Friday, November 9, 2007

Goober Say's "Hey!"

The dome of the West Virginia State Capitol
Yes, that's 14 Karat Gold Leaf
Taken 10/20/07 in Charleston, West Virginia

Whether it's hot, whether it's cool, oh what a spot for whistlin' like a fool.

What a fine day to take a stroll and wander by The Fishin' Hole,
I can't think of a better way to pass the time o' day.

--Everett Sloane, Earle Hagen and Herbert Spencer

West Virginia is the land of festivals. Oh, not officially. There was a recent vote taken, and West Virginia, whose welcome signs currently say “Open for Business,” will go back to being “Wild and Wonderful.” But for the six weeks that I’ve been in the Mountain State, I’ve managed to miss the Oglebayfest near Wheeling, the West Virginia Black Walnut Festival at Spencer, the Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival at Martinsburg, not to mention the WV Pumpkin Festival, the WV Turkey Festival, and Autumn Festivals galore. The one I really regret missing is the University Motors Mountaineer Balloon Festival at Morgantown, but then I didn’t know about it until I did my research for this blog. As the website for the West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals says, “All roads lead to a West Virginia Fair or Festival….”

The problem is that the roads in West Virginia tend to be narrow, steep and twisting. I passed on the Oglebayfest, even though I wanted to see my friend Bill and his German Folk Dancers perform, because thousands of people were expected to attend, and the mountain ridge road leading to Oglebay Park is only a lane and a half wide. I passed on the West Virginia Black Walnut Festival because that event adds twenty-five thousand people to the usual twenty-five hundred who live in Spencer. But when Cousin Ron suggested attending Bridge Day, I wanted to go.

Bridge Day is held every October in Fayette County, West Virginia, to celebrate the world’s second longest single span bridge, crossing 876’ above the New River. And while we’re talking about the New River, let me recommend Noah Adams’ book In Far Appalachia in which the All Things Considered co-host recounts his travels on and next to the New River from its source in North Carolina to where it flows into the Kanawha in West Virginia. 2007 marked the twenty-ninth New River Gorge Bridge Day, and it sounded like an event to attend. Sharon, Ron and I were all set to go, when Sharon heard that one hundred thousand people were expected at the festivities. She announced that she’d rather go to Tamarack, just outside of Beckley, which she told me was an Arts and Crafts Center. Ron told me that Tamarack was a glorified highway rest area, and he wasn’t particularly interested in going there. I figured the truth was somewhere in the middle of these two assessments and it turned out I was right. But more on that later.

Tamarack, The Best of West Virginia
Taken 10/20/07 in Beckley, West Virginia

Bridge Day is the only day Pedestrian travel is allowed on the New River Gorge Bridge. The bridge itself is over three thousand feet long, or roughly 3/5 of a mile, and replaces miles of twisting mountain road that prior to 1977 were the only way to get from one side to the other. Almost as soon as the bridge was opened, people started base jumping from its sides. With a drop of 876 feet, the lure of adventure just proved too strong for enthusiasts of this extreme sport. Rather than ban jumping outright, the local authorities decided to capitalize on the phenomenon, and this year the official count of Bridge Day visitors showed one hundred fifty-five thousand people attended. Have I told you I’m not into crowds?

Instead, I agreed to go to Tamarack with Sharon, and picked her up bright and early on Saturday morning, October twentieth. Well, early. It wasn’t bright at all, and I began to wonder if we’d see any of the fall color which should be covering the hills. While drinking our morning coffee, Sharon suggested that she wouldn’t mind a longer drive, and as I had already promised Bonnie a visit to Bluefield, we agreed to head even further South. I’m not sure just who suggested North Carolina, but long story short, we aimed the Volvo for Mt Airy, North Carolina, Andy Griffith’s home town and the inspiration for Mayberry RFD. Along the way we stopped at Charleston, Tamarack, Bluefield, and Wytheville Virginia.

Driving south on Interstate 77, we caught glimpses of color through the fog which dissipated as we drove. By the time we reached Charleston, the blue and gold dome of the state capitol was gleaming through the trees. This called for a stop. The capitol complex covers several city blocks. I questioned why a state the size of West Virginia would need such an extensive governmental presence, but why should I be surprised. My study of county court houses across the country has shown again and again that the public suffers from an edifice complex when it comes to government buildings. When the western counties of Virginia were granted statehood status in 1863, Wheeling in the northern panhandle was chosen as the first state capitol. Over the next dozen years, the capitol moved back and forth between Wheeling and Charleston, and in 1877 the voters chose Charleston overwhelmingly to be the permanent capitol of the young state. Several buildings served as capitol over the next fifty years, and in 1932 the current capitol building was completed at a cost of just under ten million dollars. When I think that my father was working in West Virginia for twenty-five cents an hour at the same time, ten million dollars sounds excessive. But it is an impressive building. The dome (seen above) rises 293 feet, or five feet higher than the US Capitol in Washington.

Sharon, viewing the fall foliage
Taken 10/20/07, off Interstate 77, West Virginia

South of Charleston, Interstate 77 becomes the West Virginia Turnpike, and there are three toll booths between Charleston and the Virginia State Line. We exited the highway at Tamarack, just outside Beckley, and I found out the truth. Tamarack, billed as “The Best of West Virginia,” is a showroom and sales center for hand-made arts and crafts from across the state. Arts and crafts include honey, jam, and wine, as well as stained glass, pottery, quilts, and clothing. An Amish man had a booth selling candy just inside the main doors. I turned to Sharon and said, “You’ve brought me to a shopping mall.” She just grinned. I bought a thumb-piano--an African instrument built in Morgantown, some salad dressing, honey, and the one food-stuff I’m really looking forward to trying, “Road Kill Jam.” Tamarack is the brainchild of former governor Gaston Caperton, and I of all the government boondoggles I’ve visited or heard of, an Arts and Crafts Center is one use of tax dollars I can really get behind.

Near the southern end of West Virginia, Sharon and I left the interstate to follow US Highway 19 into Bluefield. My friend John’s sister and mother, who currently live in Florida, have been considering moving to Bluefield and I promised that I’d visit the town and give a report. Bonnie, here’s that report.

Heading south on US 19 and simultaneously north on US 52, Sharon and I drove through a most miserable, downtrodden looking town. Bluefield, West Virginia is the sorriest looking town I’ve ever seen. Sharon and I asked why anyone would want to live here, and as we continued through town, we crossed the state line and found ourselves in Bluefield Virginia. We both agreed that the Virginia side of the town looked better than the part north of the state line, but the difference was minor. We had planned on eating lunch here, but found nothing that looked at all appetizing.

Bluefield, West Virginia
Taken 10/20/07

We turned around and headed back into West Virginia, and I determined I’d have to get off the highway and see if there was anything worthwhile in this poverty-stricken village. Driving up a side street so steep that I worried about the Volvo losing traction, we turned onto a cross street and took the picture showing the hillside across the way. The street became ever narrower, and all side streets bore “Dead End” signs, which seemed to sum up what we were seeing. One road led us up and over the hill, and as we came down on the far side of the hill, we found ourselves in a completely different setting. We crossed a ridge line and moved from the third world into the first. Beautiful, huge homes, on broad, tree-shaded streets, and this was still Bluefield West Virginia. Apparently we had entered the town through the back door, or maybe even through the servants’ entrance. I’ve never before seen such a disparity of wealth in one place. While I wouldn’t mind living on the wealthy side of the hill, I’d feel an overwhelming sense of shame about the conditions of the townsfolk behind the hill. I honestly can’t recommend Bluefield, based on the admittedly limited amount of time Sharon and I spent there.

Back on Interstate 77, two mile long tunnels flank the Virginia/West Virginia state line. The first town in Virginia is Wytheville (pronounced with-ville), and Sharon and I were really feeling hungry. Wytheville has numbered traffic lights, although I’m not sure why, and street signs that tell you where to turn to get to various restaurants. We had decided to try a Mexican restaurant we’d seen advertised, and faithfully followed every instruction we saw to turn right or left as we drove through town. Eventually we found ourselves approaching I-77 again, and we’d never seen the restaurant. Pulling into a parking lot to turn around, I caught a glimpse of our target—down a hill behind several other buildings, and no road connecting us. We couldn’t get there from where we were. Turns out we had missed one sign and that proved to be our undoing. Backtracking got us to the missed turn, and we soon were enjoying massive margaritas (we deserved them at this point) waiting for what proved to be an excellent lunch.

Virginia is relatively narrow at this point, and in no time we were crossing the state line into North Carolina. Apparently the Tarheel State has revoked certain chemical and physical laws, because as we filled the tank at a self-serve station, I couldn’t take my eyes off the attendant who was cleaning up the trash around the pumps with a lit cigarette hanging off her lip. Sharon tells me that this has nothing to do with the revocation of any natural laws. “It’s called ‘stupidity.’”

Yep, this really is Mayberry RFD
Taken 10/20/07 in Mt Airy, North Carolina

Heading east off I-77, we approached Mt. Airy, the seat of Surrey County. We knew we were in trouble when we passed a large billboard with the greeting “Goober Say’s [sic] ‘Hey!’” We also passed billboards directing us to Aunt Bea’s Country Kitchen, and Floyd’s Barber Shop. Mt Airy has become Mayberry RFD. Once upon a time there was a lot of money in this community, as we passed block after block of mini-mansions. These are not the huge homes that are being built today, but rather homes at least a hundred years old, that were built in an age when servants would be the norm. I’d hate to think of trying to heat or cool these homes. What was the source of the original money I have no idea. One friend suggested simply, “Carpet-baggers.”

Main Street holds one Mayberry gift shop after another, but Sharon and I were able to get away without spending any money on life-sized poster portraits of Barney Fife, Mayberry Playing Cards, or Sheriff’s badges. Heading out of town, we drove north on the old highway, crossing back into Virginia and eventually West Virginia. We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and saw beautiful countryside. By the time we got back to Parkersburg, we had driven over five hundred miles on this particular “Sunday Drive.” Did we see any color? Sure did. It was a great day.

More Outstanding Fall Color
Taken 10/20/07 at the I-77 Tollbooth, West Virginia

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