After a 51 mile day, we found a beautiful camping spot beside the river.
I sit in a bathtub carved from a slab of limestone, the river flowing over my shoulders washing away the sweat of the day and some negative memories; the rude driver in Charleston and the garbage trucker on route 60; it seems long ago, and unimportant. This river, our warm welcome by my friends and relatives, and the hospitality of the Satlers have washed it all away.
The farther away from the large towns you get the better this West Virginia gets, much the same as the rest of the country. And here, there is a lot of it far from even small towns.
We soaked, relaxed and read until dark. Our tent site was a bed of straw someone had left, deep and soft. Jar flies sang us to sleep in the cool mountain air.
In the morning, we finished the Williams River Road and tackled the Highland Scenic Highway. Immediately we hit a seven-percent grade with slight tailwind and sweated for five miles. It was like the worst of the west with high temperatures and humidity. But, the sublime hazy views distracted us from the suffering as we climbed toward the flag-spruce on the high ridges.
Claire expressing her opinion of the humidity, and catching a breeze.
We slogged to the 4200 foot summit and were rewarded with a long downhill into the lovely town of Marlinton for a late breakfast (like all good cafes, they serve breakfast all day).
In Marlinton we intersected the Greenbrier River Trail, a rail-trail along the Greenbrier river for more than 80 miles. We rode 25 miles to the northern end at Cass. It is a wonderful gravel trail along a beautiful river that appears to attract a lot of tourists. We paused at an old homestead and ate snappy sweet apples from gnarled trees, abandoned but still productive.
At a swimming hole, below a high trestle where the trail disappeared into a cliff-hung tunnel, friends splashed and swam, their joy echoing off the rocks. Their bikes awaited the ride back to Marlinton. What a great way to spend a summer afternoon.
The trail ended at Cass, a well preserved company town of neat white clapboard houses. It is an old timber town, now the home of Cass Scenic Railroad. Antique shay engines now haul tourists up the mountain, as they once hauled spruce down. The spruce is long gone, but the tourists come reliably three seasons of the year.
At the company store, the clerk was short with us and not particularly helpful. No doubt a nice woman, but tourist weary, something we have seen other places.
On the way from Cass to Greenbank, we saw a man with a young Kodiak bear on a leash beside the road. He was getting his bear accustomed to road traffic so she could star in television commercials. A few questions later and we discovered he’d just bought the bear, Judy, from our neighbor at Dungeness, Lloyd Beebe at Olympic Game Farm. Small world. Judy left Dungeness, Washington long after we did, but then she wasn’t riding a bicycle.
Greenbank and the upper Greenbrier valley is the most beautiful place we have seen since Colorado and among the best of the trip. The National Radio Astronomy giant telescopes are here in this 3,000 foot high valley because they can more easily be protected from stray radio waves.
They are now building the worlds largest radio telescope, which should be finished in a couple of years. The football field sized, bright white, technological wonders stand surrounded by some of the oldest mountains in the world. The very old and the new, here together. It seems fitting to me that one of the telescopes is dedicated to listening to our neighbors in the universe. I can think of no better place to receive first contact. No messages yet.
We paused for a hazy sunset over a high ridge, above a meadow with more than 30 grazing white-tail deer. A couple of hunters stopped to look while we were there, salivating on pickup truck doors. Fall is coming.
We have left the haystack mountains of central West Virginia and are now in the valley and mountain region. Here long rolling valleys run to the east northeast, bounded by high unbroken ridges. I lived in this region for several years and it still feels like home. It was here that I learned to love the hiking and climbing in wild places that eventually led me to the far side of the continent.
Next day we had a longer than anticipated climb across the eastern continental divide, just below Spruce Knob, highest point in the state. Many people think there is only one continental divide, the one in the West. Not so. The Eastern continental divide runs the length of the Appalachian chain. In West Virginia and Virginia, it is the ridge where water drains west through various rivers to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and east of which it drains to the Atlantic ocean at the Chesapeake Bay. It is not as spectacular as the Western divide, but you certainly notice it on a bicycle.
We had dinner with longtime friend Pat Farmer that night in Petersburg. She had a room for us, and purring cats to hold and dog to pet. We felt right at home just as soon as we walked in the door. She sold her flower shop and retired recently to care for her three cats, one dog and 30 ducks. Pat is a British war bride and prides herself on being the local eccentric (a British trait). She’s good at it. That’s why we get along so well. I am just happy to see her well. Her cigarette cough is worse though, and I worry.
We also went to visit Helen and Larkin Ours at their home in Dorcas. They are both in their early 80’s. I was their neighbor for several years and we share many memories. Helen made us yellow tomato sandwiches on white bread for dinner (remember, dinner means mid-day meal). Then she and Larkin gave us a tour of their garden: corn and beans, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and Helen’s beautiful flowers.
They grow their flowers and food together here in Appalachia. Beautiful flowers belong on a table sagging with good food, so why not grow them side by side? My mother had her flower row beside the garden.
I remembered helping Larkin on the farm; moving cattle, and keeping sows away from the piglets while he and Henry Ayers, the hired hand, castrated them. I worked on fence, and picked some corn now and again.
The Ours farm is a place of abundance and generosity. They used to give me a hog when butchering time came, and Larkin taught me how to sugar cure the hams and bacon, make head cheese.
We also visited with Dick Thompson, former president of a local bank I did the advertising for before I left here. Dick had confidence in me at a time I needed it most.
Another evening, we had dinner with Alice Welton, who used to own the newspaper here. She is now a very young 77, and reminded me of some of the work I did for her newspaper. She gave me a letter to share with Claire, filled with memories of evenings spent discussing life and philosophy, and appreciation for our friendship. I wish we could spend more time with her so she could know Claire better.