Dark as a Dungeon

The main goal for today was to go underground to experience a real coal mine. We have talked about going into a coal mine for years now, but we’ve never gone out of our way to make it happen. Today would be the day. The City of Beckley operates and exhibition coal mine and reconstructed coal company camp. The mine was actually in operation from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, so it’s been out of production for quite a while. Still, we were able to learn a lot about how coal was actually mined in those days, and we got to physically experience being underground in an actual, dark, damp coal mine. It helped me understand better where the lyrics of the song came from.

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Our guide for the underground tour was a former coal miner named Marvin.

He says that he worked for 24 years in the mines. Obviously, things must have been a lot different for him than for the miners he was telling us about, because the mine we were in had been closed for some 50 years before he even began his work as a miner. The Exhibition Coal Mine employs only former miners as tour guides. As great as this is for tourists, it made me a little sad to see Marvin working as a tour guide, showing people a coal mine and telling them about it all day long. I suspect he would rather just enjoy a relaxing retirement. He probably needs to work. The coal companies today are going bankrupt at an alarming rate, due to increasingly demanding federal environmental regulations that are virtually designed to eliminate our use of coal as a fuel. Marvin was a great guide, however.

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The reconstructed coal company camp was fascinating too. In the schoolhouse we learned about the Mark Twain High School, closed since 1965. The main claim to fame of this school is that it was the school that the famous West Virginia US Senator, Robert C. Byrd attended. He was the valedictorian in the class of ’34. The guide told us that this school was nearby, but she didn’t tell us exactly where. She told us that now the school was completely gone, but that there was a historical marker in the location.

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After we left Beckley we were driving around the nearby towns and villages to get a feel for the area. Outside the town of Sophia we saw a sign indicating that this one particular street was a “Coal Heritage Site.” It didn’t specify what the site was, but we were curious, so we turned onto the street. The street left town and began to ascend a hill. The road became steeper and more crooked as we found ourselves getting further from town. Before long we were on a very narrow, very twisty, very steep road with no shoulders and no opportunity to turn around. It got narrower, more twisty, and more steep as we proceeded on mile after mile. I was very glad we were not towing our trailer at this particular part of our journey. My curiosity about the coal heritage site waned as I just started to want to turn around and return to town. But then, lo and behold, as we crested a hill, we came upon a historical marker and a small, old monument of some sort. We pulled over to take a closer look. Here is what we found:

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Without even looking for it we had located the site of Senator Byrd’s high school. If the guide had not told us about it, we wouldn’t even know the significance of what we were looking at. It was really quite surprising and very cool. I could barely imagine what life must have been like for a young Senator Byrd. Getting to school every day by walking or riding a bus up those roads must have been really something.


Wild and Wonderful

Well, today was decision day. In all our planning we knew that this would probably be the end of the music part of our journey. The next venues that seemed to have any promise at all, musically, were a few hours south. And none of them were all that compelling. So we had been discussing changing the focus of our explorations at this point of the trip and beginning to explore the coalmining heritage of West Virginia. There is a lot of coal heritage stuff to see down in the region of Beckley, WV, which is a few hours southwest of where we are now. So we made the decision today, and headed for the coal heritage area around Beckley.


Also in that region there is a lot of whitewater rafting on the New River and the Gauley River. We would be driving right through the thick of it. That opened up a whole new realm of exploration. Yes!!!! Adventure!!!!

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We stopped at the Canyon Rim Visitor’s Center, which overlooks the New River Gorge Bridge in Lansing, WV. The bridge itself is amazing; the view of the river far below is breathtaking; but the real impact of the stop, for me, was the idea of using my kayak to try some river kayaking in the New River. I had read that there is a 15-mile stretch (the Upper New River) that is more mild and “family friendly.” This sounded good to me, since I have no experience with anything above class II rapids in my kayak.


I got some information about a 5-mile section of river that was recommended for beginners, and I began to imagine myself as a river kayaker. Then I found out that there were two sections of class III rapids in this “beginner’s” section. I began to wonder about the wisdom of setting off on this adventure. I realized that I probably lack the knowledge and experience needed for this sort of thing. Then, when I reflected on the fact that I would be doing this alone, I became even more doubtful of the prudence of doing it. I thought about it for about a half a day, and eventually realized that I not only lack the knowledge, the experience, and companions, but I also do not have a kayak skirt or a helmet, I realized it would be foolish for me to do this on my own. I thought about getting a lesson, but realized that I probably don’t need to be getting that involved in something new right here and now. So … I decided that now is not the time for whitewater kayaking for me. Maybe another time. When the time comes I want to do it right.


The bridge was another story. Amazing. It is the longest single-span arch bridge in the western hemisphere. It was opened in October, 1978. Every October they have a celebration – Bridge Day – and people rappel, ascend and BASE jump from it. Here it is:

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Wouldn’t you love to jump off that?


The day (August 14) began, wonderfully, with a gospel sing as a final conclusion to the Augusta Heritage Festival. This event began, as scheduled, at 10:00 AM, but it did not conclude until well past 11:00 AM. It was evident that everyone was thoroughly enjoying the sing-along and didn’t want it to end. It was held in the chapel at Davis and Elkins College, which is a very interesting building. It is round, and the seating is arranged around the circle so that everyone is basically facing each other. If I were going to design a chapel or church, this is the design I would use. It communicates, intangibly, that all the congregants are expected to be participants rather than spectators. (This is also how I would design classrooms, but that’s another story.) The singing was led, initially, by a member of the leadership team of the Augusta Heritage Festival, but he quickly moved into a shared leadership position, inviting anyone and everyone to suggest and/or lead songs. It was very nice!

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Chapel at Davis and Elkins College
A situation such as this makes me wonder about people’s enjoyment of gospel music. Is this enjoyment indicative of a genuine relationship with the author of the gospel, Jesus, or is this a cultural thing, centered more on the music than the message of the songs? There’s no real way to know for sure, and I’m sure the answer varies from individual to individual. There was one young fellow who left no doubt as to his passion for Jesus. He requested that we sing the hymn, “Victory in Jesus.” He admitted to being a poor singer (he wasn’t, really), and he went ahead and led the song with enthusiasm regardless. It was clear that it was the message of the song and not the tune alone that was meaningful to him.


When the sing-along ended one of the participants whom we had seen multiple times since Thursday night came over to chat with us. Both Elaine and I had noticed her early on because she looks a lot like a friend of our daughters. We had been referring to her as “Julin” because of this resemblance to this friend (whose name is Julin). So when she introduced herself to us, we told her about Julin and that we had been calling her Julin since Thursday. She told us a little about herself. She attended the vocal music week at Augusta. She is originally from Mississippi, but is currently living in Virginia. She is a songwriter, and presents her work at www.graciousmemusic.com. This has been one of the best parts for us of the Augusta Heritage Festival: meeting people who have a love for this music and the culture of this region.

On one of the short hikes I took there was a great overlook with a wide-ranging view of the Blackstone River in its canyon. When I saw it, it made me think of the standard West Virginia WV logo.

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Here is the scene: Do you see what I mean about the logo?

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In the afternoon we spent time on the river (Shaver’s Fork – tributary to the Cheat River). There is a really nice swimming area (hole?) in our campground. Unfortunately, it is not an easily walkable distance, so we have to get there by car, but it is well worth the trouble to get there. The river water is as clear as crystal, and it isn’t too cold nor too warm.

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Swimming Area at Shaver’s Fork in Stuart Recreation Area
It was a lovely place to spend part of the afternoon. Then a thunderstorm came along and drove us back to the shelter of our camper for the rest of the evening.


Music at the Top

In our planning, the one event that seemed to hold the most promise as an ideal event was the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, WV. This is a three-day event that begins with a square dance on Friday night, continues with an all-day multi-stage event in the city park, continues with an evening concert followed by another square dance on the Davis and Elkins campus, and concludes with a gospel sing on Sunday morning. We missed the Friday evening square dance, but we spent the whole afternoon and evening at the festival today.


The multi-stage event in the park was as extraordinary as I hoped it would be. There were many craft vendors with high-quality wares, some food vendors, three stages, a “pickin’” tent, and a great ambiance in this tree-shaded city park. The stages featured some of the same performers we had seen on Thursday evening, and in this setting we had a chance to meet and talk with them one-on-one or ask questions of them in their performance setting.


It was a wonderful opportunity to meet Emily Eagen and tell her personally that her performance was such a treat. I found out that she is teaching in New York City, but that she originally hails from Cincinnati. It was a real joy to be able to encourage her. I hope she continues to follow and achieve her dreams.

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Ann Downey and Emily Eagen

I had my mandolin with me, and Elaine and I joined in on a sing-along in the afternoon, led by Don Friedman, the same leader who had led the Thursday night jam after the concert. A lot of the same people were there today. It’s clear that singing is a central joy of their lives.

The evening concert was a live (recorded for future broadcast) performance of the Mountain Stage radio program. It was a great evening! In addition to a number of lesser-known performers we had the opportunity to hear two big-name bluegrass bands: Flatt Lonesome and the Blue Highway band. Flatt Lonesome is a group of young people that is gaining popularity and winning awards; Blue Highway is a band that has been performing for over 20 years. I liked them both, but I enjoyed Blue Highway more. I think their experience shows. It was interesting to learn that their bass player had recently suffered a heart attack and this was his first performance after his recovery. Way to go, Wayne Taylor!!

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One fascinating connection happened. The opening act featured a young woman singer-songwriter-guitarist – Dori Freeman. She was accompanied by her father on mandolin: Scott Freeman. We had met Scott last year on our Crooked Road trip. He was part of the two-man band that was playing at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I believe it was he that I asked for advice about buying a decent beginner mandolin, and whose advice I followed in purchasing my Kentucky mandolin. Small world!

Epic Day and Night

On most of our travels the best things that happen are the ones that are unexpected and unplanned. We’ve seen this time and again: we have plans (or sometimes we don’t), and as we attempt to make our plans come to pass, we run into obstacles. Things don’t go well, or things don’t turn out as planned, and we have to abandon our ideas and find alternatives. Last year, on the Crooked Road, the most notable example of this was the night we found the Alan Hicks Jam. Today (tonight) will go down in ContinualSunsets history as one of the more remarkable instances of this sort of thing.


In researching for this trip we found that there were actually two alternatives for music on the evening of August 11: there was said to be Thursday night jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company in Elkins, and there was to be a festival taking place at a nearby campground, and they had a lineup of bluegrass bands on tap for this evening. Either would be suitable, but we opted for the jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company.


We had stopped in at the Elkins Visitors’ Center as we had entered town, and we had learned about a third musical option: a Thursday night concert connected to the Augusta Heritage Center’s ongoing summer program. This week was “Old Time” week, as well as “Vocal” week, and the Thursday evening concert would feature old time music, vocals, and traditional dancing.


However, once we had moved to our new campsite in the Stuart Recreation Area we realized that we had very little information to go on. Still lacking a cell signal, we were unable to go online to find out details about the Thursday evening jamming at Big Timber Brewing (our first choice). We were guessing that 7:00PM would be a logical time to expect them to start. We knew the location, so we set out shortly before 7:00. When we got there we found that this “brewing company” was really just a bar, and a fairly small one at that. I went in and found no jamming. I asked the bartender about it, and she said it was “hit or miss.” Sometimes “they” showed up and sometimes they didn’t. You could never tell. If they were going to be there, they were generally there from about 7:00 to about 9:00. Well, it was shortly before 7, so we decided to give it a bit of time to see what developed. Meanwhile, we decided to find the library and see if there was a wifi signal that we could use to check on our communications.


At the library I found more information about the Thursday evening concert with the Augusta Heritage Center. It was to start at 7:30. I got some “general” directions to the location from one of the librarians. (She was pretty sure we would have trouble finding a place to park if we went there.) When we went back to the bar at about 7:20, still nothing was going on. So we punted. We decided to try to make it to the 7:30 concert. I wound my way through town and onto the Elkins and Davis College campus. The directions were vague and complex, and I really couldn’t remember the details. But I knew I needed to go up the hill and look for a library and a chapel. As I wandered through the campus I saw both of these. We saw several people headed in the same direction, including a man carrying a banjo case. We followed. We followed right up to an empty parking space in the closest row to the performance venue. We arrived a few minutes after the start of the show, but we were still able to get tickets and enter between songs.

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What we found was beyond extraordinary. We were in an auditorium that seats over 1000, and it appeared to be nearly full. The performances were mostly teachers and students from the weeklong “classes” that are studying old time music and singing (along with dance and mountain crafts). Each performer had about 10 to 15 minutes, and then the next ones were introduced. We heard everything from the traditional fiddle-banjo-guitar ensembles to cowboy songs to yodeling to sea shanties to gospel to whistling. Not a single performance was disappointing, and one or two were almost breathtaking.


By far the most spellbinding performance was from Emily Eagen. She is listed as the instructor for “Lullabies from Around the World” and “Tricky Transcriptions & Hidden Harmonies.” She is described as “a singer who loves both early and old-time music, [she] can plumb the connections among many genres.” But these words do not begin to capture the creativity and talent that this woman possesses. In one song there was a verse that she whistled. I have never imagined that a human could whistle this way. She sounded more like a bird than a human. In another song she collaborated with another instructor (Ann Downey – Cowboy Songs and Yodels) to create some of the more interesting and entertaining yodels I’ve heard. The most remarkable thing Emily presented is an original song in which she reversed the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star lullaby, presenting the star’s response to the original lullaby’s query. Not only did she reverse the perspective of the song, but she also inverted the melody.

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Emily Eagen and her dad
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Emily at the jam

After the concert ended I was asking around about purchasing tickets for Saturday night’s performance. After seeing tonight’s concert I didn’t want to chance missing an opportunity to attend Saturday night’s main event. (I had thought that the main event was to be held outdoors, and therefore was not concerned about the tickets selling out. Learning that the concert would be held in this venue I realized that there would be a limited number of seats.) I asked one of the volunteers about getting tickets, and he pointed out the person (Beth) that I should talk to. When I introduced myself to Beth I did not realize that she is the Director of the entire Augusta Heritage Center programming. When she (Beth King) learned that I was going to be writing about our experiences here, she presented us with complimentary tickets for Saturday’s concert.


As if all of this were not remarkable enough, we then spent the next two hours or so jamming with a group of singers and players in “the bridge,” an enclosed walkway connecting some of the buildings on campus. Elaine enjoyed this a great deal, as it was not billed just as an instrumental jam but also as a “singing” jam. By the time we left, at 12:30 AM, it had been a most amazing day!

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Don Friedman led the jamming

Neighbors and (Not Much) Wildlife

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Scott and Jane – from Frederick, MD. Our neighbors for a few nights at Blackwater Falls State Park. Scott was very outgoing, and came over to ask us about our Lafuma chair. The true proof that they were “nice people” came when they said that they enjoyed my guitar and mandolin practicing. Now you have to understand that this is not guitar and mandolin “playing.” This is guitar and mandolin practicing. I’m new enough at mandolin that I know very few songs. I have to do exercises nearly every day to build my skills. They are nothing to listen to. In guitar, in spite of the fact that I’m no beginner, I am currently playing like a beginner. (One of the instructors at the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival “corrected” the way I was gripping the guitar pick. He told me that I’ll never be a good bluegrass player unless I change the way I grip the pick. So I’ve been forcing myself to change. The result is that I feel like I am completely uncoordinated and playing like an oaf.) They gave us information about a bluegrass/roots music festival held every June in Barryville, VA. It’s held in Watermelon Park.


In the afternoon we went exploring in the inner reaches of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. There is an unpaved road, known as the “A-Frame Road” that gives access to an area where beavers have created a network of pools and ponds. We hoped to see some beavers. While the scenery was spectacular, and hope sprang eternal, we did not see any wildlife except for a white-tailed deer, and a mountain bluebird (seen by Elaine but not by me).

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Some Brave Soldiers

There is a spot near here where a pair of 900’ tall rock outcroppings emerge from the surrounding hills. This feature is known as Seneca Rocks, and it is quite a sight to behold. Evidently rock climbers from all over the world come here to face its challenge. We saw some of them in action today.


The US Forest Service operates a visitor’s center at that base of the rocks. It’s a very nice facility, and well worth a visit. One of the things they have to offer is a 20-minute video about the US Army’s use of this area during World War II. The Tenth Mountain Division saw these rocks as an excellent training ground for mountaineering skills. Thousands of soldiers learned climbing techniques here before being deployed in the war effort. One of the things that struck me as I listened to some original source material from some of the trainees was how they had to overcome their natural fears as a part of their training exercises. The Army took ordinary boys, brought them to these rocks, screened them for their likelihood to succeed (6 in 10 were selected), and then essentially ordered them to follow their training – in spite of their natural fears. Even at that, some of them were not able to do it.


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Seneca Rocks


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This got me thinking about fears and how we overcome them. I will admit that I’ve been facing some anxiety on this trip as I am getting acquainted with my 4Runner’s capabilities to handle towing our trailer in mountainous country. The roads are steep and winding. Going uphill presents the challenge of finding the right gears and watching the temperatures. Am I asking too much of our 4Runner? It’s a constant source of a bit of  anxiety. Going downhill, am I letting it pick up too much speed? Am I going to be able to keep it on the road? Am I using the brakes too much and causing them to overheat? Again, it can be a constant source of a bit of anxiety. So how do we respond to our anxieties? How did those young soldiers overcome their fears? In some ways they had it easier than most of us do. They had orders, and they knew they had to follow them. Most of us have to give ourselves our own orders. It is a lot easier to ignore orders coming from ourselves than it is to ignore military orders from a commander. But it still comes down to the same thing, I think. We simply have to tell ourselves to get over our fears and get on with life.