The night before I was watching the weather radar every hour.  Long lines of green crawling up from the south; bad news for us.  We wanted to float the Big Coal River in the morning.  My son and I communicated through the evening, telling each other that it might just be alright, that we might get a break in the showers long enough to make our run. I continued to get the canoe ready and to prepare enough food for the day we hoped we’d have.

I watched the so-called “river gauge” too.  Bill Curry, the grand-daddy of the Coal River Group, showed me how to find the readings on line and warned me not to try the trip if the reading went “above five.”  He also gave me a map of the Coal River system, showing access spots and giving approximate distances for the stretches between those spots.  From what I could tell, normal pool for the river at Ashford – where the gauge was located – is somewhere around 2.5.  The river had been at that level for some days, but this evening, after some light but long-lasting showers, the line on the graph had started to rise, approaching, then passing, 3.0.  I went to bed, still hopeful, but not at all sure that we would make our trip.

When I woke up the rain had stopped.  The sky was still overcast and rain was still dripping from the leaves when the wind blew, but we decided to give it a try and loaded the canoe and started out for Dartmont. 

We leave Saint Albans at 8:15 and take back roads south to State Route214 and then to Corridor G at the Childress Road entrance.  We continue south from there to the next exit – Brounland Road.  We exit left there and proceed almost due south to the Emmons Road which follows the Big Coal River into Dartmont.   We make it to Dartmont by 9:15 and leave my son’s car there at Dartmont Park.  We have no qualms about that.  The park is a well-maintained and tended place, made for river-trippers like us, and we park the car in a gravel lot beside a picnic shelter.  While there we meet a man hitting golf balls.  He’s the only person in the park at this early hour.  We tell him of our intention to run the river from Racine and he comments that with the river running high as it is, we should expect to be back in Dartmont in about three hours.  That’s not too far off from estimates I’d heard elsewhere, so we hop back into my car and continue south, over Lens Creek Mountain and down into the little settlement of Racine.   This leg of the journey is different from the others.  We aren’t following the river now, and Lens Creek Mountain is a real mountain, not like the hills surrounding the Kanawha Valley that we are used to.  We’re on the road for just over 15 minutes when we start to see the outskirts of Racine.  A few houses clustered together, a church here and there.  

I’ve never been here before; never put the canoe in this far upstream.  I don’t know what to expect.  Racine is a small – population 245 at the last census – settlement – but as we see immediately, the facilities here for boaters leave nothing to be desired.  There is plenty of parking, all of it free and all of it near enough to the river to make carrying the boat to the water not too much of a task.   There are restroom facilities right there by the launch, clean and well-maintained.

I have put my canoe into a few rivers in a lot of different spots and you always worry that you are going to have to wade through twenty yards of waist-high weeds, hoping that you don’t anger any copperheads along the way, and then deal with laboring to get the boat down a long, steep embankment, and then sliding the boat into the water and getting yourself aboard without getting soaked.

No such worries in Racine.  The launch/pullout is paved, connected to the lot where we’ve parked the car, and slopes gently down into the river.  Access easy.  Loading easy.  By 9:45 we are in the river, paddling.  And here is one of the endearing points of the story.  In an hour and a half, we have gone from suburbia to a beautiful and wild canoe ride.  I imagine that people in cities all over the country travel for days and pay big money for an experience like this, and for us it’s only 90 minutes away.

At Racine, preparing to launch

In only moments we realize that the ride is going to be wilder than we thought.  We had imagined a leisurely, day-long float down this little river, but the hours of rain had intervened and right from the start we are at a pace much faster than we had planned for.  It seemed like no time at all before we hit the first white water.  That’s a term of art, I guess, and there are those with more canoeing and kayaking experience than me who might object to its use to describe what we experienced.  What we hit – and we hit it again and again – was not like the white-knuckle surging of the New or Gauley Rivers.  But the water we passed through, time and again, was white, and rushing, and the drops were pretty steep.  We were never really threatened, but we were bounced around a bit, took on a little water, and had to paddle constantly to find the right channel to pass through the rapids and to keep the boat straight in the current.

The downside of our day, I guess, is that, given the swollen river, now milky with runoff, we can’t see the riverbottom, can’t see the fish that we know swim in the long pools between the rapids.  I notice the absence of Great Blue Herons, a majestic wading bird that is common on these rivers and that are usually very much in evidence during a long float like ours.  I wonder if the water level or the increased speed of the current has kept them away from the water today.

But the day itself is beautiful.  The sun breaks through almost as we enter the stream, as if it had saved itself for us.  And the river, even though milky-green now with the rain, is also beautiful.  It’s impossible to capture the sight and the feeling in words, but here on the upper Big Coal, the arching birches and gigantic, overhanging sycamores on both banks almost meet overtop the river like entwined fingers so that in some stretches you are completely entunnelled in a shaded green cathedral.

On The Big Coal River, somewhere between Racine and Peytona

And what we miss in wildlife observation we more than make up for in sheer excitement.   We don’t stay in any of the pools for very long.  At every turn in the river – and there are lots of turns in this stretch – we see rapids ahead and start trying to make decisions about where to begin the navigation.  Do we go left or right around that island?  Where is the deepest channel?  Where must we paddle furiously to keep the boat under control?

I’ve taken lots of canoe trips in my day.  Many on other stretches of this or the Little Coal River.  Some on the Greenbrier.  Some on the New River. But what I notice today is something different than I have seen on any other trip.  As we look ahead to the horizon, I can see the drop in the river.  It’s more obvious in some places than others, but it almost looks like we are sailing downhill and not on a level surface.  That’s true, strictly speaking, but it’s always true when you are canoeing down a river, but it has never been so visible to me as it is this day.  I wonder if that has to do with the high water.

Big Coal River, looking downstream from the Dartmont pullout

At around 11:30 I sneak a look at my watch and start to think about where will will stop for lunch.  I think it will be more of a challenge than usual, since the normal beaches and landings are all under water now.  I start to pay closer attention to both banks, thinking that we should break soon and do our third hour of paddling after eating.  In only moments, though, we round another bend in the river and my son says “Is that my car?”

And it is.  This is Dartmont. We hustle to bring the boat to the right bank, grab some weeds and pull ourselves out of the river.  It would have been very easy just to sail right by our pullout.  We were moving fast and certainly were not expecting to see it for some time.  If we had passed it by I hate to think of what a task it would have been to try and fight the current to get back there.

 And so, we open our lunchbox at Dartmont park and eat under one of the shelters.  It’s overcast again now, and the wind carries with it the hint of more coming rain.  So, we leave the canoe on a level above the river there and head back to Racine to pick up my car – the one with the canoe rack.  In less than an hour we have the canoe reloaded and we are headed back to Corridor G and the Kanawha Valley, tired and happy.

West Virginia really is a place of well-kept secrets, and the upper Big Coal River is certainly one of them.

Big Coal River, looking upstream from the Dartmont pullout
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Evening Poem, February 2, 2022

I recently had a conversation with an old friend who had just bought a copy of the novel I published over 20 years ago. I hadn’t looked at that book in a very long time, so I picked it up to see what my friend would be wading through. Mid-way through I found this poem. I had totally forgotten about it. If this poem intrigues you, please take a look at my book. You can read about it and read a sample and buy it right here: https://www.amazon.com/Forest-Night-Larry-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00KHAXIJS/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1643855589&sr=8-1

.

Something wakes me without sounding

Nothing stirs, I hear my breath

I look out my bedroom window

Into darkness, into death

.

Yet I move the blanket over

Shiver with the morning cold

I look out my tiny window

Still the darkness, all is old

.

Yet I heed the voice that calls me

Down the stairs and there I see

My father’s full and tended table

And there a plate and cup for me

.

Fed and clothed I start my journey

With a strength that conquers night

I walk out an open doorway

Into morning, into light.

.

Copyright 2001

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Morning Poem, February 2, 2022

(I actually wrote this one a long time ago, but I remembered it lately and, after all, it is Groundhog Day, so let’s do it again.)

The people of Hot Springs, Arkansas

Don’t have no cares about nothin’ at all

Don’t know what’s in the water; don’t know what’s in the air

Just feel better when we stay up there

.

All the girls wear dresses and the men wear hats

Don’t nobody say nothin’ about that

They wear their nice clothes every day

And go to church and sing and pray

.

The people of Hot Springs, Arkansas

Don’t have no cares about nothin’ at all

copyright 2012

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Afternoon Poem, January 19, 2022

Pappaw kept a lettuce bed behind our house

There was a little rectangle of soil between the back wall and the alley

Shaded almost every way

He dug and hoed until the dirt was fine as sand

And rimmed the spot with boards stood on edge

Tacked to corner stakes

He waited till the sign was in the loins

Sprinkled the seeds across and along

And laid fine, white cloth overtop

So protected and nurtured

Here would be born something delicate and delightful

Long, moist leaves of faintest green

Fit for a king’s table

This hidden place was mine as well

And the garden a holy mystery

I dug then with a spoon in bare spots on the lawn

But knew better than to touch what pappaw had made

copyright 2022

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From Dartmont to Lock Four

Take Two

Posted on October 24, 2021 by labeak52

It’s a cool forty-plus degrees as we strap the canoe to the top of the SUV.  The thought that we might have waited a little too long to make this trip crosses my mind, but I dismiss it quickly.  My son is a busy lawyer and when he at last had a date open, we jumped on it, rain or shine.  This trip is one of those things that we’ve been talking about for a long time.  You know, one of those things you look forward to and that sometimes never quite come to be.

But here we are in the crisp, early morning, fastening the canoe so tight on the rack that it feels like a part of the car when we test it with a push or pull.  The paddles are in, the lunch materials and the life jackets are in and in a moment, we are off, him following me in his own car to the take-out spot at Lock Four where we’ll leave his car for our pullout when the day is through.  We take all back-roads from my home in Saint Albans and in about twenty minutes we pull in to the Lock Four Nature Conservancy Park just off of Route 8 in Alum Creek. 

This Park is a small and simple affair.  Just a long, well-trimmed grassy area, about the size of a football field, overlooking Coal River.  There are park benches here and a couple of kiosks that show maps of the rivers and tell a bit about the natural and economic history of the river.  It’s not a small story.  In fact, the Coal River was one of the first rivers in the United States to be used for industry.  As we look at the small, green stream rolling before us, it is hard to imagine that over a hundred years ago this quiet place was bustling with river traffic.  Barges carrying coal and timber and steamboats carrying passengers up and down the almost fifty miles between Whitesville and Saint Albans, day after day.

But what is important to us this morning is that there is plenty of free parking here and just a few yards upstream there’s a nice place to pull the canoe out of the river.  The parking lot would accommodate at least eight vehicles and this morning, we’re the only takers. And we leave his car here and drive on less than a mile south on Route 8 where we hit the Corridor – Route 119 – and take a left and head north for a few miles where we take a right onto Brounland Road and start our journey, almost due south, into Boone County.

Driving the Brounland Road is a bit of an adventure in and of itself.  The road is wide enough for two cars to pass, but barely.  The few cars we meet seem to be familiar with the road and we both slow to a crawl as we approach each other.  While we are more or less following the Big Coal River valley, we are in no time at all surrounded by steep mountains and the houses are fewer and farther between as we advance deeper until we approach the town of Emmons, West Virginia.  I tell my son, who is too young to remember such things, that this tiny hamlet is where Jay Rockefeller began his political career in West Virginia.  He actually lived here, I say.  One of the richest men in the world.  A moment later we drive past the Senator Jay Rockefeller Park.

Only a few more miles and twists and turns in the road and we are approaching Dartmont, a place that most maps don’t even mark anymore but that holds an almost mythical importance in our family.  My dad was raised there, when the place was a company camp, owned by the Orlandi Coal Company, for which my grandfather worked.  Dad lived there from about 1935 to about 1944 while his dad drilled and blasted and loaded coal and the C&O Railway ran mile-long trains loaded to the top out of the Coal River valley and into the great, wide, national economy, day after day after day.

I grew up hearing stories about the hometown baseball team and the Dartmont school, but most of all about the river; about gigging frogs in the night, catching “goggle-eyes,” and red-tail suckers and, once in a while, the rare “willow bass.”   I remember Dad showing me flint arrowheads that he’d found in the fields and on the creek banks.  We’d find them anywhere, he’d say.

Dad took me to Dartmont for the first time when I was just a lad.  It was probably in the late 1950s, and my memory of that trip is vague.  I do recall seeing the lines of company houses – shacks, really.  He pointed out where he had lived.  And I remember my dad wading in the stream and drawing a mussel from a shallow and prying it open to show me the bright inside.

I came to Dartmont again as an adult.  Once again with my dad, not to fish this time, but just survey the old place.  He was old then himself and the place had changed, but not beyond recognition.  He again showed me Bull Creek, where he used to gig frogs, and the place where he and his friend, Almon Giles, stole watermelons out of a neighbor’s garden.

I’ve been back a couple of times since, but today as we approach the place, I see that all has changed.  Only the church remains, and the level bottom, where the company houses once stood, is now a park.  And a very well-maintained park.  We are the only moving car in sight, and it’s early morning on a weekday in mid-October, but the park gate has been unlocked and opened and we glide along the gravel road to the old baseball field where we park and prepare to embark.  I’ve been thinking that I sure could use some facilities right now and I am pleasantly surprised to find this park, empty as it is, has clean, well-maintained facilities that are now open to us.  

At Dartmont

Just like at Lock Four downstream, we’re the only customers here this morning, although the place would park fifteen vehicles easily.  In moments we are off.  I step into the canoe and push away from the bank and listen to the silence as the boat enters the current. Only about an hour and a half has passed since we left the house in Saint Albans.  As we start out, we talk to each other about which way to paddle as we navigate the first series of shoals.  Trying to remember how the boat reacts as we steer. The river is narrow and shallow here and we comment that we are glad that we had rain only a few days ago that no doubt raised the river just enough to allow us to pass in several spots.

In decades past, that little bit of rain would have ruined things for days on end.  In the old days the river would run muddy for a week after a substantial rain.  We are the beneficiaries of decades of work by the Coal River Group and the several groups and institutions they have worked with over the years to improve the watershed and the river itself.  Right now, the water is sparkling.  Where the light is right, we can see schools of minnows flashing in a shallow or a line of red-tailed suckers gliding upstream along the river bottom.  As we round turns in the river we see ducks take flight and vanish around the next bend.

Although we are less than 20 miles from home, this place is a different world.  We’re only about 200 feet higher here on the river than we were at home, but we are surrounded by real mountains here, not just hills.  The wildlife and vegetation are different.  I see on the ground the hull of a buckeye that some squirrel has opened and as we start our paddle, we are almost immediately entunnelled beneath the tall, overhanging sycamore and birch that line both banks and lean waterward to meet in the middle.  Now and then we hear the trill of a belted kingfisher, then watch the ragged-looking bird, strange to our suburban eyes, sail over the river’s surface, looking for a meal.

As we drift in a long pool, I hear the distant moaning of a train horn.  This rail line, which is cut from the mountainside on our right, was begun in the mid-nineteenth century.  Several companies went bankrupt trying to complete it, but when it was finally done it became one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.  Now I hear the thunder of the locomotive and in no time it is upon us and we hear the rhythmic clatter of the wheels over the rails, take em back, take em back, take em back.

This gigantic snake seems to go on forever, but we are approaching another shoal and must concentrate on our navigation and when we are through this trouble the train has vanished and we float on, hearing now only the echo of its rattle.

The first hour and a half is for the most part a pretty placid journey.  Every now and then we navigate through a shoal, turning this way and that to find a channel deep enough for the boat.  In one spot, where the stream divides in two, we beach the boat and survey the situation to decide which way to go.  We carry the boat past one narrow sluice covered over with an overhanging tree and we are back in business.  In another half hour we see a rocky flat on the right that looks like a comfortable place for lunch.  We slide the canoe up onto the flat and open up the victuals and rest. Once out of the boat we notice a little branch that feeds into the river here and hear it gurgle as it drops over the riverbank into a clear pool.

It turns out that the place we’ve chosen is actually the remnant of an old lock.  There were several of them along this stream, all of them built before the Civil War, and we can see clearly the beams in the riverbed, still at the perfect right-angles that the engineers drew in the blueprints in 1840-something.


In the moments we stand on this lonely spot I study the grid of beams spanning the riverbed and try to imagine what this place might have looked like 180 years ago.  A working lock that staunched the flow of this river and lifted steamboats and barges to allow them to pass.  That is no small undertaking, physically or mechanically.  What did it look like?  Surely there were gates and hinges and ropes and pulleys and turning gears.  Was there a steam engine that powered it all?  A team of mules or oxen?  Was there a station here?  A shelter of some sort where someone – maybe more than one – reported to work every morning to find boats waiting on both sides for the lock to be opened?  Were fees charged and records kept? The kiosks say that the system of locks was damaged during the Civil War.  Were there soldiers here on this very bank with cannon and rifles and torches?  If so, were their colors blue or grey?

The second half of our float is a bit of a different story.  No one would ever mistake this little stream for the New or Gauley Rivers, but from lunchtime on, we had to stay diligent at our paddles.  The river was much bigger here than where we started.  The trickles and creeks that had been filtering in as we passed had made quite a difference.  We were really moving now, and around almost every bend there was another set of shoals – I might even call one or two of them “rapids” – that we had to shoot.  We were calling “left” and “right” and swirling and backing the canoe, dodging rocks and looking for the bottom of the “Vee” that would keep us in water deep enough to pass.  It was great.  And it kept coming for a good two hours.

At days end the river has changed its character.  It is no longer that stream that a boy could wade across in Dartmont.  It’s a river now, deep and wide.  And now the first shadows of evening fall across its face.  I know our trip is almost over.  There will be no more scrambling to maneuver through a riffle or the remains of another lock.  We paddle and drift, almost daydreaming, when my son suddenly points ahead to a spot ten feet from the bow of the boat.  He is shaking his finger in excitement.  “Oh, my gosh.  Look at that fish.  That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen in this river.  That thing was as big as a shark.”

I’m in the rear of the canoe and I can’t see what he’s pointing at, but I don’t suspect him of exaggeration.  This river, where we are now, is known to produce gar and muskellunge up to four feet long.   I wonder what he saw and wish that I had gotten at least a glimpse of it, but that is just the thing about this stream.  It holds secrets. 

Some of those secrets are natural. I learned only a few years ago that there is a species of fish – the Diamond Darter – that lives in the Elk River, a similar stream only twenty miles from here, and nowhere else in the world.  That fish was not formally described until 2008.  Likewise, there is a species of crawfish only recently discovered in two creeks leading into the Guyandotte River in an adjacent county that exists nowhere else in the world.  Knowing these things, I think about what secrets this little river, exploited economically, but never studied in depth, may yet hold.  I think of this fish that surprised my son and know that it may have been a big gar or muskie or catfish, but it might have been something else.  There are stories about giant fish that some of the old locals called sturgeon, but are probably actually paddlefish, a bottom feeder that may grow to more than eighty pounds.

Some of this river’s secrets are historical.  These riverbanks, now completely forested, were once alive with human activity.  I think again of the antebellum system of locks we have passed over today and the ancient railbed that has seen more coal hauled these last hundred years than any other rail line in the world. And I wonder at the fortunes made and lost in this narrow valley during the booms and busts of the mining and timber business.  The careers spent loading, driving and managing the trains and floating logs and barges down this river.  Who drove the last barge? And who were the passengers on the last steamboat excursion from Saint Albans to Whitesville, and why were they traveling?

But some of this river’s secrets are personal to me as I think of my father, two years gone now, and what he knew of this place that he could not articulate or could not pass on in the little time we had here. I know that these things were important to him and I know that he made every effort to teach me what he knew.  If there is any part of this earth that still holds a part of his spirit, it is here on this stream that he loved and knew so well.  As much as he gave me, there was more to learn.  But there wasn’t enough time.

And as my son and I carry the canoe out of the river and load it again onto the cartop I know that our perfect day is over and that there is never enough time.

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Please Let Me Wonder

“And now here we are 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.

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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From Dartmont to Lock Four

It’s a cool forty-plus degrees as we strap the canoe to the top of the SUV.  The thought that we might have waited a little too long to make this trip crosses my mind, but I dismiss it quickly.  My son is a busy lawyer and when he at last had a date open, we jumped on it, rain or shine.  This trip is one of those things that we’ve been talking about for a long time.  You know, one of those things you look forward to and that sometimes never quite come to be.

But here we are in the crisp, early morning, fastening the canoe so tight on the rack that it feels like a part of the car when we test it with a push or pull.  The paddles are in, the lunch materials and the life jackets are in and in a moment, we are off, him following me in his own car to the take-out spot at Lock Four where we’ll leave his car for our pullout when the day is through.  We take all back-roads from my home in Saint Albans and in about twenty minutes we pull in to the Lock Four Nature Conservancy Park just off of Route 8 in Alum Creek. 

This Park is a small and simple affair.  Just a long, well-trimmed grassy area, about the size of a football field, overlooking Coal River.  There are park benches here and a couple of kiosks that show maps of the rivers and tell a bit about the natural and economic history of the river.  It’s not a small story.  In fact, the Coal River was one of the first rivers in the United States to be used for industry.  As we look at the small, green stream rolling before us, it is hard to imagine that over a hundred years ago this quiet place was bustling with river traffic.  Barges carrying coal and timber and steamboats carrying passengers up and down the almost fifty miles between Whitesville and Saint Albans, day after day.

But what is important to us this morning is that there is plenty of free parking here and just a few yards upstream there’s a nice place to pull the canoe out of the river.  The parking lot would accommodate at least eight vehicles and this morning, we’re the only takers. And we leave his car here and drive on less than a mile south on Route 8 where we hit the Corridor – Route 119 – and take a left and head north for a few miles where we take a right onto Brounland Road and start our journey, almost due south, into Boone County.

Driving the Brounland Road is a bit of an adventure in and of itself.  The road is wide enough for two cars to pass, but barely.  The few cars we meet seem to be familiar with the road and we both slow to a crawl as we approach each other.  While we are more or less following the Big Coal River valley, we are in no time at all surrounded by steep mountains and the houses are fewer and farther between as we advance deeper until we approach the town of Emmons, West Virginia.  I tell my son, who is too young to remember such things, that this tiny hamlet is where Jay Rockefeller began his political career in West Virginia.  He actually lived here, I say.  One of the richest men in the world.  A moment later we drive past the Senator Jay Rockefeller Park.

Only a few more miles and twists and turns in the road and we are approaching Dartmont, a place that most maps don’t even mark anymore but that holds an almost mythical importance in our family.  My dad was raised there, when the place was a company camp, owned by the Orlandi Coal Company, for which my grandfather worked.  Dad lived there from about 1935 to about 1944 while his dad drilled and blasted and loaded coal and the C&O Railway ran mile-long trains loaded to the top out of the Coal River valley and into the great, wide, national economy, day after day after day.

I grew up hearing stories about the hometown baseball team and the Dartmont school, but most of all about the river; about gigging frogs in the night, catching “goggle-eyes,” and red-tail suckers and, once in a while, the rare “willow bass.”   I remember Dad showing me flint arrowheads that he’d found in the fields and on the creek banks.  We’d find them anywhere, he’d say.

Dad took me to Dartmont for the first time when I was just a lad.  It was probably in the late 1950s, and my memory of that trip is vague.  I do recall seeing the lines of company houses – shacks, really.  He pointed out where he had lived.  And I remember my dad wading in the stream and drawing a mussel from a shallow and prying it open to show me the bright inside.

I came to Dartmont again as an adult.  Once again with my dad, not to fish this time, but just survey the old place.  He was old then himself and the place had changed, but not beyond recognition.  He again showed me Bull Creek, where he used to gig frogs, and the place where he and his friend, Almon Giles, stole watermelons out of a neighbor’s garden.

I’ve been back a couple of times since, but today as we approach the place, I see that all has changed.  Only the church remains, and the level bottom, where the company houses once stood, is now a park.  And a very well-maintained park.  We are the only moving car in sight, and it’s early morning on a weekday in mid-October, but the park gate has been unlocked and opened and we glide along the gravel road to the old baseball field where we park and prepare to embark.  I’ve been thinking that I sure could use some facilities right now and I am pleasantly surprised to find this park, empty as it is, has clean, well-maintained facilities that are now open to us.  

At Dartmont

at Dartmont

Just like at Lock Four downstream, we’re the only customers here this morning, although the place would park fifteen vehicles easily.  In moments we are off.  I step into the canoe and push away from the bank and listen to the silence as the boat enters the current. Only about an hour and a half has passed since we left the house in Saint Albans.  As we start out, we talk to each other about which way to paddle as we navigate the first series of shoals.  Trying to remember how the boat reacts as we steer. The river is narrow and shallow here and we comment that we are glad that we had rain only a few days ago that no doubt raised the river just enough to allow us to pass in several spots.

In decades past, that little bit of rain would have ruined things for days on end.  In the old days the river would run muddy for a week after a substantial rain.  We are the beneficiaries of decades of work by the Coal River Group and the several groups and institutions they have worked with over the years to improve the watershed and the river itself.  Right now, the water is sparkling.  Where the light is right, we can see schools of minnows flashing in a shallow or a line of red-tailed suckers gliding upstream along the river bottom.  As we round turns in the river we see ducks take flight and vanish around the next bend.

Although we are less than 20 miles from home, this place is a different world.  We’re only about 200 feet higher here on the river than we were at home, but we are surrounded by real mountains here, not just hills.  The wildlife and vegetation are different.  I see on the ground the hull of a buckeye that some squirrel has opened and as we start our paddle, we are almost immediately entunnelled beneath the tall, overhanging sycamore and birch that line both banks and lean waterward to meet in the middle.  Now and then we hear the trill of a belted kingfisher, then watch the ragged-looking bird, strange to our suburban eyes, sail over the river’s surface, looking for a meal.

As we drift in a long pool, I hear the distant moaning of a train horn.  This rail line, which is cut from the mountainside on our right, was begun in the mid-nineteenth century.  Several companies went bankrupt trying to complete it, but when it was finally done it became one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.  Now I hear the thunder of the locomotive and in no time it is upon us and we hear the rhythmic clatter of the wheels over the rails, take em back, take em back, take em back.

This gigantic snake seems to go on forever, but we are approaching another shoal and must concentrate on our navigation and when we are through this trouble the train has vanished and we float on, hearing now only the echo of its rattle.

The first hour and a half is for the most part a pretty placid journey.  Every now and then we navigate through a shoal, turning this way and that to find a channel deep enough for the boat.  In one spot, where the stream divides in two, we beach the boat and survey the situation to decide which way to go.  We carry the boat past one narrow sluice covered over with an overhanging tree and we are back in business.  In another half hour we see a rocky flat on the right that looks like a comfortable place for lunch.  We slide the canoe up onto the flat and open up the victuals and rest. Once out of the boat we notice a little branch that feeds into the river here and hear it gurgle as it drops over the riverbank into a clear pool.

It turns out that the place we’ve chosen is actually the remnant of an old lock.  There were several of them along this stream, all of them built before the Civil War, and we can see clearly the beams in the riverbed, still at the perfect right-angles that the engineers drew in the blueprints in 1840-something.


In the moments we stand on this lonely spot I study the grid of beams spanning the riverbed and try to imagine what this place might have looked like 180 years ago.  A working lock that staunched the flow of this river and lifted steamboats and barges to allow them to pass.  That is no small undertaking, physically or mechanically.  What did it look like?  Surely there were gates and hinges and ropes and pulleys and turning gears.  Was there a steam engine that powered it all?  A team of mules or oxen?  Was there a station here?  A shelter of some sort where someone – maybe more than one – reported to work every morning to find boats waiting on both sides for the lock to be opened?  Were fees charged and records kept? The kiosks say that the system of locks was damaged during the Civil War.  Were there soldiers here on this very bank with cannon and rifles and torches?  If so, were their colors blue or grey?

The second half of our float is a bit of a different story.  No one would ever mistake this little stream for the New or Gauley Rivers, but from lunchtime on, we had to stay diligent at our paddles.  The river was much bigger here than where we started.  The trickles and creeks that had been filtering in as we passed had made quite a difference.  We were really moving now, and around almost every bend there was another set of shoals – I might even call one or two of them “rapids” – that we had to shoot.  We were calling “left” and “right” and swirling and backing the canoe, dodging rocks and looking for the bottom of the “Vee” that would keep us in water deep enough to pass.  It was great.  And it kept coming for a good two hours.

By about three-thirty we reached the forks of the Coal, where the Big Coal and Little Coal Rivers meet to form the Coal River.  We knew that our take-out was less than a mile away and we paddled on, pulling out and returning to Dartmont for my car and making it home, tired and happy, by five o’clock.

It was a beautiful, sunny day on this reborn and wild-again river.  We saw several Great Blue Herons, four deer, lots of ducks and fish – one of which, my son contends, was “as big as a shark.” I’m in the rear of the canoe and didn’t see this fish, but I do not suspect this is any exaggeration.  There are gar and muskellunge in this river that are four feet long and carp and catfish that weigh over 40 pounds.

We did this all in a day.  We didn’t have to buy a ticket or pay for parking anywhere.  We didn’t have to wait in any lines.  We were on the river for at least eleven miles on what must have been one of the most ideal days of the year. 

In other times and places, sport like this, freedom like this, unfettered access to such a broad range of the gorgeous countryside like we had today was restricted to the aristocracy – those who owned estates or had special licenses or held titles.  Here and now it is available to anyone who can paddle a canoe. Yet we did not see another person on the river.  Not a single other canoe or kayak, not a soul wading or fishing from the bank, although this river now supports a healthy smallmouth bass population.

I’ve got to believe that what we did last Monday is the kind of thing that lots of city dwellers dream about and would pay big money to experience.  It’s exciting and challenging without being white-knuckle dangerous. It’s accessible to almost anyone. Somebody should start talking about it.

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Learning To Dance

When Wendell Douglas come back from the war he looked to be about a foot taller.  He’d volunteered as soon as he was of age and shipped out right before the Allies took the beaches in Normandy.  He didn’t see combat, but he sailed on a troop boat to France and worked as a guard in a hospital there for nearly a year.  I saw him come home.  He stepped out of the bus in uniform and carrying his duffle.  It was freezing cold and wind blowing snow everywhere, but he just stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked the two blocks to his house down on Allen Street.  I knew things would pick up in the neighborhood after that, and they did.

In the year that Wendell was overseas I still walked over to White’s Confectionery every now and then.  I’d have a root-beer float and sit there and talk to Mrs. White or her fat daughter, whoever happened to be serving that evening.  The juke box was almost never playing and no one was ever on the little rectangle of a dance floor. The Whites made their money on the junior-high crowd.  The school was only a block away and the kids would flood into there at lunch hour and pack the place and the music would be blaring and kids eating hot dogs and drinking sodas and dancing for all of the forty-five minutes between the two lunch bells. Same thing for the hour after school let out.  I hadn’t been a part of that since I had moved up to the high school.  Evenings at Whites were nothing like that.  Sometimes I was the only customer in the store.  Some winter nights they even hurried me out of the place so they could close down early.  They’d have the lights off before I got out the door.

I’d walk around the neighborhood for a while, even in the cold and snow, just looking at the houses and watching the cars on the streets and up on the state road.  On Wednesday evenings they’d be having prayer meeting at the Church of God and I’d walk by the lit-up windows and sometimes hear them singing, Wendell’s mom playing the piano. Down the next block I’d usually see Missy Harless on the corner of Second and Allen Streets. She’d be standing there under the street lamp in her coat and hat, waiting on the bus to take her to the hospital for the evening shift.  She always spoke. Always called me by name.

By now there were gold stars in the windows of at least one house on every street I walked.  I knew some of the boys who had been killed.  Didn’t know some of the others

I knew that Danny Turley and Doug Griffith and that bunch were somewhere around. Guys who had already graduated but who the Army wouldn’t take.  Danny had somehow managed to get himself a car and he drove it up and down the state road in town and all around the neighborhood, shifting gears and squealing the tires.  My grandpa had told me to steer clear of those boys; that they were heading for trouble, sure as the world.

Every now and then I would get up the nerve to go two blocks over and walk by Janet Thompson’s house.  I’d been inside it a few times when we were little kids, just playing.  But now it was a kind of mysterious place, one I hoped to be inside of again, but not in the same way.  Her house looked different than the others: the yellow light in the windows, the neatly-shoveled and swept walkway and porch steps, the red mailbox by the door.

But when Wendell came home there was no more time for walking around.

Wendell was the only one of us who wasn’t afraid to dance and when the girls found out he was back in town the evening traffic at White’s Confectionary picked up right away.  He’d head over there right after dinner and order a soda and fill the jukebox with nickels and have the music going strong before the girls started to filter in. For the first few weeks he wore his uniform nearly everywhere.

He’d learned new dances in France and the girls were wild for him to teach them.  In a few weeks it became obvious that he had a strong preference for Beverly Thompson.  None of us were surprised by that; she was the beauty of the town.  But I’d had my eye on her sister Janet for a long time. Since junior high at least.  I saw her standing in her yard one day.  I was on the way down to the school courts to look for a basketball game and she was just out there by the little maple tree.  She saw me and smiled and I admitted something to myself then and there that I had probably been feeling a long time and just didn’t want to own up to.  I liked her. Almost enough to make a public confession of it.  Almost.  But I worried. What if she didn’t want to hear any such thing from me?  Or what if I said it and then changed my mind?  I’d done that kind of thing before.

And so, it was never anything more than polite hellos between her and me.  I had a class with her once, but didn’t sit close to her. Other guys took her to the school dances and I just never asked anybody.  But once Wendell came home and people started congregating in White’s Confectionary again, I got up the nerve to talk to her and I swore to myself that when the opportunity came, I’d ask her to dance, two left feet and all. I’d asked Wendell if he could tell me anything that would help me get those moves he’d learned in France but he just said it wasn’t the kind of thing you could learn by talking about it.  “You just got to get out there and move.  I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.  Just go on and get out there.  Nothing is going to happen unless you try.  She don’t really care if you can dance.  She only cares about whether you’ll ask her.”

Well, one evening Janet and Beverly and Wendell and a bunch of other kids were there. We’d been talking a lot that evening and there were other people around talking, but then there were just the two of us and “Wonderland By Night” came on the juke box and she looked at me and smiled and said “This is my favorite song.” And I had been told that slow dances were the easiest to fake and I knew that this was it, this was my chance, and that she knew it too and if I passed this one up there might not be another one and so I said “Let’s dance,” and we stood and she took my hand and before I knew it, we were dancing and it was so easy. I’ll tell you the truth, I’d thought a lot about Janet Thompson.  What it might be like to be with her.  Have her choose me.  But I had never imagined how dancing with her would feel.  I moved and she responded.  It was as if she was weightless.  I started that evening hoping I’d never have to dance and I ended it hoping that dancing with Janet would never end.   Everybody in town – well, almost everybody – thought her older sister was better looking, but Janet was the better dancer.  No question about that.

After that night, Janet and I kind of got in the habit of sitting at the same table with Wendell and Beverly and listening to his stories about what he’d seen and done in France. Wendell had got on down at the lumberyard and he told me that they were hiring right then and that I should get down there and apply.  “You’ll be in the yard for a while,” he said.  “But with the war over and everybody coming home, the lumber business is going to boom.  They’ve already bought three more acres just to stack more boards.  The way business is going you’ll make it into sales in no time and start getting paid on commission.”

 Janet was enthusiastic about that, and when I told her I’d got the job, she was straightforward about getting married.  “What’s the point of all this flirting around if we aren’t going to do it?  You know, the whole thing?”  I wasn’t really ready for the question, but the answer was easier than I thought it would be.  Things had been going well for me down at the yard.   I had a knack for estimating costs and amounts and I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it all, sales and everything. I knew what my grandpa would tell me to do without ever asking him.  

“We should get married,” I said. “Why not?”

Word of our decision got back to Wendell real quick and I guess that Beverly must’ve asked him something like what Janet had asked me.  Wendell told me that they were going to do it – tie the knot.  “Why don’t we do it together?’ he asked.  “You think the girls would like that?  Their church is just over there on the corner.”

It was easier than I thought it would be.  Their folks were both happy about it and the preacher was ready for us.  Wendell wore his uniform at the ceremony.

His mom played the piano.

copyright 2021

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Poem for August

It is always August.

If time would stop, it would stand still

Under the dog star.

Winter lingers, but all of that season is labor

Boots, gloves, scarves and coats

Off and on, on and off

Snow shovels and firewood

What shivering creature stops to contemplate a grey sky?

We spend March and April longing for June

And in May we are ecstatic and the days pass

Almost without our knowing

July is full swing

Long-planned travel, hours in the car

Hurry up and rest, hurry up and enjoy

.

Spring is bursting birth

and fall, dramatic death

But August is stasis

and we sit in the warm evening

by the still-warm water

and think it will always be this way,

it should always be this way.

There is no rush into August

Nothing is planned there

We sleep late

And sit outside all night

Who works or worries then?

There is no rush away from August

No one wants to hear that first bell.

Stop time.

Stay here.

Breathe.

Copyright 2017

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Afternoon Post, August 5, 2021

When Wendell Douglas come back from the war he looked to be about a foot taller.  He’d volunteered as soon as he was of age and shipped out right before the Allies took the beaches in Normandy.  He didn’t see combat, but he sailed on a troop boat to France and worked as a guard in a hospital there for nearly a year.  I saw him come home.  He stepped out of the bus in uniform and carrying his duffle.  It was freezing cold and wind blowing snow everywhere, but he just stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked the two blocks to his house down on Allen Street.  I knew things would pick up in the neighborhood after that, and they did.

Wendell was the only one of us who wasn’t afraid to dance and when the girls found out he was back in town the traffic at White’s Confectionary picked up right away.  He’d head over there right after dinner and order a soda and fill the jukebox with nickels and have the music going strong before the girls started to filter in. For the first few weeks he wore his uniform nearly everywhere.

He’d learned new dances in France and the girls were wild for him to teach them.  In a few weeks it became obvious that he had a strong preference for Beverly Thompson.  None of us were surprised by that, she was the beauty of the town.  But, I’d had my eye on her sister Janet for a long time and when the opportunity came for me to ask her, I did, and we did the best we could to follow what we’d seen Wendell do.  Sometimes we’d sit at the same table with Wendell and Beverly and listen to his stories about what he’d seen and done in France. Wendell had got on down at the lumberyard and he told me that they were hiring right then and that I should get down there and apply.  “You’ll be in the yard for a while,” he said.  “But the way business is going you’ll make it into sales in no time and start getting paid on commission.”

 Janet was enthusiastic about that, and when I told her I’d got the job, she was straightforward about getting married.  “What’s the point of all this flirting around if we aren’t going to do it?  You know, the whole thing?”  I wasn’t really ready for the question, but the answer was easier than I thought it would be.  Things had been going well for me down at the yard, and I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it all, sales and everything. “We should get married,” I said. “Why not?”

Word of our decision got back to Wendell real quick and I guess that Beverly asked him something like what Janet had asked me.  Wendell told me that they were going to do it – tie the knot.  “Why don’t we do it together,’ he asked.  ‘You think the girls would like that?  Their church is just over there on the corner.”

It was easier than I thought it would be.  Their folks were both happy about it and the preacher was ready for us.  Wendell wore his uniform at the ceremony.

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