Riding The Elk River Rail Trail

When I first see the trail, I don’t know which direction to start in.  I’m in Duck, West Virginia, at the northernmost point on the expanding Elk River Rail Trail.   I’m parked in a cinder lot, obviously made for trail users, next to what was once a railroad crossing.  This lot, I surmise, may have been the town’s station decades ago, when the trains still ran this route.  From my car it looks like the trail goes both ways, but I know that I am at the northern terminus of the groomed trail.  But, at the moment, I just don’t know which way is south.

It’s not hard to find this spot, you take exit 46 off of I-79 onto Servia Road and follow the signs some 2.8 miles to Duck.  It’s that simple, but there are so many twists and turns on the Servia Road that I have lost my sense of direction. 

This lot would accommodate around 15 vehicles, but as I arrive, at 11:30 on a Friday morning, there is only one truck on the lot. A couple of nearby houses, but not a soul to be seen anywhere.  As I pull my bike from my car, I spot the corner of a building a block or two to my left with an “OPEN” sign lighted.

When I actually get my wheels onto the trail it becomes obvious which way I must go.  I try going left and find that the surface is soft there.  My wheels sink and I slow to a crawl and I see that this is the beginning stage in creating a rideable surface.  This is part of the ongoing expansion project.

So, I do a one-eighty and ride onto the hard-packed, crushed gravel of the groomed trail and in minutes I am entunnelled in the shade of hardwoods, speeding merrily along the banks of the Elk River.

For the first several miles I am averaging about 13 mph, which is pretty good for me on a trail such as this.  Almost all of the gradation on converted railroad beds is minimal.  You never have to pull hard up a grade and you don’t coast downhill.  Very little gear shifting involved.

For the most part, the going is smooth, but I do notice an unusual number of dead branches on the trail.  Unusual to me, at least.  I have ridden the Virginia Creeper Trail from White Top Mountain to Abingdon and the Greenbrier River Trail from Cass to Anthony in West Virginia.  Those trails are the same idea as this one – converted from abandoned mountain railroad beds – but they are more heavily traveled and, apparently, better maintained than this one.  The fallen branches I encounter are no thicker than a Magic Marker and can be ridden over, but their frequency requires a greater degree of concentration on the trail ahead than the other trails.

To my left there is a steep, wooded drop-off and then the river.  The water is beautiful today.  The Elk River is a sandy-bottomed stream, dotted here and there by little islands and rocky spots where it breaks up into riffles and shoals.  Today the water is a clear green and in the shallow runs you can see the golden riverbottom. Trouble is, on a summer day like this one, with the overhanging trees in full foliage, the river is pretty well hidden most of the time.

Now and then I pass over bridges spanning the little creeks feeding into the river.  These bridges look newly constructed and are very substantial, solid and safe – just as good or better than those on the other trails.

I don’t know where I’m going.  The literature on line about the trail is dated and there are no signs along the way indicating what’s ahead and how far.  I’ve just decided that I’ll ride 15 miles or so and then head back so I’ll be back home in Saint Albans – about 60 miles away – before the quitting time traffic starts.

Given the limitation of the view, every turn in the road looks much the same.  Really pretty, but little variation.  Eight miles in, I have seen at least five deer, but not another person on the trail, no cyclists, no hikers, no runners, no one on horseback.   Once in a while I pass an old house or riverside camp, almost all of which appear to have been abandoned.  There is one such house in particular, right off of the trail, that is intriguing. A two-story, white clapboard house, now overgrown with vines, that was a beauty in its day and must have some interesting stories to tell.

At about the ten-mile marker I come out of the forest and cross a paved road and I see another cyclist, obviously a local, peddling toward a row of houses.  “Where am I?” I ask her.  “Ivydale,” she responds.  I remember Ivydale as being a hotspot for traditional Appalachian music some fifty years ago.  The Morris Brothers lived and played here then; I think.  But there is no sign of music-making as I pass.  There is a line of houses parallel with the trail here.  I see a Methodist church and another, larger church with a playground, but there is no evidence of a store or any other commerce in sight.  On my right, as I head out of Ivydale, I pass a man sitting on his back porch with his dog.  I wave hello.

Then I am back into the forest and back into the same narrow shady tunnel.  I ride another five miles and see no sign of any kind, there is no break in the tunnel and so I stop the bike at a random spot and eat my snacks.  By now I’ve been on the trail well over an hour and I still haven’t seen another rider or walker going either way.  As I chomp my apple the voices of two men waft across the river and I hear cars passing on the highway on the other side of the river.

On the way back I focus less on making good time – I know that I will beat the traffic home – and I stop at places where the foliage breaks enough for me to get a photograph of the river.  I see another five or six deer, including a doe with two fawns, and a big turkey, waddling down the trail before it flies off into the high branches above. 

When I am within two miles of the trail’s end I at last see a pair of cyclists coming my way.  Before I am done, I’ll see one other pair.

With my bike put away I decide to check out the little store down the road.  I’m glad that I did, and not just because I got a cold drink there.

I expected a local convenience store. Sort of a mom-and-pop version of a Seven Eleven. But that’s not what I found.  This place is Nottingham’s Self-Service Store and it is a true, old-time general store.  You walk inside and see old folks sitting around talking and you see the inventory of hardware and fishing gear and groceries.  But this store is not a museum, it’s a going concern.  There were customers before and after me.

At the checkout I start a conversation with the man who is obviously the proprietor of the place.

 “What was this rail line primarily used for back in the day?  Coal or timber?” 

“More coal than timber, but the main traffic was trains of tank cars coming out of Charleston, carrying chemicals from the plants in the Kanawha Valley to Gassaway and a junction with a trunk line going into Baltimore and other eastern cities.  Some of them more than a mile long. There would be three or four trains a day in the busy years.  I remember when it was steam locomotives.  That old whistle would blow.”

“Was there any passenger service?”

“There was.  I remember my first train ride.  I was five years old and my mother was taking me to Gassaway.  I was scared to get on.  Took three or four people to handle me.

I used to get part of my inventory off of the train.  I sell farm feed and that came by boxcar.  I also used to deal in men’s shoes and I bought from an outfit in St Louis.  They shipped by rail and I’d know when the train was coming.  It would slow down as it passed here and the man would toss the boxes of shoes out and I’d pick them up and bring them into the store.”

I asked him other questions about the work being done on the trail and he told me the next step was an extension of the trail north to Frametown.  He also told me that if I had kept going south for another five miles I would have arrived in the town of Clay.  Clay is a county seat and there are accommodations there.  If I had known I was that close, I might have kept going.

There are also efforts underway to extend the trail farther south, from Clay to Clendenin.  That would make the car trip there much shorter for me and would make the trail more attractive to the population in the Kanawha Valley.  This trail is still a work in progress.  It’s nice enough the way it is just now, but it has the potential to be a major attraction once it gets closer to the Kanawha Valley.

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Morning Poem, April 28, 2021

First thing I hear is the sound of a train

Did it wake me?

I know its route

It comes out of the south

Will it take me?

It bellows and moans, like a calf in pain.

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Evening Poem, March 25, 2021

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At twilight the great birds gather

In the naked sycamores

Their black wings rasping as they move

From branch to branch

Now they lift slowly

As if through water

Their wing whispers multiplied

Wild and magical sound of blessing

They drift now, and swirl

Following some leader

And vanish into the shadows of the pines

And the coming night

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copyright 2021

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Morning Post, February 17, 2021

Remember snow days when we were kids?  While it was still dark Mom or Dad would crack the bedroom door and say ‘You can sleep in, buddy. No school today.’  Was anything ever more relaxing; more welcome?  Then breakfast was a leisurely affair. We didn’t know what leisure was.  Life was a rush of assignments and activities, a coping with teachers, some of them crazy, and coming to terms with ourselves as we changed, day by day, and as the world around us whirled like a kaleidoscope.

I would stand over the floor furnace, straddling the grate, looking down into the lines of blueflame jets and then step to my window and look out through the ice-rimmed pane at the grey sky and the empty streets.

Time stood still long enough for me to find myself in it.  That is, to feel in some wordless way how early was the morning and how rapid was the river.

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Afternoon Poem #2, February 16, 2021

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The ice sheet hovers atop the lawn

Pierced here and there only by those spikes of grass

That survived October’s last cutting

A thin, translucent membrane, never seen before

The roof for some tiny night world that will thrive and disappear

Like the rest of them

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copyright 2021

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Afternoon Poem, February 16, 2021.

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The heavens are miserly this day

Even with the snow

The flakes blow sidewise

In a mad dance

I could count the petty few of them

Even the sluices of heaven are frozen

Like the doors of some abandoned house

There is no music or song

No white blanket

Only rigid edges and brittle branches

.

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copyright 2021

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Please Let Me Wonder

“And now here we are here together...”

Posted on August 25, 2016 by labeak52

The whole trip had been my idea, but it hadn’t been hard to sell. We drove 200 miles from Charleston, West Virginia to Roanoke, Virginia last weekend to see Brian Wilson in concert. We were lucky to have all our schedules open for the date, but it happened and so my wife, my two adult sons and I jumped into one car on Saturday morning and by mid-afternoon we were standing in line outside the Elmwood Park Amphitheater in downtown Roanoke in the August heat waiting for them to open the gates.

Wilson belongs to my generation, but my wife, whose tastes were formed in the eighties, has learned to love his music and our two boys, both millennials, have, in their separate ways, developed a real appreciation for him. We’ve watched Love and Mercy, passed around copies of Pet Sounds and discussed the life and music of Brian Wilson hours on end.

Our older son is a drummer with experience in several garage/frat-party bands. He has learned something about the history of rock and roll and through his own reading and listening to my stories has come to appreciate the truth that the real explosions in rock music occurred in the sixties and that pretty much everything that has happened after that has been echoes of that first thunder. He’s an unabashed twelve-bar- blues-progression guy and he locks on to the big Beach Boys hits – Barbara Ann, Help Me Rhonda. Our younger son is a guitarist who has played some electric in college campus bands, but is essentially bent toward more pensive stuff. He knows Pet Sounds inside and out by now.   My wife loves it all, but, bless her beautiful heart, she gets something extra just from seeing me as happy as that music makes me.

And it does make me happy. I was fourteen when Brian Wilson was twenty-four and right at the peak of his powers. I lived in Houston, Texas for the 1966-67 school year and the Beach Boys were everywhere then. Like everyone else in those days, I would wait by the radio until the DJ played the Beach Boys and then I would turn it up. At night I listened to In My Room while I was in my room, doing my dreaming and my scheming and lying awake to pray. And did I mention that down there in Texas there was this girl. I loved the colorful clothes she’d wear and, oh, yeah, the way the sunlight played upon her hair.

I stayed loyal to the Beach Boys even when I was in college and it was uncool to like that kids’ stuff. My friends looked for the unusual and esoteric in the record stores and I was still cranking Don’t Worry Baby. Living in landlocked West Virginia, I nonetheless bought a surfboard and found ways to get down to the Carolina beaches every summer. They thought I was crazy. What I learned then was that I just wasn’t made for those times.

On the way down to Roanoke we talked a little bit about why Wilson had undertaken such a monster tour. He’s seventy-four years old, for crying out loud, not in great health, either, and this juggernaut consists of 73 dates in places as far away as Norway and Iceland. I think we all came to agree that he doesn’t need the money.

There could be many reasons. Maybe he’s more than a little steamed at cousin Mike Love for cutting him back out of the Beach Boys, Inc. that Love now owns controlling interest in. Maybe he wants to show Mike that he can still do it – still withstand the rigors of the road and still draw crowds. Maybe he wants to prove that whether Mike Love will admit it or not everyone else realizes that Brian Wilson was and is the Beach Boys. Subtract any one of the other founders and not much would change. Subtract Brian Wilson and you would have had four or five teenaged Californians who, if they had a band at all, would never have made their way into anything grander than local high-school dances.

The Elmwood Amphitheater in Roanoke is a pretty comfy place. The terraces going up the hillside are lush grass and the seating is generous and uncramped. We arrived early and staked out seats directly in front and only a few rows back from the stage.

I had seen the Beach Boys once or twice in my younger, concert-going days, but I had never seen Brian Wilson. He didn’t tour with them back then. I knew that when I saw him I would nonetheless feel some recognition, all of it emotionally based. I knew that when I saw him, I would feel like I knew him. But that’s not what happened. At least that’s not all that happened. When Brian Wilson lumbered onto the stage and sat down at his piano, he looked into the crowd. Into the crowd in front of him and a few rows back. He looked at me. And the feeling I got was not so much that I knew him, but that he knew me. Why not? He has written my life.

And I knew then why he took on this tour. It was to see me and people like me who have lived on his music but who he missed the first time around. This was one last gift. This one was for me.

During the encore, a generous helping of powerfully and faithfully-rendered Beach Boys’ up-tempo hits, I stopped my own singing and dancing and took a look around at the crowd.  All inhibitions were gone and the air was incandescent and filled with joy.  Most were dancing, but a few stood simply entranced, smiling and nodding.  Yes, this is it, they may have thought.  This is exactly it.

What is it?  What are these songs that light us up like nothing else can do?  I’ve heard them described several ways – as anthems, even as hymns.  But the better analogy is this:  the songs of Brian Wilson are the Psalms of young Americans, reminding us, on the one hand, that our struggles are real and shared and, on the other, promising us surpassing happiness in some place without dissonance or grief where all the kids surf and dance, drive hot rods, get the girl, make the varsity and stay true to their school.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

The songs of Brian Wilson gave us solace and our first hope of glory.  What would our generation have been without them?

God only knows.

copyright 2016

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A Happy Ending

It had already been a long day.

A case I thought I had settled blew up again.  My star witness gave a statement to the defense.  I don’t know why and everybody in the office seemed to blame me for that although I had no idea.  I’d given the guy every warning.  You don’t have to talk to them, I said.  It can only hurt your case.  They aren’t your friends, I told him. I don’t know what they want me to do to keep a lid on.  Threaten the guy.  I don’t know.  I thought this would make a good month for me.  And it was about time.  Now it’s just one more staff meeting where I’ll have to ask for patience; tell them it’s coming.

I hope it’s coming.

And then this call from the school.  I’ve done my best with Duane ; given him lots of time; lots of encouragement; lots of instruction.  I do remember school myself, what a bunch of idiots there were there.  How they worked to make life miserable for anybody that didn’t pay their dues.  Made life miserable for me.  Don’t want that for my kid.  Do about anything to keep that from happening.

In one passing moment just now I allow myself to think again of all I had hoped for for Duane: that these high-school years would be good ones, happy ones, for him.  That he would have friends, be respected, have dates, dance, play ball.  All that.

Duane is a good kid and that’s not just me talking.  Anybody would tell you that – his teachers, his friends’ parents, anybody.  So, that much is good.  The way it ought to be.  But I worry about other things.  Him being the one who gets picked on; always getting the short end of the stick.  He’d settle for that, just to keep the peace; I know him.

But I also know that in this world he’ll inhabit for the next four years settling to keep the peace will not keep the peace.  It will invite further abuse.  The more you give in this context, the more they’ll take.  Anybody who has been through it will tell you the same.

And now here I am in the waiting room outside the principal’s office.  Called in from my office.  A meeting about my son and no word at all from him.  I don’t know what this is about, but I have a strong hunch that he’s gotten into a fight and gotten whipped and is now in trouble with the school even though he was not the aggressor.  I want to blow up against the principal if I find this to be the case but I remind myself that that will be counterproductive in the long run and that I need to keep my cool.

As I sit I am already feeling terrible for Duane.  I don’t want him living in this rut that I lived through and I want to stop this sad music from repeating itself and I feel powerless.  I have done all I could do to prevent this.  Hanging that heavy bag in the basement when he was seven years old, so he’d learn how to punch. Telling Duane that if he gets picked on he can let it all loose and it’s alright.  I’ll answer for any damage if that was the case.  But Duane, that’s not his impulse.  He’s not a big guy, either.

Now the secretary opens the door to the office.

“Mr. Davis, won’t you come in?”

I walk inside, doing my best to look calm.  To look like I do this every day.  Like I know what I am doing.  Like I am ready to defend my son. I’m even carrying a folder with a legal pad inside as a prop.  The first thing I notice is that Duane is not in the room.  At first I am relieved.  Whatever this is should be easier for me outside of Duane’s presence.  But then it strikes me that he may not be here because he is hurt and somewhere in a dispensary or even hospital.

The principal, Hobart Bailey, is an older gentleman who many would say is so far past his prime that he can’t keep up with the goings on at the school.  He stands, nods to me, then points to a chair before his desk and tells his secretary that he wants to speak to me alone.  She obviously knew this was coming and closes the door quietly on her way out.  I am almost sick to my stomach with apprehension; with fear.  We both sit down.

“I wanted you to get this straight from me, unfiltered.  And the reason for that is that I actually saw everything that happened. . .”

“Excuse me, sir,” I interrupt, “But I don’t have any idea why I am here.  Is my son okay?”

I am almost shocked at his response.  He smiles and chuckles.  “Oh, yes.  Duane is in fine shape.  He’s in the library right now and you’ll pick him up in just a minute.  But I want to explain to you a few things, man to man.”

“What happened?”

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“Well, your son was getting picked on.  Just outside the door of the shop class.  I was inside a classroom just across the hall.  The light was off in that room and they could not see me, but I saw everything that happened.  You’ll be pleased to know that after the other guy – an upperclassman – slapped your son he grabbed the guy by the neck and had him on the floor in no time.  Duane held him in a stranglehold headlock and the guy was gasping for air.  I came out into the hallway, but I didn’t intervene immediately.  I’ve had trouble with that other guy time and again these past two years and I’ll tell you that something in me – this was not the most professional response, I know – but something in me just reveled in seeing this guy just his just desserts.  So I let it go until the other guy was gasping and just about to pass out and then I told Duane to let loose.  The other kid was completely disoriented and almost unconscious by then.  It was a thing of beauty, I’ll tell you.  I wish it had been my son that did it.  But here’s the thing, David.  I am stuck here.  There is a written policy here in place at the school that anyone who gets into a fight must be disciplined.    You know how these rules are these days.  I’ve got no discretion in the matter.  I guess when they wrote this policy they didn’t allow for those cases where the principal himself saw the whole thing  So, Duane is going to have a week of detention hall.  Half an hour after school for the next five days.  It was the other guy’s third offense, so he’s kicked out for two weeks.   I can’t stop that from happening, but I wanted you to know that Duane was in the right and that he acted bravely and that he has probably put one of my major disciplinary problems to rest for the year.  I don’t think Duane will be having any more problems like this for the rest of his time here.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it.  Word will get around.

“I know that both you and Clare are working now and I know that Duane being kept after for half an hour will present a problem.  He’ll miss his bus, I know.  But here’s where I can help out.  I leave for home at about the time Duane will be getting out of detention hall.  I can bring him out your way and drop him off myself.  It’s no trouble for me, and to tell you the truth, I’d like to get to know this young man a little better.”

He has finished his speech, but I am so moved that at first I cannot speak.  This is an answer, no, the answer, to my most secret prayer.  I don’t know that I have ever felt more grateful or more gratified.  I try to maintain my composure and act as if what I have been told is exactly what I would have expected from my son.

“Well, sir.  I thank you for this.  I appreciate the offer of the ride for Duane.  I’m sure we’ll take you up on that.  I’ll get out of your way now.  Did you say that Duane is right across the hall?”

“He is.  Sarah will point you to the room.”

I stand and turn and Mr. Bailey speaks again.  “David.  This has nothing to do with the fight, but we got Duane’s standardized test scores back today.  Just a coincidence, I guess.  I want you to look at this.  Look at his score on the math section.”

He hands me the print out and I scan it and orient myself to its format and in the lower right corner see the 800 score on the math section.

“That’s a perfect score, David.  We see something like that once every ten years, maybe.  It puts Duane in the top one-tenth of one percent of the test takers.  He’s one in a thousand.   That means an academic scholarship is in his near future.  Maybe even Ivy League.   My idea right now, David, is to keep this quiet for the time being.  You agree?”

“Absolutely.”

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Afternoon Post, August 23, 2020

The law was here an hour or two ago.  Wantin’ to know about that car that’s been parked over there by them trees. Been there for days.  I didn’t know how it got there, I told them.  They asked if I’d been drivin’ the thing and I told ‘em no.  They said they had a witness.  No, they had witnesses, they said. Had me drivin’ that thing down in town the other day.  Well, I said, I might of had it out just for a spin.  The keys was in the damn thing.  Just settin’ there, by them trees, keys hangin’ in the ignition.  Who wouldn’t of taken it out? I’d forgot about doin’ that, I told ‘em. I could of been drunk, I said.

They was two cops. Deputies, really.  One of them was rubbin’ me the wrong way, actin’ like they knew I stole the damn thing.  I don’t know nothin’ about it, I said.  Whose car it is.  Nothin’.  Wouldn’t want the damn thing, I said.  Hell, if I was gonna steal a car, go to all that trouble, I’d of got me something better than that. Make it worth my time, I said. One of ‘em laughed at that.  The other one just kept on me.  Wouldn’t let up. I don’t even know who owns that property over there anymore. Ain’t nobody lived in that house for twenty years, I told ’em.

I think that feller that laughed at my joke might be related to old Gary Watson up at Ashford.

They wanted to know where I was Saturday night. My whereabouts, they called it. Told them I couldn’t remember right off, but I might of been huntin’ all night.  They asked me what was in season and I told ‘em I was a’huntin’ coyotes.  There ain’t no season for them mongrels.  You can shoot ‘em all year round.  Any time of day. There’s plenty of ‘em around and they’re a damned nuisance.

Who was you with, they wanted to know.  Said I don’t remember that either.  Sometimes I drink when I’m in the woods. Particularly at night.  Particularly if it’s cold.  There’s some boys around here that I hunt with, but I don’t know if any of ‘em was with me Saturday night, if I was out in the woods. People come and go at night.  None of us makes plans. You never know who’s gonna be up on that ridge of an evening, dogs a runnin’.  Who might it a been, they asked me. Give us names of who it might of been.  I don’t know, I said. Could of been anybody.  Just can’t remember right now.

Where’s the keys?  They asked me.  You got the keys here in the house? Far as I know them keys is still out there still in the ignition.  They ain’t there, they said.  Could we look in your house here? No, I told ‘em.  You ain’t got no warrant and I ain’t about to let you go diggin’ around in my house.  My family home, for cryin’ out loud. Ain’t about to do it.  Man’s home is his castle, I said. We can get a warrant, they told me.  Be back out here in an hour.  You go right on ahead, I said.  Go right ahead.  That’s the last I said to ‘em.  They ain’t been back. Maybe they’re comin’.  I don’t know.  Cops talk big sometimes. Try to put fear in you.  They come back here they ain’t gonna find no keys in this house.  Them keys is still in the ignition out there.  I checked right after they left.  There they was, just hangin’ there in the ignition, like before. 

Why would they of lied to me about a thing like that?

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Poem, July 12, 2020

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On sunny summer days I travel in time

With the music on the breeze

And the light on the slow clouds

(Always backward, I know no future)

To steep riverbanks and wet stones

Where I stood with the rope swing in hand

And arced into the air above the blue water

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