It started out of desperation.
Winter is a hard time for my son, Max. He has autism, which means he hates any break in routine — and winter has a knack for screwing up schedules.
And not unlike most 10-year-old boys, Max is a tightly-wound ball of kinetic energy. He literally bounces off the walls during the winter. Sometimes, we get in the car and drive around, just to get out of the house.
So last January, I signed us up for the 100-mile hiking challenge in the New River Gorge. I thought hiking 100 miles over the next few months would be a good way to kill time.
I didn’t realize how the experience would change me. It reminded me what I love so much about West Virginia — its unique history, natural beauty and authentic people.
Hiking with Max became a metaphor for how we can approach the challenge of living here. I learned that our so-called weaknesses can be turned into strengths.
All it takes is the willingness to look at things in a different way.
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Have you heard of the Kaymoor Steps?
Here’s a description from the New River Gorge National River, which sponsored the 100-mile hiking challenge:
The trail descends steeply from the top of the gorge with stairs and switchbacks to the Kaymoor coal mine site. At the mine site, a set of 821 steps continues down to the remains of the coal processing plant, coke ovens and town site near river level.
It is the most intense trail in the gorge. I really wanted to check it off our list, but we didn’t get there until after 3 in the afternoon. It was January. Sunset was in a couple of hours.
I did some mental math and figured Max and I could make it with time to spare. We climbed down the steep switchbacks and past the old coal mine.
We bounced down the 821 steps and spent a few minutes roaming around the old coke ovens.
“OK, time to go back up,” I told Max.
He sat down on the steps. He wouldn’t move.
Because of his autism, it’s hard to know when Max doesn’t understand and when he’s just ignoring me. No matter how much I explained the need to get to the top, the increasing cold, the impending sunset — he refused to move.
Thus began a truly epic battle, with me pulling him up those steps, and him doing everything he could to avoid it. Our grunts echoed across the empty canyon.
A young woman, a jogger, stopped as she passed us on the steps. She asked how she could help.
I asked her to wait for us at the top. If we weren’t out by sundown, call 911. She agreed.
An hour later, with the last rays of the sun sinking under the horizon, Max and I finally reached the top. She was there, waiting.
I never properly thanked that woman. I was too busy panting and thanking God we didn’t have to activate the rescue squad.
What that woman did, we take it for granted here in West Virginia. But if you’ve lived anywhere else, you realize how rare it is.
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Max eventually warmed up to our weekend hikes. I adopted a more reasonable pace and made sure our day ended with Gino’s Pizza or Dairy Queen.
I started taking photos of Max on the trail and posting them to social media — and was surprised at how many people took notice, from all over the country. They thanked us for showing them the New River Gorge through Max’s eyes.
The gorge is now recognized as a West Virginia success story — but it did not start out that way.
Fifty towns went extinct when coal mining ended in the gorge. Thousands of people were forced to move. They left behind abandoned mines and a denuded landscape.
Then, something amazing happened. A coalition of local people, working with government officials, turned the gorge from a problem into an asset. Its weaknesses — the played-out mines, inaccessibility and steep terrain — were perfect for a national river.
How can West Virginia build on and replicate the New River Gorge success? We can start by imagining and telling a new story about ourselves.
During last year’s election campaign, Gov.-elect Jim Justice said he’d be the state’s “marketer-in-chief.” Justice’s new secretary of commerce, businessman Woody Thrasher, says it starts with each of us.
“West Virginians do have a self-esteem problem,” Thrasher told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “We don’t shoot as high as we should.
“I think it’s understandable, but regrettable, and it’s very much at the center of what Governor-elect Justice wants to change,” he said.
All the time, I hear West Virginians run down our state. I understand why — it’s a defense mechanism, a way to put ourselves down before someone else does.
But it has to stop. In cognitive therapy, you learn that such “self-talk” is very powerful — and completely under your own control.
Ask yourself — if this is such a hell on earth, why do people put up with so much to live here? Why do so many people who have moved away want to come home?
I lead West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and we are challenging ourselves to tell the ENTIRE story of our state, the problems and the successes.
Our program “Mountain Stage” shows our fun and funky side to millions of people. Our documentaries, our West Virginia Channel and our educational videos are designed to tell a hopeful story to ourselves and the world.
It matters what story we tell about ourselves. A cynical man would explain my “hiking with Max” story like this: a father drags a mute boy through desolate trails in a pointless attempt to occupy him.
Here’s how I choose to tell it: A 10-year-old boy, quiet like the woods in winter, completes a 100-mile hiking challenge.
In the process, he guides us to what is beautiful and unique about our home.
Scott Finn is CEO of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.