River of Hospitality

West Virginia: In and around Fayetteville, relaxation washes over the visitor looking for hidden history, white water or a down-home sophistication.

April 04, 1999|By Nancy Shute | Nancy Shute,special to the sun

I'd tallied all the big Western rivers I'd run -- the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Green, the Colorado, the Alsek -- and laughed at the notion that some wimpy stream in West Virginia could test me. But the New River chastised me without even trying.

Our little raft was in the midst of Keeney's Creek rapid, and without more muscle power, we'd end up like the hapless crew a few rapids back. They'd lost headway halfway up a big wave and had "dump-trucked," stopped dead with the raft's bow nosing toward the heavens. Every soul, even the guide, fell into the drink.

Our crew of six was stronger and luckier. With our guide, Eric Autenreith, shouting, "Mush! Mush!" we blasted through, whooping and high-fiving our paddles, ready for more. There was plenty more to come.

The New River gorge has some of the finest white water in the United States. There are 23 rapids in a 14-mile run from Thurmond to the 876-foot-high, 3,030-foot-long New River Gorge bridge, the longest single span highway bridge in the world. At low water, the New's Class V rapids can be dauntingly technical, demanding precise maneuvers around giant boulders.

But we were blessed with high water from spring runoff, and our biggest challenge was keeping enough momentum to roller-coaster through the massive waves and holes. It was a wonderful ride, thrilling, but never so rough that I feared for my safety.

When we reached the takeout below the bridge at 3 p.m., after more than five hours on the water, I shouted, "Let's go do it again!"

If the New's rapids are a powerful surprise, so is the country surrounding them.

The West of the East

West Virginia is the West of the East, a place that often feels more like Idaho or Colorado than like Pennsylvania and Maryland and its other neighbors. The state has stubbornly maintained its independence since before the Civil War, when it seceded from Virginia rather than defend slavery.

But for most of this century, the state has been known more for hillbillies and moonshine than for history. It's an image the state doesn't always labor to dispel. Just last year, the state legislature passed a "road-kill bill," granting citizens the right to collect wildlife flattened on the highways for take-home dinners.

"We DO have indoor plumbing. We DO have shoes," sighs Deborah Grove, a West Virginia native who I met at Tamarack, a huge crafts gallery in Beckley that is the state's 3-year-old showcase for 1,800 artisans.

But if West Virginia is backwoods, it's also Fayetteville, a tiny town of 2,179 that is the gateway to the New River Gorge. Fayetteville's brownstone county courthouse and gracious white-frame houses with rhododendrons and big front porches are reminiscent of the gracious living that was the Old South. One of the biggest and best porches, with eight rocking chairs to choose from, belongs to Ed and Pat Bennett.

"Porch-sitting's one of the better sports in these parts," Ed said in a West Virginia drawl as he greeted me.

It wasn't long before I was sitting in one of the rockers, sipping a bourbon and water, and watching the world go by on West Maple Avenue.

Ed is a retired high-school principal, and a few years ago some rafting guides suggested that the Bennetts use the bedrooms of their grown children for a bed-and-breakfast.

The Bennetts, both West Virginia natives, were quick to point out to me that Fayetteville is in southern West Virginia, where Southern hospitality prevails. It certainly does. I'd never been on a rafting vacation where my hostess served bacon and eggs on the good china and silver, or where Major Harris All-American, the house springer spaniel, brought in the morning paper and laid it at my feet.

The Bennetts aren't the only ones catering to travelers. One night I ate filet mignon and drank a fine cabernet at Breeze Hill, a new restaurant in an old farmhouse with a splendid view of sunset over the New River Gorge. Another dinner was grilled swordfish with poblano chilies at Sedona Grille, a casual cafe across from the Fayette County courthouse.

Coal-mining past

This country hasn't always been so given over to gracious living. For 60 years, from before the turn of the century until after World War II, Fayetteville made its fortune mining coal, as did much of the rest of West Virginia. This cruelest of commodities exacted a fearsome price. More West Virginians have died in the mines than the state lost in all wars, and although the industry has waned, its legacy remains visible at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine in the town of Beckley 20 minutes south of Fayetteville.

This mine, which operated for 10 years at the turn of the century, lies right under the Beckley town park. It's strange to climb aboard the electric miners' train and clatter into the blackness for a tour, knowing that children are playing a few hundred feet overhead.

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