So we drove south with little general idea of where we were going. It was suddenly good to feel the control slip away, to round one of the numerous curves to find a small battered town in the folds of the hills, clinging to the side of the mill or factory that provided its life blood. Everywhere in West Virginia there are ghosts of a past that once throbbed to a stronger industrial beat. West Virginia was once a place where men were men and women - well cooked and hid a few pennies away in the hope they would not be spent on moonshine. There are still parts of West Virginia that are like this as fracking booms. But much of the state seems happy to slide away into its past.
We were hopelessly lost and stopped for a while to wander around Elkins, a not unpleasantly run down kind of place in the heart of the state with some imposing main streets. The people in the hardware store had a problem with the map concept but directed us to a visitor center in the station. The lady behind the counter looked like she hadn't seen a visitor for a couple of weeks but could not have been more helpful. She pulled out a map of the state and offered to highlight the route to Sumersville. I told her I'd be fine without the highlighter. Still she seemed a bit concerned about the likely fate of a British guy and two kids in the heart of West Virginia without even the help of a highlighter. "Be safe," she said as I departed. By this time I was starting to wonder where Deliverance was set.
Half an hour later we were back on the road. Zara was navigating and I was beginning to wish I had taken up the highlighter offer. We arrived in Summersville just over an hour later and found a strip of chain restaurants. At Shoney's I was able to observe another curious West Virginia phenomenon. While the young waitresses were always chatty and went above and beyond to help with directions, the older staff seemed to be involved in a perpetual struggle to keep their bitterness in check. Maybe it's something about living in West Virginia for a long time, although it's hard to imagine when you have a pretty stretch of water like Summersville Lake in your back yard.
We camped at a site on the lake with a pool, mini golf and a large bouncy structure that facilitated much bouncing, although not by me. Camping can be like this with kids. You have to counterbalance a night with spindly spiders with some of the luxuries of glamping.
Hawks Nest State Park
West Virginia may lack spectacular tourist attractions but the New River Gorge Bridge is one of them. Opened in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge is the third highest bridge in the United States and one of the most famous landmarks of Appalacia where deep wooded gorges and valleys have presented obstacles to the population for centuries. The kids were transfixed momentarily before asking if there was anywhere to play laser tag nearby. In the event I disappointed them, taking them on a drive down the gorge to a remote place called Thurmond where an iron bridge and a station house shimmered in the afternoon heat. We walked past a row of buildings that used to be the main street and the kids suddenly became engaged. After the railroad arrive here in 1892 Thurmond became an unlikely boom town. There was a passenger depot here, a freight station and an engine house. The population of the town swelled to thousands and there were hotels, stores and meat packing facilities.
New River Gorge Bridge
In the first two decades of the 20th centuries Thurmond handled more freight than Richmond in Virginia and Cincinnati in Ohio combined. The Dun Glen Hotel hosted the world's longest poker game - lasting a mere 14 years.
Fire, prohibition and ultimately the demise of steam did for Thurmond. Today it's just a row of empty store fronts, preserved with a museum feel for the few visitors who make it here. It's a ghost town but maybe the ghosts have departed. As we walked among the crunching fragments of the town beside the railroad line with the remnants of my nuclear family I got to thinking of demise and disintegration. There are the grand plans and the industry and the bustle, followed by the slow release, the breaking apart, the bitterness and insanity and ultimately the beauty of nature that descends again from the hills and carpets all around it in its embrace. Then one day when we return and walk back along those railroad lines that were once hard and uncompromising and find beauty once again in the ruins.