Appalachia: The Final Pages?

I have three weeks left in my VISTA term, and I am really feeling anxious these days.

Maybe I should stay through Gauley season, I say. If I can’t find a job, why not?

I unzip my tent around 8 a.m., determined to take an early-morning hike. I grab a quick breakfast and cross the street to begin my rocky climb.

I have never hiked the Bridge Trail before, but they tell me that it opens up to a spectacular view of the New River Gorge Bridge. This will be the perfect spot to be on Bridge Day, so maybe I can stay through the fall. Bridge Day is always the last hurrah before the river guides, kayakers and climbers head home.

I keep talking to myself, trying to figure this all out. It’s just that my mind is so unsettled, like it has been for days. Where should I go after my VISTA term? What should I do? There is so much a part of me that never wants to leave this place.

I reach the end of my hike, hoping to move a little closer to the cool green water and rushing river falls that mark the entrance to the Kaymoor Trail. When I sit on these rocks, this is as good as it gets during the dog days of summer. The mountain air chills my skin and there is an easy breeze below me.

After awhile, I begin the slow trek back along Fayette Station Road where soon, the trucks and buses stacked with whitewater rafts and kayaks will be making their climb to the top. A familiar car stops alongside the road and I am asked whether I need a ride back to camp. It is John, my platform neighbor. He is a whitewater river guide from Colorado and he is headed back to camp from the river bottom. I climb in next to his paddles, helmets and trusty dog, and as we make our ascent up the mountain road, we talk about the wonderful life we are living.

wateringhole1For 11 months, these are the conversations that hold such meaning for me. I have been blogging about the people, the opportunities, the lessons learned. So many people do whatever they need to survive, just so they can live here. The river guides have it in their blood to make ends meet because they love their life on the river. Just like the locals, they choose to struggle for a variety of reasons, but the smiles they give away never show it.

I love my hikes along the trails, and often think about the days I hiked in Mullens. There, I would always pass rows and rows of old mining homes and the front porches of those who wave, smile, and welcome me.

My mind has been wrapped around all these images for days, mostly because of the recent devastation caused by flooding. June 23rd was a horrible day for the Mountain State. I wonder if many of the people I met on my chance encounters are still alive or homeless? All told, 26 people died in that flood.

In early May, I devoted an entire blog post to the folks from Richwood, a place I visited on my way to the Wild Ramp festival. What a special place, and now much of the downtown is gone, erased by a flood that devastated 44 of the 55 counties here.

The flood impacted the folks who live in Greenbrier County, too – a place I had just visited 10 days prior. I watch the news and hear the reports about how it has been such a struggle for so many this summer. While Beckley was somehow spared through it all, my little campground got walloped. Thank God the dogs were saved, and I am grateful that it happened on a day I was gone.

LBJ_bestxThe night before the flood, I had arrived back in Fayetteville after a whirlwind trip to Cleveland. Our Cavaliers finally won an NBA championship and I made it home to celebrate! My friend had an extra ticket to attend the Game 7 watch party at Quicken Loans arena, so I drove home over the weekend to anticipate a win. I stayed in town for 5 days, and I am so proud I got to celebrate the end of the 54-year championship drought as soon as the final buzzer sounded. People hit the streets till the wee hours of the morning, and more than a million people attended the parade.

After a long drive, I stopped into Fayetteville only to sleep for a few hours, and woke to the sound of pounding rain. Through the fog and the mist, I managed to make it to work safely, but my co-worker did not. She texted me several photos of my campground later that day, and told me to head elsewhere for the night.

flood2So I spent a few nights at Little Beaver State Park, where several families had fled. They told me they had been evacuated from Rainelle, just as the water came rushing through. They were unprepared for what they might return to, and I sat with a few who were nervous about the outcome. There was no one to call or cry to, and all we could do was just wait, watch and listen.

I understand that these are the ups and downs of living in the mountains and the valleys, where the rain has no place to go. It is hard to describe all these emotions, and with too many unknowns, I felt for everyone around me.

I also realized, too, that a devastating flood was the whole reason I moved to West Virginia in the first place. When I was first given my VISTA assignment, I was asked to continue the economic development work of previous VISTAs. A small nonprofit in Mullens was still working hard to recover from a 2001 flood so I was there to write grants to find opportunities for youth and young adults.

This stayed in the back of my mind for days, and I found myself wanting to get away from the constant clouds and threat of rain. Days and days of rain hampered cleanup efforts around the state. We spent a morning sorting old clothes at the United Way in Beckley for folks who had nothing.

The rains continued through the first of July and everyone was grumbling around town. I really needed to take a break, so I made a road trip to Virginia to hike the Appalachian Trail near Troutsville. It was also a good reason for me to pay a visit to Roanoake and Blacksburg, in case I ever wanted to move there.

I fell in love with my campsite in Shawsville, just a tiny slice of Americana and the perfect place to hang out over the Fourth of July. It was sunny and hot during my 4-day getaway, and then I returned to more rain and flooding.

flood1I started getting worried about all this rain because my campground was so vulnerable after the June flood. I was lucky my platform was high and dry, covered by strong tarps and a tin roof. But I had other things on my mind, too.

With back-to-back weekends of rain, I had to think quickly about the two groups of friends who were planning to visit. Is it safe? Are the roads closed? Everyone wanted to cancel. They were worried about making the trip, so with the first group, I looked at a map and found the sunniest place I could find. I told them to stay in Ohio, then hopped in my car and met them in Senacaville. We spent a glorious sunny weekend camping along Seneca Lake, hiking the trails and visiting a state park.

Jules1I returned to Fayetteville to a week of sunny skies, and welcomed the second group of Ohio friends. Every one of them were amazed at my space! They loved lazing along the New River near Glade Creek and supporting the local businesses in Fayetteville.

I was so glad to have them here, because they now understand why it is impossible to leave.

19 days and counting. Still anxious for today.

Still worried about tomorrow.