After our lovely, long evening visiting with our old Air Force friend Dwight in Cleveland, we headed out a little late in the morning toward our next rendezvous with my old high school friend John in Roanoke, VA. We enjoyed a pleasant late-morning drive through the tidy farms of central and southern Ohio, before descending into the dismal ash and rust heap of the once-thriving upper Ohio River valley. There not so long ago, the engines of American industry that were the envy of the world throbbed night and day, busily combining the iron ore brought down through the Great Lakes from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan with the coal stripped from the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to make the steel for the automobiles, railroads, skyscrapers, agricultural and industrial machines, ships, factories, bridges, and consumer products once proudly manufactured in the USA.
Those great engines now lie quiet, slowly rusting away – returning the iron from which they were built back to the earth from which it came. The great furnaces which once converted great trainloads of coal into coke to feed the steel smelters, are now cold and covered with a filthy layer of coal dust slowly being washed by the rain into the great river which carries it relentlessly down to the Louisiana swamps. After a dank, gray drive through this post-industrial wasteland of slag heaps, we arrived at Wheeling, West Virginia. There the orphans of industry tenaciously hang onto life in the dormant company town, the demand for their labors long since ceded to another group of industry slaves far far away who daily turn the cast-off steel once made along this river into slightly cheaper products to be sold back to Americans like me.
Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine Abraham Lincoln laboring to transport lumber, farm produce, and of course cotton on man and animal driven flat-boats up and down this great aquatic thoroughfare during the journeys of his youth which gave him his first glimpse of America’s dirty little secret – slavery. Slave labor was just as essential in transforming America from a land of small farms and businesses into a mighty industrial giant as the iron and coal taken from her hills, and the easy transportation provided by her rivers.
It was as if a great spiritual burden had been lifted when we began the steep ascent from the melancholy post-industrial river valley into the dark green forests and small farms of the Allegheny Mountains. The poverty of the mountain people of West Virginia is notorious, but somehow less oppressive and hopeless than the poverty in the Ohio Valley. We skirted south and west of the great West Virginia coal mining country, so we didn’t get the “pleasure” of witnessing the deep poverty there.
The bright afternoon became breezy, and distinctly cooler as we climbed up into the mountains with the definite feel of Autumn carrying with it fair warning of the harsh cold of Winter chasing us down from the great northern forests and lakes back to our more commodious winter home in the South. Since we started so late this morning, we didn’t make it very far into the mountains before we stopped to camp for the night on Tygart Lake near the headwaters of the Monongahela River.
As we were heading out from the camp in the bright, cool morning, we learned that our campground was experiencing an unusual – probably unique – issue. We never found out the answer to the obvious question that immediately sprang to mind – Had the local ursine population become able to read? We all know what they do in the woods, and the occasional misstep afterward is perhaps inevitable, especially in the dark of night when they prefer to wander around searching for tasty garbage. Small wonder then that the campground management didn’t want them tracking it through the camp store.
Valley Falls State Park, West Virginia
Just before sunset we spent a pleasant hour or so at Valley Falls State Park before heading on to our campsite. This beautiful park has an active freight line running right through it along the banks of the Tygart Valley River which joins the West Fork River a few miles downstream to form the Monongahela.