As much as I’ll remember the many places I’ve seen over the summer during the 55 in 55 project, I’ll remember the people, too.
I have met a lot of people along the way and my favorite stops have always included meeting someone and spending a little time getting to know them, if only for a few minutes.
More than the land, it’s the people that make up a place and my experiences with West Virginians have been good.
The people I’ve met have been routinely kind and very generous, particularly to twitchy, road weary strangers who fear their cellphones will not lead them back to the interstate.
I will never forget the kindness of Mary Weisz Burgess and her husband Tom, who’d fed me, gave me a place to stay in Hardy County and let me hang out with their dogs.
Tom and Mary own the South Fork General Store at Peru (Call it Pea-Rue, unless you want to seem like a tourist) and told me about Cranny Crow Overlook at Lost River State Park.
Watching fighter jets fly past at eye level from the lookout is still one of the high points of my trip.
I also feel a little indebted to the women who were working the front desk at Berkeley Springs State spa inside Berkeley State Park when I stopped by in July.
Overseeing a therapeutic bath house may be one of the oddest state jobs I’ve ever heard of, but they answered my questions, were very understanding and made going to a public place to get a bath seem less weird for me.
I also appreciated naturalist Taylor Williams at Tygart Lake State Park in Taylor County. She didn’t mind that I confused a fake snake for a real snake. She straightened me out without making me feel dumb and she was nice enough to gently correct me when I erroneous referenced snakes as being as being poisonous, instead of venomous.
Earlier in the summer, when I visited the nature center at Tygart Lake State Park, Taylor told me she was a seasonal worker, but wanted to find a permanent position.
I hope she did.
I’ll remember Debrina Williams at the Hatfield & McCoy Convention and Visitors Bureau in Logan who took me to Morrison’s Drive Inn and was the first person to get me out on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, but also told me about surviving COVID-19.
Once again, you don’t want to catch a case of that stuff.
I’ve met a few people through county or regional tourism offices, some of whom have helped me with finding a place to stay or offered suggestions for things I might go see or do, but mostly, I’ve just stumbled upon people, like Clay and his dog Braunie in Randolph County.
I met them at the top of Bickel Knob Observation Tower, which overlooked the valley.
Clay seemed wise and fearless. We talked for maybe half an hour. He told me about climbing up to the top of the tower to see the Northern Lights. I’d heard that every once in a very great while, you could see them this far south.
I’d have loved to have talked to Clay more about that and maybe found out what it was he’d done for a living, but I’m not particularly wise and the farthest thing from fearless. I worried about the rain, the wind and tumbling to my death, though that was unlikely.
Being at the top of the tower didn’t bother the dog, but maybe golden retrievers are just braver than I am.
Because of Ashlin Whatmore in Berkeley County, I’m seriously considering getting ordained and licensed to perform weddings.
The world needs more people willing to perform wedding ceremonies, I think, and I feel like I could be a fun alternative to your regular wedding officiant, and I really like cake.
Why I haven’t done this already, I have no idea.
I was impressed with the earnest eagerness of Charles Larew at the Monroe County Historical Society’s Museum in Union.
A retired high school teacher and a volunteer with the society, Charles was still new on the job, but excited to show me around and share what he really liked about the history of his county.
The antique horse wagons were interesting to see and I had never seen one close up, let alone half a dozen.
I’d gone into the museum because it was a gloomy, rainy day and there hadn’t been much else for me to do at the time. I hadn’t been looking for a history lesson, but I enjoyed my time there in spite of myself.
I liked Rob Ciszek at Abolitionist Ale in Jefferson County, too, though he had an easier path to winning my appreciation. Who doesn’t like a bartender who keeps giving you drinks to try?
But he had a good story, too, a West Virginia story.
Rob was a mechanic and construction worker from Illinois, about as blue collar as you can get. He’d come to visit relatives in West Virginia, but then he and his wife fell in love with the area and decided to make it home.
A hobby homebrewer, Rob set down root and then lucked into a chance job working with Abolitionist Ale and was fast on his way to opening his own brewery.
I love Abolitionist Ale and look forward to seeing what Brash Brothers Brewing comes up with.
In Ritchie County, I met Karen Harper at Berdine’s Five & Dime.
Karen greeted me as I came through the door. She greeted everyone as they came through the door and went over to check on them.
She told me about growing up not feeling particularly wanted and wanting to maintain a place where everyone felt welcome.
I heard something similar from Michael Cline, the owner of the Hot Cup coffee shop in Logan, who told me he wanted to have the kind of place he wanted to hang out when he was a teenager.
It was a safe space for the kids, particularly the “weird” artsy kids, to go.
I regret not getting a coffee at Michael’s shop or asking if they had scones. It is the only coffee shop I have visited over the past couple of months where I ordered nothing.
West Virginians have been authentic, even after I’ve shown them a business card (when I remember to pack them) or told them I was a writer exploring their town or county. I never felt like anyone was trying to pull anything over on me or suddenly pretend to be something else.
Mostly, they were amused that I was there, standing in what might seem like the most normal place in the world.
“There’s nothing to do here,” one barista told me and then immediately started naming off things I might try anyway.
People have always been good to share suggestions, give advice on what (and what not) to do and ever ready to give directions on how to get wherever it is I needed to get.
I’m grateful to everyone I’ve met on the road this summer. I wish I’d written down all of your names, but I’d have run out of ink, anyway.