more so than he’d originally expected. It covers the very basic necessities, but the big items that hit us out of the blue can destroy the dream and send the musician back to the day job. How sad, but tragic, that for many of us Americans in this land of opportunity, where supposedly we have the freedom to follow our dreams and be that person we were born to be, economics and a playing field that is owned by corporate interests make the decision as to whose dreams come true.
Hearing, quite by accident, the untalented, cacophony called “hits” today, and thinking of how many millions these flash-in-the-pans, cleavage stars are making for screaming into a microphone, makes me wonder about our values as a nation when it comes to art. Perhaps it is because we are raised on noise that we are so quick to accept anything that is loud and irritating as “music.” Or perhaps it is because our culture is in love with eye candy. Whatever, true artists like John Lilly can still write a song that has lyrics that go beyond a single word and a tune that haunts you long after it has faded into the night ether.
Read more about John on his website and support his work by purchasing his CDs. Hopefully, John will be coming back up this way later in 2016 and we’ll have him in concert.
In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.
The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.
My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.
The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.
Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.
The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.
Read more about them at the website.
I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:
Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)
It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).
From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:
Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.
They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.
Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.
After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.
Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.
Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.
Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.
The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.
I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.
The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.
West of Clarksburg, W.Va., a few miles off U.S. Route 50, is the Fletcher Covered Bridge. I first visited this bridge in April 2012 and scouted it as a location for a night-time, Night Crossings image.
The opportunity arose in October, 2013, when I was in Clarksburg during the day on an assignment.
I drove to the bridge and arrived before dusk, giving me plenty of time to set up the tripod and find the best angle. Once night fell, I went to work in the dark countryside. The road that passes by the bridge, although a narrow, two-lane country byway, was heavily traveled, but no one stopped to see what I was doing. Even the neighbors didn’t bother to venture out and check on the flashing and arcs of LED lights around the bridge.
While I had planned to do a view from the end of the bridge opposite of the road, I could not get the framing that I wanted. So I opted for the road-side of the bridge, which is still in use but did not receive any traffic that night.
The 62-foot bridge is a multiple king post and was built by Soloman Swiger and L.E. Strum.
Located in Harrison County, it spans Tenmile Creek.
The bridge was built for just $1,372 back in 1891. It’s said that the stone for the abutments was quarried at the top of a hill near the bridge site.
The red bridge was restored a few years ago. Allegheny Restoration and Builders of Morgantown charged the state $447,000 for the work, which included replacement of some structural timber and the attractive red siding and roof.
It was a pleasure to photograph this short entry in the nation’s gallery of covered bridges.
Last month marked a 65th anniversary for Henry Ruppenthal III of Wheeling, W.Va.
It was the 65th anniversary of his becoming a cooperative weather observer. At the time, Henry was living in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., where his father was the county’s only professional photographer and camera shop owner. His dad heard about the job opening and encouraged his son to apply.
Henry was accepted and, with a little help from his father, soon found his picture and story in national newspapers. He became somewhat a celebrity in his hometown, and was called upon by teachers at his school to host field trips to his observation station and explain his important work as a weather observer.
Although he was just shy of his 12th birthday when named to the post, Henry proved that he could make accurate observations and complete the monthly reports that were required. For years, he faithfully checked the guages and thermometers at 6 p.m. and recorded his findings. He even did a weather report for the local radio station, which eventually took over his job when Henry moved away from the Eastern Panhandle.
Henry’s story will be in a future issue of Goldenseal Magazine. It was a pleasure to catch up with him in Wheeling several weeks ago and look at his scrapbook. Amazingly, he still has all his weather records from 65 years ago. One to keep up with technology, Henry is in the process of digitizing them.
You can learn more about this fascinating man, who grew up just a short distance from the Berkeley Castle, by visiting his website, http://www.ruppenthalweb.com/Henryiii.htm
Traveling across West Virginia, writing and photographing as I go, I am compelled to stay in economical accommodations. I look for rooms that cost under $50 a night, all taxes included.
And so it was that began my autumnal pilgrimage in Bridgeport, where the clerk asked me if I wanted a “Working Man’s Room” or a “Nice Room.” After inquiring about the price and noting the nearly $40 premium for a nice room, I went for the Working Man’s Room. After all, this was a working trip.
The thing that immediately struck me was the shabby condition of the hallway leading to the room. It must have been built before brooms were invented.
The room itself was, well, working class. It should have been gutted years ago and everything updated. Rather, stop-gap repairs were done as necessary using materials salvaged from other rooms, I would guess.
The bathroom was particularly interesting — it was the first time I’d seen the walls of a plastic shower stall cracking and broken, patched with caulking and otherwise feeble attempts to keep the moisture from invading the unit below.
The room obviously had plumbing issues; a large section of the wall had been removed to access the pipes and, rather than re-seal that section, the piece of wallboard was just resting against wall. I found out that by moving it and looking down the hole, I had a nice view of the plumbing in the unit below.
The carpet was stained and ripped, one section was missing. My socks stayed on my feet the whole time, and after showering, I made a path from the shower to the bed using my dirty clothes to protect my bare feet from the oil and gas field residue.
Speaking of the shower, the fixtures were so worn, the bathtub continued to fill with water even when the flow was redirected to the shower head. And I soon discovered that the control that mixes the hot and cold water did not work when it was turned to shower. It was either all hot or all cold.
The lighting was dingy, which was probably a good thing. It keeps guests from fully grasping the despair of the place.
Since I was in the working man’s section of the motel, I had to contend with the late-night revelers and the early risers, whose paths began to cross around 3 a.m.
When I called my wife with an update about the trip thus far and state of the accommodations, she warned me not to take my bag of clean clothes into the room and DO NOT bring home any bed bugs. I hadn’t even thought of that possibility.
It appears as if I escaped Bridgeport without any hitchhikers on my clothes or body. Two two nights later, in Marlinton, I was able to rent a room for the same amount of money at the Greenbrier Grille and Lodge. I enjoyed accommodations that were clean and smelled fresh. Although not modern, the room and its furnishings were very nice and the workmanship top notch. The shower was incredible.
I highly recommend the Greenbrierier if you are ever in Marlinton and need accommodations or a place to eat. The waitressing staff was very friendly and helpful. Be sure to order their hand-cut french fries; they are so good! The brown rice veggie burger was excellent, too. However, avoid the thick pancakes for breakfast. They are so thick, they reminded me of a three-layer cake without the frosting and had me longing for Buckwheat cakes from Melanie’s in Aurora.
One other great feature of the Greenbrier — there is an assortment of ducks that hang out on the river next to Lodge’s deck. For 50 cents, you can purchase a bag of corn and feed the ducks (proceeds go to an animal shelter). And no, I didn’t see duck on the menu!