One of the nice things about being an empty nester is being able to travel outside of the school calendar. We’re enjoying the benefit of that right now as we are ensconced in a log cabin high in the mountains of eastern West Virginia, just outside the old ( est 1749) and tiny town of Marlinton.
It’s seven am as I write and I am seated at a wooden table on our cabin’s deck, overlooking a grassy hillside that fades away into the morning mist. I can barely make out the vague, blue-grey outline of the tree line behind.
Just as I began writing I looked up to see a deer standing not thirty yards away, studying me as if I were a museum exhibit. At first he was very still and I admired his dun color and his antlers, velveted now in the same color as his hide. I just had to do something to break the tension, so I whistled, twice, and at the second note he bounded away down the hill.
There is something captivating about how these creatures move. Even when they are taking baby steps – as this one did while he approached me – their strength and grace is evident. Every step is the step of a Baryshnikov. It is almost as if they are showing off.
Last evening, just before dusk, there were six of them in the bottom below our cabin. I did not see them at first, so perfect is their camouflage, so quiet is their movement. But when I made out one of them, the others were immediately visible.
The nibbled at the pasture grass and waded in the creek and vanished before twilight.
Last night we drove the two miles back into Marlinton for dinner. Like a lot of little towns in West Virginia, it has seen better days. Marlinton, in fact, has seen much better days. From the remnants of that early day – the red brick buildings that still make up most of the downtown – you have to imagine that sometime – a hundred years ago, maybe – this place was thriving. Some of these old buildings are three stories tall and the brickwork in them – although showing the signs of age – is complex and artful.
Unlike most of West Virginia, the original economy here was not built around coal mining. I don’t think much coal has ever been mined here in Pocahontas County. What brought a prosperous economy up to this little mountain valley was timber. This forest stretches away in every direction for hundreds of miles. I can only imagine what it must have been like a hundred and fifty years ago when the logging business started. The trees must have been gigantic. I am told that in Cass, another timbering town, not thirty miles from here, that timber was so plentiful in the day that they would take whatever wood that happened to be available that day and use it to make whatever it was they needed.
That meant that there were days when the trunks of hundred-year-old cherry trees might have been used to make beams for the undergirding of company houses being built in the town. That would be simply unthinkable today. Such a tree on the stump would be worth thousands of dollars now and would be treated at the mill like so much precious metal, carefully cut to make veneer for the finest of furniture.
This morning, after breakfast at the Locust Hill Inn, we and our bikes are being shuttled up to Cass, where will start our exploration of the Greenbrier River Trail. We’ll ride south on the trail – the abandoned railbed of what was once the so-called “Durbin Route” that follows the beautiful Greenbrier River that winds through forest and meadow and pasture for almost seventy miles.
In this day where unimaginable sums of money are spent on engineering amusement parks, this trail is still unapproachable as a recreational resource. It took generations and more than one fortune to build it and it certainly would never have been undertaken to merely provide entertainment to people like me. It was built to carry the protean wealth of timber and lumber out of these mountains and to the world. It did just that for more than a century. That, and carry milk and passengers and cattle and a host of other things.
And now it is here for us. I can’t wait to see the first thirty miles of it this morning. I’ll blog again this evening with my impressions. Maybe I’ll even get some pictures.