A nervous laugh bubbled up as I drove over to meet Rob Robertson, a man who promised a picture-postcard-quality waterfall not far from the Charleston city limits.
“It’s super close to town,” Rob wrote me. “Just past Capital High.”
He said it was very zen, which could mean secluded. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was meeting a stranger in a parking lot. He said I’d find him sitting in a black van and he was going to take me someplace few people even knew existed.
“What could go wrong?” I muttered over the radio and laughed.
Then I texted my family, just to let them know where I was going.
After the disappointing trip to Hemlock Falls at Kanawha State Forest, this month’s waterfall chasing had hit a slump. Following the forest, I’d spent a Saturday afternoon looking for and failing to find several waterfalls near Fayetteville. So I’d been glad to hear from Rob. I wanted to believe Kanawha County had some meaningful contribution to the 275 or so reported waterfalls in the state of West Virginia.
It had a lot of ground to cover.
The one hidden waterfall I’d found was kind of magical, though probably a vector for ticks, snakes and/or the Ebola virus, but the couple of other sites I’d visited locally didn’t even deserve a picture.
Rob, waiting in his van, was friendly enough. We talked for a moment or two and then he led me up a narrow road and a turn that took us to a tall fence with a locked gate. He opened the gate, drove his van inside, but told me I should leave my car outside.
“It’s not far,” he said.
I shrugged and checked the number of bars on my phone — maybe one.
Things went fine. We walked down a shady road above the banks of a rushing creek and Rob told me about how he’d come into the property. He was a chiropractor and had lived in Florida for years. Among other things, he’d worked with horses and riders who competed in equestrian events, but had returned to the area to take care of family.
He’d bought the land around 20 years ago, added a cottage-sized tree house and had spent countless hours pulling debris out of the creek passing through his land.
“People toss everything,” he said.
Rob loved the land but alternated between wanting to develop the property and wanting to sell it to a real estate developer, the city, the county or almost anybody, really.
The waterfall was really something and Rob wasn’t wrong. Everything I’d hoped Hemlock Falls would be, Rob’s waterfall delivered on. It was a roaring, rushing spill of water that dropped into a deep pool.
“You can dive off those rocks,” he told me.
“How deep is it?” I asked.
“Eight feet,” Rob said.
I would probably just jump feet first.
Rob told me the falls had been the site of a mill back at the end of the 19th century. It closed in the 1900s. Artifacts from those days could still be found here and there, though the building was long gone.
Workers had chiseled into the rock to anchor the building and Rob pointed to where a channel to the side of the falls had been created for the water to power the mill.
Standing above the fall, I thought the place was kind of a treasure, though I had no idea what you could do with such a thing. It might make a nice park or, I suppose, a retreat for someone close to the city who just wanted to escape people for a few hours, a day or weeks on end.
Rob was right. The waterfall had a peaceful, zen quality.
A few days later, I met my friend and outdoor guide Jamie Bowles early on Sunday morning. It was Mother’s Day and seemed like as good a day as any to not spend time at home, sitting around.
My mom passed away in 2018. I’ve learned to live with the dull ache of her absence, but on her birthday or on Mother’s Day, I can get a little gloomy. I’d thought about just going alone, but then the previous weekend, I’d gone chasing waterfalls in Fayette County and had managed to miss every single turn.
While I hadn’t gotten lost and ended up in Colorado, I hadn’t seen a single waterfall — not one.
And nearly as disappointing, my bonus trip to get a May Day beer at the FreeFolk Brewery had fallen through. They were hosting a Fire Festival and there was no parking.
Cars were lined up and down the two-lane outside the pub. All of Fayetteville seemed to be out celebrating and I ended up at another restaurant where I had the least impressive Philly cheesesteak I’ve eaten since high school.
I followed Jaime over rocks and loose gravel down the sides of hills to a set of falls near Hawk’s Nest State Park.
My phone said we were in someplace called Victor, which may have just been one house, a hundred yards up the road.
On the way to the old Kaymoor Mine Site, which has been turned into a hiking and biking trail, we passed several waterfalls and met people out from Maryland, Connecticut and, I think, South America.
We eventually found our way to Dunloup Falls on a side trip to the ghost town of Thurmond.
I’d always wanted to see an actual ghost town and it felt a little like visiting a movie set. I’d seen parts of the town in the movie, “Matewan,” which I’d only watched after director John Sayles came to town for an event.
I probably should have gotten around to watching it sooner, though I did see his film, “The Brother from Another Planet,” while I was in college and was a fan of some of the movies he wrote, including “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Howling.”
I like B-grade sci-fi movies and movies about werewolves, but I also loved “Eight Men Out,” one of the great baseball movies, which Sayles wrote and directed.
We spent a couple of minutes sightseeing, which had nothing at all to do with finding waterfalls, but it had been kind of a long day by then.
What surprised me about the waterfalls we saw was that not all of them were listed either in the West Virginia Waterfalls book we consulted or any of the waterfall websites I was using.
Rob’s waterfall was a real gem. It was as impressive or more impressive than many of the waterfalls I’d seen, but I couldn’t find anything about it.
It really made me wonder about how many actual waterfalls the state contained. I’d heard 200 and then 275, but I don’t know that anyone really knows for sure.
By the middle of the afternoon, I was beginning to wear down and it looked like the weather was beginning to turn. We turned back and drove toward Charleston.
I could have stopped at Burger Carte in Smithers for their Mountain Mama burger — the ramp, bacon, and fried green tomato cheeseburger I’d missed a few weeks ago when I’d spent a long afternoon looking for waterfalls in Anstead — but I’d already eaten.
I’m having the worst luck with that hamburger.