We set out none too early on a Monday, hit the I-64 to the I-81 in our usual route to TN, stopping at thrift stores to stretch our legs. The big adventure started when we took the I-64 across the border into WVa. We had only ever set foot in WV at Harper’s Ferry, so this was all new to us.
WV is all mountains. Most people know this from John Denver’s song [which btw wrongly puts the Shenandoah River in WV]. But we were struck at the remarkable fact that anyone would chose to colonize such rugged terrain in the first place.
It is a fact that the Buckles clan had a land grant farm given for service in the French and Indian War. [The farm later proved to be rich with coal and the Buckleses traded it for wonderful farm land in TN.] Other folks might have moved in for work in the coal mines, and maybe to disappear from trouble back home. But from what we saw from the interstate, subsistence would be the pinnacle of achievement.
Cabins, mobile homes and bungalows perch along the rivers, with the railroad and small road running alongside. There is no room for farms; a truck garden would be the best you could hope for. These settlements are too far from the towns to be commuter bedroom communities, and too poor and trashy as well. And it is clear that the railroad does not stop at any of these places, unless they are willing to do flag-downs—unlikely for a freight train.
So, in the past: small truck farms farmed by the women and children, while the men hunted and trapped. Everything was made at home or done without. Little or no schooling; itinerant preachers; lots of intermarriage. All this was typical of Appalachia [and “Allegenia”] up until WWII. A lot of men who went to war could not bring themselves to go back to this life and moved to the cities or even up north. But apparently, enough folks stayed to perpetuate the life. [I grant you, all this I concluded from a moving car on the interstate].
Having wound our way through the mountain passes, we emerged into another WV, that of prosperous town life, built around shipping the coal from the mountains north by river and canal to the Great Lakes. This was another surprise to me: that the rivers run northwest from the Alleganies, but it only makes sense. The Cuyahoga River runs into Lake Erie at Cleveland, Ohio.
We followed the variously spelled Kawawha / Kanwawha River to Beckley and on to the state capitol at Charleston. These two towns are prosperous, but still in the age of Edwardian architecture a lot like Richmond VA. The capital building has a huge golden dome in a classical style. River barges ply the river, mostly coal, but I would expect grain at the right season.
Crossing the Ohio River means crossing the state line in the middle, with a nice “erector set” of bridges. The entire length of SR 33 up to Columbus crosses some of the most beautiful and bountiful farmland this side of Indiana. Huge farms, many with the miss-called I-house, so named by some Cultural Geographers traveling through the Mid-west, and not realizing this style of home is ubiquitous across farm country. Sears-Roebuck sold plans for it! Most of you know the type: 2 storey frame houses, with 8 windows upstairs, 8 down, balanced with the front door in the center, with a perpendicular wing in the back.
Arriving in Columbus whupt [as we say in the South], we went to a head-patting Chinese dinner and then to the hotel zzzzzzzzz.
Next morning amid rain and wind, we made our way to the campus of University of Ohio. Ron dropped me off at the student center, where I sat by a roaring fire drinking coffee until I judged the campus museums might be open. Following a campus map, I walked to the Fine Arts museum, past one of the markers that trace the route of the Underground Railroad across the swampland the campus is built on. Gooseflesh; what an amazing journey those courageous people made, up from slavery. [As an aside, we learned when visiting Niagara Falls, that at the end of the URR, crossing into Canada, if an enslaved person balked or refused to swear an oath of secrecy, the organizers would throw that person off the bridge!]
The museum proved to be closed for 2 more hours, so I thought of trying to crash a history or art lecture, but couldn’t find one and it became clear that the time to sneak in was over [fewer folks rushing to class]. So I set off for the library.
It is a wonderful building, with insets all over the floor of different writing styles, from Greek to cuneiform to Chinese, inset in the floor. I picked up the brochure / tour just as my phone went off; it was Ron saying he was finished for the day. He had dropped off the one airplane model and picked up the other. So off we drove, with a drone in the back, but sadly, no one could see into the van.
I had noticed in tiny print on the map the “Mound City Group Nat’l Mon.” I knew from back in college about the Hopewell Culture [no relation to the town I grew up in] Mound Builders. In fact, one of my favorite professors [Dr. Charles Faulkner] was an expert in the TN version of this ancient and little known native culture. I was incredibly excited that we would get to see one of the sites.
It was raining like the Deluge, but as we got out away from the river, the skies began to clear and we arrived at the mounds in lovely weather. We watched the introductory film, bought a guide book and then had to laugh because the rain had caught up with us. If we had gone to the site first….! But we borrowed US Park Service umbrellas and toured the mounds, squelching all the way.
The site is huge and ancient and completely mysterious. An earthen wall surrounds 120 acres with 23 mounds. These are all reconstructed, because the army built a fort here 100 years ago, and later archaeologists leveled what was left looking for artifacts. But they put them back with the original scheme of layers clay, rocks and soil.
The Hopewell Culture is dated between 2200 and 1500 years ago. No one lived at the mounds and they are assumed to be ceremonial and some include burials and / cremains. Other than this,
· the fact that many of the mound sites feature the same circle, square, and polygonal earthworks around mounds;
· they liked copper ornaments;
· smoked elaborate pipes with animals carved on them, facing the smoker;
· nothing is known of the people themselves.
We made our way back to Columbus and pulled up at the Art Museum with 2 hours left on their clock. They were having a Rothko retrospective, which included some remarkable ugly early works, and a few of his trademark large blocks-of-color canvases. Their European gallery was quite impressive, with several Old Masters, and a gallery of Impressionists, broad in scope. They are about to double the size of their exhibit space, so it’ll be worth it to go back in a few years.
Wednesday we left dark and early, wishing to get through the mountains ahead of an approaching snow storm. We went a slightly different way by SR23, due south [but past the Mounds again. We crossed the Ohio at Pt. Pleasant this time, a wonderful small river town that would be a great B&B type destination.
Back in WV, we stopped at “The Best of West Virginia” a huge pavilion of the best arts and crafts from all over the state. Beautiful, high-end glass, sculpture, wood, painting etc. etc. and a food court, we had lunch, upset stomachs [maybe not from lunch] but didn’t buy anything else.
Thus fortified, we drove a few miles out of the way to the New River Gorge Nat’l River. First we stopped at Grandview, at about 2400 feet, where the bend in the river 1500 feet below was amazing. We could just hear the rapids, and make out the train tracks which hugged the banks. Being cold, there was no one there, not even the Park Ranger.
Barreling down the mountain, back on I- 64-77, we pulled off at Sandstone, at about 1200 feet, where there is a Visitor Center [mostly kid oriented]. But out front is one of the old river rafts that used to ply the New River, bringing raw materials out of the mountains, and poling them into the towns. Then they headed back upstream bringing “store boughten” goods to the hills. The railroad replaced this arduous work. The photo of the boatmen showed all black men; very tough, very brave, very young black men!
Our trek from the VA border home was over familiar ground, which was fortunate since we were bone weary. Too bad our little drone in the cargo hold couldn’t speed things up.